Home 4K for $649: Asus’ PB287Q monitor reviewed

4K for $649: Asus’ PB287Q monitor reviewed

Scott Wasson
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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 3840×2160 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 2650×1440 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.

Just monitor stuff
I have lots more to say about the PB287Q’s super-dense panel, but we should pause to take a look at some of this monitor’s other features first. That’s especially important because this product shares the same panel type with some competition, including the Samsung U28D590D.

Asus believes it has one-upped Samsung by setting a $50-lower list price and providing a more upscale physical configuration. I’m inclined to agree. The Samsung monitor offers only a tilt adjustment, while the PB287Q can swivel, tilt, change height, and….

Yes, it pivots into portrait mode, making a triple-4K portrait config a live option. The stand feels sturdy and well balanced, too. If you’d rather put the monitor on a wall mount or the like, the included base attaches via a standard 100-mm VESA mount, so the Q should be compatible with a broad range of mounting hardware.

There are several inputs on the back of the monitor. Oddly, access to them is partially blocked by a long, plastic shroud visible in the picture above the, er, one above. With the shroud popped off, the ports are easier to access. Those ports include a single DisplayPort input, two HDMI sockets, and an analog audio jack.

99.9% of the time, you’ll want to use the DisplayPort input, which is the only way to get 4K at 60Hz. The HDMI inputs can drive the whole display at lower resolutions or refresh rates, but they’re probably most useful as aux inputs for the monitor’s picture-in-picture capability. The first HDMI port also supports MHL 2.0, so it can receive a 1080p video signal from a phone or tablet and supply power to that device over the same connection. Kinda nifty, in theory, although I haven’t tried it yet.

Menus and such

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the menu systems in most monitors. They’re not exactly paragons of UI design, and too often, they seem to be missing obvious features. Asus, however, has done a reasonably good job with the PB287Q’s on-screen display and menu options. Nothing really obvious is missing. If anything, the firm went overboard with the choices in a few places, such as the “Splendid” color profile menu, which includes modes dubbed scenery, standard, theater, landscape, game, night view, sRGB, reading, and darkroom.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

The sRGB option does produce colors that appear to be closer to our post-calibration settings than the default “standard” mode, for what it’s worth.

Most OSD menu systems make me feel kind of clumsy. I always hit “back” when I want “select” or vice versa. That problem is made worse in the PB287Q by the placement of the array of seven navigation buttons on the back side of the enclosure. Associating them with the white dots on the front of the monitor, which must then be associated with on-screen action icons, is almost beyond me. I’m never sure my finger’s in the right place. It’s like being 17 all over again.

The PB287Q experience
This monitor’s ability to handle 4K resolutions as a single tile at 60Hz (via DisplayPort 1.2 SST) is a Really Big Deal for one simple reason: using 4K with two tiles stinks, for reasons I’ve explained at length here (under the second subhead.)

Running games at 4K requires tons of GPU horsepower, yet dual-tile displays don’t support simple scaling. As a result, you can’t drop back to obvious subset resolutions like 2560×1440 or 1920×1080 in order to keep frame rendering times low. For gaming, it’s 3840×2160 or bust—and you’ll need two of the fastest GPUs with tons of VRAM to keep up in recent games. Even then, it’s sometimes a stretch. I once hoped GPU makers would alleviate this problem by supporting GPU-based scaling for dual-tile displays in their drivers, but that’s never happened. I now think it’s unlikely to ever happen, sadly.

That’s just one problem among many. BIOS screens and pre-boot utilities are a problem for dual-tile configs. Some games can’t handle them properly, either. Multi-GPU configs often struggle to perform as well when driving two logical displays instead of one. The list goes on.

And single-tile 4K at 30Hz stinks worse, especially for gaming.

The PB287Q solves almost all of those problems. I say “almost” because there are a couple of snags along the way to 4K bliss.

The first one is simple and not really a big deal in the grand scheme. The monitor comes out of the box in DisplayPort 1.1 mode, which limits the refresh rate to 30Hz at full resolution. You’ll have to poke through the on-screen menus in order to switch it into DP 1.2 mode. After that, the 60Hz refresh rate becomes available. I think Asus would have preferred to ship this thing with DP 1.2 enabled by default, but at least one GPU maker didn’t have proper driver support for single-stream 4K working until just this week.

The other snag we experienced with our review unit has to do with the display resolutions exposed to the host system by the monitor’s firmware. As you can see above, some very important options are missing, including lower resolutions with the same aspect ratio, like 2560×1400 and 1920×1080. These modes are absent in the Windows control panel and in a bunch of the games I tried, too. As I said above, you’re going to want those lower resolutions sometimes for gaming.

Happily, the PB287Q’s built-in scaler chip is quite capable of scaling either mode cleanly up to 3840×2160. I know this because I attached a second monitor with a native resolution of 2560×1440 to my test system, and suddenly, more resolutions became available for the primary display, too. Once it was exposed, I was able to use 2560×1440 and 1920×1080 for the Windows desktop and for gaming, using both display-based resolution scaling and GPU scaling. It looks nice and works well. There are other workarounds possible, like creating a custom resolution in the Nvidia control panel. That works nicely, too.

Such measures shouldn’t be necessary, though. Asus tells me it plans to fix this problem with a firmware update for shipping versions of the PB287Q, and we should have an updated monitor to test here in Damage Labs soon. We’ll update this article once we’ve confirmed the fix.

Another improvement I’d like to see in the firmware is the exposure of a higher refresh rate at 2560×1440 for gaming. If the bandwidth is available for 4K at 60Hz, then there should be sufficient bandwidth for 2560×1440 at up to 120Hz—although not every panel may be up to the challenge. Even a 75Hz mode would be welcome. Think about it, Asus. Call me.

More pixels in your fonts, yo

I think it’s worth saying that buying the PB287Q means buying into a whole bunch of teething problems with Windows, Windows applications, and high-PPI displays. Microsoft has worked out many of the worst problems in Windows 8.1. 4K monitors usually are set automatically to the 150% scaling mode, which looks just about right on the PB287Q. System fonts and dialogs are generally scaled up to, well, their normal “size,” just with more pixels.

Err, what?

Many Windows applications haven’t caught up yet, though, so you’re bound to encounter some weird-looking stuff. Just look at that Fraps UI screenshot above. Look at it. It’s totally hosed. Even when things aren’t hosed, in older applications, you’ll see a lot of that blurry, soft-edged text, an artifact of scaling up fixed-resolution lettering. Heck, you’ll see it in brand-new applications, too.

Web browsers can be a problem. You may want to choose Internet Explorer rather than Chrome, since Microsoft has clearly done more work to support high-PPI configs. However, note that IE ditches the ClearType sub-pixel antialiasing scheme and snap-to-grid GDI font rendering in favor of simple greyscale antialiasing. As a result, the effective text resolution with IE at high PPIs isn’t a huge leap from other browsers with ClearType on conventional displays.

Greyscale AA in IE (left) vs. ClearType in Chrome (right)

That’s kind of getting into the weeds, though. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, because this panel’s 157-PPI density makes everything better. You will look at it and like it, instantly. Heck, I think Microsoft probably made the right choice in switching to the new font rendering and AA methods.

Bottom line, the hardware is now capable, and with the dual-tile mess sorted, the remaining quirks aren’t the hardware’s fault. I’m sure the software problems will be sorted out with time. Just be aware that, at present, being an early adopter means feeling some pain now and then.

I have more to say about the experience of using the PB287Q, but before we get into my subjective impressions, let’s look at some objective quality measurements.

Brightness and contrast
I said earlier that I think those 27″ IPS panels, like the ones in the bargain-priced Korean jobs, are the perfect foil for the PB287Q. That’s why I’ve tested the PB287Q against its IPS-based sibling, the Asus PB278. The PB278 will currently set you back $466 at Amazon, so it’s a cheaper, lower-res option based on in-plane switching technology. The PB287Q will have to acquit itself well in order to justify its higher price.

The PB287Q’s illumination is provided by a WLED backlight, and it uses DC-based dimming to avoid flicker. Asus rates the monitor’s peak brightness at 300 candelas per square millimeter, which is roughly the same as the surface of the sun. Seriously, for indoor use, desktop monitors have gotten to the point where brightness is in ample supply. Although the PB287Q doesn’t emit quite as much light at peak as the PB278, it’s plenty bright. It even exceeds its own spec for light output slightly. (Both of these monitors have matte coatings on them, by the way, so they shouldn’t have to work too hard to overcome reflections.)

Our “typical” readings were taken with both monitors normalized to 200 cd/m² at the center of the screen. Oddly enough, both of them slightly surpassed that value during this test.

The IPS-based PB278 produces slightly brighter whites and darker blacks, so it has a higher overall contrast ratio than the PB287Q. So, yes, the TN panel doesn’t achieve quite the same contrast levels. (And it really does come down to the panel. Remarkable how little changes from the lowest to highest backlight brightness levels.) Still, the PB287Q’s roughly 635:1 net contrast ratio is pretty decent.

Color reproduction
Click through the buttons below to see the color gamuts for these two displays, both before and after calibration. Color gamut has to do with the range of colors the display can produce. These things tend to vary pretty widely from one monitor to the next. The gray triangle on each diagram above represents the standard sRGB color space.

For a TN panel, the PB287Q performs scandalously well in this test. Yes, the IPS-based PB278 offers a slightly wider color range, but the PB287Q very nearly encompasses the entire sRGB color gamut, only missing out on some of the reds and deepest blues. To give you some idea of how well the PB287Q performs, you can click over to our review of the T100 convertible and see the results there. (Note that Geoff used the smaller NTSC gamut as a reference in his plots.) After calibration, the PB287Q’s color gamut almost exactly matches that of the widely lauded IPS panel in the iPad 3. This thing is no joke.

The spec sheet for the PB287Q says it’s capable of displaying 1.073 billion colors, which is the equivalent of 10 bits of info per color channel. That’s a lot more than the standard 16.7 million colors possible with eight bits per channel, and it’s well above the limits of the usual TN panel. Asus tells me the panel itself is eight-bit capable, and the additional intermediate colors are achieved via FRC, or frame-rate control, a form of temporal dithering.

I only discovered this 10-bit color capability late in the game, when collecting the specs in the final stages of putting this review together. None of the Windows or graphics driver control panels exposes 10-bit color as an option with this display connected, and I haven’t had time to futz around with the registry settings that might enable it. As a result, all of our tests were conducted at eight bits per channel, which is surely how this monitor will be most commonly used.

Our copy of the PB287Q came out of the box a little out of whack, as the ~7000K color temperature we measured indicates. That’s a little cool. Reds looked too orange, and yellows contained too much green. The PB278 is much better behaved at its default settings.

After calibration, the PB287Q became more consistent across a range of gray levels, nearer to our 6500K target. The calibrated settings easily look better to my eye. I strongly recommend buying or borrowing a colorimeter for use with all of your monitors. You’ll be surprised how much it helps—and if our review unit is any indicator, that’s particularly true for the PB287Q.

Delta-E is a measure of color difference—or error—compared to a reference. Smaller delta-E values generally mean more accurate colors. In this case, we measured delta-E in the sRGB color space with a D65 white point, both before and after calibration.

We can go into more detail and see what the sources of error were for each display. Our gamut measurements have already revealed that the PB287Q can’t quite produce all of the reds in the sRGB color space, and reds are unsurprisingly one of its key weaknesses here. Calibration helps some on that front. After calibration, the PB287Q represents colors slightly more accurately overall than the IPS-based PB278.

Display uniformity
Displays typically don’t produce the exact same image across their entire surface. We’ve quantified the uniformity of the PB287Q by taking a series of luminance readings in different regions of the panel. We set the brightness level at 200 cd/m² at the center of the screen before starting.

176 cd/m²
199 cd/m²
174 cd/m²
200 cd/m²
196 cd/m²
175 cd/m²
176 cd/m²
192 cd/m²

There’s a 15% variance from the darkest region, at the top left corner of the screen, and the center. These results surprised me, honestly, because my eyes couldn’t detect the differences in white levels. For what it’s worth, the PB278 has very similar light distribution; the luminance of its darkest region is 86% of the center’s.

I’ve chosen to convey backlight bleed using a picture rather than a series of measurements. The PB287Q’s black levels are fairly uniform, with only a bit of light bleed at the bottom left corner of the screen.

Viewing angles
Asus rates this monitor’s optimal viewing angles at 170° of vertical range and 160° of horizontal range. I pushed past that a bit and took some pictures.

The color shift is pretty dramatic if you’re looking at the screen from way above or below. Then again, I have no idea why you’re looking at your desktop monitor from the ceiling like that. Maybe you should come down from there.

I should say in this context that the PB287Q’s viewing angles, though clearly not as wide as an IPS panel, appear to be wider than a lot of TN panels. Also, the consequences of going beyond them aren’t as dire. Notice how, in the shots from well above and below the screen, the image doesn’t begin to turn inverted and get that “film negative” look like some TN panels do. From the sides, the display just looks dimmer, with no apparent color shift.

Input lag
TN panels tend to be quick, and this one is no exception. Asus says it’s rated for a gray-to-gray transition time of one millisecond or less, quite a bit less than the five-millisecond rating for the PB278. The thing is, input lag comes from many sources, including the scaler chip inside the monitor. The PB287Q’s single-tile, 4K-ready scaler ASIC is brand new, so we’ll want to see how it performs. To find out, we compared both of our test subjects against my old Dell 3007WFP-HC. The 3007WFP-HC’s IPS panel isn’t particularly fast, with an 8-ms gray-to-gray spec, but this monitor has no internal scaler chip, so there’s no input lag from that source.

Dell 3007WFP (left) vs. Asus PB278

Dell 3007WFP (left) vs. Asus PB287Q

Our screenshots of the timers tell the story. The PB278 keeps pace with the 3007WFP almost exactly, while the PB287Q runs 16 milliseconds, or a single frame at 60Hz, behind the big Dell. The GPU-based display cloning mode we’re using here has some lag of its own built in, so a difference of one frame in the final output is almost nothing.

Power consumption

Here’s power consumption. Dunno what else to say about that.

My subjective impressions
Now you’ve seen the nerdy empirical measurements of the PB287Q versus its 27″ IPS sibling. One could cynically page through the results and conclude that the traditional TN panel weaknesses remain: lower contrast ratios, a narrower color gamut, and color shift at less-than-optimal viewing angles.

That’s not the whole story, though. I spent many hours peering at the PB287Q and the IPS-based PB278 during this review process. My basic impression is that, on a whole host of fronts, the contest between the two is incredibly close.

The traditional TN weaknesses are substantially muted in the PB287Q. This thing really is nothing like one of those terrible, cheap laptop displays. Most folks simply won’t notice any issues with contrast and viewing angles during seated desktop use.

My son and I cycled through a series of landscape pictures from InterfaceLift on the PB287Q and the PB278, side by side, trying to discern the differences between the two. They were really hard to pick out. With most images, the color reproduction was essentially equivalent. Having seen our color gamut readings, I was able to select an image with lots of deep reds and blue-violet tones that stressed the PB287Q’s weak points. Then we could detect some differences, but that was kind of cheating.

The flip side of that coin is that the PB287Q’s higher pixel density can be hard to discern when you’re sitting ~24″ from the screen. One reason: even though lots of cameras can outstrip this monitor’s eight-megapixel resolution, not all of the images they capture are sharp enough to take full advantage of the extra resolution. You’ll notice the increased pixel density in some photographs by concentrating on sharp, high-contrast edges, where individual pixels are easier to see at conventional PPIs. In rare cases, with the right source image, the difference between the two monitors can be striking.

Gaming is another story. Taking advantage of 4K requires the right game, with the right assets. With older or lower-fidelity games, what you may notice most often is sharper edges and more easily discernible polygon intersections in lower-poly models. You’ll see that your sniper scope is octagonal rather than round, which is a little disappointing. Games that have higher-poly models are more visually rewarding.

The added sharpness possible in textures and shaders is the candy, the really sweet thing about 4K. Some titles have it. For instance, the PB287Q’s single-tile goodness banished the screen-centering problems I saw in Tomb Raider on a dual-tile setup with the Radeon R9 295 X2, and the Radeon responded by pumping out some of the most gorgeous visuals you’ll see anywhere in real-time graphics. I’ve attached a couple of screenshots in the image gallery below from Call of Duty: Ghosts that demonstrate its every-pixel detail, too.

Every pixel in Ghosts adds new detail

Seriously, though, even in the best games, you’ll have to stop and peer into the screen in order to take in the difference between 4K and 2560×1440. During fast action, it’s almost impossible to perceive. What you will notice, even on some of the fastest GPU hardware like the GeForce GTX 780 Ti SLI and Radeon R9 295 X2 configs I used for testing, is the performance hit when going to 4K.

Not that there’s a real problem here. In some cases, like Tomb Raider, one or two of today’s best GPUs will be fast enough that the 4K performance hit simply doesn’t matter. The game will still run fluidly. In others, well, the PB287Q looks awfully nice when scaling games up from 2560×1440. You’re free to enjoy the high-PPI goodness in desktop applications, where the benefits are clear, and switch into a lower-PPI mode for gaming—as long as, you know, Asus updates the firmware to expose the correct video modes.

You’ve gathered by now that the PB287Q and monitors like it represent a new class of desktop display. If you’re looking to upgrade or to build an all-new system, this monitor should definitely be on your radar. The core display technology, as we’ve seen, is surprisingly good for a TN panel, and Asus has wrapped a nice set of externals and extras around it. A year ago, I would have recommended a 27″ IPS panel for a PC enthusiast considering this class of desktop monitor. Now, I’d recommend the PB287Q for most folks, instead. The added resolution and slightly larger screen are obvious and worthwhile upgrades.

The one thing that may freeze you from pulling the trigger right now on the PB287Q is, oddly enough for the monitor market, the promise of better things coming soon. Acer has already announced a 4K monitor with G-Sync that may be based on this very same panel. It’s supposed to ship this quarter, and we wouldn’t be shocked to see others following suit eventually. There’s also the prospect of cheaper 4K monitors based on IPS and other display technologies, and eventually we should see monitors that implement the new VESA Adaptive-Sync spec, as well. Any such products are likely to cost more than the PB287Q, though, and none of them are available today.

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