21-inch LCD Monitors

We look at five new 21-inch displays to see how they look, and how they make your applications look.

December 21, 2005

20 Min Read
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In addition, 21 inches is the practical entry point for true widescreen ratio screens. Given that broadcast standards are moving to 16x9, if you're planning to use your monitor for presentations (or sneaking in the occasional movie), picking a widescreen LCD can future-proof your investment to an extent. For that reason, we included two displays that are capable of widescreen presentations: the Gateway FPD2185W and the HP f2105.

There are a few downsides to this equation. For one, the bump in price point will easily break slim hardware budgets. While plenty of 19-inchers hover around $300 to $500, 21-inch LCDs require a much bigger payout, with street prices coming in closer to $700 or above. In addition, you'll need a graphics card capable of driving a monitor at 1200 x 1600, since native resolutions for these 21-inch screens start there. Both the Gateway and HP widescreen monitors have slightly different native resolutions of 1680x1050, so you'll need to check your graphics card's capabilities before you upgrade.

Testing Criteria
In order to test the displays, I put five 21-inchers (one each from NEC, Samsung, Gateway, HP, and Viewsonic) through the same DisplayMate setup and benchmark scripts I used for last June's roundup of 19-inch LCDs. I also used the same computer: an Athlon64 3400+ with 1GB of RAM and a Radeon 9800 Pro video card. However, for the multimedia test, I swapped Star Wars IV: A New Hope for the newly released Revenge of the Sith, since the latter was shot in digital format; this gave me a more precise test bed to judge color representation. I also changed the test game from Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault to the faster Serious Sam II to tax monitor speed a bit harder.

Gateway's FPD2185W is a real multimedia powerhouse, designed to function as a jack-of-all-trades that can flip between TV and computer duties without a blink. It is a bit different from most computer monitors: It comes with an odd native 1680 x 1050 resolution, obviously in order to accommodate widescreen films and other video presentations. But I was surprised at the level of performance beneath all the flash.

Setup with the Gateway was smooth and simple. The 2185 has a clear user guide, excellent software, and a simple, dummy-proof quick start sheet; all hallmarks of a consumer-oriented company like Gateway. In addition, a brief tour of the monitor features can be accessed through the monitor's buttons.Control buttons are located on the right edge of the bezel and are hidden from view, giving the screen a clean, sleek look. The tradeoff is in usability. The buttons context-sensitive, changing function depending on which menu selections you've made and what you want to adjust. The onscreen “virtual labels” assigned to the buttons work fairly well, although I found that, even with the onscreen menus, it was easy to press the wrong button.

Other than the buttons, the ergonomics of the Gateway are fine. The base is stable without being clunky. Tilt range is generous, although the horizontal pan range of 35 degrees isn't as broad as the NEC's. The monitor arm holds its position without being overly stiff, and rotation to portrait mode is smooth. In addition, when you want to flip the screen, there's enough clearance under the monitor so you don't have to awkwardly tilt it while you rotate it.

This is no small trick, especially since the 2185 is a beefy widescreen. It offers four USB 2.0 ports: two on the right hand side for swapping devices and another pair on the back for more permanent connections. In addition, there's a day/night setting for the power LED light, a nice touch for users annoyed by distracting power LEDs shining in their peripheral vision.

One small, but important, hit against the monitor is the proprietary power connection. If something happens to the cord, you'll have to pony up to Gateway for a new one. Thankfully, there is no clunky AC power brick.

The monitor also comes with amplified speakers that attach to the bottom of the bezel. I had a bear of a time trying to align the attachment screws, but once attached, the speaker unit provided passable sound. For more serious audio, you'll want to upgrade. On the plus side, the Gateway speakers also featured one microphone and two headphone mini jacks, making them easily accessible, and boosting the ergonomic score a bit.The monitor also offers S video, component, and composite video connections for multimedia use as a video monitor, and there is a good selection of adjustments you can access through the buttons on the bezel, such as Film Mode Detection; Video Scaling for setting the aspect ratio; and Auto Video Enhance, which corrects video signals with de-interlacing and color correction functions. There's also a PIP (picture in picture) button which you can use to view another video source while performing general computing tasks. You can customize the PIP (transparency, size, location, etc.) with the included EzTune software. The transparency feature is especially nice for obsessive news watchers.

Gateway bundles Portrait Displays EzTune to manage the monitor's settings; it's a powerful but simple piece of software. Unfortunately, using the automatic update to check for a new version on the Web crashed the software (probably because I had Firefox, rather than IE, set as the machine's default browser), but at least the Web page it pulled indicated that the installed version of EzTune was the most current.

Test Results

The Gateway's screen was flawless, with no frozen pixels. Setup and testing came off without a hitch. The grayscale and color gradation tests showed an incredibly smooth ramp from dark to light even at the darker end of the spectrum where most monitors have trouble. Text was fairly sharp and placed right in the middle of the pack for the roundup. Video bandwidth scores were close to perfect and the gamma only slightly off. Of course, real world tests make or break a product.

The 2185 gave Revenge of the Sith a stunning film-like quality with deep blacks and precise dark tones that were smoother than the other monitors. The video experience on the Gateway was easily the best of the bunch. Serious Sam also looked fantastic. Colors were well balanced and the monitor had no trouble keeping up with the action.

If you can live with the odd resolution, the FPD2185W is a very sweet screen. I was also impressed with the ergonomics, aside from a couple of minor points, and the excellent color and video performance. The middling text score was the only downside. Consider this unit especially if you plan on performing multimedia tasks such as video editing, presentations, or even staying abreast of news and stocks on cable TV.
HP's f2150 has multimedia written all over it. This widescreen LCD features a 1680 x1050 native resolution and integrated speakers. Classy touches include two USB ports on the left side of the bezel, and a headphone jack on the right. All of the function buttons are clearly marked in black against the silver bezel. There are two volume buttons for the integrated stereo speakers, which weren't bad at producing low-end bass sound.

The screen doesn't rotate to portrait mode, which is understandable, since the built-in speakers on each end of the monitor make it a behemoth widescreen. Vertical adjustment is adequate, but there is no horizontal swivel; you'll have to turn the entire base if you want to flip the monitor around when you make a presentation to clients. The 2105's stand is a large U shape, rivaling the Viewsonic's as the largest of the roundup, and it takes up a good deal of desk space.

Software installation is a spartan affair, with only a driver and an ICM color profile to install. Luckily, the installation is a snap and the included electronic documentation is good. There is "Auto Adjustment Software" included as well, but it's merely a simple static test screen that doesn't really do anything.

The screen was flawless except for one pixel that was initially frozen on green. After a couple of hours of operation, the pixel resolved itself (which isn't unusual), and I was left with a perfect screen.Test Results
DisplayMate tests were excellent overall, with perfect scores in the static and dynamic video bandwidth tests. Color representation was spot on, and the grayscale ramp was very smooth, although it revealed a slight tendency to lose contrast at the high and low ends of the black-and-white spectrum. The only other slip came in the high contrast test, which showed the highest streaking results of the roundup. What surprised me, though, was the text score. Readability was superb, bested only by the Samsung.

Revenge of the Sith looked great, and the HP placed a very close third with very detailed skin tones and bright, but not oversaturated highlights. The darker tones were generally consistent, but there were a few instances of pixel flicker, and blacks weren't quite as pure as some of the other screens. In Serious Sam, the f2105 scored high with excellent color balance. The monitor was also surprisingly fast, and kept up with the action better than most of the other screens in the roundup. The broader vista of a widescreen LCD was the icing on the cake.

As with the Gateway, if you can manage to see past the odd resolution, and handle the minimal ergonomic adjustments, the f2105 is a great choice. It doesn't have all the multimedia panache of the Gateway, but if you're more concerned with text tasks, and prefer a widescreen solution, HP has a great choice.

NEC's 21-inch entry in the roundup is aimed squarely at the business corporate crowd. The MultiSync LCD2170NX-BK won't wow you with an excess of features, but there's smooth performance packed into this screen along with some nice extra touches.

NEC MultiSync LCD2170NX-BK

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The MultiSync LCD2170's ergonomics are decidedly mixed. The round base is mounted on a smooth swivel so you can turn the screen 360 degrees with a finger. The front/back tilt range is generous, and the monitor's neck has a five-inch vertical adjustment, making it easy to put the screen center at eye level.

The power and control buttons are a bit unusual. Instead of being built into the bezel (as is usual), they hang slightly below it. The buttons have a soft touch and no click for feedback, which may bother some folks. On the other hand, the display uses a mini-joystick to let you control menu navigation and adjust settings with one finger — an elegant solution. Top this off with two USB ports mounted on the left hand of the bezel, and the LCD2170 debuts as a well-integrated package. The only thing missing is the ability to rotate to portrait mode.

Setup for the LCD2170 was simple. Downloading and installing the NaviSet control software from the NEC Web site was easy enough, but a CD would have been welcome. That said, the software installed easily and it automatically installed the correct monitor driver; a welcome change from many wonky automatic or tedious manual driver installations. NaviSet integrates into the Display control panel under the Advanced tab: a good conservative option eliminating excess desktop taskbar icons.

I did hit some problems with the display — after some initial video tweaks, the software, which depends on DDC/CI communication with the monitor, ceased working. A well-done Help Guide let me know what to check, but only a reinstallation of my ATI video card's Catalyst Control Center set things right. As I noted in the 19-inch LCD roundup, ATI software may not get along with additional graphics control packages.

The NaviSet software mimics the functions of the hardware buttons and adds some extras, including helpful calibration patterns similar to the ones in DisplayMate. The software also shows you the monitor serial number and manufacture date (which could come in handy for any tech support issues). When using a digital interface, only brightness and contrast settings are available; but if you use analog RGB inputs there are sliders for color balance and sharpness. There is also a button that resets the LCD to factory settings.Testing Results
The LCD2170 unit I received was pristine, with no frozen pixels. At the dark end of the grayscale, the NEC had a little difficulty with resolving different shades of gray, but overall, it did well on the grayscale tests, with only slight banding at the darker levels. Text scores lagged, but even though print wasn't as sharp as some of the other displays, text was readable even at the smaller font sizes. The highlight of the DisplayMate tests had the LCD2170 posting perfect video bandwidth scores, and overall the color tests showed very good saturation consistency across the spectrum.

Multimedia tests matched the solid DisplayMate scores. Colors in the Star Wars test were excellent with deep blacks, subtly differentiated midtones, and brilliant highlights. Transitions between frames during fast action sequences were smooth as well. There was, however, some pixel flicker with the darker grays. The Serious Sam test went well: the NEC kept up with the insanely fast action in the game. There was no evident streaking or ghosting for the most part, but during some of the more intense parts of the game there were some artifacts. On the whole, color performance was bright without any over-saturation.

NEC doesn't have a blackjack with this 21-incher, but with good ergonomics and excellent color, it still beats the house dealer. The significant hits against it are the mediocre text score and lack of a portrait mode, but for raw performance, the NEC LCD2170 is a good choice.

Samsung's 193P was a superb performer in our 19-inch roundup. I was anticipating another strong showing with the 214T and I wasn't disappointed.

The 214T sports a sleek silver design. Although you can't adjust the monitor's height more than four inches, the neck is high enough so that you can rotate the monitor easily. The square cutout monitor stand isn't obtrusive, and it's rock stable. The neck tension is slightly on the stiff side, but most adjustments can easily be done with one hand.

A selection of six control buttons adorns the lower right-hand side of the bezel: PIP, auto tune for analog connections, video source select, brightness, and pre-selected settings. Of course, the buttons take on different functions for menu navigation. Aside from the usual digital and analog video inputs, the 214T has one S-video and one composite video input for multimedia. The only thing missing are USB ports.

The software auto installation ran into a hiccup when it tried to open an HTML file that couldn't be located, but after I manually opened the file from the disc, it launched a nicely integrated page that displayed drivers and software for various OSes, troubleshooting, setup, specs, and a PDF manual. Unfortunately, auto-install isn't supported from browsers other than Explorer, but a quick switch from Firefox, and I was on my way.

The 214T comes bundled with Natural Color 2.0 to synch monitor and printer settings for accurate print jobs, Portrait Display's excellent MagicTune to tweak calibration, and Magic Rotation to deal with rotating the screen image to portrait mode. Unfortunately, there's no auto setting for rotation, so you'll need to activate it before you flip the screen, but it's easily done with a desktop icon or customizable hotkey. Composite video and S-video inputs let you hook up external video devices and view them either by switching the entire display input, or through the PIP (which is adjustable for size and location, but not as customizable as the Gateway).

Test Results
The monitor's image quality was excellent. The grayscale test was the smoothest of the bunch — there was only a slight light/dark shift, similar to the Viewsonic's but not as harsh. There was more ghosting and streaking in the high contrast test than in the other monitors, but the text score, which shows how the screen handles static contrast, was the best of the roundup. There were only two other glitches in the otherwise superlative scores: green (generally the most sensitive color) was a bit more washed-out than other colors in the low saturation test, and the static gamma was slightly off. However, both of these issues were well within normal operating range of LCDs.When I ran Revenge of the Sith, skin tones and blacks were excellent, and the monitor had no trouble keeping up with the fast pace of the video. However, darker hues of blue, purple, and gray showed noticeable pixel flicker. Color balance overall was good, and the contrast excellent. In Serious Sam, the 214T fared a bit better with bright colors and decent speed, although it seemed just a shade slow in the faster parts of the game.

Samsung's 214T is a very solid performer. Setup was straightforward, the adjustment options are quite good, and the bundled software and manuals are excellent. For raw performance, the 214T posted some great DisplayMate scores, but it wouldn't be our first choice for video presentations. However, office workers will like the ergonomics, and that the text was by far the most readable of the roundup, making the 214T the best candidate for day-to-day office tasks.

Viewsonic, a longtime player in the CRT monitor market, has released a bunch of quality LCDs. Its latest proves to be a good all-around performer.

This 21-incher comes only with the basic digital and analog VGA inputs, but there is a PIP function, letting you view both video sources at the same time — a nice option if you have a second computer or a high definition video source. Four USB 2.0 ports are lined up on the back of the monitor, so there's no quick access, but they're simple enough to find. The monitor stand has two short feet in the back and two long feet in the front arranged in an X pattern. It's a similar design used by Viewsonic on other LCDs, and it works well keeping the monitor stable, but scaling it up in size for a 21-inch screen makes the footprint the largest of any monitor in the roundup. The monitor does have a very wide degree of rotation, and the arm tension is just right. Flipping the screen to portrait mode is easily done, and 5.25 inches of vertical adjustment give it a good range for alignment at eye level.Control buttons are centered on the lower bezel, but their black-on-black labeling makes them difficult to differentiate in anything but bright light. That said, the onscreen menus are particularly well implemented, including: Auto Image Adjust, Contrast and Brightness, Color Temperature, and Information. There's also a manual image adjustment for precisely positioning the screen image within the borders of the bezel, and Input Priority, which lets users select which input the monitor scans for a signal first. Nice, but it would be more useful if the monitor had more video inputs. Overall, the 2130's ergonomics were solid.

Viewsonic's Wizard software, which installs the monitor driver and manual, loaded without any hitches. However, the ViewSonic Perfect Suite, Viewsonic's version of the same software that Gateway licensed from Portrait Displays, crashed when searching for an update. Again, this was most likely due to FireFox being set as the default browser. Manually launching with Internet Explorer resolved the issue.

Test Results
DisplayMate tests with the 2130 were a mixed bag. While the grayscale test showed one of the smoothest gradients for a digital LCD monitor I've ever seen, there was an odd anomaly in one of the tests, indicating that there was a slight issue with the contrast: the darker grays were muted and the lighter tones brightened. This, on top of some streaking in the high contrast test, may explain the less-than-stellar text score. While text was still quite readable at smaller font sizes, it wasn't as sharp as I'd hoped. On the other hand, gamma scores were nearly perfect, and the color test results were excellent.

The Star Wars test yielded mixed results. Although not a multimedia monitor, the 2130 was able to differentiate between darker shades of gray very well, something many digital LCD monitors have trouble doing. Skin-tone rendering was very subtle, but the monitor tended to slightly redshift skin tones in certain darker scenes, and there was a bit of pixel crawl against the digital backgrounds. On the whole, however, the film looked good with excellent color. Serious Sam taxed the Viewsonic a bit less — the game's cartoony colors were well rendered without over-saturation, and the monitor kept up with the action without blinking.

The 2130b was something of a rollercoaster ride to test. It wasn't the winner in any category, and there were some singular points that detracted from generally high scores. On the whole, though, it's a solid monitor. I wouldn't pick the 2130 out of the roundup for dedicated text viewing or multimedia work, but it posted very solid scores in all of the tests, making it a well-balanced performer.
Overall, I was impressed with the 21-inch LCD niche. Every screen I looked at was a tempting choice for different reasons. It was definitely more difficult to measure the differences in the video quality between the 21-inchers than it was in the 19-inch roundup. Manufacturers have achieved a surprisingly high level of parity in this roundup, and to the untrained eye, many of the differences will be hardly noticeable.

Although text scores for the Gateway weren't as high as other monitors, its excellent ergonomics, plethora of multimedia features, and great color recommend it, especially if you're looking for a desktop monitor that can be used for presentations. It's also a steal for the price. For a more business-oriented solution, the Samsung's superior text scores and solid color make it a standout.

Frankly, though, while these two monitors get my top recommendations, any of the displays in this roundup would be a good choice for someone looking to buy some extra screen real estate.

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