Coding Horror

programming and human factors

The IPS LCD Revolution

When I wrote about TN LCD panels 5 years ago, I considered them acceptable, despite their overall mediocrity, mostly due to the massive price difference.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of LCDs on the market now are TN. You can opt to pay a little bit more for one of the few models with *VA – if there are any available in the size you want. *-IPS is widely considered the best all around LCD display technology, but it is rapidly being pushed into the vertical "pro" graphics designer market due to the big jump in price. It's usually not an option, unless you're willing to pay more than twice as much for a monitor.

But when the $499 iPad 3 delivers an amazingly high resolution IPS panel that's almost reference quality, I found myself a whole lot less satisfied with the 27" TN LCDs on my desktop. And on my laptop. And everywhere else in my life.

I'll spare you all the exposition and jump to the punchline. I am now the proud owner of three awesome high resolution (2560x1440) 27" IPS LCDs, and I paid less than a thousand dollars for all three of them.

Three Korean LCDs

(If you're curious about the setup, I use Ergotron monitor arms to fit everything in there.)

I won't deny that it is a little weird, because everything is in Korean. I replaced the Korean 3 prong power cord in the power brick with a regular US power cord I had laying around. But a monitor is a monitor, and the IPS panel is stunning. The difference between TN and IPS is vast in every measurable dimension. No bad pixels on these three panels, either. Although, as my friend Scott Wasson of Tech Report fame says, "every pixel on a TN panel is a bad pixel".

How is this possible? You can thank Korea. All three of these monitors were ordered from Korean eBay vendors, where a great 27" IPS LCD goes for the equivalent of around $250 in local currency. They tack on $100 for profit and shipping to the USA, then they're in business. It's definitely a grey market, but something is clearly out of whack, because no domestic monitor of similar quality and size can be had for anything under $700.

I wanted to get this out there, because I'm not sure how long this grey market will last, and these monitors are truly incredible deals. Heck, it's worth it just to get out of the awful TN display ghetto most of us are stuck in. Scott Wasson got the exact same model of Korean LCD I did, and his thorough review concludes:

Even with those last couple of quirks uncovered, I still feel like I won this thing in a drawing or something. $337 for a display of this quality is absolutely worth it, in my view. You just need to keep your eyes open to the risks going into the transaction, risks I hope I've illustrated in the preceding paragraphs. In many ways, grabbing a monitor like this one on the cheap from eBay is the ultimate tinkerer's gambit. It's risky, but the payoff is huge: a combination of rainbow-driven eye-socket ecstasy and the satisfying knowledge that you paid less than half what you might pay elsewhere for the same experience.

There are literally dozens of variants of these Korean 27" LCDs, but the model I got is the FSM-270YG. Before you go rushing off to type ebay.com in your browser address bar, remember that these are bare-bones monitors being shipped from Korea. They work great, don't get me wrong, but they are the definition of no-frills:

  • Build quality is acceptable, but it's hardly Jony Ive Approved™.
  • These are glossy panels. Some other variants offer matte, if that's your bag.
  • They only support basic dual-link DVI inputs, and nothing, I mean nothing else.
  • There is no on-screen display. The only functional controls are power and brightness (this one caught me out; you must hold down the brightness adjustment for many, many seconds before you see a change.)

Although the noise-to-signal ratio is off the charts, it might be worth visiting the original overclock.net thread on these inexpensive Korean monitors. There's some great info buried in there, if you can manage to extract it from the chaos. And if you're looking for a teardown of this particular FSM-270YG model (minus the OSD, though), check out the TFT Central review.

In the past, I favored my wallet over my eyes, and chose TN. I now deeply regret that decision. But the tide is turning, and high quality IPS displays are no longer extortionately expensive, particularly if you buy them directly from Korea. Is it a little risky? Sure, but all signs point to the risk being fairly low.

In the end, I decided my eyes deserve better than TN. Maybe yours do too.

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Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror