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Review: 6 HD displays, from midsize to massive

By Bill O'Brien
June 12, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Evaluating LCDs

There are a lot of ways to describe the features and quality of a display, many of which may be unfamiliar. Here is a guide through the typical tech-speak that you need to know.

Contrast ratios

Four of the six monitors reviewed here -- the displays from Dell, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard and HannsG -- are advertised with both dynamic and static contrast ratios, while Lenovo and NEC have only static contrast rations. What does that mean?

The contrast ratio is simply the difference between the degrees of black and white displayed on a monitor. For example, a monitor with a 1000:1 contrast ratio can display, theoretically at least, blacks that are 1,000 times darker than whites. It's static when it doesn't change. A monitor rated with a dynamic contrast ratio has the ability to modulate the brightness and/or darkness it's displaying depending on the dark and light components of the image being shown on the screen (and, in some cases, the room lighting).

Generally speaking, higher contrast ratios are better than lower ones, but dynamic ratios are often like beauty -- their validity lies in the eye of the beholder. As was the case for several of the monitors in this feature, sitting down and taking the time to manually adjust the brightness and contrast will yield better results than simply relying on the contrast ratio (static or dynamic) out of the box.

Viewing angles

Viewing angles are expressed in terms of up/down and left/right. The numbers used to express those angles -- such as 160 degrees -- really mean 80 degrees to the right, left side, top or bottom from directly in front of the display.

Because an LCD is a flat panel, the greatest angle you can possibly view it at is 90 degrees (180 degrees in the parlance), which means you'd be looking sideways across the face of the panel. Color shift, and often loss of detail, will begin to become apparent as you approach its maximum viewing angle.

HD displays
Dell's 21.5-inch HD display is dwarfed by NEC's 46-inch giant.

Brightness

Brightness is pretty much a straightforward concept -- something is either bright (the sun), dark (a black hole), or somewhere in between (like most of life itself). Monitor makers have a couple of different ways of describing brightness, however.

Perhaps the most often-used term is candela per square meter (the good old candle power), expressed as cd/m². It is also often expressed by the term "Nits," which is short for the Latin word "nitere" meaning "to shine." One Nit equals one candela per square meter.

Higher numbers are always better because they offer you a larger range. However, that can be offset if the monitor's controls aren't able to adjust an image so it is not too washed out or is eye-searingly bright.



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