By Jeremy Laird on February 22nd, 2012 at 2:23 pm.
Hi gang. So, if you’ve read part one of our modern gaming monitor opus, you’ll know at least two things. Firstly, there’s no substitute for a good underlying LCD panel. And secondly, things are looking up for penniless gamers on the hunt for a solid screen on a tight budget. In this second and final part on monitors, I’ll boil the current crop down to the only four screens, ranging from cheapo to aaargh-my-bank-account, that you should consider if you’re in the market for a new display.
At the end of the graphics guide I hinted that we’ve actually Apple to thank for monitor prices improving. It sounds implausible, but I’m afraid it’s true. The reasoning involves Apple’s near-blanket use of IPS panel technology. Whether it’s iPhone, iPad or iMac, Apple proudly touts its use of “superior” IPS screen tech.
Now, I agree IPS is the best screen technology, on balance. I also happen to know that just a few years ago, PC monitor makers couldn’t be arsed with putting IPS into mainstream monitors. I know this because I begged them to do it and the response was always the same, “punters are clueless, they won’t pay even a small premium for IPS.”
Apple’s evil iPad and its suspiciously wide viewing angles might just be a good thing after all.
Well, Apple’s use of IPS has ensured that the great, mouth-breathing masses now want IPS. They don’t know why, they just know IPS is a good thing. If I’m honest, it’s not a hugely healthy state of affairs – little is when it comes to Apple’s brand of rampant consumerism. But it has given rise to a new generation of cheap IPS panels. And that means TN is no longer the only affordable option.
However, just to complicate things, I’ve recently seen what I would class as the very first truly lovely looking TN displays. The technology gap is closing. On a related note, and as I mooted in part one, 120Hz refresh is a fabulous thing, too. But it’s only available with TN tech. Well, it is right now. The very first 120Hz IPS screen, the LG DM92, is due out very soon. I don’t think anyone has reviewed it yet, but I’m working hard to get my mitts on one. Keep your scanners peeled.
Anywho, giving advice re buying screens is pretty tricky. If it was up to me, you’d all be running 30-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 IPS screens because they’re bloody lovely and they’ll still be bloody lovely five years from now. In reality, we don’t all have a grand to unload on a screen. More to the point, you need one hell of a GPU to drive 2,560 x 1,600 pixels smoothly in-game. Pragmatism must therefore play its part, and its part goes something like this.
1. Arse-end screens
Until just a month or two ago, this category was a case of any panel you like, so long as it’s TN. Joy of joys, you can now buy a 23-inch, full-HD IPS panel for under £140. And it is the AOC i2352vh. It isn’t quite the monitor equivalent of the killer, you’ll-never-need-anything-better solution the Intel Core i5 2500K provides in the CPU space. But for the money, it’s pretty spectacular.
OK, the chassis build quality is redolent of a catflap in a force nine gale. Then there’s the shoddy tilt-only stand, which oscillates alarmingly at the slightest prod. Ideally, I’d prefer 1,920 x 1,200 to the 1,920 x 1,080 pixel grid you get. That IPS panel is almost definitely 6-bit, too. Oh, and there’s a tiny bit of backlight bleed at the edges. But the image quality is demonstrably nicer-than-TN, the viewing angles are super and it’s plenty quick enough for games. At this price, you won’t be disappointed. Or if you are, you’re being unrealistic.
2. Mid-range monitors
This is the meat of the market, where most of the action is and where you’ll be able to pick up a screen with relatively few compromises. Things are changing fast right now, but my current fave is the newish Viewsonic VP2365-LED, yours for about £200.
Ostensibly, it’s a pretty plane-Jane looking panel. But it ticks almost all the important boxes. It’s 23 inches of IPS, albeit very probably only 6-bit. The image quality is properly nice. The colours are to die for. Actually, they’re so vibrant I wasn’t 100 per cent sure the thing wasn’t PVA powered at first glance. And I can usually pick a panel type from 100 yards.
The viewing angle’s impeccable, too. It even has very little by way of the traditional IPS glow or surface sparkle. Hallelujah. OK, the LED backlight could be a little brighter. And it’s not quite as quick as the best TN screens. But I’m confident you won’t be disappointed with the in-game response.
Critically, it also has a proper stand with rotate, swivel, tilt and height adjustment and VESA wall-mount compatibility. What you don’t get is a sack full of bullshit image-enhancement nonsense, gaming modes or any other pointless frippery. It’s just a great panel in a decent chassis. The end.
An intriguing alternative is the BenQ XL2420T, a £280-ish 24-incher. On the downside, it’s TN and 1080p. But mein Gott, what a TN screen it is. I reckon the raw image quality is the best I’ve seen for this panel type. Yup, I might just be able to live with it and I’m pathologically anal about panel quality.
It also has a jolly nice fully adjustable stand. Tilt-only stands make my teeth itch, that’s how much I hate them. But the real killer feature is 3D Vision support. Not because I’m a stereoscopic 3D fan. I ain’t. But it means the XL2420T has 120Hz refresh support and that’s a very, very lovely thing. Oh, and because it’s TN, it’s super quick, too. In many ways, you could argue it’s the best pure gaming panel around. If it was 1,920 x 1,200 rather than 1,920 x 1,080, it would be very practically perfect.
The final candidate in the mid-range is the £450 Hazro HZ27WC. The idea here is to shove the same 27-inch IPS panel you’ll find in the 27-inch iMac into a cheap enclosure and flog it for as little as possible. Suits me.
The chassis is cheap and the stand is tilt-only, which is bad. But the IPS panel is lovely, which is good. More to the point, the massive 2,560 x 1,440 resolution makes for absolutely bonkers in-game detail. If you’re a strategy or RTC addict, believe me, you’ll weep with joy at the sheer field of view on offer. 1080p is paltry by comparison. Of course, you’ll need some serious graphics hardware to drive it, which adds to the real-world cost of going with this kind of panel.
Another downside is the stupid plastic screen cover on the model I tried. It’s meant to mimic the glass covers of iMacs, but all it does is add unwanted reflections. Mercifully, you can have it without the cover. For goodness sake make sure it’s not fitted. And be warned. Like all the other 27-inch IPS screens out there, the panel’s anti-glare coating is a bit sparkly.
As an addendum, there are a few interesting screens that currently don’t make the cut for one or other reason. One screen that ought to spank all comers in my mid-range shortlist is the Dell UltraSharp U2412M. It’s IPS, it’s a proper 1,920 x 1,200 16:10 panel and it’s baggable for about £250. So it sounds perfect. In practice, the image quality is a little bit dull, the anti-glare coating is rather sparkly. Sorry, but I don’t rate it.
Then there are the Asus PA246Q ProArt and the HP ZR2440W. Both are 24 inchers that nail all the critical metrics for around £350 – IPS, 16:10, 1,920 x 1,200. The Asus is newish and I’m still waiting to get hold of one. The HP is an HP, and that means a review sampling process unfathomable to human comprehension. Six might turn up tomorrow. Or I might not get one until just before they go out of production. With HP, and Dell for that matter, it’s usually the latter.
One further caveat is that neither screen is intended for gaming. That’s not to say they lack gaming chops. But it is worth bearing in mind. If either of them do indeed turn out to be the Jesus panel we’ve all benn waiting for, I’ll let you know. There are of course several much more expensive 24-inch IPS screens aimed at the pro market. Nice as they are, they’re not designed for and I don’t view them as value for gaming.
3. Tip-top eye candy
This is the toughest category of all. Of the brave new generation of premium 27 inchers with 2,560 x 1,440 panels (lower compromise alternatives to the Hazro mentioned above), my favourite right now is the Samsung Series 8 S27A850D.
At £550 to £600, it’s getting a bit pricey. But it does offer novel PLS panel tech. I’ve only spent a couple of days in its company, so I’d want more quality time to be sure it’s genuinely a suitable gaming panel. But it does seem to combine the best of IPS and PVA tech in a single panel – you get great viewing angles, a nice smooth anti-glare coating, good blacks and decent response. If you’re wondering, no I don’t like the Dell U2711 much. I’ve had one knocking around for about a year. It’s OK, but the panel surface is a very sparkly and it has IPS glow-itus. It tends to sit gathering dust. I’d pay extra for the Sammy.
Thing is, if you’re going to spend that much money and drive that many pixels, it’s tempting to just give it the full 30- inch, 2,560 x 1,600 treatment. This is going to sound ridiculous, but having spent years using 30 inchers, a week with a 27-inch panel and the reduced vertical resolution felt really restrictive.
In reality, there’s not much choice in the 30-inch market since Samsung stopped making 30-inch PVA panels. Everyone is using LG-manufactured IPS panels now, as far as I am aware. Despite my own 30-inch fetish, I’m actually pretty reluctant to recommend any of the current 30-inch brigade. It’s been a little while since I set eyes on the Dell U3011, for instance, and I’ve never seen the Hazro HZ30Wie in action. Then there are the LG, HP, Eizo and NEC models to choose from. In truth, none are really intended for gaming. I love ‘em enough to have three of ‘em (two Dell 3007s and a Samsung XL30), but they’re not for everyone. My feeling is that the £750-plus price tags makes them of limited interest. Still, if enough of you shout out, I’m happy to go into further detail and book in a few of the models I’ve yet to sample. Let me know.
On the subject of high-res displays, along with the performance-related issue of pumping all those pixels, it’s worth remembering you’ll need a video card with at least dual-link DVI. Some screens also support HDMI 1.3+ and / or DisplayPort. Personally, I’m fine with dual-link DVI. But the other inputs are obviously handy if you’re tag-teaming your PC with a console. Given consoles are filthy, unforgivable things that proud RPSers wouldn’t dream of owning, I realise that’s a rather academic notion. I mention it purely in the spirit of full disclosure.
Ultimately, then, for most of us it comes down to a choice of the following four screens:
Bottom line: £140, 23-inch, 1080p res, lovely IPS panel, cheap-shit chassis.
Bottom line: £200, 23-inch, 1080p res, fab IPS panel, great stand.
Bottom line: £280, 24-inch, 1080p res, best TN ever, stupid quick, 120Hz loveliness.
Bottom line: £450, 27-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 res, IPS panel, cheapest option for true high-res gaming.
As above, I’ll update if and when either of the Asus PA246Q ProArt and the HP ZR2440W hit Laird towers and prove to be monitors of messianic mettle. As they say in the exam room, then, discuss.