|Introduction & Specification|
Earlier this year we stumbled upon a widely circulated You Tube video (at least in tech circles), in which a man is seen ruthlessly abusing a poor LCD monitor. The protagonist starts by letting a child draw on the screen with a black permanent marker. Taking matters into his own hands, the man proceeds to take a pen-knife to the surface of the screen, followed by multiple strikes with a hammer. Deciding that he isn't quite done, he gets out the big "guns" and holds up a crossbow. To show us he means business, he puts two test shots into a piece of wood. The metal crossbow bolts easily penetrate the surface and lodge in the wooden block with an audible thud. Finally, he turns the crossbow on the poor, defenseless monitor.
Videos of violence committed against electronics are nothing new. There are hundreds of videos on You Tube depicting the untimely demise of all manor of electronics from mp3 players to whole computer sets, printer and all. The abuse of a perfectly good LCD monitor isn't what struck us about this particular video. The unique element in this video that caught our eye and set it apart from the others is that the LCD monitor survived the episode completely unscathed. In fact, the screen was powered on through the entire ordeal and was happily displaying what appears to be an animated sales presentation.
The pen knife didn't leave a mark and the barrage of hammer blows failed to make any progress. The little girl and her deadly permanent marker? Wiped right off. Perhaps it was actually a dry-erase marker. Surely the crossbow was able to make some progress? Both of the deadly metal bolts, fired from within ten feet, bounced off harmlessly leaving the tip of each bolt bent into a hook but the monitor remained unscathed. Color us impressed.
As technology pundits, we couldn't simply sit back and enjoy this peculiar Russian-language video set to a catchy neo-classical tune. Not when there were burning questions to be answered. Questions like who makes it? What are the specs? How much does it cost? Where is it sold? Is crossbow proofing a legitimate feature? Does it have A/V inputs for hooking up a Wii?
The answer to the first question was obvious from the video. The monitor is an ASUS product. With this first clue in hand, we set off to find the answer to the rest of these questions and what better way to do that than through a full review? Let's meet the ASUS LS201.
The ASUS LS201 is a 20" monitor, but it isn't widescreen. The LS201 uses a standard 4:3 aspect ratio and sports a resolution of 1400x1050. This is a bit unique for a modern 20" LCD screen. The majority of LCD monitors released in the last couple years have been a widescreen models.
While most people are pretty happy with a widescreen LCD, there are some people who hold the opinion that a standard aspect ratio is more fitting for a computer monitor. One disadvantage of widescreen monitors that the latter camp likes to point out is that widescreen monitors often sport less pixels vertically than a standard aspect ratio monitor of similar size. We'd like to point out that the LS201 has the same number of pixels, vertically, as most widescreen 20" and 22" monitors, which generally have resolutions of 1680x1050. So the LS201 should have the same amount of vertical desktop real estate as a larger 22" screen.
The rest of the LS201's technical specifications appear to be fairly typical for a LCD monitor built on a TN panel. Of course, the truly unique feature of the LS201, which was so graphically demonstrated in the video, has nothing to do with the panel technology it uses.
|Design, Build Quality & Connectivity|
For the most part, the ASUS LS201 appears to be a fairly standard, if not good looking, modern LCD monitor. The LS201 has a simple, sleek design with rounded corners and beveled edges. Except for a thin, silver accent strip that runs the width of the monitor, the front of the LS201 is entirely covered by a sheet of glass. Since the entire surface of the screen is flat, there are no lines or indents to distinguish the panel from its bezel. This gives the LS201 a rather unique appearance when turned off or while in standby mode.
The LS201's sleek design continues on the back of the unit. The left and right edge of the LS201 are rounded on the back and the center is dominated by a large, raised circle with an ASUS logo in the center. The back of the unit is made from glossy, black plastic that is relatively fingerprint resistant and the circular ASUS symbol consists of an inset metal foil covered by a permanent protective coating.
The screen sits on a good looking circular stand with a brushed-metal finish. The LS201's stand is attached by a hinge joint at the bottom of the unit. The stand only offers tilt adjustment and cannot turn or pivot. The screen can be tilted 20 degrees back or 5 degrees forward, from vertical. On each end of the hinge is a silver circular decoration. However, the one on the left side (when viewed from the rear) of the unit is actually a button. Pressing the button allows the stand to be tilted parallel with the screen, for wall mounting. Unfortunately the stand is not removable, but ASUS has provided VESA compatible mounts at the bottom of the stand, allowing the whole unit to be mounted into any VESA compatible mounting apparatus.
Though highly unusual, we liked the design of the stand. It means the LS201 comes with a good looking stand that can transform into an nice wall mount. The included VESA mounts also means the LS201 doesn't lose any mounting versatility and will easily fit on your VESA compatible monitor arm, although the stand may look a bit out of place in that scenario.
The LS201 has a special feature ASUS calls 'Light-in-Motion". The idea of Light-in-Motion is to use multi-colored LED's to create ambiance and also visually notify the user of the status of the monitor. The LEDs on the LS201 are located in the base of the circular stand. Around the entire circumference of the stand's circular base is a clear plastic insert. A group of LEDs are located within the insert, on the rear of the stand (near the ports). The light from these LEDs are transmitted by the clear plastic insert around the whole base, to create a gentle gradient of light. The lights are blue when the screen is turned on and actively receiving a signal, and orange when the unit is in standby mode.
The LS201 is a fairly heavy monitor, especially for its size. This is probably due to the thick protective glass that is generously lavished on the front of the unit. The weight of the screen makes the whole unit top-heavy and a bit tipsy. The stand seems to be well constructed and it does a fine job of supporting the weight of the extra heavy screen. However, there is significant flex in the base of the stand.
Accidentally bumping the screen will send the LS201 wobbling back and forth, causing the circular base of the stand to bend slightly, although not in an alarming way. This happens while the screen is on a desk or mounted on a wall. After some experimentation, we think the LS201's stand should be perfectly adequate for most usage scenarios but you might run into problems if you find yourself frequently bumping into your monitor.
Thanks to the non-removable design of the stand, ASUS was able to locate all of the monitor's connectors on the bottom of the stand. This is a superior location for the connections, compared to the back of the screen, when the monitor is placed on a desk. Since the cables will be at desk-level, there is no question about how the cables will be routed to the ports, making cable management on the back of the monitor a non-issue. This placement also makes the ports easy to see and connect cables to, compared to designs where the ports are mounted vertically within the monitor unit.
However, cable management becomes a big issue when trying to mount the LS201 on a wall. With the stand locked in its wall-mount position, the ports face upward. This makes for an awkward and potentially unsightly cable installation. Luckily, the screen itself should hide much of the mess of cables protruding from (what would be) the top of the stand.
|A Closer Look At The LS201's Screen|
The glass covering the front surface of the LS201 isn't actually glass at all, or at least not in the standard sense. According to ASUS, the LS201 is covered by a sheet of crystal-sapphire with diamond-cut, beveled edges. The crystal-sapphire 'glass' used by the LS201 is rated for significantly higher 'hardness' then the silica-derived glass you would find normally on a window. This is worth further explanation, since it is the central unique feature of the LS201 and the source of much of the LS201's unusual toughness.
In mineralogy, hardness is the characteristic of a solid material that relates to its ability to scratch softer materials. A mineral can only be scratched by a harder substance. A soft material can never scratch a hard material. This is actually only one of several definitions for hardness in the broader science of Materials Science and it is sometimes specifically referred to as 'scratch hardness'. There are also numerous scales used to measure hardness, but the one most commonly associated with scratch hardness, and the one seemingly used by ASUS, is Moh's scale of mineral hardness.
Moh's Scale of Mineral Hardness (extended with additional materials)
Moh's scale of mineral hardness is a purely ordinal scale that measures the scratch resistance of various minerals and classifies the hardness of materials based on their relative hardness. ASUS claims the crystal-sapphire 'glass' used on the LS201 is rated a 9 for hardness. Refering to our handy HotHardware Moh's Mineral Hardness Table we can see that this means only a few substances, namely diamond, are hard enough to scratch the surface of the LS201. For reference, oridinary silica-based glass is usually around 6.5 on Moh's scale which means it can be scratched by hardened steel, among other things.
Looking at Moh's hardness scale, we can see that Sapphire is a 9 on the scale, which corroborates ASUS' claims of the LS201's screen's hardness. A closer examination of the fine print in the marketing materials also reveals that the LS201 has been tested with the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) D3363-92a pencil hardness test. The D3363-92a is a fairly standard test of material hardness and it is proof enough to us that ASUS' claims probably have some substance. In any case, you can definitely bet the LS201 is more resistant to scratches than your standard LCD screen made of soft plastics.
We felt the You Tube video that attracted us to the LS201 in the first place was proof enough of its durability so we did not go out of our way to test its mettle. However, we did give it a couple solid blows from an old keyboard we had laying around for good measure and it withstood the punishment without even blinking, literally. The screen was displaying the desktop at the time and the blow didn't cause it to distort, blink or change in any way, nor did it leave any lasting scratches or marks.
We think that this is a sufficient test of the LS201's durability and we felt no need to fire crossbow bolts at our review sample. Especially since ASUS doesn't make any specific claims about the LS201's crossbow bolt deflection ability. In all likeliness, the worst an LS201 will experience at the hands of its user is some undue venting of frustration, most likely with office supplies or a keyboard as in our "test", and not medieval weaponry.
|Controls & OSD Options|
ASUS has hidden five buttons in plain sight, along the LS201's silver accent which runs the width of the screen. These buttons are the LS201's only controls. Under each button is an LED which illuminates a symbol or word that represents the corresponding button's function. When the monitor is powered on and operating normally, the buttons are all illuminated an orange color, except for the power button which is blue. When the monitor is in standby mode, all of the LEDs are off except the power button, which becomes illuminated with an orange color.
Overall, the buttons are well positioned and easy to use. They give good tactile and audible feedback when pressed so you know when you've activated one. Unfortunately the buttons have a bit of a "squishy" feel to them but this shouldn't be an issue since most people probably won't be playing with them very much. It is also worth mentioning that the LEDs which illuminate the buttons are not particularly bright, but are easy enough to see in a well lit room. This is good since an awful lot of manufacturers make the mistake of using ultra-bright LEDs in the front bezels of their gadgets, which ultimately end up being distracting and annoying.
A sampling of ASUS LS201 OSD menus
The LS201's OSD is very similar to the one used by other ASUS monitors that we've reviewed in the past. It features a fairly simple tabbed layout. The OSD is activated by the "Menu" button. Navigation is performed by the "+" and "-" buttons located on either side of the Menu button. The Menu button also acts as the selection button, and the "S" button unselects (ie. a 'back' button).
Overall, the OSD is well laid out and easy enough to navigate. Options are sufficiently labeled and there isn't any need to refer to the manual for guidance. The options available through the OSD differ depending on the input being used. All options are available when a VGA input is used, but the Sharpness, Saturation, Skin Tone and ASCR (dynamic contrast) adjustments are unavailable when a DVI input is used. Brightness, contrast and color temperature adjustments are always available.
Of specific interest is the "Splendid" menu, which is located at the first tab in the OSD. This menu controls the ASUS Splendid Video preset currently in use. There are five presets in total, each with a different theme. Each of the presets has its own set of brightness, contrast and color temperature settings. The values for each preset are set at the factory but can be customized by the user. The primary purpose of the Splendid menu in the OSD is to select the preset currently in use, as well as reset the values of each preset to their factory defaults.
There is also a shortcut for switching between Splendid Video presets. When the OSD is not active, pressing the "S" button, the furthest one to the left, will display the preset which is currently active in the top-left corner of the screen. Pressing the "S" button while the current preset is still being displayed will toggle between presets. This shortcut allows for relatively quick switching between presets.
|Image Quality Testing|
We put the ASUS LS201 through some color and text reading diagnostics using Everest Ultimate Edition from Lavalys. Everest's Monitor Diagnostics provide a few key test patterns that allow us to evaluate various aspects, such as color accuracy, and uniformity. We ran through all of the screens, and captured a few that had points of interest.
A sample of the screen diagnostics available with Lavalys' Everest Ultimate Edition
We ran the Everest monitor diagnostics test with the ASUS LS201 set to the factory defaults using the "Standard" Splendid Video mode. The LS201 performed well on all of the tests. It did a good job on all of the grid and text reproduction tests, producing clear, sharp text regardless of the color combinations used. Like all LCDs should, the LS201 passed the grid and pattern tests with aplomb.
The LS201 also did a good job on the color and gradient tests. In each of the solid-fill tests, the screen is supposed to display a single uniform color. In all of these tests, we noticed that the top of the screen is slightly darker than the bottom. This is especially noticeable on the orange solid-fill test. This can also be observed in the red, green and blue solid-fill tests, but it is significantly less apparent. This issue is a limitation of LCDs based on the TN panel technology, like the LS201. It is one of many reasons that make the TN panel technology the least desirable for any application where color accuracy is critical, and the LS201 is no exception.
The LS201 didn't have any trouble with the grey and white solid-fill tests, but the black solid-fill test revealed slight backlight bleed along the bottom of the screen. The backlight bleed isn't bad and not too noticeable. The color pallatte tests weren't a problem for the LS201 and it performed well considering the panel technology in use. As with nearly all LCDs based on TN panel technology, the LS201 suffers from a relatively low color gamut and doesn't offer full 8-bit color processing. This shouldn't be a problem for gaming, multimedia or everyday office use, but it could be a problem for professional graphics work, where color accuracy is important.
Test patterns like those offered by Everest can be extremely useful for gauging a monitor's ability and also for calibration purposes. This is especially useful to people who need their monitor to be perfectly calibrated for work with publishing and photography. However, most people don't purchase a monitor exclusively for "work" so we'll look at some real-world tests with high definition video content next, to give you and idea of how well the monitor stands up to "play".
HD Movie Playback: We watched a number of DVDs and HD video clips to see how the monitor would handle video playback. The ASUS LS201 performed quite well and movie playback was enjoyable. Since the LS201 has a standard aspect ratio, there is a very pronounced letter-box effect with widescreen media. There were large black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. For some people, this could be distracting. It also gives the illusion that the screen is smaller.
Other than the effects of the LS201's aspect ratio, video playback was quite enjoyable. The ASUS Splendid Video presets came in handy and we found the "theater mode" to be well-named. It seemed to boost the color depth and slightly lower the brightness, which we found pleasant for most movies. The "scenery mode" was also quite good looking for certain videos and it seemed to really bring out the earthy colors.
Overall, viewing videos on the ASUS LS201 was pleasant. However, the standard aspect ratio of of the LS201 was annoying at times. While you can certainly watch and enjoy videos on the LS201, if viewing movies is especially important for you, then you may want to consider a widescreen model instead.
Gaming Test: To see how the ASUS LS201 handled some fast-paced gaming, we played a few rounds of Call of Duty 4. This game is especially taxing on monitors for three reasons. First, the game involves fast-paced action that often has objects moving very quickly across the screen which tests the monitor's response time. Second, the game has many dark maps where details can easily be lost among the shadows, which could easily cost you your virtual life. Lastly, the dark environments are broken up by bright flashes of gunfire and explosions, which cause high-contrast situations that easily reveal ghosting and blurring.
The ASUS LS201 isn't billed as a gaming monitor but it sports a 5ms response time so we expected it to perform well with games. The LS201 didn't let us down and handled the action of Call of Duty 4 without issue. Response was good and we didn't notice any ghosting, blurring or other visual oddities caused by a slow monitor.
There is a "gaming mode" Spendid video preset that increases brightness and contrast for a more vivid picture. We found this setting to be useful but not necessary. On some levels, the preset worked like a charm and really helped the image quality. On other levels, we found the preset overdid it a little and brought out the colors a bit too much. You will probably want to adjust the settings of the gaming preset yourself to best suit the games you play, or go without it altogether.
General Usage: We used the ASUS LS201 extensively for several weeks. During this time, we performed a wide variety of tasks with it, from browsing the web and spreadsheeting to image manipulation and writing this article. The LS201 handled all of these tasks perfectly. While the LS201 has presets for movies and gaming, there was no "office" or "web" preset. We found this a little odd since that is often the most useful preset of all, since staring at high-contrast spreadsheets and web pages can quickly lead to eye fatigue. Dialing down the contrast and brightness a bit made the LS201 quite serviceable for office use. There is also nothing stopping you from using any one of the presets as your office preset, although you won't be able to rename them.
Overall, the LS201 performed well in our subjective tests but we would like to point out one flaw that appears throughout all testing. Since the LS201's screen is covered by a large sheet of smooth glass-like material, you may expect it to run into glare issues and you would be right. The LS201's screen has undergone some anti-glare treatment and ASUS claims that there is less glare than a standard LCD, but we beg to differ. We found throughout testing that the LS201 was more reflective than any other monitor we had used in recent memory. The amount of glare present on the LS201 reminded us of a CRT. Depending on the position of the monitor, this could become a large problem and a deal-breaker for some people.
|Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Throughout our testing we found the ASUS LS201 to be a solid display. It is aptly capable of displaying multimedia, games and handling standard office tasks. The monitor's Splendid Video presets may also come in handy and will allow you to quickly toggle between five different contrast, brightness and color temperature settings on the fly. Unfortunately, the LS201 suffers from the same color accuracy and viewing angle issues as other TN panel technology based LCDs. The LS201 also exhibited a large amount of glare which could lead to annoying reflections appearing on screen, depending on the LS201's positioning.
The ASUS LS201 is certainly a peculiar product. It uses a standard aspect ratio, which is a rarity these days. It features a neat, if not odd, non-detachable stand with built-in LED ambient lighting that can be wall and VESA mounted. The screen is built like a tank and the LS201 is at least two times heavier than a 20" monitor has any right to be. Lastly, the LS201 is fronted by a large, thick sheet of crystal-sapphire which gives it its slick appearance and protects the screen from scratches and damage. All of these features are quite unique and any one of them would set the LS201 apart from the rest of the mob of 20" monitors currently available. Do all of these funky features come together to make an interesting and unique product? We think so.
But make no mistake, the ASUS LS201 isn't a fantastic monitor. The standard aspect ratio is poorly suited for widescreen content, it uses mediocre TN panel technology, it's top heavy and wobbly on its stand and suffers from reflection problems. However, these issues don't make the LS201 an especially poor monitor either. Overall, we think the image quality of the LS201 is merely average and nothing to write home about. Unless you are attracted by the other features of the LS201, image quality alone isn't enough to justify the $300 price tag.
If you just want a simple monitor for watching movies, playing games and office work, the LS201 probably isn't for you. The run-of-the-mill image quality coupled with the high price tag make the it less than appealing to most consumers. But if you like the unique and somewhat extravagant features the LS201 has to offer, there is only one choice. If you need an LCD for use in an industrial environment where a standard screen could easily be damaged, the LS201 should work out nicely. And lets not forget those marauding LCD destroyers known as kids and pets. If you've ever lost an LCD to an overly rambunctious child or sharp-clawed kitty, the LS201's protective glass will probably pay for itself at some point.