Riding the Flow

musings from the shire

I am a professional software developer, who also a gamer. I want a monitor which just does a job of displaying images correctly - I also have background in graphics programming so I have a keen eye.

But for some reason it was really hard to get one recently.

10 years ago, I had a Dell Ultrasharp monitor which had no issues whatsoever. However, eventually it got somewhat dated and I thought “its time to upgrade”. So, I’ve tried these new & shiny “gaming monitors” with all these new bells & whistles (and I’ve actually bought 3 different ones, and pricier ones). To cut it short, they all had issues in one form or another – even while all these fancy feature boxes were ticked, but always at expense of something else, or not working quite perfectly all the time.

(Note - if you want to skip somewhat long preamble, you can jump straight to review)

One issue I’ve noticed was that all these new monitors had this terrible glow at corners. I was quite baffled since my old Dell had no such issue whatsoever. However, Internet insisted:

  •           “That’s normal, unavoidable downside of IPS technology. All IPS monitors have it.”
  •           “You should try not to look at it – it only bad because you noticing it.”
  •           “You are not photographing it right; you must do it in such way so it darkens the glow and it won’t look bad.”

It’s a shame that it also appears that some very reputable monitor review sites started perpetuating these mantras – ironic, given they actually reviewed these all these models 10 years ago which had no such issues.

The way it should be phrased correctly – “Yes, its normal for most modern panels since manufacturers universally decided it’s acceptable and stopped making large panels which don’t have it in one form of another, but it’s not “unavoidable part of IPS technology”. Unfortunately, there are just couple of LCD panel factories in the world and they are well known to do whatever they want for their profits (they were fined for blatantly colluding several times). And also, they are very well known for pushing narratives to back up their corner cutting. Historical examples:

  • 16:10 going way of the dodo. Push for wider and wider aspect ratios, apparently its “more immersive/etc, etc”. Fact is – its always more profitable to make wider aspect panel for given diagonal, since the area is less the wider monitor is. So, the yields increase.
  • Push for glossy screens, apparently its better because it makes colours “punchy”, images “sharp”. In reality, monitor which looks like a mirror is horribly unergonomic and eye-straining in any kind of normal lighting. Fact – for manufacturers it is way cheaper to omit high-quality anti-glare treatment (and also, they can put higher contrast & brightness on spec sheet since it measured in totally dark room and there is a little bit less dispersion from an anti-glare layer).

So, this all got me thinking “is it really impossible today to get a monitor which does not try to convince user that they are looking at it wrong?”. I immediately thought about perusing into enterprise & professional market – since these kinds of customers not known to have big appetite to hear excuses, they want polished functionality they pay for, period.

After a while I found that it was somewhat muddled however – as these “past-time budget”/”modern-time gaming” brands started incursion into enterprise & pros space already, bringing all their issues with them and trying the market to accept their narratives & excuses. Which appear to work at least to some extent – lot of reviewers are helpful & understanding, and lots of “home professionals” think they can really have no better, and prices are reasonable.

But there still appear to be brands who cater for “old-school” enterprise customer, who *really* won’t be having it (and can’t care less what famous reviewer thinks – they look with their own eyes). Think largest financial institutions, government agencies, famous film & tv studios. Best known of such brands to me are NEC & Eizo. Also were on the line Dell & HP, but in later years appear to be tarnished by “prosumer” shift to big extent.

So, after long research, endless trouble with “gaming” monitors, fishing for actual customer experiences, etc, etc, I’ve decided that ok, maybe you really need to pay market price for perfection even if first you might think “why its so much?” – well, market decided that. Also, modern gaming monitors are getting into ludicrous price territories anyway.

So, enter the NEC MultiSync PA311D.

First of all, if you want an excellent tech review & all benchmarks – look at prad.de. I simply won’t repeat what they’ve measured & stated already (nor I have proper equipment).

This will be just an “my experience” review from consumer who bought monitor in the store (so you may be sure it’s not cherry picked).

So, they say “don’t photograph your monitor in dark room, don’t overexpose”. Because it's commonly looks like this (not even at night, its still light outside!):

Light bleed/glow on "gaming" monitor
Source - one of my "high-end gaming" monitors.


Let’s do just that with PA311D shall we? Show black screen, and photograph it at night, in completely dark room. No reason to go easy on it.

NEC PA311D displaying black in dark room

As you can see, even over-exposed so black looks like grey, and you can see surrounding lit by PC lighting (look how bright power LEDs are), it still has no visible corner glow, and its reasonably uniform.

IPS angle-glow also barely here. In fact, black does not really gets brighter if looked at extreme angle, its gets more blueish. This really looks more like VA than IPS (but viewing angles are IPS I assure you):

NEC PA311D displaying black in dark room


Also, they commonly say “we don't photograph solid backgrounds, because not realistic you won’t be looking at it, yada yada”. Why? Because it often looks like this:

Grey uniformity of modern 4K high-end monitor
This supposed to be solid grey (source - rtings.com)


Again, lets’ do just that with our monitor, shall we? Again, use that dark grey rtings test, which is hardest for monitors to get uniform:

NEC PA311D grey uniformity test - no comp

Again, its quite well-exposed that monitor lights the surroundings and it looks much lighter than it is.

The only noticeable defect I can see is slight “vignette effect” towards the edges (and, if you wondering, even much more expensive Apple Pro Display XDR still has the similar issue).

Uniformity compensation however, makes it much less:

NEC PA311D grey uniformity test - uniformity comp

As for me, I don’t enable uniformity compensation, since it somewhat reduces maximum contrast and I prefer having awesome contrast at absolute max - almost 1400, that’s 1.5 times more than most of modern IPS competitors, and yes, having such high contrast is lot more noticeable than slight vignette.

And yeah, it has no pixel defects whatsoever.

The above is achieved by 31.1” Panasonic wide gamut IPS-Pro panel. Same panel is used in EIZO CG319X and HP DreamColor Z31x. Eizo has some more pro-colour features (e.g. built-in colorimeter), but scaler is lot more laggy. Z31x has not been benchmarked by any reputable reviewer AFAIK.

Why this panel has almost no IPS glow and so much better in black than any other modern competitor? Does it eschew of same corner cutting? Does it add some extra tech (something akin to what was known as “A-TW polarizer”)? Can’t say for sure – only can see that, for one point, the panel is much thicker than others I’ve seen, so that might indicate different construction.

Monitor itself is manufactured by TPV Electronics (who is not aware – their own monitor brand is AOC). So, monitor designed by NEC, panel by Panasonic, electronics/production by AOC – sounds like quite good combination. Mine was manufactured in November 2019.

NEC PA311D Dark Room Dark Wallpaper

So, as established, the dark room picture quality is excellent. 10-bit colour works out of the box now that Nvidia enabled it on consumer cards. It’s a true 10-bit panel, can work with SDR content too (switched on Windows desktop and checked with NEC OpenGL demo) or HDR content. As you may imagine, banding on gradients simply does not exist here (unless source content has it).

Colour management is very powerful as you might expect (it has built-in SpectraView engine, internal 14-bit processing, internal sensor to correct for backlight colour shift due to aging). It supports all standard colour spaces – or you can just set your own primaries & white point in CIE xy. I don’t do much of colour management, but found colour space setting useful to correct for metamerism. Some people like me may see white on wide-gamut monitors appear somewhat “reddish” due to more sensitivity to red cells. With this monitor its very easy to visually fine-tune red primary & white point to appear more correct how my eyes see it.

HDR signal supported fully and completely tuneable (e.g. you can choose HLG or PQ for signal profile – needs to be set to PQ for Windows HDR). After all, this monitor geared to studios/pros who master HDR content sometimes. It has no local dimming and max brightness is ~320 NITs so its no high-end HDR mastering monitor like $30,000 Prominence – however, it does job just fine in not bright room. You can actually set what max HDR peak you want to see and monitor will stretch it to its native dynamic range – e.g. if you set max peak to 1000, you will properly see HDR1000 content, but image will be ~3 times dimmer. Still, looks fine in dark room (helped by excellent dark-room panel quality and true 10 bit).

And no haloing whatsoever (that’s actually upside of not having local dimming for you), also no annoying dynamic backlight.

I mostly keep my HDR peak set to 400 and it absolutely adequate for daytime use, play some games (which render HDR well, e.g. Division 2), HDR movies, they look perfect. Windows desktop/SDR apps also look totally fine (after PQ set correctly as monitor profile), no washed-out colours and SDR brightness slider allows brightness balance control. You can actually keep HDR switch in Windows on all the time and its perfectly usable – with only downsides that backlight have to work harder and no auto-brightness. That’s why I still switch it off when not needed. Monitor remembers profile & settings pre-sets for SDR and HDR and auto-switches between them (e.g. sRGB for SDR and rec.2020 PQ for HDR).

Edit circa Jan 2021. I've since discovered ability to improve HDR handling even more by using 3D LUT to do custom tone mapping in hardware, which I have outlined in separate blog article.

On auto-brightness feature. Seriously, how hard it is to put a light sensor in the monitor? Notebooks & phones are being doing it for years, while for monitors its kind of niche feature. NEC’s implementation is super-helpful, saving me the hassle of switching brightness when outside light dims – its very smooth and almost unperceivable. Keeping brightness at comfortable level helps a lot picture quality & eliminating eyestrain.

Also, it worth mentioning this monitor has somewhat unusual resolution – 17:9 4096x2160 (“4K for cinema”). I don’t do digital cinema work, so for my purposes its usual 4K with some added extra horizontal space – kind of like “ultrawide lite”. I like it quite a lot – it makes usual 16:9 content a bit smaller and easier to keep in field of view, while with supported games & apps adds that bit of side filler space, but not so much that you need curve or corners get too far away. If game & app does not support it, they still work totally fine – you just get a bit of black bars to sides.

As video input goes, bandwidth for 4096x2160x30bpp is still sufficient to be served over universally adopted & stable DisplayPort 1.2 at 60Hz.

Yes, it’s a 60Hz monitor its not “ultra-fast” or anything. Its still perfectly fine for gaming at 60FPS – response time ~10ms and scaler lag ~10ms. I myself prefer to crank up my resolution/picture detail in games so 60Hz is not an issue. I will also always pick 1:1400 contrast over the high frame rate. I actually set some of my more-demanding games to 50Hz – scaler supports 60, 50, 30 and even 24Hz for frame-perfect cinema playback. It will accept 75Hz signal, but it will skip frames. Scaler has no annoying fans and no coil whine – monitor completely silent.

In terms of input functionality, it also excellent. It actually has built-in USB 3.0 KVM switch, allowing switch between 2 USB inputs. Also, it has USB-C with video signal capability & 65W power delivery, so can display & charge laptops via single cable.

Built-in speakers are mediocre, they are unobstructed & decent but rear-upward-facing. Your mileage may vary, it sounds lot better if you have wall behind to bounce the sound. Personally, I don’t use them, I use a small forward-facing soundbar instead.

So, in a nutshell – NEC PA311D is “kind of” a “boring” monitor. In a sense that all it does it does its job of displaying 4K images and does it very well with only slight niggles. Apparently, that is what you have to pay up for nowadays – but I am fine with that.

As interesting titbit, Panasonic is now exiting LCD panel market altogether (previously they’ve shifted exclusively to professional panels). This display panel is now out of production, I assume these “new” monitors just use existing stock.

NEC Displays have recently merged with Sharp, not certain yet what will come of it (they are somewhat in a limbo now since merger delayed due to pandemic).

So sadly, it’s kind of looks like these absolute beasts are of dying breed – and its not certain if any of adequate replacement will arrive. Probably not until (if) Innolux ramps their production back with their version of dual-layer, Megazone backlight.

 


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