High definition (HD) has become more and more desirable among both TV watchers and computer video fans. Where it didn't really matter how good your monitor was when you were watching amateur YouTube shorts, the advent of commercial streaming video has increased the demand for high-quality displays.
Until recently, the perceived wisdom about HD was that bigger was always better. What good is having HD unless your display is at least, say, 52 inches?
These days, though, many people can't afford, don't have space for or just don't want to bother with a display that large. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you can't have HD. Currently, you can buy displays no bigger than 21.5 inches that are capable of displaying true HD video in 1080-pixel resolution.
But are they really as good as their big brothers? Is the HD offered by smaller, cheaper screens anywhere near as good as that provided by bigger ones?
To test whether smaller screens are as spiffy as larger ones, I collected and tested six differently sized HD monitors from a variety of vendors: NEC M46-AV (46 inches), HannsG HG281DPB (27.5 inches), Samsung P2370 (23 inches), Hewlett-Packard w2338h (23 inches), Dell SX2210 (21.5 inches) and Lenovo L215p Wide (21.5 inches).
Defining high definition
When it comes to HD, the resolutions that you'll most often find are 720p, 1080p and 1080i. The numbers are familiar to most of us: It's the measure of the horizontal scan lines that make up the display resolution. But what are those letters about?
The "p" stands for progressive scan, while the "i" stands for interlaced video. Interlaced videos consist of an image presented in alternating sets of lines: first the odd-numbered lines are "painted" across the screen, then the even-numbered lines, and the process is repeated. One set of lines, whether even or odd, is called a field while two consecutive fields -- odd plus even -- is called a frame. Progressive video presents each frame as a whole, with equal fields, at one time.
In general, a progressive scan image is better than an interlaced image because of its smoothness and ability to better display motion without blur. Currently, HD television that's broadcast at 1080 is interlaced. Blu-ray is often touted as superior technology because it uses progressive scanning.
How we tested
I started with DisplayMate's series of benchmarks specifically designed for LCD monitors, which I ran by connecting each to a home-built computer via its HDMI port (except for the Samsung display, which didn't have HDMI). These tests include blooming, color purity, stuck pixels, text readability, backlight bleed and others. DisplayMate has also recently added a new motion blur test aimed at culling out displays that might be unsuited for fast-action gaming or video.
To test the HD aspect of these monitors, I connected a Samsung BD-P1500 Blu-ray player directly to each display via its HDMI port (again, except for the Samsung display) and ran two special-effects-laden films: The Dark Knight and Serenity. These two movies were more than adequate to show any problems that might exist with white and grayscale reproduction, as well as possible motion blur effects.
I also ran a copy of an episode of the television show Chuck broadcast in 1080i and then edited down (without commercials) into 1080, 720 and 420 (standard definition) clips.
There are a lot of ways to describe the features and quality of a display, many of which may be unfamiliar. Here is a guide through the typical tech-speak that you need to know.
Four of the six monitors reviewed here -- the displays from Dell, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard and HannsG -- are advertised with both dynamic and static contrast ratios, while Lenovo and NEC have only static contrast rations. What does that mean?
The contrast ratio is simply the difference between the degrees of black and white displayed on a monitor. For example, a monitor with a 1000:1 contrast ratio can display, theoretically at least, blacks that are 1,000 times darker than whites. It's static when it doesn't change. A monitor rated with a dynamic contrast ratio has the ability to modulate the brightness and/or darkness it's displaying depending on the dark and light components of the image being shown on the screen (and, in some cases, the room lighting).
Generally speaking, higher contrast ratios are better than lower ones, but dynamic ratios are often like beauty -- their validity lies in the eye of the beholder. As was the case for several of the monitors in this feature, sitting down and taking the time to manually adjust the brightness and contrast will yield better results than simply relying on the contrast ratio (static or dynamic) out of the box.
Viewing angles are expressed in terms of up/down and left/right. The numbers used to express those angles -- such as 160 degrees -- really mean 80 degrees to the right, left side, top or bottom from directly in front of the display.
Because an LCD is a flat panel, the greatest angle you can possibly view it at is 90 degrees (180 degrees in the parlance), which means you'd be looking sideways across the face of the panel. Color shift, and often loss of detail, will begin to become apparent as you approach its maximum viewing angle.
Brightness is pretty much a straightforward concept -- something is either bright (the sun), dark (a black hole), or somewhere in between (like most of life itself). Monitor makers have a couple of different ways of describing brightness, however.
Perhaps the most often-used term is candela per square meter (the good old candle power), expressed as cd/m². It is also often expressed by the term "Nits," which is short for the Latin word "nitere" meaning "to shine." One Nit equals one candela per square meter.
Higher numbers are always better because they offer you a larger range. However, that can be offset if the monitor's controls aren't able to adjust an image so it is not too washed out or is eye-searingly bright.
Nothing brought home the concept of how small a world it is as when I first replaced my usual 26-inch display with this 21.5-inch model. It's a difference of only 4.5 diagonal inches, but the juxtaposition of size was sufficient to give me the feeling that I was looking at life through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. It took about an hour for the shock to wear off.
Highlights: The L215p Wide has a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels and supports both VGA and HDMI connections. (Its sibling, the L215 Wide version without the "p," is VGA/DVI.) It includes an integrated Web camera and microphone, and can be used as a USB hub thanks to three USB 2.0 ports along the side and bottom of the bezel.
The Lenovo doesn't offer any kind of height adjustment; given the small size of the screen, if you're sitting in a standard-height office chair in front of a standard-height desk, you might feel the need to slide a hardcover book or two under the pedestal. It does tilt up and down (a little).
From an ergonomic point of view, Lenovo gets points because its otherwise invisible "black-on-black" on-screen display controls on the right side of the lower bezel light up if you brush your finger across them.
Test results: The L215p Wide passed the barrage of DisplayMate tests without a problem. All of the visuals were within the range of what you'd normally expect from a reasonably good consumer display, including no apparent blur. Neither its 1000:1 contrast ratio nor its 300 cd/m² brightness is exceptional among LCD monitors, but they work. The response rate was 5ms.
At a Glance
Price (direct): $249
Screen size: 21.5 inches
Resolution: 1920 x 1080
The color was excellent and visibility good from center head-on to about 45 degrees from center. When staring at the L215p Wide beyond that angle I noticed a yellow tinge starting to appear in what were gray areas. Black type, up to about 12 points, appeared fractured when displayed over a gray background.
Picture quality: Despite its diminutive size, the L215p Wide presented me with a spectacular HD picture when paired with my Blu-ray player via its HDMI port. The colors were brilliant, images were sharp, and there was no color shift when viewed from wide angles as there was when the monitor was attached to a computer. There was no apparent blur, either, and the darker scenes in Dark Knight and Serenity showed no loss of detail.
The only thing missing was sound, but Lenovo does have an optional sound bar for about $30.
Conclusion: The L215p Wide functions well as both an HD monitor for your Blu-ray player and, via its VGA port, as a computer display.
Walk up behind Dell's SX2210 21.5-inch HD display and you'd swear you were about to encounter something Mac-ish. The truth is, the monitor will work with anything that can output to VGA, DVI-D, or HDMI ports -- it has all three -- but its white back and silver stand scream "Mac."
Highlights: The SX2210 tilts but doesn't swivel (unless you move the entire monitor and stand, of course). Like Lenovo's L215p Wide, it's a bit low when sitting in front of a standard desk on a standard height chair. A good book under the pedestal can clear that up. The monitor features four USB ports and a 2-megapixel Webcam. Dell supplies the software you need to make it work, plus facial recognition software (for Vista only) so you can log on by staring at your monitor rather than entering tedious passwords.
The monitor's 50000:1 contrast ratio is dynamic. On the static side, it's more like 1000:1 -- which is impressive nonetheless for a display of this size. The 2ms response time, on the other hand, is praiseworthy in any size monitor. The SX2210 boasts a 1920 x 1080 native resolution and a reasonable brightness rating of 300 cd/m².
The onscreen display controls are mounted along the right side of the monitor, mostly out of sight. However, the top button of the group not only activates the menu, but it also brings up a small onscreen insert that shows you which buttons perform what functions adjacent to their location along the side, making things much easier.
At a Glance
Price (direct): $279 ($229 after instant rebate of $50)
Screen size: 21.5 inches
Resolution: 1920 x 1080
Test results: Out of the box, I had to crank down the brightness and contrast to achieve acceptable detail levels on the screen. That's not uncommon for LCDs, which manufacturers often seem to believe should replicate an exploding sun. There were no problems with the SX2210 when I ran DisplayMate.
Gray, white and color levels were all within the range of acceptable norms for a good consumer-grade monitor. There was no blurring, blooming or geometric distortions, and text was readable down to 6.8 points. I noticed no color shift at extreme viewing angles.
Picture quality: Relentlessly battering the SX2210 with high-definition videos proved remarkable only to the extent that the videos themselves -- whether Chuck, the recorded TV show played back at 1080 and 720 pixels, or The Dark Knight and Serenity, both from Blu-ray discs -- were crisp and smooth, with solid colors and grays and sharp details. There wasn't a hint of blur through any of the action scenes.
Conclusion: The SX2210 is a good choice in its size category for a multi-purpose monitor that will connect to your PC, game console or Blu-ray drive.
If nothing else, Samsung's P2370 gets the award for arriving in the thinnest box. That was possible because the monitor is a mere 1.18 inches from front to back and weighs only 9 lbs.
Highlights: Setting up the P2370 didn't begin on a high note. The display only offers a plug for its power pack and a DVI-I connector -- no HDMI or USB ports. This immediately limits the monitor to your desktop, since most entertainment junkies won't want a display without an HDMI input.
The P2370 is a 1920 x 1080-pixel display. It has a 50000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, which boils down to a 1000:1 static ratio. The Samsung's fast 2ms response time is a big plus in the fight against blur -- among the displays tested in this roundup, only the Dell matched it there.
Like the Lenovo, the P2370 has disappearing controls positioned on the lower bezel that temporarily light up if you brush your finger across them.
Test results: Out of the box, the screen was so bright that it lost definition -- I had to crank down the brightness (although the brightness rating is 250 cd/m², the lowest in this group) and tweak the contrast to get the P2370 to play well with DisplayMate's series of tests. However, the monitor adjusted well.
The P2370 ran through the static tests without breaking a sweat, showing no geometric distortions, blurring or blooming. Text was fine as well, and viewing the screen from greater than a 45-degree angle didn't cause a color shift.
At a Glance
Price (direct): $261-$303
Screen size: 23 inches
Resolution: 1920 x 1080