Speed up your workflow with a giant monitor. Find out which one to buy with our expert guide
With monitors, size really does matter. The more space you have, the less time you spend opening, closing, and moving windows and palettes around, or zooming and scrolling. A popular and relatively affordable option is to use one giant 30-inch panel for design work, and one or two much cheaper, budget sidecar monitors to hold your palettes, toolbars, settings and email.
Large monitors fall into budget, mid and high-end performance ranges. Budget monitors use a cheap technology called TN (Twisted Nematic), which suffers from a limited viewing angle, uneven brightness and poor colour control. TN is just about usable for professional design, but colours are unpredictable and uneven so it’s not an ideal choice – even if the cost is low. Examples include Iiyama’s Prolite range and some of the more affordable panels from Viewsonic, Benq and Acer.
In the mid-range are VA (Vertical Alignment) designs. These offer the user a decent balance between performance and cost. There are some imperfections in evenness and colour accuracy, but these aren’t glaring errors. Most manufacturers now use IPS (In-Plane Switching) panels. IPS gives the best results, and some examples are unexpectedly affordable – such as the Hazro HZ27WB and Dell u2711, both of which are good 27-inch panels for just under £500.
Moving upmarket, Dell’s 3008WfP and u3011 are relatively affordable 30-inch panels, priced at around £1,000 each. Performance is a notch or two down from the very best models, but still rather impressive for the size and price. At the very high end of the scale, monitors rely on improved IPS technology for saturated, predictable colour and a wide gamut (displayable range.) Look for S-IPS or H-IPS technology – both improve the performance of basic IPS and also make it more suitable for video – and improved electronics and backlighting. Bear in mind that electronics should include 10-bit (or better) colour support: although this feature supports more shades than your eyes can see, it’s essential for smooth colour output and precise colour management.
The best monitors available use programmable LeD backlights to create absolutely even output. NEC’s SpectraView reference 271W and 301 panels are very possibly the most accurate that you can buy. Colour management hardware and software are included with the monitors, as they are for competitor Eizo’s popular cG275W 27-incher. With prices between £1,500 and £2,500, these aren’t budget models – but performance is state of the art, and colour accuracy and gamut are as good as you can get.
For connectors, VGA is an antique standard still found on projectors. It’s only supported on newer Macs without an adaptor. Recent Macs use DVI, HDMI – useful for video and motion graphics – or DisplayPort. DVI is the most common and useful standard, and is supported on most monitors. But 27-inch and 30-inch panels use a special version of DVI, Dual-Link (DL), with twice the usual bandwidth from a single connector. Not all graphics cards support DL DVI, so check that yours does before you opt for a large panel.
The most recent development in the Apple world is Thunderbolt – a connection option that supports both disks and monitors. Apple’s Thunderbolt Display is currently the only available Thunderbolt monitor. Boasting a 27-inch widescreen format and a native resolution of 2560x1440, this is a very attractive IPS panel with Apple’s trademark smooth design. But, with a retail price of £830, it’s nearly twice the price of equivalent panels from other manufacturers.
The advantage of Thunderbolt is that the cables are slimmer and lighter than standard monitor leads, and it also supports daisy-chaining. You can plug two 27-inch external monitors into the latest MacBook Pro and connect them together with a pair of cables: you don’t need separate video outputs.
The downside of Thunderbolt hardware is that it’s expensive and it doesn’t improve colour accuracy. If you’re managing a tight budget, you can get similar performance elsewhere for less money. And if you have a Mac Pro – but not a MacBook Pro or an iMac – you can add extra monitor outputs by slotting in an alternative graphics card or replacing the existing one. Many of the standard cards from Nvidia and AMD will work in a Mac, and many also have dual outputs for dual monitor support. But check for compatible drivers first, and read some reviews and user comments online.
A few years ago there was pressure to increase resolutions and panel sizes. This has eased over the last few years but, at the very high end, 4K monitors are already available for film and video work. They’re not cheap and they haven’t exactly taken the market by storm, so they’re not easy to find. Eizo’s DuraVision FDH3601 is an LCD panel with a native resolution of 4096x2160. With a retail price of more than £20,000, you’ll probably have to save up for a while – if you can find someone to sell you one.
Electronics company Astro Design in Japan is trying to carve out a niche as a supplier of high-end 4K support hardware and software. Its DM-3410 is an epic 56-inch plasma panel boasting a resolution of 3840x2160. You’ll probably have to import it yourself; expect to pay around £50,000. If that seems excessive, Sharp’s EYELCD6400- 4K is a 64-inch 4K plasma bargain at around £35,000. Ironically, these giant panels mostly have 50-60Hz refresh rates, so they’re fine for motion graphics, but not so ideal for basic design in Creative Suite. And don’t expect an imminent price crash: the market for 4K is specialised, tiny and professional. It’s going to be a while before these panels make their way to the mass market.
Which large format display is right for you? We've picked out three of the best.
Best for style
Apple Thunderbolt Display
You can’t fault the stunning looks of Apple’s 27-inch panel. It will match your Apple studio and it also includes uSB, firewire, Thunderbolt and network connections – colour performance is rather impressive too.
Best for design
Dell UltraSharp U2711
This Dell hits the sweet spot between cost and performance, with an excellent colour range, acceptable video performance, good colour accuracy and a wide choice of connection options.
Best for performance
NEC SpectraView Reference 301
This is possibly the best monitor you can buy – at a price to match. Colour gamut is wider than Adobe 1998, the electronics have 14-bit colour accuracy and there’s a built in calibrator. You also get a hood.