You say jump. My only question is how high? Last time around we dissected the state of play in PC monitors. But there was a problem. Some of you are skinflints. Or just, you know, normal people who may not have £400/$500-plus to blow on acres of liquid crystal magnificence. Either way, if that’s you then this is your post. I bring you profound insights into the more prosaic end of the flat-panel market. Yup, I’ve been slumming it with cheap screens. So, join me on the other side for a deep dive into the maths of colour depth. And some other stuff.
The first problem with budget screens is the sheer, giddy choice available. Using cheap 22-inch IPS panels as an example, at a rough estimate each of the major monitor manufacturers offers roughly eleventy-nine seemingly identical but presumably subtly different models.
Now, I’ve seen a fair few of these over the years. But there’s zero chance of me Mark 1 Eyeballing a plurality much less the majority of what’s on offer. Still, the 22-inch 1080p thing is probably where it’s at as an entry level option. So here goes.
Our muse is the Philips 227E6QDSD, kindly provided by, well, Philips. The cheapest I can find it in the UK is about £90, or about the cost of a mediocre meal and a medium-sized hangover. Remarkable.
I can’t find this precise model on sale in the US, but call it roughly $120. Not bad for a big brand monitor with a full HD 1080p pixel grid and – drum roll, please – an IPS panel. (If you’re already feeling confused by jargon, I recently explained the differences between panel types such as IPS and TN here).
Cheap IPS panels are not anything new, of course. Every sweat-shop produced $50 tablet worthy of the name now has an IPS panel. However, it’s worth noting that there is IPS and then there is IPS.
That 6-bit thing
The cheap ones sport 6-bit per channel colour fidelity as opposed to the minimum 8-bit per colour channel of pricier IPS efforts. The colour channels in question are RGB or red, green and blue and the bit count represents what you might call the number of intensities that can be achieved by each channel.
In other words, each pixel on your screen is made up of three subpixels – one red, one green and one blue. It’s by varying the intensity of each subpixel that a full palette of colours is created. Turn all three full off and you get black, all full on and you get white. Mix ’em up and you get the proverbial rainbow.
Anyway, if you care deeply about the maths, 6-bit refers to six bits of binary data or two to the power of six and thus 64 intensities per colour channel. Got that? Of course, there are three channels, so that’s 64 times 64 times 64, which comes to…262,144 colours.
Some subpixels I made earlier
That sounds a lot until you do the same maths for 8 bits per channel and come up with just under 16.8 million colours, which really is a lot. Now, if you have normal vision, your eye (yes, yours!) can tell the difference, between 262,000 and 16.8 million colours, believe it or not. So makers of cheap monitors came up with a clever kludge years ago.
It’s called dithering and the idea is to rapidly oscillate pixels between two similar but not identical colour states. Do this fast enough and your eye will, in simple terms, observe an intermediate colour that the 6-bit pixel cannot achieve in a steady state. And so this, ladies and germs, is how you end up with 6-bit screens that claim to produce the 16.8 million colours of an 8-bit screen.
It’s also why if you look really closely at a gradient test image on a cheap screen, you may well see the pixels ‘fizzing’ away as they zap back and forth between colour states.
Whatever, the bottom line is that dithering works, but only up to a point, which is why you can also often seen visible banding in gradients on cheap screens. The panel is failing to truly render those millions of colours and your eye is picking up on the crude and relatively abrupt changes or steps in colour across the gradient.
Sorry, I mentioned that Philips panel…
With all that in mind, I can confirm the Philips 227E6QDSD claims 16 million colours but has both fizzing and banding. I don’t even need to look at the specs, it’s clearly a 6-bit panel. But does that matter?
Not especially, which has me wondering why I bothered to explain all that. But hang with me for a moment. In the plus column, the Philips delivers much better viewing angles than any TN screen and decently vibrant colours. Black levels and contrast are tolerable, too, if not as good as the latest pricey IPS screens, much less a really good VA panel.
Overall, it’s not a particularly punchy panel, but it is fairly pleasant and scores points for being well calibrated from the factory. Both the white and black scales are nicely executed, which basically means you’ll see good detail in both dark and bright scenes in games and movies.
The chassis is, inevitably, a tilt-only affair and about as shonky as you’d expect for £90. Catflap. Tornado. Etc. But here’s the thing, most of the downsides don’t matter in-game. The colours are pretty nice, it’s responsive (including multiple levels of pixel overdrive if you fancy tuning that aspect) and with a small screen like this, arguably you simply sit a bit closer and it fills the same field of view as a larger panel.
It’s not the brightest or cleanest of panels. Pure whites render with a slightly yellowish tinge. Of course, with 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, there’s the question of sharpness and detail, too. But 1080p still provides a decent amount of detail and the relative compactness of the panel means the pixel pitch is pretty tight and the image decently crisp.
Where you’ll really miss a higher resolution is back on the desktop where 1,920 by 1,080 feels awfully cramped if you’re used to 2.5k or 4K ubertrons.
However, overall, I doubt the Philips will disappoint. If £100/$120 was my limit, I’d be pretty chuffed at the kind of gaming fidelity it’ll get you these days. This is not exactly news. But it is good.
If that’s the generic cheapo option, what if you can stretch a little higher, perhaps to £200/$275? Again, the choice is pretty suffocating, but I reckon the Viewsonic VG2401mh is an interesting example of something very gaming centric at vaguely that price point.
The cheapest I can find it right now is £228. Again, I don’t seem to be able to find a representative price in the US.
The headlines numbers here are 24 inches and 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. The interesting bit is the combination of a TN panel and 144Hz refresh support (the benefits of high refresh rates are explained here). It also has features like a ‘low input lag’ mode and from head to toe it’s aimed at gamers.
In that regard, it immediately feels well worth the extra over the Philips. It has a lovely fully adjustable chassis. It looks and feels a quality item, especially for the money.
The catch is that there’s no mistaking the TN panel as soon as you spool it up. The viewing angles, contrast and vibrancy are all clearly off the pace of even a cheap IPS panel. But both the consistency and the quality of the backlight hammers the Philips.
And then there’s the 144Hz thing. We’ve been here on many occasions before, but it really is a lovely feature and one you can really make the most of thanks to the modest 1,920 by 1,080 resolution. Even a mid-market graphics card can achieve 100-plus frames per second in a lot of games running at that resolution.
Pulling the 144Hz trigger…
I’d go so far to say that if you’ve got a game running at 100fps-plus, you won’t miss frame-syncing techs like G-Sync or Freesync. You’ll just be enjoying the super smoothness.
The big question for me is whether I’d take this Viewsonic VG2401mh and its mediocre TN colours and viewing angles or choose that £275 / $375 BenQ GW2765HT from last week with its gorgeous but 60Hz-limited IPS panel and improved pixel count.
For gaming, I’d take the Viewsonic. For everything else, the BenQ. If I had to pick one of them to do everything, I genuinely don’t know which I’d go for. It’s a real toughie.
While we might not have one overwhelming victor this time, hopefully all this at least gives those of you in the cheaper seats something to think about for your next monitor purchase. Good luck.