Choosing a TFT display in today’s market is never easy, what with a whole bewildering range of technologies out there and the ever changing trends in monitor specs and performance.
The aim of this article is to make the process simpler for you, the buyer, by demystifying some of the more important aspects to consider when looking for a TFT monitor, as well as looking at some of the recent trends in the market which may impact your purchasing decision — Which panel technology is most suited to your needs? Does bigger mean better? What else should you consider when choosing a screen? I’ll attempt to answer these questions, and along the way we’ll look at some specific models worth looking out for.
There is often a lot of discussion in forums about the various technologies used in LCD displays today. While it’s important to realise that all these different technologies do indeed vary in their performance characteristics, it is equally important not to jump to conclusions about which one is “best” without looking at what you actually need or want from a display. There are a reasonable amount of people out there who seem keen to jump on the bandwagon of one particular technology being superior to others, something which at the moment often surrounds IPS panels. Rather than go too in-depth about each technology, something which you can read about in a previous article, I’ll summarize what you should expect from each, along with their pros and cons.
A Look at Modern LCD Display Specifications
As an introduction to this article, and before we get stuck into the other more complex elements such as panel technologies, it is important to consider how manufacturers record specifications in the modern market, and what to look for when considering the screen in your short list. Obviously, a fair part of what’s listed on a TFT’s spec sheet is often marketing, so always be wary of how figures are quoted and more crucially, how they are measured. The following Buyers FAQ may also be helpful if you are buying a screen for the first time.
- Response Times
The lower the response time, the better. This spec determines how quickly liquid crystals can re-orientate and how quickly they can respond to changing images. Modern screens almost always feature a response time quoted in “grey to grey” (G2G) and this figure represents the fastest transition recorded by the manufacturer within all the possible changes in grey shade (note: all LCD transitions are in grey to grey, since the colours are achieved using filters in front of the pixels). Traditionally, response time was measured at the black to white transition, which gave the fastest figures to quote in spec sheets. This was because before overdrive hit the market, the largest change that the liquid crystals would ever need to make was white to black, and so the highest voltage is applied to bring them into their new orientation.
More recently, ‘overdrive’ / Response Time Compensation technologies were introduced to boost pixel response times further. This allowed manufacturers to apply this highest voltage to all transitions, and so G2G changes became the fastest, since the crystals did not need to rotate as much as a full black to white change, but still received the higher voltage anyway. I won’t go into too much detail about RTC here, but more information can be found on the following pages .
In theory, the faster the response time spec, the better. However, this still only represents the best case response time, and so might not truly indicate the panels overall performance. In addition to this, the quoted spec might not necessarily reflect true responsiveness in practice, but overall it can be used as a rough guide to the panels speed and how it might perform in fast moving images such as those during gaming.
- Colour Accuracy
Colour accuracy can vary from one model to the next. It’s important to realise that by default, most screens will at best come with average colour accuracy, so calibrating your screen is a idea. Panels (as discussed later) are usually either 6-Bit with Frame Rate Control (a method used to produce 16.2 million viewable colours) or full 8-bit panels (16.7 million colours).
The colour palette can have an impact on the screens ability to show certain shades and 6-bit +FRC panels can also show some artefacts from the FRC technology – a method of switching between like colours to produce a new shade (more info here ). However, colour depth does not necessarily affect colour accuracy, and modern 6-bit TN Film panels are actually very good in this regard with proper calibration of the display.
Out of the box accuracy can really vary, but with proper calibration, accuracy can be greatly improved. Calibration can be done at a basic level using software methods ( see here ), but to achieve decent calibration of colours, a hardware colorimeter would be necessary. There are several different hardware devices available in varying price ranges. These include more budget, but quite popular, models such as the Spyder 2 Express, and more advanced and highly regarded devices like the Gretag One-Eye Display and LaCie Blue Eye Pro for example.
With proper hardware calibration, you can achieve some nice results from most modern panels. However, for professional displays, 8-bit colour depth and wide viewing angles are important. See more information later about panel technologies.
- Brightness, Contrast Ratio and Black Depth
Brightness of a display is recorded in candella per metre squared (cd/m2), and in theory, the higher the value the better. Bear in mind that for comfortable use in normal lighting conditions, the recommended luminance of a display is 120 cd/m2, and so modern displays are often very bright. The higher values do mean an LCD display can show nice bright images and have a good variation in achievable brightness levels. The black depth of a display is also recorded in cd/m2, but almost never listed in manufacturer specifications.
However, you can calculate this by considering the contrast ratio of a display. The contrast ratio shows the ratio between the brightest white, and the darkest black. The higher the contrast ratio figure, the better really. If you divide the quoted brightness value by the quoted contrast ratio, the figure given will give you an indication of the black depth of the panel.
The lower the black depth the better, as this will ensure good deep blacks and the ability of the display to render dark shades reliably. Be wary of dynamic contrast ratios however, as these do not necessarily reflect true performance in all applications, and can show a difference between black depth / brightness under dynamic control and only in certain circumstances.
- Viewing Angles
The viewing angle figures are perhaps the most difficult to trust on modern displays, and are often based on varying methods of recording the figures and lapse measurement techniques. The higher the viewing angle figures, the better. However, be wary of overly exagerated figures, for example TN Film panels are often too high on paper to reflect real life performance. Viewing angle figures are handy for indentifying what panel technology is used in many cases, but typically you will see figures of 160 / 160 (TN Film), 176 / 176 (MVA and PVA matrices) or 178/178 (IPS).
- Movie Noise and Playback
When considering movie playback on an LCD display you need to take into account a few things. Firstly, viewing angles are important especially if you plan on watching the video in a group, or from different positions in your room. Black depth is also important as it ensures darker scenes are rendered well, and detail is distinguishable in dark shades. Finally, noise and artefacts can be evident in some cases.
This can really vary depending on the source file (DVD, XVid, HD-DVD etc), graphics card (some have anti-noise technology) and also on the panel used. Some screens are better than others in terms of noise and overall movie playback as detailed later on.
TN Film (Twisted Nematic + Film)
With their fast response times, TN Film panels are arguably the most responsive in the market today. Response times of 4ms G2G and under are common place. Black depth is not quite as good as VA panel types, but has improved significantly in recent times, aided further by the introduction of high dynamic contrast ratios. Colour accuracy is very good with proper calibration; however some people are put off by the 6-bit colour depth. Modern FRC methods and improved panels make TN Film still pretty decent in terms of colour accuracy, but remain behind VA and IPS panels.
Movie noise is often a problem, especially where overdrive technologies are excessively used, or implemented with poor control. Perhaps the most obvious down-fall of TN Film is the restrictive viewing angles, especially vertically. TN Film based displays are normally very cost effective however, and dominate most sectors up to and including the 22” range.
MVA (Multi-Domain Vertical Alignment)
MVA panels offer typically very good black depth, a notch above TN Film. The viewing angles are also greatly improved, and are wide in both horizontal and vertical fields. Colour depth is nearly always a true 8-bit, with no need for FRC methods. Colour accuracy is very good, and movie playback is probably the smoothest and least prone to ‘noise’ on MVA based matrices. Response times are decent with modern overdrive methods, but not quite as fast as TN Film panels. MVA screens are considered very good all round.
Viewing angles are slightly inferior to IPS panels however, and a characteristic contrast shift can be seen as you move your line of sight off-centre. This is why IPS panels are considered more suitable for colour critical work, and are more widely used in professional display ranges. Premium-MVA (P-MVA) and Super-MVA (S-MVA) are variants of this technology and represent the modern generation of such panels. Advanced–MVA (AMVA ) is very new, and is designed to offer the next generation of improvements in this technology.
PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment)
Samsung’s own version of VA matrices, offering very similar characteristics to MVA based screens. Movie noise is more accentuated however, and overdrive control is more variable. Black depth is very good; arguably the best in the market, and again PVA panels are pretty decent all round. Super-PVA (S-PVA) panels represent the latest generation of PVA screens and feature some improvements over the older PVA panels.
IPS (In Plane Switching)
IPS and Super-IPS (S-IPS) panels are well regarded at the moment. They offer the widest viewing angles in the market, and are superior in this regard to VA matrices. They do not suffer from the off-centre colour / contrast shift of VA panels and are commonly used in colour critical professional displays as a result. Response times are variable, but some modern overdriven panels are very responsive in practice, even being comparable to the fastest TN Film panels.
Colour depth is 8-bit and colour accuracy is very good. Black depth is not as good as VA based displays, but modern dynamic contrast control has improved performance in this area for multimedia application. IPS based screens are typically the most expensive however, but some modern panels are very good all round. Movie playback is noisy in most cases, and a step behind MVA panels.
This is starting to become more common on larger displays where the line between desktop display and LCD TV is becoming blurred. Commonly the screens are aimed at a wide multimedia use and so feature a wealth of inputs, typically including Composite, S-Video, Component and now HDMI. The BenQ FP241W is an example of a new screen featuring HDMI connectivity, and the LG L245WP will also be equipped with this interface.
The HDMI interfaces should offer full 1080i/p support and HDCP certification; and in some cases are in place of a DVI connection. Obviously with modern multimedia devices (HD-DVD, Blu-Ray etc) being HDMI ready, this is a good choice for people who want to use their display for a range of applications, not just to connect to a PC.
In the final verdict, I would say if you’re a gamer who needs high refresh rates for smooth graphics without lag and very fast response time, then go for a TN panel display. On the other hand, for photo & video editing and color grading purpose, you should select an IPS panel display because it provides accurate color and a wide viewing angle.
And MVA or PVA panels belong in the middle of TN and IPS panels. They produce better colors and viewing angles than the TN but not better than IPS. And hence costs less compared to the IPS but slightly higher than the TN panel.