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We have long held the view that the ideal monitor for creatives in the visual arts industries would have the following characteristics:
We've been evaluating the first SW271C unit to make its way into Australia, and as we'll see, the new BenQ SW271C monitor pretty much hits all these targets bang on.
(The SW321C is the equivalent, but even bigger and better alternative, if that's your thing!).
The SW271C replaces BenQ's SW271 - one of the most popular monitors in the high end imaging community, for some time now.
That model has been a very solid performer for BenQ, and folks in just about all of the visual arts have embraced it and used it successfully for professional work. It's been popular with photographers, of course, but also a lot of videographers looking to do 4k editing and playback. Thanks to the 4k resolution, which brings excellent text rendering to the table, it has also found a home with many other content creators in the Graphic Design, VFX and CAD/CAM markets.
Part of the success was the aggressive pricing - although thanks to COVID and the $AU it crept up a little over time, it has always been clearly very good value. It's also proves to ve a very reliable model - we get net to no support calls about them. In short, it really just does the job for everyone who makes the purchase.
Whilst the SW271 feels like an older model, now, the reality is that even a few years after its release, few monitors match its feature set, and none really match the quality/performance/price ratio. It's good enough that even some Image Science staff (often surrounded by Eizos here in the office) - have chosen it for their own home monitor (and now sniffily look down on any 2K options!).
SW271C Key Features
Improvements over the SW271
The primary competition to this monitor is the Eizo CS2740 - which, for an equivalent package with a monitor hood - is about $800 or so dollars extra, so not an insignificant difference.
The Eizo CS2740 monitor is my current choice of editing monitor - it's what I have been using here at the office for several months now. To my surprise I realise I haven't written up an evaluation of that one, which I should really do - but it's fantastic, there's no other word for it. Not cheap, but really hard to fault in any way - very refined performance across the full gamut, exquisitely uniform, super matte screen coating...it's just about perfect. Where Eizo continues to lead the way is their focus on the subtleties and whole experience - that is, the performance in difficult image regions (shadows, neutrals, uniformity) - remains unequalled, and the refinement of the solution - including Color Navigator software, makes their monitors pleasurable and highly effective tools for imaging professionals. But, quality like that doesn't come cheap!
(Even better would be a CG2740 - i.e. a 4K Eizo CG level monitor (with integrated calibrator) - and one without the truly massive price tag of the (admittedly, utterly exquisite) Eizo CG319...which is a dream monitor, but simply out of the price range for most folks, including me!).
The new BenQ SW271C some in a typical BenQ box. These boxes are massive and basically indestructible. They use predominantly cardboard, in a complex origami form, with minimal foam.
As you open the box, you are greeted with a simple diagram giving you instruction as you go, to make the process clear and easy.
Whilst they can seem a little overwhelming to open, the packaging is a credit to BenQ and shows their attention to detail with respect to customer experience. There are still a few areas they could tweak to be yet clearer, which I will talk about below, but it's fair to say that these monitors are packed appropriately for a premium level product. No careless courier bump is going to hurt one of these!
In addition to the instructions for unpacking this beautiful beast, you will notice a black envelope containing the BenQ SW271C Individual Calibration Report.
The second page shows the excellent gamma tracking.
There's also a DICOM evaluation, showing the monitor's suitability for work in the general medical imaging field.
Diagnostic monitors have to hit yet higher targets (with legal compliance to consider), but for general medical imaging use this is an excellent option.
As is, unfortunately, the modern way, there is no manual as such.
Just an image rich, but text light, Quick Start Guide, that (in my experience) leads to more confusion in customers that such a thing should. There's a lot of room for improvement here - some simple text explanations would go a long way to over-coming common pitfalls.
Hopefully out notes below will supplement this guide, and get you on the right path quickly.
Here's the guide in all it's 'glory':
Assembly is not difficult and pretty standard for this sort of thing.
The monitor base is attached to the monitor arm. You line up two little triangles, and twist. Then a thumb screw on the base can be screwed in to make this join permanent.
The monitor arm is then simply clipped into the waiting VESA 10 by 10 mount on the back of the monitor.
It's easy, takes about two minutes, and the result is a very solid stand with excellent range of movement in all directions. It should suit just about everyone. If you need more movement, or perhaps you want to install the monitor in such a way you can easily move it right out of the way, then any monitor mount/arm you can find with a 10 by 10 VESA mount should work. These are readily available online (we recommend Ergotron arms, they're very solid and reliable, although not cheap).
BenQ include an excellent free monitor hood with the SW271C.
Whilst not quite as fancy as Eizo's magnetic hood - the benchmark of hoods in terms of fitting them on/off, and something I hope BenQ will copy at some point - you can't argue with the price! Eizo's hood is a pain-inducing $350 or so, on top of the monitor price - ouch.
The BenQ hood is a bit of a puzzle to fit the first time - just look carefully at the Quick Start Guide and you'll see all the pieces are labelled. A few minutes of snapping these together and lining up the mounting tabs on the hood with the mounting holes on the monitor itself, and you will have a solidly mounted hood on your BenQ.
Once fitted, the hood is excellent and very stable. It's deep - deeper than the Eizo hoods - and does exactly what it should. There's a velveteen lining so it does a great job of blocking light.
As top why, generally, a hood is useful, we've got that covered here:
The one thing I don't really love about the BenQ hood is the way the rear ports on the monitor - two downstream USB 3 ports, and an SD card reader - are partially obscured by the hood. This is true of all the BenQ models to date and I can't help but feel there's a better place for these ports, or that perhaps the hood should have an access hole cut-out. It's just a bit fiddly to get to them when you need to.
(Still, that's a very minor nitpick, and the fact there is an SD card reader at all is a very handy bonus, because everybody hates a dongle...)
BenQ have a diagram that has led to quite a few support phone calls. It's not my favourite diagram.
There's this idea that somehow pictures are clearer than words for these things, or at least more universal (i.e. you don't need to print different guides for different markets) - but just like those infuriating IKEA flat-pack guides, some pictures clearly just aren't that clear. This is one of them.
This image is supposed to indicate that you need:
(Just) 1 of the video cable options
Plus a USB cable (if not using USB-C for a one cable solution)
Plus a power cable
(...see how much easier that is in words??)
In any case, for hooking up your BenQ monitor, we strongly recommend you use our guide - it will get you going with the best hook-up for your particular situation:
Cable management is a simple system - it works well and I prefer it to Eizo's rather fussy plastic clip approach.
Here, you simply feed the cables through a generous hole in the monitor stand and the net results is a neat set-up. And it leaves things readily accessible for re-configuration, should that be necessary.
The Hockey Puck (more below) - has a designated spot at the base of the stand. The cable for this has a tendency to remain visible and I continue to wish for a more elegant soluton here, but the puck itself is very well made.
The moment of truth has arrived. Check all your cables are correctly attached, and you should be ready to go.
Power up the monitor using the button on the far right of the bottom bezel. You will see a Ben logo (on black, thankfully, not the blinding purple some older models used!). After a few seconds (BenQ monitors are never the fastest to start-up) - tell it what input you are using. You should see you computer's desktop appear.
The first thing to do is check that your computer is sending the right resolution, and is refreshing the screen at the correct rate. BenQ made this easy - if you navigate into the monitor menus, go to System -> Information, you should see that the Current Resolution matches the Optimal Resolution (precisely) - i.e. 3840*[email protected] Hz.
If you don't see this, then you'll want to make sure you're using the correct video cable, that your computer/video card supports the right resolution and refresh rate (e.g. many older machines only support 4K at 30Hz - you'll want to upgrade if this is the case!).
You should also see HDR is Off. You don't, generally, want this on for desktop computer work and a colour managed workflow. (Unbelievably, tis defaults to on on modern Macs, and is the cause of no end of calibration issues....). If you don't see this, you'll want to turn off HDR in your Display Preferences section, and make sure this is then confirmed by your BenQ.
You might also want to set a scaling factor in your operating system. On PCs, you can set just about any scaling that you find comfortable (e.g. I use 175%). On a Mac, there is apparently a very substantial performance hit to using non double scaling factors, so be a little cautious here.
On a PC, you might also want to take this moment run the 'Adjust ClearType Text' tool (just type that into the Windows 10 search box and it will come up). This allows you to tweak the font smoothing to your liking. (On Mac, you get what you get, and you don't get upset, sorry! ... that said, Mac font smoothing tends to work very well by default on high DPI screens like this).
Not surprisingly, initial impression of the BenQ SW271C, once properly installed and confirmed to be operating at the optimal resolution and refresh rate, are excellent.
Text is rendered beautifully - sharp, crisp and very page like. Even very small text is very legible. (Sometimes online you see people saying crazy things like 'only 4k - LG have a 5K model for years now' - well, yes, but it's absolutely rubbish for colour accurate work. The difference between 2k and 4k is huge and quite noticeable...the different between 4k and 5k is barely visible!).
Uniformity is very good overall. Not quite as perfect as an Eizo CS2740. There's a little more light bleed at the edges, for example, but nothing objectionable and only right at the extremes. It might bother you if you're after the editing video, amongst very deepest blacks (but then you should be looking at the Eizo CG-X range and a significantly higher budget will be needed...). No, in general use for image editing & creation work, the uniformity is on point and will not cause any issue.
Colour. I swapped back and forth between the SW271C and my favourite monitor of the moment - the Eizo CS2740. I can honestly say that I don't think there was any difference between the two that would materially affect our fine art print or art reproduction work (post calibration, more on this below).
On extreme torture tests, designed specifically to poke at monitor difficulties, Eizo do definitely continue to have a noticeable edge in terms of neutral neutrals, and the deepest shadows details (the screen coating really helps here - Eizo's screen coating is super matte and this really helps those deep shadows - the SW271C is, like the SW271 before it, just that bit more reflective than I would like - it's a shame the excellent coating from the SW321C is not on this model, but BenQ tell me that with the various and considerable supply chain difficulties of late, this was not possible to achieve at this time).
But really - the difference is not dramatic. In a blind test, editing the vast majority of typical images, you'd be very hard pressed to tell between them. They are both, in a word, great monitors. BenQ have come a very long way, very quickly, and are now for sure capable of making excellent monitors for imaging work - and at an attractive price point compared to the competition.
(Worth pointing out here that I rarely do a lot of intense measuring and pixel peeping at this stage (unless I have concerns I want to verify). I evaluate monitors in real world practical use at our high end fine art print studio, in day to day use for a variety of real world image editing tasks - including Art Reproduction, which is about as difficult a task as you can get a monitor to do...someone other there on the web will have the numbers if you need them, but as with all things sensory related, I find actual use by experience experts to be a lot more useful than stats that most people don't understand properly anyway! We have almost 20 years of real experience, working with some of the best visual artists in the country/world, so that's what we bring to bear here!).
BenQ have two main bits of software relevant to the SW271C. These are (with links to download):
Display Pilot - a simple program to manage some monitor settings (e.g. you can use it to control screen pivoting) - and to confirm important monitor settings and technical details. It's definitely not an essential install, but it is handy - particularly if you are having any issues with your setup related to resolution, refresh rate, or colour bit depth etc.
Palette Master Elements - BenQ's direct hardware calibration software. Unless you don't plan to calibrate (?!) - then this is a definite must install.
Of course the very first thing to do with a new monitor is to calibrate. Whilst BenQ monitors are factory calibrated - it's likely the pre-sets won't be optimal for your actual work. And it's just a good habit to get in to - all monitors, no matter how good, drift over time and require ongoing calibration. So we recommend doing this right from the get-go.
(This is another area BenQ's quick start guide could be improved as almost everyone misses this - short a short ULR link benq.com/pme could be added here to make this clearer?)
Once downloaded, installing Palette Master Elements (PME) is easy. As you do so, it nicely warns you about the need to have the USB cable connected, and includes drivers for all the compatible calibrators. It does require a re-start on Windows, which is an irritant, largely peculiar to the Windows world. But easily achieved. After install, it's on to using it.
We have our hugely popular, comprehensive guide (both in written and video forms) - to guide you through the actual calibration process here:
That should cover everything you need to get off to a great, accurate start with your monitor. But of course if you have questions, we're here to help.
After years of encouraging BenQ to implement proper contrast control in Palette Master Elements, I am pleased to say this ability arrived late in 2020.
Prior to this, you could only choose between best black ('absolute') and a somewhat raised-for-more-accuracy black ('relative') in PME. Both the language used here, and the limited functionality, were frustrating. Fortunately this has now changed.
Why is this important? What are we trying to achieve?
Well, there's a reasonable amount to understand here to get to grips with this fully, but in essence we want to use a better, hardware solution to work around the fundamentally broken 'Soft Proofing' systems in Photoshop (etc).
To be fair to those bits of software, it's not really their fault that soft proofing is so broken. The fundamental problem starts with a significant flaw in monitor ICC profiles - these do not identify the actual contrast of the monitor in use. That is - there is no way for software to know what the contrast of the monitor is, when then trying to simulate the contrast of a print during the soft proof.
So software just takes a (generally absurd) guess at this and you always end up with these overly dramatic representations of loss of contrast that make you think you're going to get a milky mess of a print. And of course, if contrast isn't even vaguely right, then your unlikely to be able to trust the colour either.
Thus, we want to find a better approach to soft proofing, and the key is having hardware and software that supports that. Now, with BenQ, we finally do.
(We'll actually be doing a webinar on this and related stuff on April 22nd, 2021 - click here to register):
So - this wonderful new feature in Palette Master Elements allows to instead used hardware for simulating print conditions instead of the existing, fundamentally flawed software based systems. This significantly increases the accuracy of your screen to print matches, and improves the editing work-flow.
How do we actually use this?
I'm glad you asked.
It's not particularly difficult - we just need to know a couple of key facts and some (very basic, we promise!) maths - that is, that contrast ratio is calculated by dividing the brightness of black info the brightness of white.
So for example if you have set the brightness of white to 100 cd/m2 (AKA nits) - then a black point of 0.5 nits = 100 / 0.5, or a contrast ratio of 200:1.
As a more concrete example - we generally run monitors in our studio at 90 for white and 0.4 for black - giving a ratio of 225:1 - which is a little bit above even the highest contrast achieved in prints. If we're working on a matte paper, we might create a second calibration target of 90/0.5 (180:1) - to reflect the inherent lower contrast of these papers.
The advantage - 'early binding'
For fine art print production, this helps achieve an 'early binding' work-flow - one where, as soon as is possible in the process - we work on our images in a way that will directly reflect the final fine art print destination. This is a great way of working as it's pretty much the closest to the ideal of 'working on the print itself' that we can achieve. As soon as possible, we're bending the monitor's display to be the best possible simulator of the final desired result.
Even if you instead wish to use a 'late binding work-flow', you probably still want to do this at some point in your process. That is, you might edit your image at the full contrast that the monitor is capable off, first, to create your Master File. And then switch to a print contrast calibration target for final editing of your image under the print conditions.
Whenever you choose to do it, using your monitor's hardware so simulate the final print is much more effective than the broken soft proofing mechanisms otherwise available to us.
Want to learn about this? Attend the webinar! Want to learn about this in greater detail, and at your own pace? We have a fabulous free resource for you (also available for a small fee in e-book form):
For nearly all users, a direct hardware calibration system like Palette Master Elements, combined with an excellent monitor calibrator, achieves the level of accuracy needed.
However, Eizo and NEC do take things a step further in ColorNavigator/SpectraView, and offer an extra, manual adjustment (6 axis colour adjustment, or some similar name). This allows you to essentially build a layer on top of the monitor calibration, and further tweak this calibration to perfection for tones of critical importance.
This can be particularly useful in really absolutely nailing the emulation of a fine art paper, for example, or the reproduction of the tone of a specific colour target (like the ColorChecker).
The reality is, though, that 99% of users will never even look at this functionality, but this would be the next step for BenQ in rounding out their options for high end users.
Video is not my area of expertise, although I do dabble, and plan to dabble more going forward.
For general video editing work - content creation and cutting, this monitor is a good choice. 4K at 1:1 means you can really see what you've got, with no scaling artefacts. And means that all those small elements in e.g. The DaVinci Resolve interface remain easy to see and use.
Thanks to the relatively weak blacks, this monitor would not be my first choice for grading in the TV/Broadcast/Film scenarios, but it would be very good for grading for online content delivery. Be aware that 'HDR' support is not hugely meaningful. Yes, the signals can be accepted and sensible tone mapping is then used for the shadow areas - but monitors like these are in no way HDR in the real sense -they don't come close to the minimum 1000 nit peak brightness level, for example. It's really just effective HDR -> SDR mapping.
BenQ do claim support for Lightspace and so on, plus that they have tested compatibility with AJA/BlackMagic SDI->HDMI devices, but this is outside of my domain and I have not tested any of this personally. Would be happy to hear your feedback if you have!
BenQ supply, with most of their SW monitors, an external hardware device the call the 'Hotkey Puck'. It's essentially a rotary dial/buttons type of thing, and allows for quick and easy monitor mode changes.
The SW271C has the second generation of puck included. Our customers are about 50/50 on whether they find this useful - many report they simply never use it, whilst others swear by it.
It comes down to your particular work-flow, and putting the effort in to configuring the device to be useful to you. There are indeed some cases where it can be useful, and he hardware is certainly nice (there's some BenQ info on the puck here). For example, if you mount your BenQ on a monitor arm (or a wall) - then you can use the puck to adjust settings without having access to the bezel buttons. It reminds me very much of the center console controller in Mazdas of recent years. Once you use it and it becomes part of your muscle memory, it can be very effective.
I'd like to see it extended considerably though - honestly, monitor mode switching is not something I spent a lot of time doing - it would be great to see a software tool that allows more complete programming of the puck - e.g. being able to trigger actions in Photoshop, or use the dial as a volume control, or even as control for sliders in the raw converter when retouching....something along the lines of a simpler version of the Loupedeck. And making it wireless would be great too...
For the sake of completeness, it's worth mentioning a couple of nitpicks.
The first is that BenQ monitors are always a bit slow to wake from sleep compared to other monitors. It's a question of a few seconds, but it can be an irritant when you're in a hurry. Of course these monitors, with their LED backlights, don't use a lot of power and have long life-spans, so you could just work around this by disabling sleep mode (this is what I have done!). And it's not a drastic delay, just one long enough that you notice it.
The second is BenQ monitors just never seem to auto-sense inputs properly (i.e. automatically determine and select the cable/port your are using) - meaning they have to be told which import you're using. And of course after owning these things a few years, people tend to forget this and call me when they can't connect their new computer. I know of no other monitor maker who hasn't solved this, and even BenQ's own staff have half-jokingly half-frustratedly referred to this...so its' a mystery to me why they don't solve this properly. But if you're seeing the famous BenQ No Signal Detected or No Cable Connected messages, let me point you again at our article to help with this.
A nice touch from Eizo with their more expensive monitors is they include a free cleaning solution. BenQ could add this for very little cost.
And finally - if you're using the powered USB-C port for full UHD @ 60Hz (as you would want to!), it's worth noting the downstream USB ports then only perform at slower USB2 speeds (there is a control for this in the monitor menus - you can have [email protected] with USB 3.1, or [email protected] with USB2). So even if using USB-C, you'd probably want to use a separate USB cable for full speed USB 3.1 ports and good card reader speeds (if those matter to you - this I think is a USB-C limitation more than anything from BenQ, but something to be noted if trying to achieve the 'holy grail' of single cable hook-up).
The SW271C is an excellent monitor. It's a near ideal combination of size and performance for image editing work, presented in an elegant and well thought out package.
It has nudged up noticeably in price over the previous model, but the reality is even at the new price point it offers excellent value for professional and serious amateur visual artists alike.
To get anything better, you have to spend about $800 more for Eizo's CS2740 + Hood. That is ultimately a better, more refined monitor package (particularly the software), and has a five year warranty, compared to three, with the BenQ. But it's also well on the way to a thousand dollars more expensive - so it would want to be! And it's not drastically better, at all. No, in the quality race, the SW271C is nipping at Eizo's heels.
At this price point it would be hard to argue it's not the best value option available for image makers looking for a professional level, colour accurate 4k display, as of the time of writing.
Going lower, you'd compromise on specs significantly, by going back to a 2.5K 27" monitor like the Eizo CS2731 or BenQ's own SW270C - and it's true, in the quest for high quality results with the visual arts, that colour accuracy is a LOT more important than having a lot of pixels. But it is also true that the time of 4K has come, or at least is fast approaching, and thus a lot of people are trying to make the best choice from the limited 4K colour accurate options. Going higher, you'll have to spend a solid third of the price again, to get something distinctly better.
Slowly but surely BenQ continue to improve their options for the professional imaging monitor market.
- Alison Bennett -
I got 2nd prize at the Julie Milliwick Photography Prize!
I wanted to thank you for doing such a fabulous job on the print. It was wonderful to see the exhibition print on the wall.
I am particularly delighted that we were able to hold so much detail in the shadows and I like the matt powdery finish. I had lots of questions about the paper.