Choosing a Monitor

Screen estate and colour are very important to a cartographer. Maps can be any size from A6 to more than 5m×5m square. Either way, a large crisp display would make small text, fine line-work and textures more legible. This goes a long way to increasing confidence in the decision-making and processes involved in map-making.

The first requirement is resolution! Only a few years ago, I thought a full-HD (1920×1080 pixels) screen was perfectly fine for my needs. Recently, I was more than happy with a 27-inch QHD (2560×1440 pixels) Iiyama monitor. Having seen first hand the gorgeous 5K (5120×2880 pixels) iMac screen, where you really cannot perceive the pixels, QHD no longer seemed good enough, but let’s not be too greedy, UHD (3840×2160 pixels) would be nice. This seems to be the new ‘sweet spot’ of desirability in professional screens. That brings me to the second requirement, colour accuracy.

Colour management is a subject that seems to sit in the ‘dark arts’ for most, and understandably so. Often, the more you read, the more confusing it gets! Day after day, professionals make decisions on colour based upon what they see on the screen in front of them. But, do they know what they are looking at? If a monitor is not calibrated, it can be next to useless for colour-accurate work. And that’s before you get in to software and application colour management. Too often, you have to negotiate around reviews of work based upon what a client sees on some poor and uncalibrated laptop or desktop screen.

Today, screen-based reviews and proofing are becoming a little more consistent and easier as most new screens achieve the full sRGB colour gamut, or close to it. This is often regarded as the default model for on-screen work and is a default colour space on cameras. For me, a screen that has 100% sRGB gamut does cover most situations and requirements adequately. I generalise, but as a colour gamut, it covers enough of a typical CMYK profile used in the UK (i.e. FOGRA39) that most of the time what you see is what you’ll get.

By Mbearnstein37 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29994804

Some photographers and designers also like to work in Adobe RGB as the wider gamut allows a more flexible (lossless) process. This has a much wider gamut (especially in the blue/green spectrum) than sRGB. The image to the right by, by Mbearnstein37 (own work, CC BY-SA 3.0), indicates the difference in the gamuts; the colour is only a visual suggestion, not the actual colour differences (see below). For example, for designers, the Adobe RGB gamuts covers the entire ISO-coated colour space; sRGB does not. This improves colour confidence working on screen. High-end inkjet printers, with their multiple ink cartridges, as well as working with Pantone colours, can require a wider gamut than sRGB.

However, editing images captured in Adobe RGB is almost pointless unless your monitor is also capable of resolving and displaying this colour gamut. At best you are only seeing an sRGB conversion (by the monitor) of that image. Your image will not look correct and your editing choices will be wrong. This seems like common sense, but I’ve read many web articles trying to show how the gamuts vary with actual colour samples! Colour management is complicated, but if you recognise that every device (camera, screen or printer) interprets/translates the colours in an image¹ differently, and that by working through that process from capture to reproduction, you are on the way to working smarter. Many advocate the simpler, and more predictable, sRGB-based workflow.

There are a limited number of professional monitors available that manage to display the full gamut of Adobe RGB, with the cheapest starting at around £600 for a 27-inch QHD specification. However, you can readily pay more than double that! For me, there is merit in this gamut as I often use Pantone colours for specifying colour, and the Adobe RGB gamut captures most of Pantone’s offer. If you work with Pantone colours end-to-end, you can be working with colour beyond the reproduction capabilities of a typical CMYK press/printer, or screen sRGB profile. On a traditional litho-press, Pantone colours are specially mixed spots colours. It’s not unknown for maps to be printed with more than 10 spot colours. Working with (topographic) maps, green can be a rather commonly used colour, so being able to work with fine variations of (Pantone) hue on-screen can help enormously, though it’s always best to double-check against printed Pantone reference cards.

With all this mind, I ventured to purchase a new screen, within a budget, to satisfy as far as I could the above considerations. After on-and-off research over a couple of months, I came across a review for a Philips Brilliance 328P6VJEB UltraClear 32-inch UHD monitor (image above). It’s actively recommended for colour work, with an advanced multi-domain vertical alignment (AMVA) LED panel rather than an in-plane switching (IPS) panel. Some consider this inferior technology, and I really wasn’t sure for the first 30 minutes. However, once I set it to the factory calibrated sRGB mode, everything snapped in to place. That mode is somewhat deceiving as in fact it achieves 91% of Adobe RGB, far in excess of sRGB (c.135%), with an average Delta-E score 0.84². That’s very good! In general, a monitor with a Delta-E score of less than three (3.0) is considered necessary for colour-accurate work, but ideally around one (1.0). I carried out a display calibration check with my Spyder Pro, which confirmed the 91% coverage of the Adobe RGB gamut, and actually looked no different to the preset sRGB setting. I also noted that in fact this monitor is closer to the P3 gamut than Adobe RGB; P3 pulls in more reds and yellows whereas Adobe RGB grabs more blues and greens. Luminance uniformity varies within the range of 97–102% and the gamma is set at 2.2. It’s a 10-bit monitor, with 12-bit internal processing, so displays 1.074 billion colours rather than the 16.7 million colours of a typical 8-bit display. This type of panel also has exceptional contrast, with deep blacks and bright whites. I found it quite bright to begin with, but got used to this. This isn’t the whole story with monitors, but are good indicators nevertheless. So, out-of-the-box, the sRGB preset was spot on and I was good to go.

There is one caveat (anomaly) with my setup. Being Mac-based, the output is recorded as just 24-bit in the system information, though the display calibration measured more and 30-bit colour test images display correctly in Photoshop (with 30-bit editing enabled); no banding and other artefacts that would be present with 24-bit displays. Oddly, enabling 30-bit system-wide with an application like ResXtreme, as demonstrated in the system information, seems to have the opposite affect, generating odd screen artefacts! The OS does not run standard apps in 30-bit colour. It is sometimes a puzzling field!! I’m assuming the 30-bit feed is there for applications that understand it, delivered in this scenario by an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 GPU… I hope, though I am reliant on NVIDIA’s Web Drivers under macOS High sierra. This underlines what a confusing and difficult subject this is?! Can you believe your own eyes (or manufacturers claims)? Best assume not.³

After a week of use, I’m happy with my purchase, with four minor observations. Firstly, the viewing angles are nowhere near the claimed 178°, looking pretty washed out at those extreme angles. In practice, this is irrelevant to me as this isn’t a public display monitor. Secondly, you also see what looks like quite a bit of LED bleed at the left and right edges of the screen. This may be to do with this type of panel, and it’s size, as when you look straight on at the edges, this is not visible. It’s also really only visible against a dark background. This kind of thing seems to really bother a lot of people, but I’ve yet to come across a screen without a hint of it. It may upset those who edit ‘dark’ films, but for me, it simply doesn’t affect everyday working, even on colour-critical files. Thirdly, the interface is a little clumsy and it’s easy to activate the touch-sensitive adjustment controls, but at other times they seem to need a couple of presses. Still, most monitors are rather clumsy in this regard. It also goes without saying, it’s not really a ‘looker’. The aesthetics are rather plain, but I can live with that.

It’s a UHD monitor, so across that 32-inch screen are 3840×2160 pixels, equating to a crisp 140dpi. Software interfaces are smaller, but still clear and sharp. The additional clarity and substantial extra screen estate is excellent for mapping. An A3 sheet at 100% scale fits easily on the screen and looks sharp. I find this screen size and resolution combination perfect for now. The monitor, overall, is relatively ‘standard’ in design. I prefer the understated look as I do not want to to be distracted by anything around the screen. It seems well made and stable has a good range of adjustment options, even allowing the screen to rotate 90° should you wish to work or review in portrait mode. There is also a USB hub, though that isn’t something I need. Visit Philip’s website if you need to geek out on specs. For the time being, I’m a happy owner of a Philips Brilliance 328P6VJEB UltraClear 32-inch UHD monitor. I’m not sure how you could better it at the price.⁴

  1. By ‘image’, I mean any kind graphic or image rendered to a screen; all pixel or vector-based work is rasterised for display on a screen.
  2. Every monitor is factory checked and calibrated, so the results will vary slightly monitor to monitor, but within specification. Having examined the Philip’s colour profile on the Mac’s built in ColorSync Utility, it is actually closer to the DCI-P3 volume than Adobe RGB, having more bias towards reds/yellows than blues and greens. This makes it a little more interesting for those working with video and TV. Interestingly, choosing the Rec. 2020 profile for the display maintains the colour balance but provides a little more contrast. This reflects a balanced shortfall in colour volume throughout the gamut, though it provides a helpful alternative that seems to hit the sweet spot for this monitor and colour-critical work across numerous media.
  3. It’s now August, 2019. I have just installed an AMD RX 580 GPU so I could upgrade to macOS Mojave; it was an Apple recommended/supported GPU. It has native Apple driver support. I now have the GPU supplying the monitor with a true 30-bit signal and all is well! Tests confirm all seems to be working more predictably and reliably.
  4. I’ve now been using this monitor for two years, and still happy with it. Moreover, these monitors can now be bought new for £410, as at August, 2019. That is a steal! Whilst I’ve always liked the look of LG’s monitors, why bother with the 5K2K, 4K, or 21:9 screens when two of these Philips monitors provides more pixels for less than half the price.

July, 2017

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