Thursday, March 10, 2016

Workspace Upgrade: New 27'' Monitor

Today, I finally went out and got myself a nice big 27 inch 4k IPS monitor for use at home. I'd been stewing and investigating move this for several weeks now (though the idea of getting a larger external monitor for use at home has probably been floating around over half a year now).

Things came to a head in recent weeks due to several major factors:
 1)  I've been spending a lot more time working on stuff in my uni office recently (hopefully we can finally get this bloody experiment working), where I have a nice 27 inch Philips monitor (though running at HD resolution only). Switching from working on that for a few hours to dealing my laptop's (pitiful-in-comparison) 17-inch at 1600x900 resolution when I got home was understandably quite "restricting" and frustrating. For instance, it meant that I often couldn't test my experiments on my laptop screen, as the resolution just wasn't there to do that! It would also start feeling quite "cramped" when you want to try and get some work done!

Given that I often spend a lot longer working on whatever monitor I've got at home - especially when I just want to bunker down and get some work done, as well as for all my Blender coding - setting up something nice to spend a lot of hours working with became a lot more of a priority.

 2) When doing some of my animation tests in recent weeks, I got an acute sense of just how the lack of the lack of screen size + resolution was making it hard to do any drawing/image editing stuff. I was basically hunching over double, straining and putting stress on my upper-back trying to see what I was working on in enough detail (while keeping all the important parts of the UI on screen to still access them when needed). It was clearly not a very healthy thing to be doing - after just a 3-4 hour session like that, I was knackered! If someone does that every day, day in day out, it's only a matter of time before they get some serious problems!

 3) With the imminent demise of Picasa (boo! Google, if you're listening, please just open source the desktop app!) I've been testing various alternative tools for editing images. Unfortunately, in most of them, the amount of space left over for actually seeing the image is much less (when viewed on a smaller/lower-res screen), and some of the controls also end up being impossibly small (*ahem* Darktable)! So, we quickly get back to issue 2 - hunching over double to see what on earth is going on in the finer parts of the image (without wasting time zooming in/out, and losing the bigger picture).

  4) Also related to my photography/GP anim test/demo vids stuff, was the fact that my laptop's colour accuracy has always been a bit iffy. Although I tried my best to force it to behave shortly after getting it, it's always been slightly off for certain colours: In particular, certain yellows look "sick + cheap" (i.e. they have a bit too much snot-coloured greenish-yellow casts), while certain darker blues have a bit of a bluish-purple cast. As another example of just how off kilter/bad it was, I had been under the impression that all parts of the "snowman" scene used in the first GP Sculpt demo were using similar shades of blue/teal... it was only when I checked on the Philips some time later that I realised that the snow was a completely "off" shade of blue to be using against the sky... but on the laptop screen, they looked perfectly fine :/     (This is all quite ironic, given that HP are supposedly the manufacturers of some of the most colour accurate monitors available - in the $2000 "DreamColor" range... apparently this doesn't carry down to their entire product ranges!)


So, with all those considerations in mind, I resolved about 1-2 weeks ago that it was going to be time to set up a nicer monitor for use at home. The big question though was: "What should I buy?"

* Given that this is NZ we're talking about here, the first thing to note is that your options are probably going to be a lot more limited. You could order online I guess, though when it's something you're going to be spending a lot of time working with, it would pay to at least spend some time just checking out the real thing for good measure first!

* After my experiences with my laptop screen, colour accuracy did become something that I cared about. So yes, I started doing more digging about all those gamut, panel type, and so-on to figure out what I'd need to look into to avoid another egregious misstep like last time. (I also figured that I'd better bring along my own machine, and a bunch of sample images/test cases to check on well candidates "delivered the goods" - sometimes, it does pay to do your own due diligence, and check out how well something works for you, instead of how it fits someone else's standards).

* Another thing I was quite clear on was that whatever it was, it needed to be a decent size. So, anything less than 24 inches is out of the picture immediately - I've used those in the past, in single and dual monitor setups, and I've never really felt like getting an external monitor for use at home after using those (as opposed to continuing on with the laptop screens). Basically, they're effectively so close to 17 inches, that there's no real benefit!

From my office experience, 27 inches is actually quite a nice size to have. It's really not a very monstrous size in practice (a 32 or 48 inch beast though is another matter) - in fact, it tends to really grow on you. So, one of the things I did was I went through measuring my office setup, and checked whether an equivalent setup would work at home. Luckily, the measurements worked out, so I said, "That's it! No need to check on anything else... I'll just get another one like the ones I already use"

That said, it was still quite nerve wracking to make the final call on this, as it is impossible to predict how things will really look when you set it all up. For instance, it could have gone quite badly - e.g. when in place, the monitor could have ended up dwarfing my desk, ending up feeling quite imposing in the room. (So far, it doesn't seem too bad :)

* Perhaps the biggest question on which I flip-flopped was the issue of what resolution to go for. The Philips monitor in my office is a full HD (1920 x 1080) one. On the plus side, at that resolution, a lot of things get sized up quite nicely on a 27 inch (making some hard-to-see/reach controls in some tools a lot of usable). There are 3 downsides though: 1) It was slightly blurry, 2) You can't fit more stuff on screen if you really needed it suddenly, and 3) Looking forward, having a monitor that was able to do higher resolution stuff may be a better bet in the medium-long term.

Contributing to this flip flopping was that on different days, 27-HD felt either like it was a "comfortable size" or was "too blown up" (i.e. uncomfortable). At worst, I guess I could just revert to using the laptop screen on days when things seem too big... That's the benefit of not being locked to a desktop/all-in-one with only one monitor available I guess :)

* Another thing I was pondering about was whether to mount the screen on a flexi arm instead of using the adjustable-but-limited stand. In particular, that would solve most of the font size + image editing problems, as instead of me bending forward to look at it in more detail, I could just bring the monitor forward when needed. It would probably be better for working with the layout of my room (for certain reasons). The two main questions here were: 1) How would I securely mount the non-monitor end of the arm to the windowsill instead of a desk-edge (as I use a drafting table that really wouldn't support a several-kg heavy monitor + arm setup - at least not in the long run, without suffering some warping/damage), 2) Would it be worth it.     [Currently, I've decided to just use the provided stand for a while, and play around with different ways to accomodate it. It should hopefully be stable enough to cope with seismic events, though I'm still interested in investigating better was of securing this thing just in case in the meantime!]


So, I've ended up with a Dell U2715H. While I had been looking at weighing this against a Dell P2715Q, or perhaps a Philips, in the end, the store only had this one (and a whole bunch of other Samsung, LG, HP, etc. panels, including a few weirdly long + curved ones). So, that made things kindof easy in that sense :)

One thing you might not realise from reading any online reviews or seeing the online photos of this thing are that the borders on this screen are really quite minimal - like 5mm on the top, left, right edges, and 1.5 on the bottom edge, and that all of this is kindof "flush" with the screen surface (except for the bottom panel again, which is slightly raised). The "matte" surface finish of the screen seems to work well - I only get a faint + soft patch of "light glow" from some of the lights in my room, when viewing it from certain angles. Perhaps my only slight grumble about this frame currently is that the Dell logo at the bottom is one of those reflective metal ones - so, everytime I start typing or doing something, I end up seeing some flickering reflections on that thing. 

(I'll report back later on how annoying the status LED's are when the screen is not in use - an example of an annoying device's indicators are the Wacom Intuos Pro's, which flashes all its white lights and keeps its battery indicator on if you leave the USB charging cable attached when powering off your machine - This will remain illuminated in amber (i.e. "it may very well be charging, even if your machine is powered off!")

As for getting everything set up and running, it was all very much a breeze (by and large). A nice thing was that they included some self explanatory diagrams on the box, showing the order of getting things out of the box and unpacking them. (On a side note, the box looks a lot more intimidating than the actual machine is... I was basically struggling to wrap my arms around the thing to get move it around). The only slight hurdles I ran during the setup process were:
 1) It was really hard pulling the panel's protective cardboard packing/padding out of the box.  The box has got a large tab/handle/thing on the side that can easily get pushed into the box, thus trapping the padding thing. Once that's cleared, you still need to grapple to find a suitable hand-hold to yank it out of the box.
 2) The part when I was fumbling around in an uncomfortable position without a clear line of sight and trying to figure out where the ports are on the underside of the monitor, and missing the target every time (until I grab hold of the screen surface, leaving some "paw prints").

As my HP Envy 17 only has a single HDMI port for video output, there wasn't much choice in terms of what could be used for linking the two. There are several notable points I need to bring up though about using HDMI with this monitor:
  1) It supports several different connectors, but only "modern" ones (i.e. DisplayPort, Mini-DisplayPort, and HDMI, but no VGA and no DVI).
  2) It has two HDMI ports, and is supplied with a DisplayPort cable. (If I get hold of a SurfaceBook sometime, I'll probably get to start using that instead :)
  3) If you don't attach a "soundbar" (sold separately), you're not going to have any sound coming out of your machine anymore. To fix this, you need to explicitly go into the Playback Devices -> Properties and disable the monitor as a sound playback device. Just to confirm: This monitor DOES NOT have its own speakers attached.  (On the plus side, I found that it is possible to get my laptop's speakers to play while the lid is closed, and to STILL be able to hear everything - perhaps even clearer than when it's closed, and similar to what happens if I stand near the door instead)

The next thing that comes up I guess is that of resolution. I'm currently getting 2560 x 1440  (which according to some references, is apparently the "scaled" mode for HDMI). Even if this isn't really the full "4k" resolution advertised, for me personally, this is actually more than enough. In fact, I dare say that at this resolution, things are slightly too small... Unfortunately, it's not really an option to bump up the font scaling/dpi setting yet, as all the other monitors I use would be adversely affected by such a change (and changing it tends to be quite disruptive, requiring logging in and out), and bloody Windows won't let me use different settings for different monitors...Gah!  (I'm starting to see why my supervisor switched to a Mac... he was using similar sized monitors for a year or two before making the jump).  Since this is still just the first night, I'll leave it as-is, and review/revise over time as it becomes clearer what the better setup will be here. Maybe I can keep it on this current setting and put it on a monitor arm (to deal with the fontsize issue), or maybe I keep it like this and zoom in manually on everything (as I'm doing now to write this post), or maybe I bump it down to HD (1080) for "everyday" usage (while putting up with the slight fuzziness that brings, at least it's all visible with less eyestrain trying to read small text). Watch this space...

Finally, there's the issue of monitor brightness. Personally, I usually use my monitors at reduced brightness - my laptop is at 70-80% brightness IIRC. I've currently bumped this monitor down to about "10" or "12" (whatever that means). Although this way the image in general looks about right, looking around the room, I realise that it's actually perhaps a bit too bright still (and probably has bit too much of the "blue light" that people talk about). Hmm... more investigations and calibration is probably needed to get this setup working nicely. I'd love to try turning on my desk lamp to try and balance the light coming off the screen, but for tonight, I've had to switch out the lamp's plug for the monitor. So, I may need to reconfigure what I'm doing with all the plugs tomorrow.

I've found that if I don't reduce the default brightnesses of these things, I end up with bloody red eyes that are quite light sensitive, watery, and painful, after spending a few hours staring at such a screen.  (Perhaps the most excruciating experience I've had was with a Viewsonic in one of the labs at uni - The thing had some piercingly bright backlights which made it painful to look at that screen after just a few minutes! Making things worse were that the brightness controls were buggered).



  1. Interesting read :) I picked up a 28" Asus 4K monitor a year ago (quite cheap, too) - not IPS, but with surprisingly good off-axis colour consistency - to replace my dying 30" Dell.

    Using it with a Mac, and while you can go for non-native resolutions (and Hi-DPI options), I've actually got used to using it at the full 4K (3840x2160 (!)). Hard to go back after having that many pixels. Sooo many keyframes on screen, so many layers... so much less zooming in and out of stuff.

    (You'll find a lot to love if and when you switch to Macs - and a lot to irritate and annoy, too... but I wouldn't like to switch back. Couldn't have switched without Blender, though - it let me leave 3DSMax behind without needing to outlay lots of $$ for a commercial Mac-based 3D solution)

  2. I've been thinking of switching to a 4K monitor for a while now, I think it's time. A few friends of mine have them and the resolution is far superior for sure. I have both a Mac and PC though so I'd probably need to buy two, I'd be interested to see which had the best display, I'd say Mac.