For all but the most budget conscious buyers, piecing together a home brewed rig often entails forking over a premium for certain components, depending on what you're trying to accomplish. If you're a gamer, you probably bought a high-end graphics card (or at least that's what you should have done). Do you spend more time ripping videos than fragging your friends? Then chances are you allocated a bigger percentage of your budget to your CPU than on other parts. But for professional designers, graphic gurus, and anyone else who relies on pinpoint color accuracy, it's the monitor that matters most. That sub-$200 TN panel you spotted in the clearance bin at Walmart just isn't going to have the moxie to handle color matching chores for that mission critical photo project you're working on.
This is where NEC's MultiSync PA271W LCD monitor comes into play. Armed with a 10-bit P-IPS panel, internal 14-bit programmable 3D lookup tables (LUTs), and a generous 2560x1440 pixel resolution, the PA271W is truly a professional grade tool for those instances where a typical TN panel just won't cut it. The obvious caveat when shopping a mission critical monitor is price, and the PA271W is no exception. NEC lists the MSRP at $1,400, which is actually a couple of Benjamins less than what it was first going for, but still significantly higher than what other monitors in this size range command.
To help soften the blow, NEC equipped the PA271W with features not found on your typical panel, including a few that are absent even on some professional level displays. We already mentioned the integrated 3D LUT, but it also includes extensive Picture-in-Picture and Picture-by-Picture controls, as well as what's essentially a built-in KVM switch. NEC dubs this "DisplaySync Pro" (PDF), and what it does is allow you to control two computers (PC, Mac, or both) using a single keyboard and mouse. Combined with the PIP functionality, you have a powerful tool for serious content creation tasks. Far be it for us to justify a company's pricing philosophy, but suddenly that $1,400 price tag starts to look a little more reasonable.
NEC tells us its PA271W comes color calibrated out of the box and is ready to rock from the get-go, but if you want to take matters into your hands (and spend another $300), the company also sells its SpectraView II kit with software and a color puck.
"The SpectraView II system uses a color sensor to take color measurements of the display screen during calibration. The software analyzes these measurements and sends color adjustment commands directly to the display monitor," NEC explains. "This means that color adjustments are made in the monitor rather than in the video graphics adapter, resulting in full use of the number of colors available on the graphics adapter and a much brighter image with the maximum possible color gamut. With SpectraView II, the video graphics adapter is not used at all to make any gamma or Tone Response Curve corrections to the display, so the full color resolution and fidelity of the system is maintained."
Feeling intimidated yet? We've barely scratched the surface, folks. We haven't even talked about the 97.1 percent coverage of AdobeRGB color space, AmbiBright ambient light sensor, and all the other marketing bullets, and that's just fine. We know what you're really thinking, and that's whether or not all these paper specs are worth a damn in real world applications. Let's find out, shall we?
The PA271W is the largest of NEC's new MultiSync PA Series, the successor to the MultiSync 90 lineup. For those who don't need quite as much real estate, there's also the 24-inch PA241W panel boasting a similar feature-set, albeit a lower top-end resolution (1920x1200, 16:10). When using the 10-bit DisplayPort, NEC says the PA271W can display 1.07 billion colors out of a palette of 4.3 trillion.
At 30 pounds, the PA271W is anything but light, however the stand comes well constructed and makes easy work out of adjusting the panel vertically (up to 15cm). Just slide the lock button to the left and the display slides up and down with minimal effort. There's also a handle on the top to help with transportation, or to build up some bulk if you don't own a set of weights.
You can remove the stand altogether if you prefer to mount the monitor elsewhere, such as a flexible arm. All you have to do is lay the panel flat (on a non-abrasive surface), press and hold the Quick Release Lever, and pop the stand off of the display. NEC includes four screws specifically for this purpose.
As you would expect from a professional caliber display, the PA271W rotates to support both landscape and portrait viewing. It's not an entirely smooth transition, as you need to temporarily tilt the monitor when switching to portrait mode to avoid having the corner smash into your desk. Once you have it in position, however, there's enough clearance to tilt it back at a 90 degree angle.
If this is your first rodeo with a pivoting monitor, bear in mind that most displays don't automatically adjust the on-screen picture from landscape to portrait and vice versa. You'll find these controls in your Display Settings, which you can access by right-clicking an empty space on your Desktop, selecting Properties, and navigating your way to the appropriate menu. And whether you're rocking an Nvidia or ATI video card, you'll find options to setup a hotkey combination for this process.
In addition to its ability to pivot, the PA271W also supports tilt and swivel functions. You can adjust the tilt up to 30 degrees, which is more than enough to show your boss what you've been working on as he looms over your shoulder. The monitor swivels about the same distance, though we wish it went even further than it does.
For those of you who plan to run a multi-monitor setup, the PA271W's bezel measures about 11/16th of an inch. That's slimmer than HP's ZR30w we recently reviewed, though both displays share a bulky backside. At nearly 3.5 inches at its thickest point, the PA271W's panel packs some junk in the trunk (note that we're referring to just the panel alone, which doesn't include the stand). The upshot is that NEC was able to cram a boatload of features into its panel, the KVM switch being particularly noteworthy.
The PA271W has held up well up to this point, but it's not all peaches and cream. For all that NEC includes with its flagship MultiSync PA panel, they neglected to include an HDMI port, a borderline egregious omission for a $1,400 display. What you do get is a USB hub (right side of the panel, or pictured to the left above), two USB downstream ports, two USB upstream ports, DC-out, a DisplayPort, two DVI-D ports, and of course the three-prong power cord connector. It should be noted that the two upstream USB ports can be assigned to different video inputs, including different platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux).
NEC didn't include any integrated speakers, which usually end up sounding tinny on most monitors anyway.
|Calibration & Controls|
Whereas the aforementioned HP ZR30w omits any OSD (On Screen Display) controls, NEC takes a completely different approach. Not only are there OSD controls to play with, there's more than you can shake a fist full of sticks at. We've never played with a monitor that gave us more fine grain control over the various features and overall calibration than the PA271W.
We're not a fan of touch sensitive buttons that seem to be en vogue lately, and apparently neither is NEC, at least not on its professional panels. The PA271W sports a clump of physical buttons around the bottom right corner, and we found navigating the OSD fairly intuitive, if not a bit daunting. But while there's a lot to play with, NEC did a good job making sure the end-user doesn't feel overwhelmed or lost. We also appreciate that the OSD intelligently adjusts its orientation based on whether we have the monitor in landscape or portrait mode.
On the far left is NEC's AmbiBright ambient light sensor. If enabled, this will automagically adjust the display's brightness based on your lighting conditions. That's all well and fine, but we're much more intrigued by the PA271W's "Backlight Ageing Correction" function.
"The Backlight Ageing Correction function is an additional feature to assure stable color reproduction and luminance during the warm-up phase, as well as over the lifetime of the product," NEC explains. "An internal electronic backlight compensation system assess the luminance of the backlight, corrects and stabilizes it during its warm-up phase. Additional as the backlight ages the white point temperature shifts to yellow, which can be periodically compensated through an ageing estimate to appropriately modify the RGB filter gains."
Serious content creationists will appreciate the built-in PIP functionality, and for more than one reason. With the press of a button, you can quickly view a side-by-side comparison of a photo using different color profiles. Flip the monitor to portrait mode, hook up a second computer, and it's like using two display panels in one. Even when you're not working on a project, simple things like surfing the Web take on a whole other dimension when you view a Website in portrait mode.
We're now using DisplayMate for Windows (www.displaymate.com) as part of our monitor evaluation process. DisplayMate's smorgasbord of tests allow us to root out potential problems areas, such as geometry distortion and color inaccuracies, to name just two.
In this case, DisplayMate worked in NEC's favor. Rather than root out problem areas, the test screens showcased the benefits of a calibrated 10-bit P-IPS panel. Colors were accurate, the black level was as good as we've ever seen, and we didn't notice any backlight bleeding. What's most impressive about all this is we left the default settings alone. We wanted to see if NEC's claim that the PA271W comes calibrated to near perfection straight from the factory would hold water, and it did.
Cycling through an assortment of DisplayMate's test photos (as shown above) and a collection of our own, colors popped and were vibrant, and never washed out. This is not something we can show you with a screenshot, as what you see will obviously depend on what panel you're using at home, but compared to your average TN panel, the PA271W is clearly better equipped for accurate color reproduction.
While DisplayMate lays out a monitor's performance in black and white (and blue and green and red and...), we also take into consideration a subjective analysis. After all, you're not purchasing a monitor to view test patterns for hours on end. To see how the PA271W performs in the real world, we viewed a series of high definition movies and fired up a few games. Torturous, we know, but hey, you guys are worth every minute of our entertainment.
Clash of the Titans @ 1080P
To gauge the PA271W's movie viewing moxie, we loaded up a handful of HD movies and trailers, including Transformers 2 and Clash of the Titans (as pictured above). We wanted to see how NEC's panel would handle both dark and brightly lit scenes, and as expected, the 10-bit panel flexed its muscle here. Scenes came to life on the screen and did the movie clips justice.
One of the things about IPS panels is that they traditionally have struggled with gaming chores, especially fast moving scenes where ghosting or streaking might come into play. Recent advances have addressed this issue and things are much improved today. Nevertheless, we were skeptical that the PA271W would have the chops to pull off gaming duties with little or no issue.
As it turns out, our skepticism was unfounded. While hardcore gamers with eagle eyes might be able to find a flaw or two, the PA271W did a serviceable job with fast moving games. Do note, however, that the native resolution is 2560x1440, and if you plan to play games at that res, you're going to need to a beefy videocard (or multiple GPUs). To its credit, the panel looked good while gaming at 1920x1080, which spoke to its ability to scale images outside of the confine of it's native resolution.
For the graphics professional, however, it's an entirely different story. There are other quality panels that don't cost as much, but few, if any, bring as much to the table as the PA271W does. The bottom line is the PA271W is a serious monitor loaded with useful amenities that make it easy to recommend to anyone looking for a high-end workhorse.