|Introduction and Specifications|
|While you were busy blinking, a new development was fast tracking its way onto the monitor scene. We're talking about the transition to 4K, otherwise known as Ultra High Definition (UHD). No matter what you want to call it, the technology shift treats your eyeballs to four times as many pixels as the current standard, which is Full HD 1080p. That's a huge increase, not just in the number of pixels, but in the resulting picture quality that comes from having so many more dots crammed into the same space.
Usually when there's a major shift in technology, it comes with a standoff between hardware makers and content creators, each of which is waiting on the other to create a category big enough to leap into. That hasn't been an issue this time around -- display makers put their collective heads down and charged forward like LeBron James driving the lane en route to a slam dunk, only their early efforts haven't been as graceful. Due to a number of different issues -- both on the hardware and software driver sides -- we've experienced numerous hand-banging issues with 4K monitors. Though it's been frustrating, we're starting to see the light at the end of tunnel as the technology and drivers mature.
The star of the show, of course, is the 10-bit panel. It boasts 99.3 percent coverage of AdobeRGB and 1.07 billion displayable colors, along with wide viewing angles (178 degrees horizontal / 178 degrees vertical). NEC seems equally proud of the panel's power saving features, such as its Eco Mode that reduces power consumption up to 56 percent, auto-brightness controls, and human sensor that detects when you've gotten off your rump for a coffee break. It all adds up to a promising display for high-end users, but does it deliver?
NEC opted for an AH-IPS TFT panel rather than an IGZO (Indium gallium zinc oxide) screen like we've seen on some larger 4K displays. AH-IPS, or Advanced High Performance In-Plane Switching, is one of LG's newer panel technologies that brings improved color accuracy and greater light transmission, which in turn means lower power consumption compared to previous versions.
The specs won't knock your socks off, though we've learned not to put a ton of stock into these non-regulated values. Instead, it's the little things that get our attention in the bullet points, like the backlight warranty, SuperSpeed USB 3.0 hub, and ergonomically friendly stand which supports both landscape and portrait viewing modes, without having to disassemble and re-assemble the display.
The EA244UHD is one of 11 monitors in NEC's MultiSync EA Series, though it's also one of the newest and the only one to sport a 4K resolution (3840x2160). At $1,349 MSRP, it's also the one of the most expensive -- the only MultiSync EA Series monitor that costs more is the 30-inch EA304WMI, which features a WQXGA (2560x1600) resolution.
One of the advantages of owning a smaller size monitor with a higher resolution like the EA244UHD is the amount of screen real estate you get without taking up a ton of physical desk space. The EA244UHD's footprint is far more manageable than trying to make room for a 30-inch monitor. The entire unit measures a comfortable 21.9 inches (W) by 15.2 inches (H) by 8.5 inches (D) and weighs 15.43 pounds.
Big things come in this relatively small package though, namely the 10-bit panel with a 4K resolution. It has a rated 350 cd/m2 brightness, 15,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, and 6ms response time. And as we touched on earlier, the panel offers 99.3 percent coverage of the AdobeRGB color space with 1.07 billion displayable colors. NEC also rates it for 94.8 percent coverage of the NTSC and 146.4 percent coverage of the sRGB color spaces, if you prefer to use either one for reference.
The physical bezel on the front of the panel is smaller than most -- it measures just half an inch thick. Touch sensitive controls adorn the bottom-right corner and are also located on the front with what appear to be laser-etched labels.
You'll also notice a couple of dots in the center of the bottom bezel. One is the Ambribright Sensor that detects the level of ambient lighting, and the other is the Human Sensor, which detects the presence of a user. Both of these are components of NEC's power saving features, and while they're not likely to add up to big savings for individual users, it's a different story for businesses that are thinking about deploying this monitor across an entire department.
There's a sizable hump on the EA244UHD's backside that makes it noticeably thicker than a cheap LED monitor. Part of the reason for that is because NEC equipped the panel with half a dozen display inputs (we'll go over those in a moment), along with various other inputs and features such as Picture-By-Picture (PBP), a built-in USB 3.0 hub, eco friendly sensors, and the list goes on. It also provides plenty of ventilation to keep the interior cool.
For the asking price, we're surprised NEC went with all-plastic construction versus metal/aluminum for the circular base and stand. In practical use, however, the stand is both sturdy and stable -- it would take quite a bit of force to knock the monitor over. It also features some cable management capabilities -- just route the cables down through its spine to keep them from tangling.
What we're more impressed with are all the ergonomic and productivity options the flexible base affords. You name it, the EA244UHD can do it -- height adjustment up to 130mm, tilt support from -5 degrees to +30 degrees, swivel from -170 degrees to +170 degrees, and rotate from 0 degrees to 90 degrees (landscape to portrait mode). Few monitors offer this much customization, and that's true even in the professional category where the ability to rotate is often left out.
Here we see the wide array of input options. Other than plumbing for the kitchen sink, the EA244UHD isn't missing many ports -- from left to right you'll find the USB upstream port, USB3.0 downstream ports, two DVI-D ports (DVI-D2 and DVI-D1), two HDMI ports (HDMI2 and HDMI1/MHL), two full-size DisplayPorts (DisplayPort2 and DisplayPort1), ControlSync In/Out, Audio input, and the power cord connector. Over on the right side of the panel you'll find the other USB 3.0 downstream port and a headphone jack.
If you notice that audio coming from a plugged in external device sounds a bit muted or dull, check the cable. In the documentation, NEC notes that you should only use an audio cable without a built-in resistor -- using an audio cable with a built-in resistor turns down the sound.
|Calibration and Controls|
Like most monitors, NEC provides a set of pre-configured modes for different viewing scenarios. They include Standard, Text (makes letters and lines crisp), Movie (boosts dark tones), Gaming (boosts whole tones), Photo (optimizes contrast), and Dynamic (adjusts the brightness by detecting the screens black areas and optimizes it).
NEC opted for touch sensitive controls. We typically prefer physical buttons, which are usually more responsive and easier to find in the dark, though as implemented here, the touch sensitive controls worked fine during our time with the monitor. We didn't experience any extended lag or find ourselves having to repeatedly tap the bezel because it didn't register the first time, so kudos to NEC there.
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.
It didn't take long for DisplayMate to expose some flaws with the EA244UHD's out-of-box performance, such as black level performance. Stock blacks trended towards being a tad bright, though the good news here is that it's an easy fix -- there's a black level option in the monitor's OSD controls. Reducing it a few notches made a world of difference and looked darn near perfect to our eyes. It's always refreshing when a visual quality weakness ends up being a setting issue rather than a shortcoming of the actual panel.
We noticed the same need for tweaking to optimize gray level performance, which is a matter of adjusting the contrast. Out of the box, the EA244UHD let brightness and whites dominate the more subtle gray level tones, but once again, a quick adjustment in the OSD controls transformed the output from good to excellent.
As would be expected, fine print is a bit tough on the eyes, though only because it appears so small on a 4K panel. Otherwise, the EA244UHD began to show off about midway through our DisplayMate run. One of the harder tests to ace is the video bandwidth index, and while scores of 100 are supposed to be extremely hard to achieve, that's what we came up when evaluating this panel. A rare sight in our experience, and a well deserved kudos to NEC.
NEC tells us the EA244UHD isn't a professional monitor for artists and graphics designers, who'd be better served browsing the company's PA Series. That said, professionals on a budget could probably get away with using the EA244UHD for some projects, though some hands-on calibration will go a long way. The photos we viewed on the monitor looked crisp and sharp, though also slightly bright, which took away some of the richness. Bear in mind we're nitpicking here -- compared to a standard LED monitor, the EA244UHD is miles ahead. It's only when compared to a professional series monitor that some of the subtle flaws come through, and even then, they're minor and mostly fixable.
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 EA244UHD performs in the real world, we viewed a series of 4K clips and fired up a few games. Torturous, we know, but hey, you guys are worth every minute of our entertainment.
Watching movies on a 4K panel is an experience all to its own, and one that's pretty hard to mess up unless the display suffers from serious visual quality flaws. The EA244UHD doesn't, and when we fired up different 4K video clips, both dark and lighter seems treated our eyeballs to an excellent visual experience, though again this was after we spent some time fine tuning the monitor. The payoff is definitely worth it.
NEC doesn't make any references to gaming performance in regards to this monitor that we can find, though there's a bit of room for boasting. While we did notice some motion blur, it was pretty minor most of the time, and sometimes not even noticeable at all. For the record, NEC lists the EA244UHD as having a 6ms response time.
As we're compelled to point out when reviewing 4K panels, if you plan to game at the monitor's native resolution, you'll need at least a high-end graphics card, if not two in SLI or CrossFire. Pushing pixels at a 3840x2160 resolution requires heavy lifting on the part of the GPU(s), so that's something to keep in mind if gaming is your main priority.
4K at 60Hz
Like the majority of 4K panels on the market today, the EA244UHD tops out at 60Hz, and that's only achievable via DisplayPort. In order to run at 60Hz, the monitor performs a work-around of sorts by dividing the panel into two 1920x2160 halves. Using the DisplayPort and something called Multi-Stream Transport (MST) technology, the DisplayPort recombines these "multiple" panels into a single display with a 4K resolution and 60Hz refresh rate. The neat thing about the EA244UHD is that it's already preconfigured to run that way, so as long as you have supporting hardware, it will automatically run at 60Hz. And if you need to, you can always disable MST in the OSD controls.
NEC has done a great job here, as we never ran into any weird issues like we have with other monitors. It's not unusual for 4K displays to only display half the screen when coming out of sleep mode, if it wakes up at all. There are a number of issues that can drive a person mad, which can also result from non-VESA complaint DisplayPort cables (a list of known good cables is available here). Things are definitely improving, and whatever NEC has done on the backend and with regards to firmware, it seems to be working. AMD and NVIDIA have also improved detection algos in their drivers, which simplifies the setup process.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
Even though NEC isn't marketing its MultiSync EA244UHD as a professional grade monitor, our testing showed that it nips at the heels of its higher end brethren. Out of the box performance didn't blow us away, but with just a little bit of tweaking, the EA244UHD sprang to life with deep blacks, bright whites, superb gray scale performance, and very good tones overall. Colors tended to be a bit on the bright side and lacked the richer reproduction of professional panels like the ones found in NEC's PA series, but compared to a mainstream monitor, the EA244UHD delivers an exponentially superior viewing experience. Even gaming didn't suffer from as much motion blur as we thought it would.
We also have to give NEC credit for the wealth of features baked into the EA244UHD. There are half a dozen inputs, of which you can use to connect multiple machines to run in a matrix; the stand supports every ergonomic feature you can think of, including rotate (landscape/portrait); Eco friendly options abound with statistics on how much energy you're using and what it's costing you; and the list goes on.
That's also the rub. At $1,349 MSRP, NEC's asking price is mighty steep for a 24-inch monitor, even a 4K one. For the average user, it's just too much when you can get a bigger display for the same money or less. However, enthusiasts and in particular businesses looking to outfit an entire office are prime candidates, especially since you can easily sync settings among multiple monitors. While the initial investment is high, you get a next-generation 4K viewing experience with lots of power saving features that could make something like this a wise investment. And if you can take advantage of the myriad features, the MSRP looks a lot less scary.