|Introduction and Specifications|
LCD monitors were supposed to free up our precious desk real estate as they relegated bulky CRTs to the local landfill. But with the quantity and quality of high-definition content increasing and LCD prices continuing to drop, widescreen LCDs are becoming increasingly prevalent. Now our desks are filling up again--only this time in width, instead of depth. Still, for many, this is a small price to pay for the relatively large screen area and wide aspect ratio that these widescreen monitors offer.
One such widescreen LCD monitor is Asus's MK241H 24-inch display, which sells for a manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) of $499. It measures just under 22-inches wide, which is a typical width for a 24-inch (diagonal) display. Enthusiasts should be very familiar with the Asus brand: Asus manufacturers components popular with system builders, such as motherboards and graphics cards. Asus also makes complete systems, such as laptops, desktops, and even the buzz-worthy Eee PC Ultra Mobile PC.
Asus has manufactured LCD monitors for a while, and the new 24-inch, TFT-TN MK241H now takes the spot as Asus's flagship display. In fact, an Asus spokesperson told us that Asus doesn't just make the monitors, but that Asus also usually makes its own LCD panels for the displays, and that Asus rarely has other companies manufacture panels for them.
The monitor includes built-in stereo speakers and an integrated 1.3-megapixel webcam with a microphone array. It lacks a USB hub, which many other LCDs include--the single USB port on the MK241H connects the display's webcam and microphone array back to the computer. The MK241H features an HDMI 1.1 input that is HDCP compliant. The monitor also includes DVI-D and VGA (D-SUB) video connectors.
The MK241H has respectable specs with its 1920x1200 native resolution, 2ms (gray-to-gray) response time, and its 3000:1 (dynamic) contrast ratio. The MK241H also includes a healthy selection of image-quality adjustment controls that should likely cover most content-viewing scenarios. DVI and VGA cables are included, but an HDMI cable does not come with the display.
|Design, Build Quality, & Connectivity|
As with most LCD monitors these days, the Asus MK241H's bezel is a simple, flat black color. The bezel measures about 1-inch on the two sides and on the top. The bottom bezel is almost another inch longer, as it houses the monitor's controls and its stereo speakers; the portion of the bezel that touches the screen is black, while the section below is silver. The display comes with a colorful marketing sticker on the top right corner of the bezel that sings the praises of many of the display's feature set. This might be an inducement to potential customers perusing monitors on display at Best Buy, but it serves as an annoying distraction when the monitor is in actual use. Removing the sticker requires finesse and patience--and quite possibly a razor blade.
A single LED in the lower-right-hand corner glows blue when the monitor is powered on and receiving a signal; it glows orange when the display is in standby mode. The top of the bezel houses the webcam and microphone array; the webcam can pivot up and down about 30 degrees in each direction, but it can't rotate side-to-side. When the webcam is on, a small LED to the left of the webcam's lens glows blue.
The sides and top of the monitor don't house any ports or controls. Unlike the front of the bezel, the top and sides of the display have a black, glossy finish. The entire top-back-portion of the monitor houses a large vent. As we moved the display around, we noticed that the top portion of the monitor sometimes got very hot. There are also smaller vents located on the two bottom corners of the backside of the monitor. These smaller vent areas did not get as hot as the top vent. A round plastic plate on the back of the display easily pops out to reveal a 100x100mm VESA mounting surface.
The base of the stand is round and measures 9-inches across. The stand is sturdy, but it lacks height adjustments and does not pivot left or right. The stand barely pivots down (about only 5 degrees), and pivots up about 20 degrees. There aren't any cable-management features built into the monitor or the stand.
The MK241H has three different video inputs: DVI-D, VGA, and HDMI 1.1. During our testing we attached a laptop to the display via the HDMI connection. When the laptop went into sleep or hibernate mode, the MK241H still stayed active--showing a blue screen and occasionally popping up an "HDMI No Signal" message--instead of going into sleep mode as we would have expected the display to.
A set of stereo speakers are housed on the bottom of the display. As such, the monitor includes audio-in and audio-out jacks. As mentioned earlier, the single USB port is for connecting the built-in webcam to a computer. A separate headphone jack is also located on the bottom of the display, designed to be access from the monitor's front side.
|Controls and OSD Usage|
The Asus MK241H is controlled by six buttons, which are laid-out alongside the bottom-right edge of the front bezel. These are physical buttons (as opposed to touch-sensitive buttons) that emit a noticeable click with each press. The button labels are a faint white color, printed on a silver background. Needless to say, the labels are difficult to read. While most of the buttons perform multiple functions depending on which particular menu is being accessed, the primary functions of the six buttons, from left to right, are:
As with many monitor designs, navigating the on-screen menu system took some getting used to, and we did not find the interface intuitive at all.
Different types of content can sometimes require different display settings. The MK241H attempts to address many of these content-viewing scenarios with its five "Splendid" preset viewing modes, each optimized for the different scenarios. The "Splendid" modes can be accessed by cycling through them via the "Splendid" mode button on the front bezel or through the OSD menu. Curiously, the included manual does not give an explanation of what each mode does. In addition to the "Standard" mode, the other four modes are:
We found that all of the modes worked well when displaying images that fit with their respective scenarios. We were especially impressed with how the Night View Mode was able to bring out hidden details from dark images. It is important to note, however, that when viewing images that don't match the selected mode, the images can look worse--for instance, images that are not dark, appear washed out when viewed in Night View Mode. Also, we found the image quality of Theater Mode and Game Mode to be very similar. Text appeared somewhat blurry in all modes, except for Standard Mode. Also note that the Sharpness and Saturation menu options are not user-selectable when the monitor is in Standard Mode.
In addition to the Splendid Modes, the display also includes three presets for adjusting how the monitor displays Skin Tone. The Skin Tone options are available in all modes expect for Standard Mode:
The presets worked as advertised, but we're suspect as to how useful they really are. A user who requires this level of color correction is likely to use a higher-end or professional-grade display that has more granular control over the various color and image settings. We suspect that most users will likely either ignore the Skin Tone settings entirely or play with them for a while and then wind up leaving it set to Natural. The Splendid Modes are moderately more useful, but the need to manually switch modes every time the content type changes, might be more work than most users will want to deal with. We found that leaving the display in Standard Mode was good enough most of the time--the only modes we found ourselves using was the Night View Mode to bring out faint details in dark scenes in movies and games, and Theater Mode when watching movies in a dark room.
|Everest - Image Quality Testing|
EVEREST Ultimate Edition is a popular system diagnostics and benchmarking solution for enthusiasts PC users, based on the award-winning EVEREST Technology. During system optimizations and tweaking it provides essential system and overclock information, advanced hardware monitoring and diagnostics capabilities to check the effects of the applied settings. Complete software, operating system and security information makes EVEREST Ultimate Edition a comprehensive system diagnostics tool that offers a total of 100 pages of information about your PC.
We put the Asus MK241H 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's monitor diagnostics test with the MK241H set to its factory defaults as well as with a few tweaked settings to optimize the display. The 2243BW performed well on nearly all of the tests. It did a great job on the grid and text reproduction tests, producing clear and sharp patterns and text. The MK241H also did well on nearly all of the solid color, color gradient, and color palette tests. It also performed well on the white, gray, and black fill tests. We were especially impressed with how well the monitor was able to display dark blacks without any significant light spillover from the backlight.
The monitor was not perfect, however. A slight moiré pattern was noticeable on the dots test, and the moiré pattern got even worse on the vertical and horizontal lines tests. Additionally, the MK241H didn’t make it out of all of the solid color tests screens completely unscathed. Both the orange and gray solid fill screens suffered from an uneven hue across the screen. Viewing angle and viewing distance did impact where the unevenness occurred, but no matter where we viewed the display from, we were unable to see a complete, even hue with either test screen across the display.
During testing, we also noticed a total of four dead subpixels on our unit. Three were in the lower-right corner and one was in the lower-left corner. The MK241H's warranty allows you to exchange the monitor if it suffers from even just one bright pixel within the first year of ownership--what Asus refers to as its Zero Bright Pixel Defect (ZBD) policy. Our unit, however, had three dark subpixels, which wasn't applicable in this case. Asus's warranty page on its Web site reads as follows:
"By ISO 13406-2 standards, ASUS conforms to the acceptance spot level which lie between 3 to 5 defective bright/dark pixels. In order to deliver ultimate vision experience to ASUS customer, if your panel is less than or equal to the above number of spots, then, it is considered as an acceptable LCD monitor."
Going by this, since we had four dark subpixels, it was not clear if our unit would be eligible for replacement under the warranty or not. However, a chart on Asus's site further clarified the details, informing us that our unit was one bad pixel shy of being eligible for an exchange:
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 and high-resolution games 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 Asus MK241H would handle video playback. Even at the factory defaults in Standard Mode, the display did a great job at movie playback. Colors were rich, motion was smooth, and the blacks were dark as they should be. Switching over to Theater Mode saturated the colors a bit more and slightly darkened the scene--a handy setting to have when viewing movies in a dark room. We saw little difference with how movie playback looked between Theater Mode and Game Mode. Unless a scene was particularly dark, all the Night View Mode did was reduce the contrast and wash the image out. On the other hand, we felt that Scenery Mode oversaturated the colors too much.
Gaming Test: To see how the MK241H 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 MK241H lived up the expectations of is 2ms response time: it more than kept up with everything the FPS could throw at it. At no point did we witness any ghosting or blurring. We had the same results with the different "Splendid" modes that we saw with HD movie playback: Standard Mode was up to the challenge, Game Mode and Theater Mode added more color saturation, Night View Mode was a great help with dark scenes, and Scenery Mode oversaturated the colors too much.
General Usage: We used the MK241H for a number of weeks as a stand-alone monitor, a second display for a laptop, and even as an additional display for an iMac. We did everything from the above mentioned-game playing and movie watching to surfing the Web, writing e-mails, and image editing in Photoshop. The display more than met the needs of these tasks, and once again we felt that the default settings were good enough for most of needs. Once we were in Photoshop, however, we did wind up tweaking the color temperature settings a bit. Also, when we used the MK241H as a secondary display we also needed to tweak the color settings in order to get the colors of the two displays to match as close as possible.
Webcam Quality: We were pleasantly surprised by the still image-quality generated by the 1.3-megapixel camera. It doesn’t rival what you would get with a digital camera, but it does a good job of capturing reasonably accurate color and detail. The video capture, however, left much to be desired: The frame rates were low, audio was often out of sync with the video, and the video suffered from a lot of noise. We found the audio-quality captured by the microphone to be acceptable, but you have to be very close it to for it to pick up your voice well. It felt a little uncomfortable being that close to the screen of a 24-inch display just to ensure that our voices were being properly recorded.
We did have a lot of fun with the bundled Asus LifeFrame software, however. The software allows you to capture video, still pictures, and audio from the webcam. The software gives you a lot of control over how the images and video are captured, including file format, resolution, image quality, shooting modes, self timers, continuous shots (still image only), brightness, and contrast. Similar to Photo Booth on the Mac, LifeFrame includes image filters (such as Sepia and Kaleidoscope) and cute graphic frames (such as framing your face on a stamp or giving you a Santa Beard) that are available for both still images and video.
Speaker Quality: We were able to get the speakers cranking at surprisingly high volume. But, the audio-quality was a bit tinny and it started to clip once the volume got too high. We wouldn't count on these speakers as our primary source for listening to music or for gaming, but they do just fine for casual use, such as for watching YouTube videos.
|Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Even though the Asus MK241H includes a number of different image-quality presets for various content-type viewing scenarios, we found that most of the time the monitor's default settings were sufficient. That's not to say that tweaking the settings didn’t moderately improve the image quality under some circumstances, but that is typically true for most monitors. In our opinion, most of the "Splendid" presets add little value, and the user looking to make appropriate tweaks is better off using the more advanced color temperature, sharpness, and saturation settings. Unfortunately, the sharpness and saturation settings are not user accessible when the display is in Standard Mode--the mode we preferred to use the majority of the time.
The average cost for 24-inchs display is between about $325 and $400. With an MSRP of $499, the MK241H is pricier than most 24 inchers. Of course, the MK241H offers a number of bells and whistles that many other displays don't include, such as an HDCP-compliant HDMI connection, built-in speakers, and an integrated webcam and microphone. As to whether the MK241H is worth the extra money, depends on whether you'll see any direct benefit from these additional features. While we're unlikely to use the MK241H's speakers or webcam / microphone for our use, we have already taken advantage of the HDMI connection with an HDMI-capable laptop...Plus it's nice to know that we could hook up a Blu-ray player, DVR, or PS3 to it via HDMI if we wanted to.
Overall, the MK241H is a good monitor that displays great-looking images. It includes a number of features that we could do without, but often such features are personal preference--one person's annoyance is another's benefit. The price is a bit steep, however, for a 24-inch display--and it makes us wonder how much more affordable it could be if it didn't come with the speakers and webcam/microphone.