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Easy Color Management: A Review of the NEC PA271W Display

Have you ever gotten prints back from the lab only to be disappointed that the colors don’t seem to match up with how things look on your display? Maybe the color temperature is a bit off, or the prints don’t have the right level of contrast. Welcome to the wonderful world of color management!

Trying to keep colors accurate from capture to print can be a frustrating process if you’re not using the right tools.

Today we’re going to look at the NEC MultiSync PA271W, a 27inch proofing grade display that will ensure what you see on your screen is what you’ll see in print.

The NEC MultiSync PA271W. Just what the Photo Robot ordered!

Upload from December 08, 2011

Notes

  • NEC was kind enough to send me a display for the purpose of this review. I’ve been given the option to purchase the reviewed display at a discounted price—an option I’ll probably be taking advantage of!
  • I have never owned a professional proofing grade display before and I don’t have much technical knowledge about monitors. Despite that I’ll do my best to share with you what I’ve learned so far and to provide my honest opinion of the display.
  • I’m testing this monitor on a MacBook Pro. I’m using the supplied display port cable along with a 3rd party DisplayPort-to-Mini DisplayPort adapter

Why Photographers Need Professional Displays

Here’s the big question. How important is it for you to have total control over the look of your photos? If you’re just getting started, it probably doesn’t matter too much. But as you progress you’ll find you become more and more obsessed with details. With a pro-level display you get complete control over the details. Let’s break it down.

Better results for prints

With a proofing grade display you can be pretty much certain that what you see on the screen is how things will look when printed.

Now, a screen that transmits light will be a little different than a paper print that reflects light. What creates the difference is mainly the color temperature of the light that you view prints under. What you can actually do is calibrate your display to different color temperatures in order to simulate what paper would look like under different color temperature lights! Total control.

The big point: If you want your prints to look like they do on your screen then a proofing grade display is a necessary investment.

Better results for screens

If you’re not planning on printing your images then a pro display might be even more important. These days a lot of photos don’t actually end up as prints, and are only seen on screens. Because the display is essentially your final output, having a good one ensures the final look of your images is the way you intended.

What’s Included

The display arrived in a sturdy, well packaged, box. Inside the box was:

  • The display
  • Power cable
  • USB cable (to connect the monitor’s USB ports to the computer)
  • DVI cable
  • Displayport cable
  • SpectraView II software
  • SpectraSensor Pro display calibrator
  • CD w/manual

The display model I’m reviewing is the PA271W-BK-SV which includes the SpectraView calibration system. You can also purchase a version of the display without the calibrator.

About The Display

  • 27 inches diagonally
  • Resolution: 2560×1440 pixels
  • 97.1% coverage of the AdobeRGB colorspace
  • 3 USB ports
  • 2 x DVI ports
  • 1 x DisplayPort
  • Retail price w/ SpectraView Calibrator US$1649
  • Retail price w/o Calibrator US$1399
  • Comes with a 4 year limited warranty
  • Compatible with Mac and PC

Setting Things Up

The monitor was really easy to setup. The handle on the top of the display made it easy to carry the monitor to my office and position it on my desk. The power cable and DisplayPort cable were easy to connect. I used a 3rd party DisplayPort-to-Mini DisplayPort adapter to plug into my MacBook Pro. It’s important what kind of cable / adapter you use as not all are compatible. (Read more about this under the Tips section later on!)

I installed the SpectraView Software, waited the required 30 minutes to warm up the monitor, and then used the supplied sensor to calibrate the display. Calibration went smoothly. You simply plug in the calibrator to a USB port on your compter, open the SpectraView II software and click calibrate. The sensor has a protector that you flip off before placing on the screen. I’ve read of people mistakenly leaving the cover on, but the instructions are pretty clear.

The PA271W is being calibrated on the left hand side, and my Dell 24inch Ultrasharp is on the right hand side.

Upload from December 08, 2011

First Thoughts

When the calibration was complete the color of the display looked way better! I had a freshly calibrated 24in Dell Ultrasharp setup right beside the PA271. I brought up a couple test images up on both screens. The difference was pretty remarkable—way more than I expected. The color of the PA271W was way closer to what I could see in print. The PA271W also showed better detail in dark shadows. Way more detail could also be seen in highlight areas. I was shocked to see what I had obviously been missing with the Dell Ultrasharp.

Another thing that really impressed me was the size and resolution of the display. Text is crisp and easy to read. And photos obviously look fantastic!

Testing the Display

I’ve used the display for about 80 hours so far (the software tracks usage) and it’s been a pleasure to use! My testing has been pretty casual, and more about typical usage than scientific analysis.

Prints

I looked at prints from our album manufacturer along with lustre prints I’ve done myself on an Epson 3880. Under my office lighting the color and contrast from print to screen looked quite accurate.

Comparison to the Dell 24in Ultrasharp

As mentioned this monitor was mainly compared to a 24in Dell Ultrasharp (calibrated with a Spyder3Pro). Both were calibrated to the same the same color settings. The PA271W was calibrated
a bit brighter than the Dell but close enough to make some ballpark comparisons.

As mentioned the PA271W showed better detail in highlights and shadows. The color also seemed more accurate when compared to prints. Colors (in particular skin tones) seemed more realistic. A huge difference between the two monitors was how color looked at different viewing angles. The PA271W looks fantastic from a fairly wide viewing angle. The Ultrasharp quickly changes colours as you move away from a central viewing point.

The PA271W on the left, and the Dell 24in Ultrasharp on the right. Obviously photos won’t do either monitor justice but you can still see a noticeable difference, especially in color and shadow detail.

Upload from December 08, 2011

The most noticeable difference comes with viewing angle. This shot was taken at about a 45 deegree angle. The PA271W does an incredible job of showing consistent color at wide viewing angles. The color shift in the Ultrasharp is quite noticeable.

Upload from December 08, 2011

Video

Video looks great on the monitor. I did a bit of video editing work in Premiere Pro, and I also downloaded a couple HD movie trailers from Apple. You can profile the display for broadcast video, but it looked good to me with the Photo Editing profile. Response time for the display seems great. I couldn’t see any noticeable ghosting and 1080p video looks beautiful with the display’s high resolution (even though it only takes up about 2/3rds of the screen!). I don’t play video games but with this display I could be tempted!

What You’ll Love About This Display

The NEC MultiSync PA271W with SpectraView II is basically a turn-key solution for color management. I love that the display, the cables, the calibrator, and the software are all bundled together (and all work well together!). At US$1,649 it’s also quite reasonably priced for such a hassle-free solution. I was pretty doubtful about the value of such a display but after the brief time I’ve spent testing it, I feel foolish for not budgeting for this sooner. I think a monitor like this could help a lot of photographers take the quality of their editing and their prints to a much higher level.

You can swivel the screen using just one hand, which works well for me if I want to show Lauren something I’m working on (the extra wide viewing angle also comes in handy here). You can also move the display up or down and adjust tilt, but you have to use both hands for that.

The display itself also looks great. It’s a bit thicker than you might expect but not in an ugly way.

The bezel is quite low profile. The buttons on the monitor are unobtrusive and the menu is straightforward. 

Upload from December 08, 2011

The stand and base are pretty sleek. Photo Robot approves!  

Upload from December 08, 2011

One feature I like is that the display features multiple inputs (2 x DVI and 1 x DisplayPort) so you can connect the display to multiple computers and then just switch inputs on the display to switch between computers. It also features two USB inputs so that you can connect a USB cable to both computers. If you plug a keyboard and mouse into the display you can set it up so that when you switch inputs your keyboard and mouse also switch to the active computer. This is great for me because I work between a MacBook Pro and a Mac Pro.

There’s one more DVI input hiding under the stand’s shadow!

Upload from December 08, 2011

One final thing that you’ll love about this display is how easy it is to calibrate! It’s important to regularly calibrate, and because it’s so simple with this monitor I know I’ll actually do it.

Tips

  • When using the calibrator make sure to slide off the protective ambient light cover.
  • If you need to plug the monitor into a Mini DisplayPort like the ones found on MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros then you’ll either need to purchase an approved NEC cable or get an adapter. The problem is that most cables and adapters don’t work properly with the monitor (because most cables aren’t properly manufactured to the DisplayPort spec). I found a StarTech adapter that I’m using with the supplied DisplayPort cable and it’s been functioning perfectly (what’s great about this particular adapater is that it doesn’t block the neighbouring USB port on the MacBook Pro – this is the only DisplayPort adapter I’ve found so far like this).
  • DVI vs. DisplayPort: Only the DisplayPort cable will deliver the 10bit signal the display is capable of producing. A DVI cable will only deliver 8bits. The problem is that if you’re using a Mac you’re limited to 8bit anyway. From what I understand only Windows 7 is capable of delivering a 10bit signal. If you have loads of free time or lots of curiosity head to this Wikipedia article to learn more about color depth.

Where to Buy

I would suggest picking up the display/calibrator combo (PA271W-BK-SV). The calibrator works perfectly with the display, and is actually a custom X-Rite i1 Display Pro calibrator.

Final Thoughts

I decided to review this monitor after a discussion with my printer. I asked him how important he thought a professional monitor was in photography. His reply was typical and poignant; “How much do you value your images?”. After seeing what this display is capable of, I can see that I haven’t been valuing my images enough. While I’m still learning how to use this display, I’m excited about the room it gives me to improve my editing and my prints.

A special thanks to Klyment Tan for suggesting this monitor to me.

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

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Discussion

8 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. I have the 26" version of this monitor. NEC does make some very good monitors. What do you recommend for those of us who have iMacs? In fact, that's the reason I am selling my 26" NEC. Thoughts?

  2. Reading this makes me a bit envious! I would LOVE a new larger display for viewing, editing, and just enjoying my photos. I currently use an NEC MultiSync (I am a bit ashamed/proud to say that it is probably about 6-7 years old) and would DEFINITELY purchase another–I have LOVED it that much!!

  3. I'm currently considering a new computer… trying to decide between going with another imac or a mac pro tower and display. This is now making my decision harder! :)

  4. Thanks for the review. Until now I considered the Ultrasharp to be the best game in town at that price point. I was glad that you did a comparison between the two. One comment I will make is that for accurate prints, a colour profile from the printer is also nice. I do a lot of prints at Costco that come out nice using the profiles available here http://www.drycreekphoto.com/icc/ combined with a properly calibrated monitor.

  5. Thanks for commenting friends!

    @GayleV – I hope this monitor lasts me that long!

    @Nikki & Seshu – You could always use the NEC as a second display with the iMac. All you have to do is plug the monitor into the iMacs Mini DisplayPort and you'll be able to span across both screens.

    I've been tempted by the iMac. It's a powerful computer! I think the problem is that it's not really designed with photographers in mind. The display isn't very adjustable, is not a pro level panel, and only comes with a gloss finish. The computer itself also isn't very upgradable (no expansion slots, and no room for additional hard drives).

    We've been using Mac Pros since they released the first Intel versions in 2006. They are solid reliable machines, that have definitely been worth the investment. Computers, displays, and backup solutions are a pretty tough problem when it comes to using a Mac and being a photographer. I think Apple is focusing more on it's consumer audience than it's professional audience (as the Mac Pro hasn't been updated in ages).

    Sorry for the long tangential reply!

  6. Superb information, as always. Once again, thank you for kindly sharing your reviews/tips/knowledge! :-)

  7. Rob,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write out this review. I’ve been looking all over for this exact setup in mind but was always afraid to spend the money on an expensive monitor (lets not mentioned the MBP). I just got myself a MBP and can’t wait to purchase this monitor. You guys are the best!

    Regards,
    Klo

  8. I bought this display and it looks great…..but I’ve had a lot of problems with getting it functioning correctly. I have worked a long time in the biz and have worked on Cinema display’s, Eizo’s and older Multisync 26″.

    At first I powered it with my MacBook Pro 2011 I7 which was a disaster with the dreaded black flicker problem. I know adapters work for some, but others didnt seem to find resolution with them.

    For various reasons I decided to ditch the MacBook Pro and bought a new quad core Mac Pro. The black flicker went away, but then I had what I describe as stair stepping artifacting. This only showed in ps CS5. Connection was dvi-dvi. After lots of frustration finally got some resolution with turning on “vertical sync” in ps preferences.

    I still feel that the screen looks a little choppy when panning around in an image, but maybe I’m a bit too sensitive about it now. Most impressive is screen angle viewing which is superb! Monitor also looks sharper then the Eizo’s I’ve worked on. Thanks for the review.

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