13 September 2017
Last week I purchased an Acer Predator XB127HU, a 27" 1440p/165Hz, G-Sync-enabled IPS screen. And while the picture quality left me gobsmacked with its colourful pop and sheer clarity there were numerous issues I had with it, as well as one critical hardware failing that ended in my returning it.
Sadly, there's no real alternative to the XB271HU as Asus and Viewsonic's offerings use panels from the same factory, leaving them prone to all the same failings and shortcomings.
The New Kid
So instead, I decided to go for a different kind of monitor: The Dell S2417DG, a 24" 1440p/165Hz, G-Sync-enabled TN screen. How would the pixel density of 1440p hold up in a 24" form factor? What about the drawbacks of using TN over IPS?
Well, after a few hours with it I'm quite happy with the screen, both as an alternative to the XB127HU (with some caveats), and as a replacement for my AOC G2460PG (24", 1080p/144Hz, G-Sync-enabled TN panel).
The Acer came with a low quality DisplayPort cable that offered only enough slack to connect it to the graphics card... And that's fine... until you start using the ergonomic powers of your VESA arm and find the cable (with its catching latch) has torn itself apart, partly lodging in the monitor.
The Dell comes with a longer cable that has enough slack for ergonomic adjustments (though I'd like a bit more cable still), it has no catching mechanism to hold it in place, either (which is good or bad depending on how you look at it).
Oddly, the Dell cable has been folded upon itself multiple times (every 5 inches or so across its length), which might be responsible for it lacking the stiffness and inflexibility common to most DisplayPort cables.
The Acer featured a glossy-matte coating designed to enhance image clarity and bring vivid colours to the fore. But in certain situations it could be intrusive, giving deep blacks a sort of glittery appearance (a bit like how some colours have a weird holographic glow when using 3D on the 3DS), or giving white screens a wiped-a-wet-towel-on-the-screen look when viewed at off-angles/close (essentially negating the viewing angle benefits of going IPS in the first place).
The Dell has none of these shortcomings. However, it does feature a fine grain apparent at close range on white screens. That said, if you do happen to be sitting close you'll likely find the effect less distracting than whatever is happening on the Acer as it' clear it's part of the screen, and not something itching to be wiped off.
This one's a tie. The Dell has an easier to navigate UI because the function of the buttons isn't as context dependent/prone to change depending on which layer of which menu you're on, making for a consistent and relatively intuitive experience.
However, it must be said that the buttons are stiff and require more force than they really should. On a plus note the Dell powers on instantly, with no wind-up time before showing an image or intrusive branding/logo splash screen (which, TBH, most monitors are guilty of, not just the Acer).
Image Quality: Static
At first blush the Acer is the clear winner when it comes to image quality. The combination of the 1440p resolution and superb contrast afforded by its IPS screen deliver a one-two punch that left me gobsmacked at the sheer pop of games like Rayman Origins and Trails of Cold Steel. Further, the dark scene performance in Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition's catacombs were on the mark, being sufficiently dingy, without banding into an incomprehensible mess. I could play horror games on the Acer without trouble.
The Dell, by contrast, err... lacks contrast. Even after calibration (which is a necessity for the Dell). Don't get me wrong, it looks GREAT in scenes with lots of popping colours, and it handles dark scenes with all the gradient and nuance the Acer does (arguably better without the intrusive coating the Acer sports)... but it didn't blow my socks off the way the Acer did.
This is despite the fact that the Dell sports a higher pixel density than the Acer (which should give it the clear lead in image clarity)... only it doesn't: the excellent colours and contrast of the Acer, with its rich colours and inky blacks actually contribute more to a bold, defined image than the pixel density; the bulk of the improvements to image I saw going from the AOC 1080p TN panel to the Acer's 1440p IPS panel were down to colour performance, not resolution difference.
But the story begins to shift once we start looking more discerningly at moving images: Enter games.
Image Quality: Motion
A TN panel should be expected to beat an IPS panel in motion clarity as they sport faster pixel response times. It's often said, however, that only a pro-gamer with a trained eye would notice the difference between the 1ms of a TN and the 4ms of an IPS, and then only at the fastest of framerates.
Well, I must have the eyes of a hawk then (despite the glasses) because running through the opening stage of Sonic: Lost World on the Acer's IPS display immediately threw up issues for me (and Lost World is capped at 60fps).
When Sonic was ping-ponging and criss-crossing laterally across the screen past spires of greenery there was something "off" about the IPS. It just wasn't possible for my eyes to track the motion of the scenery flying by with the clarity I was accustomed to on my AOC G2460PG. On some, almost unconscious level, the motion eluded focus.
On the Dell I cleared the stage and what jumped out to me was... absolutely nothing. There was no unconscious hiccups at all, as one would expect of a gaming-oriented TN panel.
However, the Dell goes further by besting the AOC's motion processing: when playing Sonic Mania I found I could track the lateral movement of a full-speed Sonic hurtling across the screen and through corkscrews with more ready ease than I've been able to on any display.
It's not quite at the point where I can focus directly on Sonic and the scenery flying by his shoulders without getting queasy (but then no display can), but the motion stands up to scrutiny far better than any other display I've used, and in practice (when you aren't staring at one point on the screen) translates to a more comfortable viewing experience overall.
The appreciable input lag of a monitor is another area where IPS has seen great gains over the years. And as if to bear that out the Acer felt no different to play on to me than the AOC TN screen.
However, the Dell once again delivered a subtle, but borderline perceptible increase in snappiness when jumping from orb to orb in Sonic Mania's climactic zone. Keep in mind this is a difference perceivable to an amateur, on a 60fps game, played with a controller, that's wireless. I'd imagine the difference is more pronounced in a pro-gaming scenario.
In order for the Acer to maintain the appropriate warmth to display white-whites whilst maintaining colour accuracy it has to be set exceptionally bright. This has the effect of being eye-searing, making bright games in a darkened room impossible, and MS Word induce borderline instantaneous blindness even used in a lit room. Conversely, reducing the brightness to acceptable levels robbed the display of its trademark visual punch.
So while the Acer might have won the static image quality award for its bold colours, in real life usability tests it actually delivers a less punchy image that's relatively closer to the Dell (once your retinal safety has been accounted for). In essence the Acer's colour advantage is significantly pared back unless you know you are going to be using it in a brightly lit room, studio, or tanning salon.
The Dell stood up to my darkened room test satisfactorily. I found the prescribed brightness setting of 58/100 to work in both darkened rooms and well lit rooms alike for most content (though white screens where uncomfortable in the dark).
Incidentally, the lower brightness meant less extreme backlight bleed on the Dell (limited to the bottom corners) than the Acer. Not that the Acer I used had bad backlight bleed, it's just that the effect of the bleed came across in a yellowish hue (though normally only appreciable on wholly black screens) whereas on the Dell it's more of a deep purple that gels better with the black on the rest of the screen.
So while the Acer does indeed have the deeper blacks, on all black screens the Dell actually gives the impression of greater uniformity, even if its black is a tad warmer.
Aside: Viewing Experience
At some point pixel density and viewing distance are both high enough that a screen effectively becomes a 'retina display', where the individual pixels are indiscernible, making resolution increases largely a lost cause.
As someone who sits around 40" from my screens I found that the 27" Acer looked considerably cleaner/crisper when going from 1080p to 1440p. Not so on the Dell where the screen size and PPI colluded to keep the resolution jump from being much of a jump at all. Combined with the gut-punch the contrast of the Acer provided the Dell certainly felt like a smaller upgrade than the Acer did over my AOC TN.
But there's two sides to this coin: the Dell handles 1080p content with less appreciable loss of quality because of this. This might also be in part down to the internal display scaler producing a result that looks pretty much the same as the 1080p AOC of the same size.
If I had to choose which of these two monitors to hook a console up to it would be the Dell. That said, I've yet to try it out (and I wonder if the input lag gains and motion processing quality will carry over to console gaming over the HDMI port).
The short answer is between the (exemplary) quality of the scaler and the density of the pixels the image quality on its 24" display is a clear (albeit small) upgrade over the 27" native 1080p screen I normally use for console gaming. If it were compared against a1080p 24" panel it might end up looking a mite softer, but in my apples to oranges comparison I found the image to be clear and text crisp.The colour tones and contrast in games like Persona 5 were spot on, both in-game and during the anime cutscenes.
Pre-rendered Video Performance
However, it should be noted that Persona 5's pre-rendered anime sections are of high quality, not all games use such high quality cutscenes, leading to less flattering results: macroblocking and other artefacts are visible under scrutiny in cases of zealous compression (The Nathan Drake Collection's cutscenes outed themselves as pre-rendered, whereas on other screens I've been unable to discern them from gameplay).
Distant Detail Resolution
One thing that did surprise me is I can now tell in games when something in the distance is blurry because of LOD quality, simply being too far away from the camera to resolve, or masked by a DOF filter. This was something I found I couldn't tell as well with my 27" monitor with things in the distance just being muddy/not worth concentrating on.
So far, my fears of using it to play console games seem to have been baseless (though I have yet to see how it will handle the 720p content of many Wii U games).
The other thing I got to try out was the headphone port on the left-side of the monitor (which is tastefully blacked out). The volume ceiling on it is rather low (though adequate in my testing with Yakuza Kiwami) but there was no distortion, hissing or any other audio artefacting. but it simply doesn't deliver the same range of ambient sound that the DualShock 4's included headphone port does (the chatter of NPCs around Kamurucho were immediately more pronounced on the DS4).
I'd consider the included headphone port merely functional, yet perfectly adequate for podcasts and the like. However I wouldn't attempt to watch movies or play games through it as the chances are your connected device will feature better sound quality on its headphone ports. If Dell revise/update the monitor they could include some better DAC circuitry to improve the sound.
Lastly, let's talk about packaging. Why? Because if you ever have to RMA a monitor it will be the last thing you will appreciate/hate. It's nice to have packaging that doesn't require a factory robot to cram everything back in between crumbling bits of polystyrene.
The Acer was a complete nightmare in this regard (which is funny given the poor QC with those screens), but the Dell packaging is neatly laid out, doesn't include an excess of pointless wrapping, and hasn't been put together seemingly in a zero gravity vacuum: You'll have no trouble extracting the monitor, nor getting it back factory packed should you ever need to.
That awkward dance of wiggling tightly sandwiched electronics out of an upturned box gives way here to a couple of latches that let you simply lift away the top cover as if you were accessing a toolbox, and not highly secured nuke.
There's no massive chunks of breakable polystyrene here, just good old snugly packed cardboard cartons, cushioned by solid cardboard pockets built into the box itself for the express purpose of taking shocks. More manufacturers should build shock resistance into their boxes, rather than stuffing them impossibly full of flaky packaging.