6 of the best budget monitors for your Mac
15th Oct 2009 | 10:05
Your Mac Pro or Mac mini needs a screen, but which one?
Monitor group test introduction
Unless you only use an Apple notebook or iMac, you need a monitor to go with your Mac. Today's flat-panel models are light, slim and take up very little room on your desk.
They're easy to connect to, with the growth of DVI as a standard ensuring cross-platform compatibility for almost any display. But which do you buy?
You can spend a small fortune on a monitor (especially if you insist on an Apple display), but you don't have to. You can buy a perfectly good monitor that does everything you ask of it and still have change left in your wallet; Mac users are not restricted to Apple's displays.
But even though any off-the-shelf monitor will work with your Mac, it's important to buy the right display for you. As with most modern technologies, a little thinking time before making a purchase goes a long way, and can do much to minimise the risk of a costly mistake.
First you need to assess what you will be mainly using it for. If you do a lot of design work, a display with a wide colour gamut is essential. If you watch a lot of movies, go for a widescreen model, and ask yourself whether it needs to be HD-capable. If space is not an issue, a 19-inch screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio is a good option.
This month's Group Test looks at budget models from six top manufacturers, with the most expensive coming in at £170. From design to sound we put them through their paces. Let's see how they got on…
Test One: Design and build
All the displays feel robust and can be tilted vertically for comfort, but to rotate horizontally, you have to turn them on the spot. The NEC deserves commendation, as you can adjust its height as well.
Some displays (Hanns G, LG) keep the controls out of the way for aesthetic purposes, while others (NEC, BenQ, Asus) have them on view.
The Samsung's side-mounted buttons are labelled with an on-screen graphic when in use, giving the best of both worlds. The Hanns G looks best, with a matt black finish and no obtrusive distractions.
The LG's shiny black finish with clear plastic details gives it an unusual look. It features an interesting means of switching it on too; a droplet of clear plastic recognises your touch. However, it's easy to snag when you operate the buttons on the side and can accidentally turn off the display.
Incidentally, each monitor in the test features a black design. We let the manufacturers choose what to send us and it seems black is in!
Test Two: Viewing angles
The angle from which you view your screen can affect the brightness and cause colours to shift – especially if the angle is too steep. But how steep can you go?
Be sceptical of manufacturers' figures. A stated viewing angle of '170°/160°' means, in theory, you can view the display from anywhere within a 170° arc on the horizontal plane, and 160° on the vertical (180° is the theoretical maximum), but they might deem a significant amount of distortion acceptable before finally drawing the line.
SAMSUNG SYNCMASTER 2233SW
The Asus offers good horizontal angles, but is less accomplished for vertical viewing. The screen loses its brightness soon after moving away from the head-on position, but manages around 100° before the colours degrade.
The BenQ puts in a similar performance, though is marginally better. The Hanns G is less accomplished. The NEC puts in the lowest claim, but it isn't that far behind the pack. The Samsung performs best with the widest angles.
Test Three: Light consistency
Next it's time to check whether the entire display is consistently lit, showing no light or dark patches when viewing a single-colour screen.
You'd hardly expect a budget monitor to perform to the same standards as an OLED-lit high-end display, but overall, all the models tested here perform well, but all lost consistency when viewed at an angle.
The Asus and BenQ monitors are the worst, with noticeable light and dark patches throughout. They're not disastrous, but the others are all better.
The LG's lighting is stronger in the centre of the screen, with the Hanns G and the NEC offering small darker patches, but nothing too drastic. The Samsung is the best here; it has the same problems but they're not so noticeable.
It must be noted that while none of the displays offer a perfect degree of consistency, anyone who finds the results unacceptably poor probably shouldn't be looking for a budget monitor.
Test Four: Screen test
Some monitors fail to distinguish between 95% and 100% black at one end of the greyscale ramp, and 5% and 0% at the other.
You might expect a budget monitor to struggle with this, but the LG, NEC and Samsung displays cope well.
The BenQ, Asus and Hanns G models get through the near black test but have less success with the almost-white one.
HANNS G Hi221DP
Even after calibrating the Asus to get rid of the over-saturated colours, the screen was dark, even at maximum brightness.
The Hanns G, LG and Samsung models offer the best reproduction, with smooth gradients and clear images.
None of the monitors excel in our text test. The Samsung is the strongest, but is still unremarkable. The LG and NEC offer passable reproduction, with the others less clear, especially at low point sizes.
The Hanns G would benefit from a wider adjustable contrast range. On maximum setting it's just about right, but there's nowhere to go if you want more.
Test Five: Sound options
The two displays with no built-in speakers (LG and Samsung) automatically score a zero. And the ones that do offer this feature are dreadful.
If you're looking to buy a monitor at the budget end of the market, and intend to use it for anything more sonically challenging than system bleeps and audible notifications, we recommend you factor in the cost of a set of speakers.
The four monitors with built-in speakers all offer weak, flat sound with very little definition and character. The NEC is barely audible, which is almost a blessing considering how bland and lifeless our test tunes sound.
NEC MULTISYNC LCD195VXM+
The BenQ offers no power at all, and an audio quality reminiscent of catching the overspill from someone else's iPod on a particularly miserable train journey.
The other two are better, but barely so. The Asus is tinny, very flat and lacking in bass and definition, and although the Hanns G offers a marginally more rounded sound, it is still like listening to a stereo playing in the next room.
Test Six: Value for money
On paper, the Asus and BenQ models are two of the better displays on offer, but in our tests they are more workmanlike than wonderful.
The LG performs better, but it is the most expensive monitor in our tests, and if you make regular use of your display's control buttons (as opposed to setting it up once and then forgetting they exist), the touch-sensitive power button will drive you insane as you constantly switch it off by mistake.
The Hanns G Hi221DP is a bargain; it's a solid performer and good looking too.
LG FLATRON W2284F
The NEC's 19-inch screen and 4:3 aspect ratio make it a poor choice for a primary monitor, but an excellent choice for a second display if you favour the two-screen setup.
Finally, the Samsung offers excellent value for money. You need a separate speaker setup, but given the audio quality of the displays that offer integrated speakers, that's not such a bad idea whichever model you go for.
At the time of writing the monitor prices were as follows:
Asus VH222H: £149
BenQ E2200HD: £152
Hanns G Hi221DP: £109
LG Flatron W2284F: £179
NEC MultiSync LCD195VXM+: £149
Samsung SyncMaster 2233SW: £140
The displays are evenly matched, but Samsung's SyncMaster 2233SW wins by a narrow margin.
Although it scores highest or joint-highest in four out of our six tests, its victory isn't as convincing as one might imagine, with its supremacy hotly contested in every category.
The SyncMaster 2233SW offers true HD resolution. Unlike the other two HD monitors, the Asus and the BenQ, it doesn't have a HDMI input, but as no Mac uses HDMI anyway, that's not really relevant here.
It's the second-lightest monitor on test, and also the second cheapest (according to an average based on Froogle prices).
SAMSUNG SYNCMASTER 2233SW
The Samsung SyncMaster 2233SW scores zero in the sound test as it doesn't offer built-in speakers, but standards were dire across the board.
If you're buying a budget monitor and intend to use Front Row or iTunes, you'll be wise to invest in an external speaker system.
Runner-up is the Hanns G. Its resolution might not be as high as some of the others, but it boasts one of the better screens.
First published in MacFormat Issue 213
Liked this? Then check out 6 best Mac web design apps for beginners
Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register