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4K for $649: Asus' PB287Q monitor reviewed

Huge value in a 28" display

A couple of years ago, I got an energized, slightly crazy look in my eyes when folks in Korea started selling some truly gorgeous 27" IPS monitors on eBay for dirt cheap. Word spread quickly among PC enthusiasts about the visual glory that could be had for about 300 bucks. I promptly ordered one and did my part to spread to word about its crystal-clear, colorific virtues.

Little did we know back then that the sleepy world of PC displays was about to be awakened by a series of disruptive technologies. Since then, the first wave of 4K panels arrived based on a mind-shatteringly beautiful 31.5" panel—with an equally sanity-threatening $3,500 price tag attached. Next came G-Sync, or at least the early prototypes, with a variable display refresh capability that makes in-game animation look silky smooth. I also briefly freaked out over a tantalizingly cheap 39" TV with 4K resolution—but sadly, it only worked at a pokey 30Hz refresh rate.

In truth, all of those developments were simply a portent of better things to come. The really exciting part is when these new technologies go mainstream—when we can get our grubby little hands on mature versions of new tech at affordable prices. We've reached one of those happy milestones with the introduction of Asus' new 4K monitor, the innocuously named PB287Q. This monitor represents the maturation of 4K display tech, and wow, 4K has grown up faster than Miley Cyrus went from Hannah Montana to whore o' Babylon.

The PB287Q measures 28" from corner to corner, and inside of its rectangular frame is a grid measuring 3840x2160 pixels. Unlike almost every other 4K display on the market, the PB287Q is capable of treating that grid as a single, coherent surface. That's a huge deal for reasons I'll explain in more detail shortly, but the bottom line is that dual-tile 4K is just a bag of hurt.

Even so, the second punch in this combo is the knockout: Asus is asking only $649 for this monitor ($699 in Canadia.) That's... way less than three grand, I'm pretty sure, although I do have a liberal arts degree.

The value here is a thick and viscous slurry that clings to everything it touches. It's practically inescapable. Yet for the PC display purist, there is one big, shiny, green fly struggling helplessly in the ointment of 4K goodness. Metaphorically speaking, I hope. The PB287Q is so affordable in part because it's based on a 28" panel of the twisted nematic variety.

Yep, it's the dreaded TN panel type. You've seen them in laptops, attached to cheap desktops, and most recently perhaps in one of those $60 Android tablets they sell at Walmart. TN panels have a lousy reputation, and they've earned every inch of it by combining horrid color reproduction with crummy contrast ratios and narrow viewing angles. For me, thinking about them can induce rage, probably because of how many otherwise-decent laptops they have sabotaged.

Frankly, I would have written off the PB287Q as uninteresting if I weren't vaguely aware of the fact that not all TN panels are created equal. When I came face to face with an early version of the PB287Q during CES, it was shockingly not awful. Downright decent, even.

I don't even know who I am anymore.

But I do know that the PB287Q hosts the best TN panel on which my eyes have ever fixed their gaze. In fact, it's a pretty darned good display.

About the whole 4K thing
There's really nothing magic about "4K" resolutions. They're not even terribly well defined. 4K has something to do with packing about four thousand pixels from left to right across the screen. That's weird, since 720p and 1080p consider vertical resolution, but not so weird, since marketers like bigger numbers.

I am a fan of high resolutions, especially when they're combined with high pixel densities. Most of the 4K monitors out there are moving the ball forward substantially in terms of pixel density, and that is a little bit magical. Here's how Asus' new 28" wonder stacks up against a number of common displays.

Given how PPI works, the PB287Q crams about three times as many pixels into a square inch as your "typical" PC monitor, represented above by a 24" 1080p panel.

The Q, as I like to call it, is also substantially denser than its spiritual predecessor, the Asus PB278. The PB278 is a 27" IPS panel with a 2650x1440 resolution, and it's basically just a nicer, better-packaged version of those 27" Korean IPS monitors. In my view, the crucial and decisive question about the PB287Q is how it stacks up against those 27" IPS displays. On the pixel density front, at least, the PB287Q is clearly in another class.

This panel isn't as crazy-dense as some of the smaller tablet displays, including Apple's 9.7" iPad "Retina" panels, but it's also not meant to be viewed six inches from your face. Which I remind myself every time I start slouching again. I'd say the Q qualifies for "retina" status when viewed from a reasonable distance (for a desktop display) of 20-24". That is, you're not likely to be able to pick out individual pixels, and text takes on a "printed" look with smoothly contoured edges. It's purty.