June 12, 2009, 2:19 PM — 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.
Lenovo L215p Wide
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
Lenovo L215p Wide
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
Picture quality: Having only one input port may have kept the monitor slim, but it was also the source of much head-scratching and, eventually, a bit of gymnastics on my part, since I was using an HDMI connection to connect up my DVD drive. In the end, I swapped out the computer I had been using to test displays with one that had a built-in LG combo Blu-ray/HD DVD drive, eliminating the need for an HDMI port to attach the standalone Blu-ray player.
It was worth the effort. Blu-ray movies looked marvelous: crisp color, sharp detail and no blur during action scenes. I even dragged out a few of my HD-DVD discs for nostalgia's sake and they looked great as well.
Conclusion: Eye-catching as it might be, the P2370 won't make it as the centerpiece for your media room without an HDMI port. However, the high image quality makes it ideal for a PC with a built-in Blu-ray drive.
Computers and printers certainly, but monitors from Hewlett-Packard? Yes, and it has quite a few. The w2338h is a wide-screen (1920 x 1080-pixel) HD display that seems to make moderation its forte.
Highlights: The HP offers only VGA and HDMI connectors, which is a bit better than the DVI-I connectivity available from Samsung's P2370, but I would have been happier if HP had replaced the VGA port with a DVI port. That would have given it maximum digital connectivity (an adapter cable could handle analog sources) for both a PC and a Blu-ray drive.
HP has incorporated a small "floating" disk underneath the bottom of the w2338h's stand. The design is like a lazy Susan in that it allows the display to swivel easily -- at the expense of adding some wobble to the monitor if you push at it.
The w2338h is a little short for an average computer desk/chair but it has a good range of tilt. The display comes with integrated speakers. There are no USB ports.
Test results: Out of the box, the brightness and contrast on the w2338h were cranked up way too high. While that didn't seem to affect the grayscale detail, DisplayMate's bright white testing totally obliterated areas that were normally visible on other monitors. Darkening things up had no effect on grayscale definition.
At a Glance
Hewlett-Packard Development Company, L.P.
Price (direct): $300
Screen size: 23 inches
Resolution: 1920 x 1080
There was a brief blur during the first of DisplayMate's motion/blur tests, but nothing else appeared through the remainder of that testing. Blur is generally unusual on a 5ms display, so just to make sure, I ran Company of Heroes' built-in performance test and played the game for a short time. The problem did not carry over into game play and seemed to be reserved for that one particular static test.
The w2338h offers a 3000:1 contrast ratio and reasonable 300 cd/m² brightness rating.
Extreme angle viewing was as good as head-on and produced no color shift. Text was fine throughout, readable down to 6.8 points, and there was no noticeable blooming once the brightness and contrast were adjusted.
Picture quality: The w2338h gets an unqualified thumbs-up for video. Both the captured HDTV video and the two Blu-ray titles played very well on the monitor. There was no blurring and no lost definition in either the dark or overly light scenes. All details were sharp and the colors as vibrant as they should be in HD.
As with almost all of the monitors I've reviewed that have integrated speakers, the fidelity of those in the w2338h left me wanting something better, especially considering the overall visual quality of the display itself. Speakers aside, it would only have taken a DVI connector to push the monitor from the good to the near perfect.
Conclusion: The only thing missing from HP's w2338h is a DVI port -- adding just that much additional connectivity would make it a value and feature leader. Lacking one, an HDMI switcher is the order of the day for connecting your PC and a standalone Blu-ray player to the monitor's single HDMI port.
The HannsG HG281DPB LCD is the epitome of a big-screen bargain. Its 27.5 inches of LCD real estate can currently be found at various retail outlets for $360- $380. A year ago it had a $500 price tag.
Highlights: The monitor's 1920 x 1200-pixel native resolution is the definition of high definition according to HD purists. The only corner HannsG seems to have cut is component video and/or DVI ports. However, you'll find adapters in the box to convert component video to D-sub and DVI to HDMI -- which means you'll get connectivity no matter what your input device of choice, just not necessarily at the same time or to the same degree. (VGA is VGA even if you feed it into an HDMI port.)
The HG281DPB's 500 cd/m² brightness level is better than most displays on the market, as is its claimed 3 ms response time. It supports a 2400:1 dynamic contrast ratio, which boils down to an 800:1 direct contrast ratio.
Test results: Testing with DisplayMate showed no major flaws. The display exhibited some loss at the very low end of the test's grayscale and at the top end of its white-level trials, but no more so than most consumer-level monitors I've tested. Text is best viewed at 6.8 points or larger.
At a Glance
Price (direct): $360-$380
Screen size: 27.5 inches
Resolution: 1920 x 1200
There was no blooming or blurring during gaming, and the monitor's color rendition was quite good (although I did fiddle a bit with the color controls to get it where I wanted it). If you have external speakers, keep them. The 2.5-watt integrated speakers will not impress you.
Picture quality: HD video is enjoyable on the HG281DPB -- provided you sit back a bit. Up close, a big display will reveal some of the pixels needed to create that picture. Back away a bit (at least three feet) and you can still see the beard stubble but not the elements used to create it. It has a height-adjustable stand, but you'll have to physically move it if you want to swivel it to a new position.
The HG281DPB performed the same with the Blu-ray video as it did with the captured HDTV video: Colors were bright, images sharp, and there was no blur or loss of definition in dark or very bright segments. Color was rock-solid even when viewed at severe angles.
Conclusion: For the price, the HannsG HG281DPB needs to make no apologies -- except to users who need multiple video connections.
What do you call a 55-inch desk with a 46-inch monitor sitting on top of it?
One note of caution comes directly from the NEC's M46-AV's user manual: "DO NOT mount the monitor yourself. Please ask dealer. For proper installation it is strongly recommended to use a trained, qualified technician." Having spent four and a half hours wresting the 86.6-lb. monitor out of the box and onto a desk, I can unequivocally tell you that's a good idea.
Highlights: The M46-AV has a 1920 x 1080-pixel native mode and supports VGA, DVI-D, HDMI, S-video and component connections.
With almost everyone sporting large dynamic contrast ratios, NEC's static 1000:1 ratio might seem timid. And although it has a relatively high 450 cd/m² brightness rating, I didn't need to dial down the M46-AV at all. It was perfect out of the box.
Its response time, 18ms, may give you pause, especially since all the other displays in this roundup are in the 2ms to 5ms range. But NEC engages in a neat bit of technological magic it calls "Rapid Response" that actually (according to the company) ramps that down to an effective 4ms while providing support for as high as a 250fps rate.
At a Glance
NEC Display Solutions
Price (direct): $2,480-$4,498
Screen size: 46 inches
Resolution: 920 x 1080
Test results: Step away from the M46-AV. No, seriously -- you probably need to give yourself about 6 feet (minimum) of distance between your face and the display. (Which is why you're not seriously going to use this as a computer monitor -- unless you like working across the room from your system.) You'll still be able to see the tread pattern on the tires of Batman's Tumbler but, at that distance, it won't look like a French Impressionist painting.
DisplayMate didn't find any bloom or blur and the monitor's gray/white levels, color and screen geometry were all within acceptable levels.
If you should happen to need to adjust anything on the monitor while you're sitting across the room, don't worry if you lack a boarding house reach. The M46-AV has a remote control for long-distance adjustments.
Picture quality: Watching a movie on the M46-AV, you just want to sit back, kick off your shoes and grab a handful of popcorn while you watch perfect color with incredible detail.
Conclusion: NEC's M46-AV is big and costly, and definitely over-indulgent for the average person. However, it's good to know that you can buy happiness.
The truth is that contrast (the ratio of brightness to darkness) and color accuracy are more important than screen size. Despite ranging from 21.5 inches to 46 inches, our six monitors all displayed high HD video quality with only a little variation.
It was, in fact, the brightness and contrast adjustments that meant the most to the display quality. (Color was set correctly in all cases out of the box.)
Why is that? Simple: High definition almost invariably looks good unless you mess up the brightness and contrast ratio of the display or manage to get the color wrong. That's why, rather than worry about 1920 x 1200 or 1920 x 1080 or 21.5 inches or 46 inches (although almost all of us could certainly learn to live with a display that size), the better course of action is to spend some quality time with your HD monitor making sure the brightness, contrast and color meet your expectations.
Basic rule of thumb: You shouldn't have to squint when looking at a bright image. Once you've fixed that, then adjust the contrast so the picture doesn't appear too dark or washed out. And while color is a specific frequency of light, most of us know what red or blue or yellow should look like without resorting to expensive metering equipment.
If all of that sounds a bit subjective, once you're beyond the resolution issue, it really does boil down to: "I may not be able to define what HD is, but I know it when I see it."