Sharp and Samsung both are working hard to push the market for active matrix liquid-crystal displays (AM LCDs) beyond the traditional notebook computer and desktop monitor markets. Until recently, it was a difficult task to produce AM LCD monitors in sizes larger than 25".
That's all changed with new, widescreen 30" models introduced this year by both companies, as well as by LG Zenith and Philips. What's more, there are 40" AM LCD prototypes lurking in the wings. That means more competition for manufacturers of plasma monitors, and eventually lower prices across the board for all flat-screen multimedia monitors.
Samsung's SyncMaster 241MP ($6,999) is a 24" monitor in a 16:9 configuration with 1900x1200 native pixel resolution, built-in NTSC tuner, and matching stereo speakers that fits out at just under 50 pounds. Sharp's 42-pound, 30" 16:9 LC-30HV2U ($7,995) also offers a built-in NTSC tuner and matching speakers, but with 1280x768 native pixel resolution. Both products are sold into professional and consumer channels.
Look and Feel
With their thin profiles and brushed-silver finish, these are two of the nicer designs for flat-screen monitors I've seen. The Sharp has a curved, aerodynamic pedestal that allows you to tilt the monitor up and down about 30 degrees to find the optimal viewing angle, and you can also pivot the screen 45 degrees left to right. There are no controls or buttons on the front panel—only a few menu and volume selections on top, plus the main power button.
A separate set-top signal interface box connects to the Sharp panel through a cord with a pair of multi-in connectors on it. The set-top box can be mounted several feet away from the screen, and it's where you connect all of your computer and video sources, plus your stereo audio feeds. The RGB connector for PC sources is on the front of the box with a couple of video jacks, while all other jacks are on the rear.
Samsung's monitor has a neat swing support stand, a frame that attaches to the middle of the monitor and lets you tilt the monitor up and down by almost 45 degrees. Unfortunately, you can't pivot the monitor from side to side. Like the Sharp monitor, there are no visible buttons on the front panel—they're hidden on the underside, near the front. Unlike the Sharp, there is no outboard AV control center. All video and computer connections are made through the rear panel and covered up with a snap-on plastic shield.
Both monitors have a wide range of signal connectivity options. Each one will accept RGB computer signals from VGA (640x480) to XGA (1024x768) as well as some SXGA standard rates. In addition, they'll handle interlaced and progressive-scan video from 480I to 1080I as YPbPr signals. The Samsung panel also will accept 720p and 1080i TV sources in the RGB format, something the Sharp monitor will not do.
On the Samsung and Sharp monitors, you get two RCA jacks for wideband component video in addition to a separate 15-pin VGA jack (found on the rear of the Samsung and front of the Sharp's remote video I/O box). The SM 241MP also provides one composite and one S-video jack, while Sharp gives you four separate composite and S-video jacks (some are signal loop-through connections).
Each monitor has a built-in audio amplifier, though the Sharp monitor provides double the audio output power (10 watts versus 5 watts). Both monitors came with accessory speakers that are sufficient for small-room viewing and styled nicely to match each unit. While the Sharp speakers screw into place, the Samsung speakers actually attach with small cylindrical magnets (kinda cool!), making them easier to detach and move around.
Gotta have your analog TV fix? Both monitors feature integrated NTSC tuners, which qualifies them as full-blown HDTV-ready televisions (HDTV reception still requires a separate set-top receiver). All you need to do is connect an antenna or your cable feed to each panel's F connector, and use the auto-tune feature to set up channels. The Samsung monitor even has a low-noise RF preamplifier for weak signals.
Menus and Remotes
The Samsung remote is not easy to use. It has exceedingly small keys, is not intuitive at all, and requires a lot of sequential menu selection, which is one of my major pet peeves. The range of the remote seemed to get better the further away I got from the monitor. The actual menus are quite simple and somewhat limited in function. For example, you won't have any control over RGB drive and bias in video mode; only drive can be set in RGB mode. Essentially, you get one picture setting memory per input.
Sharp's multi-function remote has a very confusing layout. It has over 50 buttons on it and is designed to control not only the monitor, but your DVD player, a cable or other set-top box, and a VCR as well. Fortunately, the menus are simple and employ Sharp's familiar tile-down design first seen on Notevision projectors. Functions like gamma and aspect ratio selection are tied to specific buttons, but color temperature must be set from the menu. There's no adjustment possible for white balance in video modes, only with RGB signals.
Depending on the particular signal source you are watching, you'll be able to change its aspect ratio on each LCD monitor. Both models provide at least two aspect ratio modes with RGB signals ("normal" or dot-by-dot, plus a widescreen expansion mode) and also offer a "zoom" mode for RGB inputs if they are below the native resolution of the panel.
Video aspect ratio selections are pretty much the same on each monitor, although the names are different. In all cases, you can select a 4:3 or "normal" image, plus zoom that same image up in size to fill the screen with widescreen letterboxed video. An "expand" or "full" mode takes anamorphic material from DVDs and other sources and provides the correct 16:9 expansion.
Samsung's unit gets confused at times with input signals. Because it maps to 1200 vertical pixels, you actually have to select a 1:1 map to show 1080i HDTV correctly. Of course, this then results in progressively-smaller images as you move to 720p and 480i/p sources, which must then be restored in a second zoom mode and not as a 1:1 pixel map. Connecting DTV sources to the second component input minimizes this problem to some extent, as you can define two different maps for inputs.
The Sharp was a bit more intelligent about it and usually found the right aspect ratio the first time out. Its default picture setting assumed I wanted to expand all signal interlaced and progressive-scan sources to the full height of the screen.
Picture gamma and color temperature settings varied. Samsung's menu provides four gamma settings plus a standard choice, but you won't have any access to white balance with video signals—only in RGB mode, where you lose the ability to set gamma. Sharp's approach also limits you to white balance adjustments in RGB mode only, but there are five gamma settings and even a black boost mode for enhanced detail. The Sharp monitor also has a ‘red boost' to enhance flesh tones, which helps a little—but not as much as a more accurate white balance calibration would.
Image Quality Tests
I used a variety of signal sources for my image quality tests. RGB signals came from my 866mHz Pentium IV with a Diamond Viper 550 card (good to 1280x1024 pixels), as well as an Extron VTG200 test pattern generator. Additional test patterns came from an AccuPel HDG2000, which can output 43 different 720p and 1080i test patterns for contrast, grayscale, and bandwidth. Everything was switched and distributed by a pair of Extron matrix switchers—the older 128HX (12 in, 8 out RGBHV) and a newer 16x16 Component Plus model.
For video image quality, I used a Sony DVP-S7000 480i DVD player and Panasonic's DVD-RP56 480p DVD player, equipped with Faroudja's FLI2200 de-interlacing chipset. Samsung's SIRT-150 and SIRT-151 DTV set-top receivers provided OTA 8VSB reception. For HDTV, my brand-new JVC HM-DH3000U player output 480p, 720p, and 1080i signals from pre-recorded D-VHS tapes in my library.
Although LCD monitors are not susceptible to burn-in the way plasma display panels are, their grayscale performance is degraded by having the contrast set too high, which usually crushes white levels as well as low blacks. But they still can produce images with linear grayscales and a minimum of false contours.
On the test bench, Sharp's LC-30HV2U bettered the Samsung SM 241MP with a 185:1 ANSI (average) contrast and 259:1 contrast peak reading—double the Samsung's 95:1 ANSI and 112:1 peak readings. The difference was lower black levels on the Sharp panel (.7 nits versus Samsung's 1.1 nits), and I'm certain Sharp's new Advanced Super View pinwheel LC alignment was the reason why.
The Samsung monitor's white field brightness measurement of 104 nits was not quite as high as the Sharp's 130 nits reading. You can get a lot more luminance from either panel, but the best grayscales were seen with these settings. As far as the color of gray went, neither of the LCD monitors could be calibrated to D6500, with the SM 241MP getting a little closer at 50% gray (6390 degrees versus Sharp's 6700 degrees) and producing more natural-looking colors.
This wasn't much of a contest. Even though white balance was a bit more pleasing to the eye on the Samsung (Sharp's monitor couldn't go below 8930 degrees K in video mode), the Samsung just looked crisper with everything from component DVD to 1080i HDTV. I'm sure the higher contrast had everything to do with this outcome, not to mention that it takes far less pixel scaling to match a 768-pixel display.
However, both of these monitors looked substantially better with 480p video fed to them from the Panasonic RP56 DVD. The flag-waving sequence from Video Essentials tells the story—the RP56 did a better job of smoothing out the interlaced scan artifacts and correcting for motion than did either monitor. A good-quality outboard video scalar is still the way to go with any flat screen—for now, at least.
RGB images produced a much closer match-up between the two monitors. Static RGB images are far easier to scale since there is no de-interlacing involved (and no motion artifacts), plus the images aren't moving. Noise and pixel artifacts are that much harder to spot, unless you are looking at extremely fine text or lines of detail which are often dropped.
How about TV reception? In general, video quality was average to below average on both panels, and highly dependent on the quality of the off-air and cable RF sources. Remember that the Sharp and Samsung panels are enlarging analog interlaced video with less than 250 lines of resolution to fill a vertical pixel count of 768 and 1200 pixels, respectively. You'd figure there would be a fair amount of noise and pixel scaling artifacts as a result—and there most definitely is!
For these tests, I selected a fine H text pattern from an Extron VTG200 test generator, and quickly jumped from one output resolution to another, starting at 400x200 pixels and ending at 1600x1200 pixels. This pattern contains lots of high-frequency information and can easily fool a monitor's picture re-sizing circuits.
Samsung's SM 241MP was the better (but slower) performer in this test. This might not be much of a surprise, considering the panel has a native resolution of 1900x1200 pixels, but many of the 4:3 test patterns came up incorrectly sized as 16:9 images. Still, the monitor accepted and displayed 24 out of 25 possible test patterns, although it took a few seconds each time to do so.
Sharp's LC-30HV2U was a bit of an oddity in this test—either it quickly got the test signal right the first time, or it determined a particular input signal was "out of sync range" and gave up altogether. The LC-30HV2U did manage to figure out, size and center 19 of the 25 test signals, getting confused with only three of them. Given Sharp's past performance in my projector tests with their top-notch ImageACE scalar, that's a pretty good showing.
Want to watch DTV on these monitors? Be careful: Neither the Samsung or Sharp has sufficient bandwidth to pass all the detail in 720p and 1080i signals. Using the HDTV chroma and luminance multiburst patterns on the AccuPel HDG2000 as a reference, I discovered the Samsung monitor needed some tweaking to bring out a bit more detail 37.5mHz and had a chroma phase error at that frequency.
The Sharp monitor didn't fare much better, turning this section of the pattern into a solid gray bar with no chroma, indicating a even more restricted signal bandwidth. However, both monitors did show an 18.5mHz pattern with sufficient detail. What this means is that you'll be able to watch HDTV programs, but not with as much fine detail as you'd see on a premium-grade HD monitor. The resulting pictures look more like a SuperBit DVD or 480p DTV programming.
If I had to pick a favorite, Sharp's LC-30HV2U would get my nod. This monitor is a true diamond in the rough; with expanded bandwidth and sync compatibility (plus better white balance adjustments), it would be a great product. Truth is, there are a lot more computer and video signal sources close to the LC-30HV2U's native resolution of 1280x768 pixels, so it doesn't have to work as hard to scale the inputs up or down to fit the screen.
Samsung's SM 241MP is a good product which performed well in many aspects and has lots of potential. However, its user interfaces (such as image adjustment menus and the remote control) need work. I also don't know if the market will pay what this monitor costs for a screen that measures only 24" in size—the Sharp is only $1K more but 6" larger, and both look about the same when it comes to showing 720p, 1080i, and XGA (1024x768) computer images.
Sharp Electronics Corporation www.sharplcd.com
Samsung Electronics America www.samsung.com