If you frequent our forums or other PC enthusiast-focused corners of the web, you may have heard the whispers about the new breed of monitors being sold in Korea under various brand names for astonishingly low prices. They sound almost too good to be true: expansive 27″ displays at the formidable resolution of 2560×1440 selling for peanuts, between $300 and $400, well under half the price of a similar display from the likes of Dell.
Not only that, but they’re purportedly based on LCD panels that use IPS technology, the standard for high-end displays. IPS panels typically offer much better color reproduction and much wider viewing angles than the cheap TN panels that have dominated the low end of the monitor market—and nearly the entire laptop market—for several dark, sad years. (One day, we will look back on the TN’s panel dominance and, heh, be unable to make out the image.)
Although I already have some very nice 30″ displays here in Damage Labs for testing and productivity, I should have known from the outset that I was destined to rendezvous with one of these 27″ monitors. After all, I evidently can’t stop talking about the benefits of big displays, high-megapixel gaming, and IPS panel technology; our podcast is littered with me blathering on about those things. Fittingly, then, friends and acquaintances kept asking me about the Korean monitors, until finally one morning, I received yet another IM asking my opinion of an eBay listing and couldn’t stop myself. I ordered the sucker straight up, without even consulting the forum threads for advice on which brand to get.
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the time, and really, I still don’t know entirely. There are forum threads packed with information about these monitors, but they don’t tend to cite sources for any of that info. I’m sure there’s good documentation in Korean, but I don’t read the language, so it’s hard to say.
That leaves us with all sorts of interesting hearsay about these displays. They say the panels themselves are manufactured by LG, a major name in the business. They say the same panels are used in Apple’s Thunderbolt-enabled Cinema Display. They say if you order one from the right seller, he will arrive at your house, riding a unicorn made of bacon, in order to deliver it. When you hook it up and turn it on, the monitor will shoot rainbows directly into your rods and cones, triggering a fit of ecstasy unprecedented in human history.
At least some of that info is probably correct. For instance, I can confirm the bit about the rainbows personally. Other details may not be accurate.
What matters most is the basic proposition, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s very real: these are truly excellent panels at a ridiculously, embarrassingly low price. I’d say every self-respecting PC enthusiast should get one, except there are some real risks you’ll want to consider before scouring the eBay listings and pressing the “Buy it now” button.
First things.. first
I ordered my monitor via an eBay listing like this one. The monitor is a “First” brand, model FSM-270YG LED. The deal is laid out there: you pay $337 for the monitor, and express shipping worldwide is included in the price. A tracking number will be provided, and the monitor should arrive within three to seven days of your purchase. I had some trepidation about buying something from some anonymous dude on the other side of the globe, but the seller had overwhelmingly positive feedback, so I doubted there would be a better source.
The buying experience was a little shaky at first. The listing promised a tracking number, but I didn’t receive one, even though the eBay status of the item changed to “shipped.” Then the monitor didn’t arrive within the seller’s stated delivery window, leaving me to sweat it out for a weekend before it showed up the following Monday in the hands of our local postman.
Fortunately, when the monitor did arrive, it was almost exactly as described in the eBay listing, with a sticker plastered across the front to confirm the basics: LED backlight, IPS panel tech with wide viewing angles (178° in either direction), and 2560×1440 resolution.
The connections around back are dead simple, with a single input for a dual-link DVI cable and audio in/out (since this monitor has internal speakers), along with a power input coming from the external power brick. New-fangled input types like DisplayPort and HDMI are nowhere to be found.
The stand on this puppy is solid enough, and it tilts through a decent range. It doesn’t pivot left to right, but the base is small enough and the monitor’s light enough I don’t mind. There’s no height adjustment, which is a bummer. Also, the potential to combine three of these things into a triple-display array makes we wish the stand would allow it to pivot into a portrait orientation, but that’s a capability even my expensive Dell 30″ monitors lack (though at least one Korean brand offers this feature.)
You may be able to pull off some more exotic display configs using the four threaded mount points on the back of the monitor, which are purported to be compatible with VESA mounting hardware. Along those lines, the flat, bottom portion of the monitor’s base can be removed with a single thumbscrew. The clear plastic stalk that fits into it, though, seems to be there to stay. I haven’t sorted out how one would go about removing the stalk for a wall-mount setup, though it must be possible.
The monitor comes packaged with a solid-seeming dual-link DVI cable roughly five feet in length. The inclusion of a dual-link cable is important because any DVI cables you happen to have lying around are probably single-link only, if your spare parts bin is anything like typical. Dual-link DVI is fairly rare, but it’s required to support this monitor’s native resolution.
Since this is a Korean-market product, it ships with a different style of power connector than you’ll probably need. Fortunately, the seller thoughtfully included a travel adapter with a North American-style plug in the box with the monitor. Then again, I didn’t actually need it, since the three-prong connector in the power brick is compatible with any PC-style power cord.
So . . . how is it?
You’re probably ready for me to tell you about the rainbows of ecstasy shooting into my eye sockets, and I can testify, when I first turned on the display, that’s pretty much what happened. The visual impact upon firing up this baby is formidable. The pixel pitch is smaller than almost any other desktop display I own, and the glossy anti-glare coating on the screen doesn’t diffuse light like the coating on most older monitors. The result is awesome crispness and definition. The colors really pop, too, with none of the fakey over-saturation and lack of subtlety you’ll find on most TN panels. My eyes immediatelly began soaking up the fluid, crystalline eye candy and transmitting its sweetness to my brain. If you don’t want to be tempted to buy one of these things, do not look at one in the face. And especially do not browse through a series of beautiful 2560×1440 images at InterfaceLift. If you do, you’re doomed.
Since my neurosis requires me to pick apart anything good and find its flaws immediately, my very next task was to fire up the LCD tester tool here and to use the all-white and all-black image tools to check for dead or stuck pixels. After all, getting a panel full of dead pixels is one of the great risks of ordering an LCD monitor from the other side of the world. Returning it would be a huge, expensive pain in the rear. Plus, the scuttlebutt is that these panels are secondary stock, the ones rejected by Apple and such due to imperfections. True or not, I dunno. The eBay listing for my monitor outlined the apparent Korean-market standards for dead pixels, and they sound fairly solid: if there’s more than one bad pixel in the center region of the screen or more than five elsewhere, and the display won’t pass muster. Still, one never knows.
Now, I don’t want to overstate the risk here. A few dead pixels in an array of 3.7 million of ’em isn’t really that big of a deal. Plus, as far as I’m concerned, every pixel on a TN panel is a bad pixel. A slightly gimpy IPS display is still a vast improvement over what most folks use every day. We must keep these things in perspective.
With that said, I’m very happy to report that this monitor has, believe it or not, zero dead pixels. As far as I can tell, there’s not a single dead or stuck sub-pixel on the entire panel.
Of course, that happy news didn’t divert me from searching for a deal-killer problem. Heck, I came prepared. You see, shortly after I mentioned on Twitter that I’d ordered one of these monitors, my friend Jeff Atwood of StackOverflow and SuperUser fame decided to order three of them on my “recommendation.” Vaguely terrified, I tried to explain that my review was still forthcoming, but he wasn’t dissuaded. Then, two of his monitors arrived before mine, and he reported something jarring: the buttons on the front of the display, presumably intended to adjust the picture, appeared to do nothing.
The complete lack of brightness control, combined with a standard-issue too-high default brightness made this problem a total show-stopper for him. By the time my monitor shipment arrived, all I could hope for was that somehow, both of his were broken but mine wouldn’t be.
No such luck. Once I had the display connected, I immediately attempted to adjust the picture with the control buttons. Although the power light flashed when I held down a button, nothing else appeared to happen. The listing had promised an “easy & convenient OSD,” but no on-screen display was evident at any point—not when I pushed the buttons, not when I powered on the display, not even when there was no DVI signal attached. And yes, the default brightness seared my retinas, locking in their flavorful juices. The ecstasy rainbows were on overdrive, too powerful for my biological systems to withstand over time.
Worse, I couldn’t decipher the markings on the apparently faulty buttons to discern what they were originally intended to do. The labels are entirely in Korean, as is the product manual.
I futzed around with using the video card control panel to tweak the display brightness, but that’s a patchwork solution at best, since the panel is simply dampening the output of a too-bright backlight. You’re sacrificing the display’s dynamic range by modifying the brightness in software, and in my experience, you can only drop the brightness by about 10% before quality is obviously sacrificed.
In a last-ditch effort to redeem the situation, I contacted the eBay seller to see what he had to say for himself:
I received the 27″ LCD monitor in good condition, except the control buttons on the front panel don’t work and the on-screen display doesn’t appear. Is there a way to adjust the brightness and contrast on this monitor? How can the user access the OSD?
His reply was enlightening.
thanks for the message…
you are worrying about the control button of the monitor(OSD)..
the front side, there is the button of the brightness, volume, and on/off button..
the second and third buttons are about the brightness
and the fourth and fiveth are about the volume,
there is not the other function of the osd..it is automately ajust itself..
not only this monitor but also all of 2560 X 1440 monitor doing like this
and if you have anymore troblue please contact me!!!
have a nice day!!!!
Now I had a map to the supposed button functions, which was an important start. Also, his message revealed that he equated the monitor’s control buttons with the OSD. This dude clearly had no idea that the acronym “OSD” stands for “on-screen display.”
What’s more, there’s evidently no need for an OSD with menus to navigate, since the only available adjustments are brightness and volume. I don’t consider that a big problem since my Dell 3007WFP-HC also lacks an OSD and tuning controls, and it has been exemplary in everyday use for years. The color tweaks in video card control panels can handle the rest of the adjustments one might need.
There was still the small matter that pressing the buttons on the front of the display didn’t, you know, appear to change anything.
But I was on the trail of this mystery. My next step was to connect an audio source to the back of the monitor and see whether the volume controls would work. I fired up some music and twiddled with volume buttons, and at first, nothing seemed to be happening. However, once I held the volume-down button long enough, the speaker volume seemed to decrease. Excited, I mashed the volume-up button and held it, and the sound level rose. Control at last! I fairly quickly realized that the flashing power LED above the buttons was an indicator: the faster or slower it flashed, the higher or lower the volume. At the end of the range, the light glowed solid blue.
Armed with a sense of how the buttons worked, I was soon adjusting the display brightness up and down, as well. I was able to dim the display to an acceptable level for the cave-like Damage Labs, and it wasn’t even at the lowest possible setting.
I contacted the seller with my thanks and suggested he remove the term “OSD” from his future listings for this monitor. He seemed to understand and thanked me, and I gave him a nice rating on eBay, in spite of the snafu in the listing. With that issue settled, I was free to use the monitor without worrying about show-stopping problems. Or was I?
Versus my big Dell
Next, I set up the new monitor directly next to my 30″ Dell for some quick comparisons. I should say here that I had no intention of delivering a data-rich review of this thing. The guys up north have the fancy colorimeter that produces color temperature and gamut readings. Here in Missouri, I figured the hillbilly approach would do. My plan was simply to eyeball the Korean 27″ versus the best display on hand and tell you what I saw.
If you’re thinking it’s unfair to stick a $300 monitor next to one that costs a grand and do a direct comparison, well, you’re probably right. Side by side, the Dell has some strengths that make it, clearly, the better display. Although I like the smaller pixel pitch on the 27″ monitor, the big Dell’s larger screen area is an obvious win, as is the 16:10 aspect ratio that grants it some additional vertical pixels. Sitting at the Windows desktop with TR pulled up in a browser window, the Dell’s default color tuning looks superior to my eye. Whites on the 27″ panel have a little too much green or yellow in them, and no amount of tuning in the Nvidia color mixer allowed me to reach a compromise that looked as good as the Dell’s defaults.
Also, to my surprise, I found that I prefer the Dell’s matte anti-glare coating. I have long been an advocate of glossy anti-glare coatings for laptops, because they extend battery life and improve sharpness over matte coatings. In this case, however, the Dell very effectively diffuses reflections from the lone window and overhead lights in Damage Labs—reflections that the 27″ panel shows all too clearly. I really enjoy the razor-sharp pixel clarity afforded by the glossy coating, but in this environment, the down side is hard to ignore. Of course, your mileage may vary. This is a pretty straightforward trade-off, after all, between sharpness and glare reduction.
Having said all of that, the biggest takeaway from my side-by-side comparison wasn’t that the Dell was superior; it was how incredibly narrow the gap is between the two displays, given their respective prices. The 27-incher may not be as large, but it still gives you that sense of freedom that comes with expansive display real estate. And you wouldn’t notice any weaknesses in the 27″ monitor’s color tuning or temperature without seeing the two displays side by side. When I moved the Korean monitor to another table against an adjacent wall, any sense of iffy white balance evaporated instantly.
Here’s a look at the amount of backlight bleed on the two screens. The FSM-270YG has a little more white soaking through in the top right, top left, and bottom right corners. However, the Dell has more bleed overall, particularly down the center of the panel. (Please forgive the reflection in the shot of the 27″ monitor. That’s a small sliver of a window that’s mostly covered. I couldn’t get rid of it entirely, and rather than move the display around, I figured I’d leave it in as an illustration of the reflections you may see with the glossy coating.) Overall, both displays are relatively decent on this front. The Korean cheapie doesn’t come out looking bad at all.
My respect for the 27″ IPS panel grew when I stepped through these Lagom LCD test patterns alongside the Dell. Both monitors offered near-ideal performance in most of the patterns, especialy those intended to tease out problems caused by analog display connections or post-processing routines running on an ASIC built into the monitor. That’s no surprise because both connect via DVI, and (as near as I can tell) the 27″ monitor lacks an internal chip for image scaling or OSD tuning, just like my older Dell 30″ does. The two monitors also exhibit generally excellent performance in the color contrast, gamma, and gray gradient patterns, with no apparent banding in the latter.
In the tests where the two displays really diverged, the FSM-270YG tended to outperform the Dell. The 27″ display offered near-ideal performance in the tests of both black levels and white saturation. Differing gray levels were consistently discernible among the patterns of near-black and near-white shades. The Dell handled the black level test well, but it suffered in the white saturation test, where near-white colors tended to melt into one another.
Using a digital camera and an on-screen timer to capture differences in the response times between the two monitors in clone mode proved to be tricky. Generally, as you can see above, they looked to be approximately equal. However, not all of the pictures I took showed synced timers, despite the fact I was using a very fast shutter speed. The gap between the displays tended to vary. With some experimentation, I found that the monitor acting as the source display was usually ahead of the clone. The largest gap between the two was about 16 milliseconds, or the length of a single display refresh interval.
The fact that these two monitors are in a dead heat in response times comes as little surprise, since they both appear to lack an internal chip dedicated to scaling or other forms of image processing. Such chips enable all sorts of nice features, but they’re also one of the primary contributors to input lag. We haven’t measured these displays’ input lag in absolute terms, but we suspect they are substantially faster than your average LCD, by virtue of the fact that they don’t have an internal scaler or ASIC. (Neither one even scales up the 1920×1080 input from a single-link DVI connection to a full-screen resolution correctly.) This, er, non-feature should make them both excellent for gaming use, and the Dell 30″ has definitely proven its worth on that front over the years. From what I’ve seen so far, this 27″ wunderkind is just as good. And you won’t likely miss the scaler, since Radeons and GeForces both have excellent built-in image scaling that can be controlled via software.
By the way, if you’re not sold on the prospect of high-megapixel gaming, perhaps the image above will give you a sense of things. That’s a shot from Trine 2 at 2560×1440, and you can click to pull up the full-sized image. Many games these days, including this one, will run fluidly at this resolution on a single, reasonably decent video card. Having a monitor like this for gaming is a massive upgrade that should last you for years.
Geoff said, in his recent article on triple-display gaming, that he’d rather have three smaller, two-megapixels displays than a single large monitor like this one. The important thing to know about his opinion on this matter is that it’s wrong. He just hasn’t spent enough quality time with the right Korean import.
Then again, I’m sure the multi-monitor fanatics will suggest that buying three of these 27″ displays and running them in a wrap-around layout would be an even better option than a single display. Can’t exactly dispute that notion.
A few more discoveries
After comparing the FSM-270YG to my pricey Dell 30″ monitor, I was pretty well sold on its value proposition. Unfortunately, I uncovered a couple more quirks of note in further use.
First, I discovered that this monitor doesn’t support HDCP, the copy-protection scheme for high-def digital displays. Even the Dell 30″, with no scaler ASIC, offers HDCP support. What that means is that certain copy-protected content, including commercial Blu-ray discs and some protected cable TV programs, can’t be played back on this display. For some folks, that omission may be a show-stopper, particularly if you use your computer for movie watching or the like. If, like me, your desktop computer use is confined to productivity and gaming, it’s probably never going to be an issue. Does seem kind of a shame, though, since the built-in speakers are actually halfway decent, as long as you don’t need thumpy bass. (Or, you know, any other sort of bass, really.) I had considered using the VESA mounts to put this baby on my bedroom wall as part of a media center extender setup. Without HDCP support, that’s not gonna happen.
The next quirk didn’t become obvious until I sat down to bang away on this review. I figured I should write the review using the monitor as my main display, a cheesy provision that I often apply to these tasks. In this case, the cheese turned out to be, er, fruitful, in a strange but potentially tasty mix of metaphors.
I usually edit with a triple-window setup: notes in one window, my editor in the next, and the web page layout in the third. Initially, I dialed back the monitor’s brightness so the white backdrops of the windows wasn’t blinding. Then, as I moved windows around from left to right arranging everything, I noticed something odd. As I dragged it from left to right, the editor window went from just-right white to too bright. I grabbed the window again and pulled it around. Over on the right side of the screen, its brightness was ideal. When I slid it to the left, it became too bright again.
Futzing with the display brightness and altering the ambient light conditions was no help. This monitor simply has a problem with uniformity in its white levels, and the difference is pretty pronounced from one side of the screen to the other. Worse, now that I’ve seen it, I can’t un-see it. This is easily the display’s biggest weakness, in my book.
Is it a show-stopper? Nah, probably not. You’d never notice it when gaming, and some folks probably wouldn’t notice it in any event. This issue isn’t as a big a problem as, say, the everyday operation of a normal TN panel. Still, it’s an annoying quirk, one that I’ve not really noticed in any other LCD display I own.
So what’s the verdict?
Even with those last couple of quirks uncovered, I still feel like I won this thing in a drawing or something. $337 for a display of this quality is absolutely worth it, in my view. You just need to keep your eyes open to the risks going into the transaction, risks I hope I’ve illustrated in the preceding paragraphs. In many ways, grabbing a monitor like this one on the cheap from eBay is the ultimate tinkerer’s gambit. It’s risky, but the payoff is huge: a combination of rainbow-driven eye-socket ecstasy and the satisfying knowledge that you paid less than half what you might pay elsewhere for the same experience.
I’m now fighting the temptation to repeat the purchase a couple more times in order to assemble a triple-screen array. If I don’t do that, I’m liable to order up a different brand of monitor based on the same panel, possibly the one with a matte anti-glare coating. Other models offer even more exotic possibilities. Some folks have actually been “overclocking” their monitors, ramping the refresh rates up from the default 60Hz to twice that. That prospect is… awe-inspiring. 120Hz refresh rates would be perfect for gaming. Also, recently, listings for 30″ Korean displays for under $700 have been popping up on eBay. They’re presumably the same sort of deal, only with higher stakes.
If you don’t want to go the eBay route, you may be able to pay a little more to grab one of these monitors at MicroCenter. Our local store is selling the Auria EQ276W for $399, and it currently has “10+” in stock. Paying a little more for retail should at least grant you the ability to return a monitor with too many dead pixels.
The story keeps unfolding, too. You can find info about the various brands and models, along with overclocking procedures and other recent developments, in various forum threads around the web, including our own here at TR and the apparent granddaddy of them all at Overclock.net.
Or you might want to hold off a bit. Surely, these panels will go mainstream in time. I expect eventually we’ll see this class of monitor selling from major brands here in the states for something closer to $600, complete with English documentation, solid warranty coverage, precisely engineered backlight diffusion, HDCP support, and all the rest.
But you have to ask yourself: where’s the fun in that?
I also make bacon unicorn references on Twitter.