Anyone working on high-end visual content will appreciate the importance of a good monitor. Good monitors, however, do not come cheap, and many times people will skimp on this piece of hardware in order to get a faster machine or better graphics card. Often, this can be a mistake, particularly for professionals, since seeing proper and accurate colors on the screen will ensure that your work comes out as expected.
With that in mind, NEC has updated its professional LCD monitors with the goal of very high color accuracy. The company’s new PA series models offer sizes from 23 to 30 inches and promise high performance at a mid-range price. We took a look at the PA271W, which is a 27-inch monitor with a high-resolution 2560x1440 screen.
The monitor itself is fairly nondescript and utilitarian in appearance, with a matte-gray finish. It looks good, but doesn’t stand out, which is important for a monitor, as the work on the screen should always be front and center. The monitor is a little bit deeper than most, though this is often the case with higher-end monitors. Some of this depth is taken up by a lift-and-swivel mechanism that allows the height of the monitor to be adjusted and the monitor to be rotated to portrait mode. The bezel is not too wide at about three-quarters of an inch, with controls for the monitor along the bottom right. The back panel contains two dual-link DVI connectors and one DisplayPort connector. Missing is an HDMI connector for linking to video sources, though an inexpensive adapter can allow the DisplayPort connector to accept HDMI. There’s also a USB hub built into the monitor that allows for both upstream and downstream connections.
The controls on the front of the monitor activate the PA271W’s internal menu system, which allows thorough control over how the monitor displays its images. These include the standard settings, such as white point, brightness, and placement of the image on the screen. For those who need specific color profiles, the menu allows you to choose emulation modes, such as sRGB and Adobe RGB. If you choose the advanced settings, you can go much deeper, accessing settings to fine-tune color, panel uniformity, and response time.
Another feature that can be accessed from the control buttons is the picture-in-picture (PIP) feature, which can display content from a second input on the monitor. The placement of this second input can be configured from the standard picture inside another picture, to side by side, or top/bottom display modes. This can be especially handy when working with video, as the video signal can be displayed on one monitor.
The monitor itself has a built-in ambient light sensor. When enabled, the sensor can automatically adjust the brightness of the screen depending on the ambient light in the room. These changes were fairly smooth and, more importantly, kept the colors displaying the same regardless of whether I had the window shades open or not.
The internal workings of the PA271W are where the monitor really shines. The actual LCD panel itself is a 10-bit “performance IPS” panel, which can display up to 1.07 billion colors. To achieve this, however, you need a 10-bit path from the application all the way through to the monitor. This means your graphics hardware also needs to support 10 bits and have a DisplayPort connector that can supply 10 bits to the monitor. As a note, DVI connectors are only 8-bit capable. Regardless of whether or not you have 8 or 10 bits supplying the monitor, the fact that the screen can still display it is important. The monitor itself has a 14-bit lookup table, which can interpolate colors from 8-bit sources to reduce banding and improve display quality.
Setting up the monitor was fairly simple. It can be as easy as plugging it in and installing a device driver. From there, it’s a matter of configuring the color space that you want and calibrating the monitor. The monitor has several color spaces, including sRGB, Adobe RGB, DCI, and several neutral ones. I used the “Full” setting, which uses the full color space of the monitor. Anyone doing professional work also will want to calibrate the monitor. I used a ColorVision Spyder2 to calibrate the monitor, and the calibration program didn’t have to change all that much. It’s nice to know that the monitor came with fairly accurate color straight out of the box.
In actual use, the monitor works wonderfully. The viewing angle of the screen is quite broad, so there are no real dead spots. The monitor does tend to run a little warm, and the excess heat vents out the top of the unit, so be sure to give it ventilation. In terms of resolution, the smaller 27-inch screen combined with the higher-resolution 2560x1440 display does lead to a smaller pixel pitch. I did not find this to be much of a problem, as even small text was fairly crisp. However, I had a little more of a problem with some applications that had smaller icons in the interface. I found it somewhat difficult to position the mouse cursor over these smaller buttons. Perhaps this is my own hand/eye coordination issue, but those were really the only times I wanted to move up to the 30-inch screen.
Overall, the NEC PA271W is a great monitor. It has terrific color fidelity and a wide range of options and features that make it ideal for professional color-critical work. The one downside of this display is the price, which is considerably more than the average 27-inch monitor. The extra features and quality, however, more than make up for this difference, and a good monitor can outlast several computers. The extra investment is well worth it.
George Maestri is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World and president/CEO of RubberBug animation studio. He also teaches Maya for Lynda.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.