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Week in Tech: Why PC Monitors Aren't Going to Get Better

Equitable though Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may largely be, a few isolated injustices still stalk the land. That I have to work for a living hardly seems fair, for instance. But even more odious is the fact that consumerist tat like smartphones, ultrabooks and tablets now have better screens by many metrics than our hallowed PC monitors. What gives? A recent interview I did with monitor maker Iiyama for ye olde PC Format mag dug up some answers. I also discovered why things aren't likely to dramatically improve any time soon. Meanwhile, the roller coaster ride for AMD's fortunes continues. This week, I predict survival!

Panel prognostications
First, display tech. As our very own Alec 'Fingers' McMeer will confirm, I've an unhealthy fetish for flat screens. I want them bigger. I want them better. I'm never really satisfied. So the state of smartphone, ultrabook and tablet screens has got my gander.

Take high-end smartphones. 1080p is now the default resolution for top handsets. That's as many pixels as any PC monitor up to and including 24 inchers. OK, there are a few 1,920 by 1,200 panels around. But it's very much the same ballpark.

Odds are this has at least as many pixels as your desktop panel...

Meanwhile, tablets and ultrabooks are now popping up with 2,560 by 1,440 and 2,560 by 1,600 panels. That puts them up with 27-inch and 30-inch monitors. Google's Chromebook Pixel takes things a step further with a 2,560 by 1,700 panel.

Obviously pixel density isn't everything. Especially not for gaming where big resolutions give graphics cards a pummelling. But mobile displays are often simply better quality thanks to newer panel tech, like the latest iteration of IPS or screen technology you just don't get in monitors, most obviously AMOLED.

Inevitably, it all comes down to money. According to Steve Kilroy, UK manager for display specialist Iiyama, part of the problem is that the market for monitors is shrinking as both private punters and businesses plump for portable devices over traditional desktop PCs.

...and this very likely has a lot more

So, with all the money sloshing around in the mobile market, the bulk of the investment in terms of modern panel manufacturing is focussed on laptops, tablets and smartphones.

What's more, even if sales of portables and desktops were more evenly matched, there's an incentive to major on mobile. “Screen substrates are produced in long sheets. And you can cut more screens for tablets out of a single sheet than for monitors,” says Kilroy. More screens per sheet means more money.

Don't ask, don't get
Then there's the fact, according to Kilroy, that there's not much demand from mainstream consumers for high res or high DPI monitors. The general upshot is that panel makers reserve their best technology for phones and tablets.

Kilroy also doubts we'll see any major changes in basic screen technology. “There's no sign of OLED making it into the mainstream,” he says.

Indeed, according to Kilroy the trends most likely to transform the monitor market in the near term are things that aren't necessarily of much interest for gaming or trad desktop computing. Like interactive touchscreen displays for Windows 8. Ghastly.

All pretty grim, then. But there is one glimmer of light among the gloom. Kilroy sees IPS completely taking over from TN in the next few years.

Apple's 13-inch MacBook Retina packs a potty 2,560 by 1,600 pixels

“Once IPS panels become capable of 2ms to 3ms response over the next two to three years, you can expect to see IPS completely replace TN technology for all but the most price sensitive parts of the market,” Kilroy reckons.

Of course, the snag with that notion is that the new generation of cheap 6-bit IPS panels isn't all that wonderful. Whisper it, but they're not that much better than the latest TN efforts. It's really only viewing angles where cheap IPS retains an obvious advantage.

It's not great news but I thought it was worth sharing. At least you know that buying a monitor today doesn't expose you to much risk of waking up a few months later and finding the market has been revolutionised and you'd have been better off waiting.

A couple of promising panels
Having said all that, I just so happen to have had a play with two new 27-inch screens recently. I suspect both are based on the same 2,560 by 1,440-pixel IPS panel, probably from LG. Anyway, I'm talking about the Iiyama ProLite XB2776QS and ViewSonic VP2770-LED.

The latest 27 inchers from Iiyama and ViewSonic are perfectly peachy

Both are roughly £400 panels, so not exactly cheap. But I think they may just be the most beautiful screens I've ever seen for pure image quality. Unlike earlier 27 inchers, they have nice, smooth anti-glare coatings rather than that sparkly gunk. I reckon the whites are a bit cleaner and brighter than before. And the contrast looks improved, too.

Anyway, they're stunning, so there is still progress being made. If you can afford them and have a graphics card that that handle the heat, I very much doubt you'll be disappointed.

AMD, again
So, AMD. Have reports of its imminent demise been greatly exaggerated? One intriguing way of tracking the fortunes of a company is to observe which employees are walking through the door and the direction they're going.

A few years ago, AMD suffered a major brain drain as Apple snapped up some of it finest and brightest CPU and graphics engineers. Well, it appears at least some of those people are returning to AMD.

Last year Jim Keller, who worked on chips for iPhones and iPads while at Apple and was the lead architect on the Athlon 64 (AMD's last really successful CPU design), returned to the AMD fold. Then late last week came news that graphics guru Raja Koduri has also returned from Apple.

Ultimately their identities and occupations aren't the point. What matters is that they clearly judge AMD is enough of a goer to make returning worthwhile. And you have to assume they're in a pretty good position to make that call. Ditching Apple for AMD says something.

I know I go on about this AMD roller coaster a bit and that it entails a certain amount of flip-flopping. But it really is critical for the health of the PC to have at least two players in both the high performance CPU and graphics markets. And that means AMD must survive.

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About the Author

Jeremy Laird