Behold the stunning breadth of its super-wide proportions. Marvel at the lustrous sheen of its impeccable anti-glare coating. Is LG's new 38-inch, 21:9-aspect FreeSync-capable masterwork not every gamer's ultimate fantasy? You'd think so. But it just goes to show how complex the monitor market has become, especially for we gamers, that the LG 38UC99 falls surprisingly short as a gaming companion. There's a broader lesson in here, I reckon, when it comes to picking gaming panels.
It seems like only yesterday that 34 inches and 3,440 by 1,440 pixels was the latest hotness in terms of form factors for luxurious computing and gaming – hell, even Alec bought one. Now LG has already upped the ante to 38 inches and 3,840 by 1,600 pixels, the latter being sort-of-but-not-conventionally 4K.
LG has also thrown support for AMD's FreeSync adaptive frame syncing into the mix, along with so-called 1ms motion blur reduction and a slight uptick in refresh compared to the 60Hz norm at 75Hz. Thus, LG's sales pitch for the thing takes a fair old tilt at gamers. 'Fluid motion in high-res games', they say. 'Precision and accuracy for playing at the highest level', too.
And all for the minor matter of £1,200 or $1,500. Youch. At that price point you won't be surprised to learn the 38UC99 packs an IPS panel and a number of pro-friendly features including 8-bit per channel colour and coverage of 99% of the sRGB colour space, the former making for nice colour and smooth gradients for all, the latter not being especially critical outside of professional circles.
Normal-sized laptop made to look positively puny...
Anyway, the point this panel nails a pretty broad range of theoretical usage models, on paper. In practice, I'm not sure it really nails any of them. For starters, the basic image quality of the IPS panel is surprisingly, well, a tiny bit dreary.
Maybe I'm being a bit unrealistic having experience a few quantum dot and HDR-capable screens of late, but the 38UC99 simply lacks pizzazz compared to toher screens in the latest and greatest category, like Asus's incredible ProArt PA329Q, if you want an example.
That was a real surprise on two accounts. Firstly, LG is one of the few outfits that actually makes LCD panels. Most monitor manufacturers buy them in. The implication being LG has the pick of its finest LCD substrate production for this high-end monitor. And secondly, given that this is a size and resolution that's not been seen before, you'd think it used the very latest generation of LG's LCD panels.
Browsing a single webpage can look a little comical
If that's subjective, what's not is the visible judder when running at 75Hz at the native 3,440 by 1,440. At first I went into the video driver and create a custom 60Hz refresh profile at native to smooth things out. Which worked. Then I swapped out the Nvidia GTX 1070 I was using for a 1050, just to check it wasn't a board-specific issue, which it wasn't.
Then I had a ponder about the fact that I was using Nvidia at all, hopped into the OSD menu, found the FreeSync setting, saw it was enabled, switched it off and discovered 75Hz refresh was no longer being offered. It was therefore no surprise to find in the spec small print that the 75Hz refresh capability is tied to FreeSync. And of course FreeSync only works with AMD boards.
A few weeks ago, I had a play with this exact example of the 38UC99 hooked up via an AMD RX 480 and there was no noticeable judder at 75Hz and indeed I was able to confirm that the FreeSync feature also worked flawlessly and without that nasty ghosting nonsense that blighted early panels that supported AMD's adaptive sync tech. So that all works, but your access to it is limited by your GPU choice.
FreeSync works fine with AMD cards, but the 75Hz refresh feature is also AMD-bound
Another aspect I'm not totally convinced by is the panel response. The bumpf makes impressive claims around sub-1ms performance. But despite jiggling with the response options and the global gaming presets, it never looks as responsive as that.
Again, the fine detail of the official panel spec quotes 14ms / 5ms, the latter being the fairly meaningless metric that measures how long it takes the panel to switch from one tone of grey to another fairly similar tone of grey. Put another way, the inherent response of the panel is relatively ordinary and there's only so much you can do to wake that up by blasting it with current à la pixel overdrive features.
It ain't perfect, but it can still look pretty glorious
Of course, the 38UC99 still has a lot going for it. If I hadn't seen the very latest quantum dot and HDR panels, I'd probably think the basic image quality was pretty nice. And the visuals are fairly mega in games despite the shortcomings. It really is a pleasure to lord it over a Total War battlefield, to combine a such a broad overview of proceedings with so much local fine detail, to have the numerous menus and tools nevertheless encroach so little into the visual spectacle.
The extra pixels over 34-inch 21:9 screens are welcome, too, in terms of desktop space. Likewise, it's nice to be able to view the full glory of 21:9 4K movies, which undeniably look pretty stellar thanks to the combination of pixel count, large proportions and super-slim bezel. Don't get me wrong, I could live with this screen's shortcomings. It's bloody nice. Just not at anything like this much money.
To be frank, if I was a graphics pro I'd also be less than wowed. I'd expect native 10-bit colour and probably quantum dot tech and even broader colour space support. And a bit more visual clout.
21:9 movies look fugging fantastic, too
But that's by the by. The lesson here, I think, is not to make too many assumptions about a screen based on its specs or broader provenance. I was pretty sure this thing was going to be spectacular. I was had a feeling the IPS panel itself was going to be one of the best I'd ever seen in terms of colour production and I thought that LG had clearly given the thing some thought as a device for gamers thanks to the FreeSync, 75Hz and so-called 1ms capabilities.
It probably had. But that didn't prevent it missing the target a bit with the 38UC99. So try before you buy, or at the very least do your due diligence and dig out some reliable third party resources. Otherwise you might just buy yourself some disappointment.