Samsung 173B LCD Monitor

Audio|Video|Misc
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USABILITY

It is pleasant to look at, takes up only a tiny part of your desktop, requires no weightlifters to move around, doesn't cost an arm or leg, consumes only 45W (less than half of the ~100W or more of a typical 19" CRT) gives you instant portrait viewing mode and has zero geometric distortions.

But how usable is what it actually displays? How does its 1280x1024 resolution display compare with the 1600x1200 capability of my 19" CRTs? What about the 450:1 contrast ratio and the 25ms response time? What about noise?

As mentioned earlier, I have never had an opportunity to study LCD monitors before. Other than the odd hour or two at a colleagues' PC or at a store a display, my experience with LCD monitors is very limited. I have been a heavy PC user for at least 15 years, however, and have gone through many CRT monitors. A lot of my work has involved documentation and image design for print and web. Naturally I have been forced to become very picky about the accuracy of the monitors I use. Geometry, color accuracy and sharpness/clarity are key issues for me.

So to appraise the usability of this very cool Samsung LCD flat monitor, I compared it to the three 19" CRT monitors currently in use in my home office. A 4-year old Matrox G400 Max 32mb dual-head display was the main VGA card used. This card provides exceptionally sharp and clear performance. An ATI 9800 with 128 MB RAM was also used some of the time.

AOC 9KLR - Purchased for less than US$300 last year, I may have got lucky with this sample from a little-known name. Despite its low price, it has a 1600x1200 resolution "Pure Flatface" screen and .21mm (h) dot pitch. Its performance is excellent: both text and images are very sharp and well-delineated, the screen is bright & contrasty. The geometry could be a bit better; there is some minor distortion which cannot be eliminated no matter how much I play around with the geometry controls.

(The fundamental issue with all CRTs is that the tube shoots its beams across an arc on the inside of the viewing screen. If the screen is curved, it is impossible to avoid geometric distortions. Even if it is flat, a lot of trickery is needed to get the geometry just right. The best CRTs have geometric distortions that are so small as to be insignificant.)

The AOC periodically emits a small amount of low level buzzing, mostly at turn-on, but sometimes in response to whatever might be happening on the AC line at different times of the day. It's not a big issue, but this buzz is occasionally bothersome. Like in the middle of the night when the place is like a tomb.

ADI Microscan 6P- Another lucky sample from another non-major name brand, this 19" monitor remains one of the sharpest, most legible I've ever seen. Now 5 years old (long discontinued), the tube is no longer bright enough for image accuracy and it has been relegated to the SPCR test bench, but it is still amazingly sharp. Curved screen, some geometry issues, but very little buzzing.

Samsung 955DF - A little over 3 years old, this "Dyna-Flat" CRT is the worst 19" in my stable. Sharpness has always been lacking, and despite the flat screen, there are more geometry issues than with most other monitors I've had. Perhaps it should have been exchanged soon after purchase, but by the time I realized it might be a bad sample, many weeks had passed. As it was and still is used as the 2nd monitor in a dual-monitor setup, I wasn't that bothered, as critical work could always be done on the main monitor. It also buzzes from time to time.

This model is no longer available in the US or Canada, but is available in India, Malaysia and Australia. The web link above goes to the 955DF page in Samsung's Aussie site.

The SyncMaster 173B has an auto-adjust function that is quite good, but it was with fine manual adjustments that the best results were reached. Here are the main parameters compared:

1. Noise - The Samsung SyncMaster 173B wins hands down over any CRT monitor on this parameter: There simply isn't any, ever. No buzz, no whine. It has been absolutely dead silent during the 10 days that I've been using this monitor.

2. Geometry - The actual dimensions of the screen measure 34 x 27.2 cm. This is almost exactly 5:4 or 1.25. The "native" resolution of 1280 x 1024 is also 5:4 or 1.25. This means that at the native 1280 x 1024 resolution, the image geometry would be perfect. (There is no beam being projected, the images are created at the plane of the screen by each LCD, so there is no other source of geometry distortion.)

The specifications state aspect ratio as being 4:3, which seems to contradict the above.

This specifications was checked in a practical way. A drawing of a perfect circle was displayed on screen. At 1280 x 1024, the circle was perfectly round measured physically on screen. At 1024 x 768, it measured ~20cm vertically and ~19cm horizontally. In other words, a bit too narrow. So the aspect ratio is really 5:4.

This means that at 1024 x 768 or 800 x 600, which are ratios of 4:3 or 1.33, everything shows ~6% too narrow. This is the same with most 17" LCD monitors, as they generally have 5:4 aspect ratio and 1280 x 1024 native resolution.

3. Brightness - Excellent and quite even. It is easily brighter than the CRTs. The edges are a bit less bright than the center, but the difference is very small. I can certainly live with it. Overall, it is plenty bright and vivid, with excellent contrast for images.

There's also hardly any reflection at all. As long as the screen is no directly opposite an unshaded window, reflection is never an issue.

4. Text - Here, I hesitate. Everything is generally quite sharp and clear at the native resolution of 1280 x 1024, including text. When the various 19" CRTs are compared against it at 1280 x 1024 optimized settings, the 173B comes out looking as good or better with either text or images.

My problem with 1280 x 1024 is that it is a strain on my eyes with any monitor of this physical size. The 1280 x 1024 native resolution of the 173B makes everything a bit too small on the 17" screen for me; a 19" LCD monitor with 1280 x 1024 native resolution might work just about right. Younger eyes may not experience the same sense of strain. 1024 x 768 is my preferred setting on all the 19" CRTs, which have viewable screen sizes of 18", slightly larger than the Samsung 173B.

Most of the time. the 173B was used at 1024 x 768, refresh rate of 60 Hz and 16 or 32 bit color quality (depending on VGA card). The 1024 x 768 setting is a 4:3 aspect ratio, which differs from the native 5:4 ration. It is this obtained by interpolation, which naturally reduces sharpness. As already mentioned earlier, this is a problem faced by all 17" LCD monitors witrh 1280 x 1024 resolution, a problem that would seemelingly be eliminated by the use of 1280 x 960 resolution, which is the 4:3 aspect ratio of the most popular screeen sizes -- 1024 x 768, 800 x 600 (and even 1600 x 1200, which is unreachable and unusable on screens of this size, of course.).

When I first started using the 173B, my impression was that text at 1024 x 768 was coarser looking than with the AOC 19" CRT that is my main monitor. Now, a week and a half later, this coarseness is less noticeable, not because the monitor has changed but because I seem to have become used to the way it presents the text. This is with the screen Properties : Appearance : Effects in Windows XP set to clear type to smooth the edges of fonts.

In a direct comparison against the AOC or the old ADI, the Samsung 173B is not quite as sharp with text at 1024 x 768. This is directly related to the fact that that the Samsung is interpolating to display at that size. The 1600 x 1200 resolution of the 19" CRTs, which means the pixel size is physically finer, and there are more of them representing each letter, may also have some effect. The difference is especially noticeable with the font edge smoothing turned off. But even at this compromized setting, the 173B is better than the Samsung 955DF, which has always suffered focus problems.

There was no visible difference going from the 75Hz refresh rate to the lowest 60Hz. Presumably this is because the LCDs are always on. With a CRT, the easiest way for me to tell whether the refresh rate is too low is to focus on something else while the screen is still within my field of vision. If the refresh rate is too low, the screen can easily be seen to be flickering; when it is set to 75Hz, there is no or little flicker visible to me. The video card always seems to work harder at higher refresh rates, so this might be an added bonus.

It would be nice if the text was a bit sharper at 1024 x 768, but I can work & live with it: This review and the one before were both written on Macromedia Dreamweaver 4 with the 173B as my main display. I did not experience any burning need to go back to AOC while doing this work.

5. Images - Sharpness, contrast and color accuracy with images are all very good. I have no issues doing Photoshop image editing on the Samsung 173B.

6. Video - DVD playback with the latest version of PowerDVD is very good. It took a lot of very careful comparisons to see, but movies on the ADI and AOC monitors do look slightly smoother, a result, I am guessing again, from the larger number of dots representing the images on the screen.

7. Viewing Angle - This is specified as 150 degrees horizontal and 120 degrees vertical. I have no issue with either claim. The viewing angle is much better than the 14" LCD screen on a 3 year old laptop that I use, but not quite as good as the CRT monitors. Some experimentation with vertical angles is order. With different lighting situations, I found the my preferred angle changing. It was certainly easy to adjust when I felt the need.

8. Gaming - I've read that any first-person shooter game that requires more than about 40 frames per second is probably not going to look great on any LCD monitor (see this GameSpy.com article, for example). It has to do with the response time (25ms here), the time it takes for a pixel to go from white to black, which is the change that takes the longest. Rapid motion represented by quick changes of colors on screen would result in ghosting. Being an occasional player of only strategy-type games, which play and look perfectly fine on this monitor, I have no further comment.

9. Built-in Speakers - They are clear enough at low volume. but tinny and thin with any kind of music. Convenient but not usable for much more than sound effects. They overload easily with bass boost or more than modest volume.

10. An Oddity- One anomaly was the appearance of vertical blue streaks at various times. This was most noticeable on a white background, but seemed to occur at random. You can see the faint vertical blue line about a quarter of the way from the left side of the screen in the photo below. Click on the photo for a high resolution version of the same photo.

After much experimentation with settings and many programs with various window settings, I discovered that it occurred only when the monitor refresh rate is set high. When set to 60Hz, the streak(s) never appeared. At 70 or 75Hz, it was often evident, but not always in the same place. As the lower refresh rate does not result in any perceptible degradation (unlike with a CRT), it's obviously the preferred setting. It seems an error to even make the refresh rate adjustable in the monitor options.

This problem may be associated with signal degradation via the analog input connection. DVI inputs could eliminate the banding altogether.

CONCLUSIONS

The Samsung SyncMaster 173B is a very good LCD monitor with fine performance, absolutely no noise, the powerful pivoting feature, and all the other obvious benefits of LCD monitors: Small size, sleek style, lightweight and low power consumption.

A native resolution with the more common 4:3 aspect ratio (such as 1280 x 960) would probably help performance at the more practical lower res settings by eliminating the need for interpolation. The problematic 1280 x 1024 5:4 native resolution appears to common to most LCD monitors of this size.

Still, unless you are a diehard gamer or persnickety graphics professional, this monitor should easily meet your needs. It compares well against most 19" CRT monitors, whose real screen size the Samsung SyncMaster 173B almost matches. Samsung backs up the unit with a 3 year warranty for parts labour & LCD backlight.

Our thanks to Samsung Canada for the review sample and for their kind support.

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