Improvements in LCD technology remove the color range void created by the disappearance of CRTs

In last year’s Monitor’s Guide, I bemoaned the fact that CRTs had essentially disappeared, and there was no viable replacement that could offer comparable performance. A year in this industry is a long time (think dog years), and I can now report that substantial progress has been made in closing that gap.
As you might expect, there’s good news and bad news associated with this. The good news is LCD monitors can far surpass a CRT monitor’s resolution and even exceed a CRT’s color gamut. The bad news is you’ll have to pay significantly more for these monitors than you paid for a CRT.
"In the broadcast sector in particular, the users have been dragged kicking and screaming into the LCD monitor market," explains Rhoda Alexander, director of monitor research for iSuppli Corporation. "They really like CRTs, and they had no problem with the way they performed. Ironically, the struggle for the LCD monitor manufacturers has been to get the performance level on these monitors up to what they had on the CRT monitors."
Availability will improve as these high-resolution and high-color LCD monitors fall in price. In the meantime, we’re looking at a market that’s more divided than ever. If you’re able to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a monitor, you’ll be very excited about the recent technological developments with LCD monitors. If you can pay two to three thousand dollars for a monitor, you’ll still see substantial improvement. And if your budget allows only a sub-$1,000 desktop monitor, you’ll see some improvement, but you may have to go out of your way to find it.
Mission Critical
Sony has addressed the CRT-performance gap head-on with its newest LCD-based broadcast monitor, the BVM L230. Featuring an LED backlight system for an improved color gamut, as well as a 120-Hz scan rate with black frame insertion for reduced smearing, the L230 surprised many of the attendees at the April NAB convention in Las Vegas. Almost no one expected an LCD monitor to have this kind of image quality.
"We had a room set up where you couldn’t see the monitors’ bezels or logos," says Garry Mandle, senior product manager for Sony’s Display Products Group. "We took our best 24-inch CRT monitor, and we placed it up against two of the L230s. It was completely black, so there was optimal viewing. Then we asked anyone who came by to tell us which were which. On average, only about one in ten was able to tell."
While I wasn’t able to take the comparison test, I did see the L230 on display at the booth. It was truly impressive. There’s one hitch, however. Shipping in October, it’s expected to sell for about $25,000. For high-end projects and post-production houses that can afford it, the L230 would be a viable and space-saving option for color-critical and motion-critical work. For the rest of us, it represents an important milestone and the possibility that someday we’ll be able to buy more streamlined and less expensive monitors that share some, if not all, of the advanced features.
Why choose an LED backlight rather than a traditional CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent) backlight? "We looked at cold cathode fluorescent, and it didn’t get us any further than where we were," explains Mandle. "With the new DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) specs coming out, and with all the new business that our customers are going to be looking at, we couldn’t just stop there. We had to move forward with something that would address the digital intermediate process in filmmaking."
According to Mandle, with a standard CCFL solution, you start with 8 bits of color and have to take away bits if you want to adjust the monitor’s white balance. That’s why most LCD monitors don’t have a white balance control. "With LED, we can adjust the RGB value of the backlight because we have 12 bits driving it. You have about 4,000 steps in each color where you can do your adjustment."
An End to Smear
The 120-Hz scanning rate in Sony’s BVM L230 provides the time needed to insert a black frame between every video frame. The result is a cleaner image with less distortion. "Basically we erase the panel when we load a black frame," says Mandle. "So any information from the previous frame is gone before we load a new frame of information. There’s no residual information, and there’s no smear."
With traditional LCD monitors, objects moving diagonally across the screen often exhibit a jerky, stuttering effect. The monitor has to guess where the object will be next. And with faster movements, it often guesses wrong. To counter that problem, the L230 incorporates a new processor designed for this particular LCD panel. "The processor has a wide enough bit path and is fast enough to complete its decisions in time," explains Mandel.
The L230 has a native 1920 x 1080 resolution, though it can accept a 2K (2048 x 1080) signal. "Since you’ll have 64 extra pixels of content on either side, there’s a control you can rock in order to see those areas," says Mandle. It has video inputs for both 10-bit and 12-bit color.
Other LCD monitors that can handle high-resolution video include Astrodesign’s DM-3400. The 56-inch monitor supports an impressive 3840 by 2160 pixels at a 60-Hz scan rate. That resolution (sometimes referred to as Quad HDTV mode) works out to a 16:9 aspect ratio. It will set you back a hefty $60,000. Cine-tal’s Cinemage line of monitors ($9,950 to $35,000) offers advanced color control right down to the individual pixel. The 1920 x 1200 resolution 24-inch LCD display supports 4:2:2 and 4:4:4 video, RGB and YCbCr data values, and 8-bit and 10-bit color. An OmniTek Dual-Link Waveform Monitor and Vectorscope is integrated into the display. A Cinemage monitor targets such tasks as screen matching, color pre-visualization, multi-camera set-ups and image quality control.
Back on Earth
Obviously, not everyone can afford high-end, mission-critical LCD monitors. "I think the industry overall would admit that there’s still a bit of a hole for a perfect, economical display for video editing," explains Chris Connery, a monitor analyst for DisplaySearch. "The video editing group is quite small in the overall scheme of things. And much of the attention is focused now on the TV space because of the transition to digital and HD. New technologies, such as LED backlights and 120-Hz scanning, will be targeted initially more for television products than for monitor products."
Because Samsung produces many of its televisions and monitors in the same factories, the company can spread its costs more efficiently across the two product categories. As a result, Samsung has taken the LED backlight technology that will be available in some of its upcoming televisions and applied it to a relatively affordable line of desktop monitors. The company’s XL20 is a 20-inch LCD monitor that incorporates LED backlighting to cover 114 percent of the NTSC color gamut. Already shipping, it has a manufacturer’s suggested price of $1,999.99. Samsung expects to ship a 24-inch version (the XL24) in October, and a 30-inch model (the XL30) sometime in the future.
This lower price point, especially when compared with that of the BVM L230, is what Samsung hopes will interest a broader audience that could include DSLR camera enthusiasts, as well as video editors, professional photographers and the publishing industry.
Andrew Weis, Samsung’s senior product marketing manager for displays, points out some of the overlooked advantages of LED backlighting. "You’ll have better color uniformity across the panel than you’ll have with an edge-lit CCFL monitor." An LED-based system also retains its brightness longer than a traditional LCD. "You’re dealing with rows and columns of lighting across the back of the monitor, as opposed to one or two fluorescent tubes that are behind the panel illuminating the picture," he says. "So you’ll have a better consistency, and the monitor itself will last longer."
If you’re looking for a 1080p broadcast monitor, and a greatly expanded color gamut isn’t important to your work, you might consider JVC’s DT-V24L1D. It has a $4,695 suggested list price. This 24-inch LCD monitor features a native 1920 x 1080 resolution, 10-bit processing and a 1:1 scaling mode for pixel-to-pixel 720p display. Some of the front-mounted controls are rotary dials, which gives the monitor a traditional feel.
More for Everyone
If you’re just starting out or are operating on a shoestring budget, even $2,000 to $3,000 can be a lot of money for a monitor. At NAB, Apple announced its new Color grading application will be included for free in the latest Final Cut Pro. At the same time, high-quality HD camcorders are rapidly falling in price. Why shouldn’t this market also benefit from color gamut advances in LCD monitors?
Here there are two options. You can wait for LED backlit monitors to drop in price as more manufacturers enter the market. Or you can go for a wide color gamut CCFL (WCG-CCFL) solution, which provides a wider color palette than is available with a traditional CCFL-backlit monitor, but not as wide a color gamut as with an LED-backlit solution. "A wide color CCFL can get you to 97-percent NTSC color representation," says Connery. He points out that Samsung and Dell have relatively inexpensive WCG-CCFL monitors, though you have to look for them. "In Samsung’s case, it isn’t positioned at the graphics market, but at gamers. Dell introduced a 27-inch model earlier in the year, but hasn’t been promoting it."
Samsung’s 19-inch 931C LCD monitor ($299.99) uses a WCG-CCFL backlight to achieve 97 percent of the NTSC color gamut. It has a native 1280 x 1024 resolution and a fast 2 millisecond response time. The 27-inch Dell monitor is the 2707WFP ($1,299). It has a 1920 x 1200 resolution and achieves 92 percent of the NTSC color gamut. If you need a higher-resolution monitor, you might consider HP’s 30-inch LP3065 ($1,699), which can handle 2560 x 1600 pixels natively and provide 92-percent NTSC color coverage. Connery notes that there’s much more activity currently in WCG-CCFL for LCD monitors than there is for LED-based solutions.
What about plasma? "I still see a good market for plasma," says Connery. "Plasma on the desktop? No, we’re not going to see plasma get smaller. We’re only going to see plasma get bigger. Plasma still has an edge over LCD, not only in terms of response time, but also in terms of size. It’s more economical to have a 65-inch plasma than it is to have a 65-inch LCD." Plasma standouts include Panasonic’s 1080p 58-inch TH-58PZ700U ($4,799.95), which provides EZ Sync HDAVI support for single-button control of home theater components. Pioneer’s upcoming 1080p Elite 60-inch PRO-150FD ($7,500) will feature 80-percent darker black levels than the current generation of Pioneer plasmas. It will be available in September.
Future flat-panel display technologies, such as OLED and SED, will have a tougher time competing, because by the time they begin shipping, LCD will have become almost unstoppable. "There is this LCD juggernaut out there because so many large companies are now mass producing generation 6, generation 7 and generation 8 LCD panels for TVs, monitors and notebooks. There is so much production out there, it is far and away the most dominant technology. Yes, other products can be brought to market, but it’s easy to make one of anything. It’s very difficult to mass produce a new display technology at economical price levels."
Feed Your Monitor
No monitor is an island. You have to connect it to something, whether it’s a leading-edge graphics card or a properly converted video signal. And the widest color gamut available won’t do you a lot of good if your screen isn’t carefully calibrated to provide an accurate array of colors.
Higher resolutions and wider color gamuts require a fast graphics processor, additional onboard RAM or multiple graphics cards to carry the load. Two identical NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600, 5500, 4600, 4500, 3500, 3450 or 3400 series graphics cards can be paired with an SLI connector to boost the fill rate and image quality for unusually large displays. This configuration can also help run a single hardware-accelerated OpenGL application window across multiple displays, or route a single application to each GPU. And with two SLI-equipped Quadro FX graphics cards, each hosting twin DVI ports and operating in Multi View mode, you can run as many as four high-resolution LCD monitors simultaneously.
Matrox offers a variety of multi-monitor solutions designed especially for graphics professionals. The company’s latest product, the TripleHead2Go Digital Edition ($329), supports an extended desktop as large as 3840 x 1024 pixels across three monitors. That could work out to 1280 x 1024 for each of the three screens, or you could spread your desktop over two screens using the DualHead mode with each monitor having a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels.
Color calibration doesn’t have to be an expensive add-on for a monitor. Pantone’s hueyPRO ($129) includes an ambient light sensor to deliver a consistent reading under most lighting conditions. The company’s Eye-One Display 2 ($249) is designed to calibrate color over a mix of displays, including CRT, desktop LCD and laptop LCD. Datacolor’s Spyder2PRO ($249) includes calibration profiles for front projectors, as well as CRT and LCD displays. The Spyder2PRO’s Ambient Precise
Light profile settings are optimized for a broad range of studio lighting environments. If you need real-time color calibration, check out Teranex’s ClearVue monitoring system ($3,995 without a monitor, or $4,795 with a 24-inch 1920 x 1200 LCD monitor). It uses Silicon Optix’s Realta image processing engine to accurately map incoming signals pixel-by-pixel to the LCD’s native resolution. The Realta processor can handle an incredible 1 trillion operations per second. This monitoring system provides the real-time color calibration capabilities associated with broadcast CRT monitors, but at the higher resolutions associated with LCD monitors. When purchased with the accompanying monitor, ClearVue can provide D65 performance from lowlights to highlights.