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BenQ 4K SW271 Photo Editing Monitor Review

Posted: March 18th, 2018


Earlier this February, BenQ sent me a BenQ SW271 PhotoVue 4k photographer monitor, asking for my opinion and how it helped (or didn't help) on my work processing astronomical images.

Many photographers spend thousands of dollars on photographic equipment while they do their editing on limited gamut and poorly calibrated monitors, yet, the monitor is an incredibly important part of any photographer nowadays, and whenever I get my hands on a new one, I really want to know what it's capable of. For that reason, in addition to an honest review about how I feel with this monitor, I briefly discuss some of the tests I did, particularly during the calibration process and even some personal tips.

Out of the box

First things first. When you open the box, you immediately see an individual color report for the monitor in the box. It's not very comprehensive but it shows you the measured gamma, gamut and RGB primaries among other things.

Truth is, I must say the factory calibration was really impressive. For those who haven't got a colorimeter or another calibration device, they should be really really happy with the colors out of the box. Other companies can be hit or miss, but I haven't heard any complains about BenQ monitors when it comes to this - perhaps that's why the color report is the very first thing you see.

Installation was a breeze. It really was. I've put together quite a number of monitors and while it's usually a fairly intuitive process, I could tell BenQ put some thought into making assembly a completely no-brainer. In fact, you may spend as much time installing the optional monitor shade afterward as installing the monitor - and installing the shade is just as easy!

The monitor also comes with more cables than you'll need (USB, HDMI, DP...). It also has a cute hotkey puck that allows you to switch between color spaces with the click of a button. The monitor's native resolution is 4K 3840 by 2160 @ 60Hz. If your card only supports 30Hz, video won't be as smooth - get a better card.

First Light

Once you start using the SW271, you can tell very quickly it's a very good monitor on a number of things, even prior to running your own calibration. Text is really crisp and the factory calibration was showing colors that appeared deeper and richer than on my other monitor (a Dell U2711).

The documented features are undoubtedly sexy: 10-bit RGB, HDR10 or 14-bit 3D LUTs, 99% AdobeRGB, GamutDuo, etc. I would check some of these, although not all of them. Below is a poorly made shot at my screen while testing GamutDuo, which basically allows you to see two different color spaces simultaneously. I personally don't need this feature, since I use a dual monitor system, but otherwise this is a really great feature to have.

Astrophoto editing with the SW271

Since most people will probably be interested in my experience using the monitor rather than reading all the bits about performance tests and calibration details, I'll start with the former.

A good quality monitor is a must for anyone doing image editing, and pulling out the faint dust from a nebula in an image compressing so much dynamic range surely sounds like a task for which a really good monitor would definitely come handy.

Visuals

The BenQ SW271 will not disappoint. As mentioned, contrast is really crisp but not overcooked, and you can easily "see" the very rich wide gamut that it provides by quickly switching color spaces. I've been using a Dell U2711 for the last few years that I've learned to adore and I have to admit that switching from one screen to the other (I now use both in a dual setup) does put the Dell monitor to shame in all counts, period. Remember, I've loved my U2711 for the last few years, so this isn't something I say lightly.

Some other things I like is that there's virtually no glare or reflections without sacrificing black depth. Also, while the design isn't fancy like those expensive Apple monitors, I find the SW271 design extremely sexy with a very thin bezel and other small nice touches like the handle on top of the stand's tower. Something I enormously appreciate is that I've noticed extended hours in front of this monitor does not cause nearly as much fatigue as I've experienced with other displays.

The screen real estate that a 4K monitor gives you is definitely a plus if you're coming from a less-than-4k experience. Those who have a single monitor setup will definitely love that extra desktop space so they can, for instance, visualize an entire photograph while also displaying processing tools and what not.

Handling smaller pixel size

The one touchy subject, as it usually happens with all 27" 4K monitors, is pixel size. First, I'll emphasize that this is not a BenQ issue but something inherent to all 27" 4K monitors (and to an extent, displays up to 32"), but since that's something you would encounter with the SW271, it's worth briefly discussing how I dealt with it.

Pixel size shouldn't be a problem at the OS level - all modern operating systems offer scaling options on several features (font size, etc), and if this was your first 4K monitor, it would be worth spending a bit of time until you find the settings that work best for you, both at the OS and application levels.

Now, when editing an image, a smaller pixel size makes small details even smaller, something many photographers would find disadvantageous, but perhaps an even more concerning issue for astrophotography is that noise in the image may not be as noticeable. Remember, an image that fills up an entire 2k screen will appear about half the size on a 4k display. Astrophotography being nothing but a battle between signal and noise, our ability to "see" noise in our images is definitely important. My solution may not be too inspiring at first, but it works for me and it could work for you too.

In short, you need to train your brain to handle two new scenarios:

  1. Adjusting your perception when it comes to visualize a 100% zoomed image at this pixel size. Do NOT stick your head right next to the display in order to see details better, but getting a bit close to the display (never closer than 1 foot), noticing some details and slowly moving back to your normal position while keeping your eyes on those details is a good exercise for your brain to learn how to interpret the smaller images.

  2. In a similar fashion, use the built-in zoom capabilities of your photo editing software and train your brain to interpret it. A zoom of 200% is usually adequate. It's very important to keep in mind that when zooming in, most photo editing apps  take shortcuts to display the zoomed-in image quickly. In other words, the 200% zoomed-in rendition you see on screen will likely not be rendered as accurately as if you actually rescaled the image by 200% although perceptively, the differences shouldn't matter much. For that reason, I do the "zoom" thing sparingly and only for very specific situations.

Again, the idea here is to get acquainted with a new way to analyze your images so that you have the monitor work for you, not the other way around. This "new" way also has its advantages, and as you become more skillful at it, you'll realize that having to adjust your perception to the new situation was just a first step but in the end what you've done is to embrace a new situation, take control over it and use it to your advantage.

Calibration

For the calibration I used an XRite i1 DisplayPro device and two different software applications: DisplayCAL3 (for measurements only) and BenQ's own Palette Master Element for measurements and the actual calibration.

Unlike most calibration software, which calibrate the display by modifying the graphic card's output, Palette Master Element makes the adjustments inside the monitor (hardware calibration) via LUTs stored in the monitor. This isn't only a much more precise and efficient way to do it than software calibration, it also requires less effort and it allows for high-bit depth LUTs regardless of what graphic card you have. Many cards don't have high-bit depth LUTs, which results in undesired color "jumps" in the calibration curves. The SW271 features 14-bit 3D LUTs. What this means in layman terms is that the adjustments made during calibration will be much more precise.

Curves, gamut and DeltaE values

The calibration curves were nearly straight lines. This tells us the calibration was really good, nailing the perfect match across all color values.

In the image below you can also see some of the most general values acquired during calibration. While most people default to 120cd/m2, you'll see I set my target to 160cd/m2. What can I say? I'm a bright guy ;-)

By the way, if you are put off by that 735:1 contrast ratio in the image below, that's probably because you've been saturated by TV companies advertising ridiculous contrast ratio values (I have seen displays advertising 20,000,000:1 ratios and higher). In short, these numbers measure different things. The one usually advertised is dynamic contrast ratio (which isn't a technical way to measure a display's contrast but a marketing tool and nothing more, BTW), while the value generated by the calibration process is static contrast ratio. BenQ advertises a 1000:1 static ratio, but I wasn't concerned about the 735 score. As far as true contrast ratios go, 735:1 is really good, plus I'm not sure if the higher Luminance value may have affected the results.

BenQ claims the SW271 covers 99% of the Adobe RGB color space, and my tests didn't disagree with that at all. In the graphic below you can see how the measured monitor's gamut (colored lines) and Adobe RGB color space (gray, dotted lines) are nearly identical.

Color accuracy was also incredible. I won't copy the entire report, but all DeltaE values were below 2.0, many even below 1.0. If you're not familiar with what these values mean, let's just say that the perfect value is zero, and 2.0 is the smallest difference indistinguishable to the human eye, so anything below 2.0 is good.

Uniformity

Uniformity was... well... formidable! Perfect uniformity is extremely expensive. In fact, many popular brands are horrible at this, and the SW271 price tag would make us think the display's uniformity would be just "good enough". In fact, the BenQs SW series is not a uniformity corrected series like, say, their PV series. And yet, my uniformity test yielded incredibly accurate numbers for bright, midtones and dark measurements.

It's probably fair to say that any monitor that has a delta of 20% less is a good choice for photo editing work. Of course, the lower the better and, as you can see, this SW271 scored remarkably low. If you're getting 6~9% uniformity variations from a non-uniformity corrected monitor, you should be thrilled you didn't spend the extra bucks on a uniformity-corrected monitor.

Those were the numbers but visually, the display showed both dark backlit and bright setting also as even as it gets. Absolutely no noticeable difference from center to corner. To the naked eye, I'm talking perfection.

Conculsion

My conclusion on the BenQ SW271 is that I couldn't be happier with it. As important a monitor is for (astro) photography, I am not the kind of person who spends 3 to 5,000 dollars on a monitor, but I understand that a commitment somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500 is deserved given the work I do. The SW271 will probably score a bit lower in some aspects when compared to monitors that cost three or four times as much, and yet, it's a professional grade monitor that delivers what they promise, and they promise a lot! Compared to other monitors in this price range - and even more expensive - I'm glad I ran into what I think is definitely an amazing bang for the buck!



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