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BenQ's SW321C - the replacement for their SW320, a popular option for those seeking a large, 4k, good colour quality display - arrives and will be available in Australia around Late May 2020. It's just won the TIPA 2020 BEST PROFESSIONAL PHOTO MONITOR award, too. Fancy!
Improvements BenQ note are improved uniformity, a new paper simulation mode called 'Paper Color Sync', and a USB-C input that offers charging support, for one-cable-does-it-all hook-ups.
It also arrives with a distinctly higher price tag than the previous model, and indeed any BenQ monitor to date. Does it justify the higher price tag? It's now in the same cost area as (smaller, non 4K) Eizo CG monitors - which offer undeniably excellent performance - for their considerable price tags - and remain for many professionals the model of choice for serious colour work.
How does the BenQ SW321C compare, and which should you choose?
The short version of this review is that BenQ have made a big, accurate and surprisingly uniform screen that will suit a great many photographers / videographers / designers - and indeed general users looking for a big and beautiful general purpose screen.
It's nearest competition - the Eizo CG319X - is, of course, still distinctly better. If money is not object and you want the pretty much the best (DCI) 4K money can buy - that's the one to go for. I think of it like cars, though - sure, I'd probably rather drive an Audi A3, with all its lovely refinements. But the fact is there's a reason the Mazda 3 became the most popular car in Australia - because for 95% of folks it offers the performance and comfort they need, if not quite the superlatives they want. So that's what I actually drive, and I love it. It gets the job done, and so does this BenQ.
BenQ's software continues to be the weakness in their offering, but generally it's only in use for a few minutes a month to calibrate (and there are alternatives that offer very similar results in practise, despite not talking to the hardware LUTs - as the native response is so good anyway) - but however you do calibrate, what you're left with is a huge expanse of very good quality reproduction.
I'm personally actively considering this one for my next home monitor (to replace my ageing but long faithful NEC PA271W). For similar money I could get an Eizo CG2730 - and that would be a great choice, for sure - but for what I do at home (which is mostly viewing, and some light editing of family and general (landscape, environmental, wildlife) photos) - it's pretty hard to look past the 32" of glory this screen offers.
BenQ have made another extremely good value, high quality monitor. It's bound to do well in the market, and deservedly.
See our product page for a complete list of specifications. Here, we'll just highlight some notable ones and specific improvements over the SW320c.
Launch price of $3199 - mainly due to the drop in the $AU due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope over time to see this drop below $3K. (The current price is shown below).
At around $3200, at time of writing, this monitor is a substantial investment.
For a similar price, you could also buy an Eizo CG2730 - with it's lovely in built automatic calibration system. Or an Eizo CS2730 and an i1Display Pro, and have significant money left over.
For the price, this monitor is features forward (and of course very big!).
Offering a vast screen, 4k (UHD) resolution, USB-C (with 60W charging support), some HDR support, and having overall very good colour quality and uniformity - there frankly isn't much direct competition. There just aren't many really good quality, very large monitors our there.
Sure, Dell and ASUS (etc.) have offerings that sort of seem to compare - on paper at least - but in reality have huge flaws and we have a near constant stream of people replacing those brands with BenQ and Eizos. So we strongly suggest you skip those brands - neither of which have anything resembling a serious presence in the professional market, and notably lack decent support for professionals to back their offerings up.
As we'll see below, the choice really comes down to what you value most - size & features and very good quality, vs. great quality, but significantly smaller size and fewer features.
One inescapable truth about monitors is that the bigger they are, the more they tend to show off their faults. In particular, uniformity is a much bigger issue with monitors once you go above the 27" size.
This is simply a reflection of the fact that it is hard to build big panels with uniform display across their whole surface. Put simply, modern monitors are an array of LED light sources with 'colour filters' in front of them. From the factory, a raw panel is really a highly non-uniform thing, reflecting that fact that each of the individual LED light sources has significantly differing colour output in practise. For this reason, panels must be tuned for good performance - broken down into zones and each zone balanced against the rest - to ultimately offer some uniformity of display.
Ideally the whole process also starts with a high quality panel (or, even better, hand selected examples of high quality panels!) - that exhibit better native uniformity to start with. And again, ideally, many zones are measured and corrected against each other - the more zones that are carefully balanced, the better the uniformity correction that results.
This hand tuning takes time - real time. And the way modern manufacture works, is that a certain time budget is allocated before a monitor is released from the production line - because there is a substantial cost to this manual labour component of monitor manufacture. A basic brand might allocate just 20 minutes to this process. A good quality monitor might have an hour or two of work done in this area. Exceptional monitors might have a working day, or more, spent on them. After this balancing process, the monitors are then measured to make sure they meet the uniformity targets for that line of monitors. One hopes monitors that do not hit the target are then rejected, and those that do are passed.
(In reality, because there is usually a separate design company / brand vs. a wholesale manufacturing company, we suspect this process is inherently somewhat flawed as the manufacturer (not the brand) of course wants to pass monitors so they get paid for making them. One can immediately see there are conflicting interests here! Note that Eizo is an exception here - they generally do their own building AND QA in house, and it shows).
There are various other problems, too. The first is that the standards for uniformity often sound impressive in theory ('deltaE less than 2', for example) - but there are inherent flaws in this. DeltaE is a mathematical expression of the deviation that attempts to quantify what is 'acceptable to the eye' deviation. But the devil is in the detail - what mathematically might result in a low deltaE value might in fact be quite easily noticeable in practise - and perhaps in an objectionable way. If the difference comes from luminosity alone, it might not be so bothersome - but say the luminosity matches but there is a noticeable magenta tint to the whites in a particular zone or down one side of the panel - it might be slight and the mathematical model might deem it 'within spec.' and 'acceptable' - but customer's eyeballs simply do not agree with the model. The human eye is spectacularly good at seeing even small differences in large areas of mono tone. And it's also very sensitive to changes in the spectral mix of what makes white - that is, whilst two displays might seeming have 'the same whitepoint', e.g. of 6500K - visually the two whites can appear substantially different if the LED spectral outputs are different. Despite both measuring 6500K, to the eye one white might appear a warm red tone and another a cool blue. In short, maths and human eyes simply don't always agree.
Furthermore, angle of view issues start to come in to play with big screens - your view on the monitor's colours begins to be affected more noticeably by variance in the filtration of light as seen at various angles. (This is particularly noticeable on monitors with polarising films - often used on IPS panels to make the inherently poor blacks appear distinctly blacker - the side affect being much greater colour change to they eye when you're not looking at the screen from a perpendicular angle - and the bigger the screen, the more of it you're inevitably not seeing in a purely perpendicular manner, of course).
For this reason, 32" models have never been a favourite here at Image Science. For still image work in particular, the lack of uniformity can be quite a distraction. Thus, when asked, we've always said that 27 inch models are usually the better choice - big enough for comfortable work but with noticeably less uniformity issues.
To date the only 32" models we can say we really like are the Eizo CG318, and current CG319X models...but their price tag (around $7K) - is serious money. So these tend to only make sense for serious professional use cases.
So, how uniform is the SW321C?
When you open your new BenQ SW321C, the first thing you will see is the unit specific uniformity and calibration report. Very similar to what you see when you open NEC and Eizo monitors.
You'll see the results are very good - the monitor is measured in 25 zones and all bar the bottom left corner are deltaE < 1.
And a second page.
This show gamma and DICOM performance.
(DICOM is a standard used in the medical market).
So, those are the numbers. They're very good.
But as mentioned above, numbers (and especially when only values for white are shown) - only really tell some of the story. We put the SW321C in front of several professional image makers and gathered opinions.
Our benchmark here is the Eizo CG319x. Of course we have to remember it is more than twice the price. Side by side, you can see the Eizo is indeed noticeably more uniform - particularly when looking at mid tone greys. The whites are visually cleaner. But it would also be impossible to say the Eizo is 'twice as good' - you'd have to say the BenQ gets you a good 90% of the way there. The slight reduction in uniformity quality of the BenQ vs. the Eizo simply won't have practical effects in real work very often...particularly with moving image work (although of course the CG319X has many video features that do count - like true 4K support, more HDR support and so on).
Of course, if you're a fine art black and white aficionado, or you like to do 'side by side' editing (i.e. two copies of the same image open for comparison - something big screens excel at!) - then the differences might impact your work. But for most still image work, for most folks - it's just not going to cause a big difference in your ability to get quality work done.
Full credit to BenQ - this is really only the second really large screen that we feel hits the mark (the SW320 never quite made it, in our opinion). No one we've shown this panel to has any significant objection about its uniformity or general performance. That really is a remarkable effort from BenQ and it can easily be argued that uniformity beyond this point is nit-picking - but that said, BenQ have now been in this market a while, so we do have high expectations for them...and it's good to see them reaching those expectations.
One thing you do definitely notice is that BenQ have improved their screen coatings in recent models. Side by side with an SW271, there is noticeably more glare from the SW271 - it just seems more glossy overall. This is particularly noticeable when you have a lot of black on screen - the SW321C really shines....or, well, it doesn't - and that's the point! It's a nice quiet matte, easy on the eyes in all general work.
(It is apparently a distinctly delicate coating though - so BenQ include a special 'roller' type cleaner for the panel (without any obvious explanation as to why)...This is a first in my experience, and I am quite wary of it as an idea - if you did happen to have a bit of grit on the display, I can soon see this approach leading to permanent panel scratches. Make sure you use e.g. compressed air before you roll!).
Your overwhelming first impression is without doubt going to be - WOW this thing is huge.
You can really stretch out on this thing, and the impact is undeniably impressive. Good, sharp images look absolutely spectacular on this screen. The corollary is that if you've missed your focus, or otherwise stuffed up, there's nowhere to hide - this thing REALLY shows you what you've got.
And just make sure you have room on your desk!
(Oh...yes, it's big but it's not so big that you'll get neck trouble - if anybody would, I would - and I don't!).
Of course just having a large workspace is only really one aspect. There is an old adage in photography (that applies to any visual art, really) -
To sell large - show large.
Put simply, a beautiful image displayed at grand scale on a monitor like this will encourage your customers into buying bigger prints. Every portrait photographer worth their salt knows this (and many use projectors for large AV style displays - but then you have to control light etc, which can make for a much more difficult install etc, and you're spending a lot of money on a less general purpose device).
4K feels very comfortable on a 32" screen. There's really no significant scaling issues to worry about - on Mac or PC.
This is perhaps because UHD resolution across 32" is in fact less more analogous to, for example, 2.5K 27" monitors. Unlike 4K on 27", you don't quite get the sensation of amazing sharpness - of print-like text quality.
Of course 4K on 27" models has disadvantages - sure, it's super sharp, but it also means you have to deal, potentially, with some scaling issues. Macs, in particular, will by default treat a 27" 4k as a sort of pixel doubled 24" monitor - so by default, and counter intuitively, everything actually looks a bit too big. You can adjust the scaling, but the Mac is actually fairly limited here. The PC gives you near complete freedom to scale to a comfortable setting - but at the price that some applications - older ones - won't adapt perfectly and you either get fuzzy, or very small, text. That said the apps have to be quite old, and in practise using 4K on 27" on PC is very comfortable - particularly if you do e.g. graphic design work as the page like quality means you get a really strong sense of your layouts.
(If this sounds like something you want, then you're looking for the BenQ SW271!)
The BenQ SW321C has a charging USB-C input. This means you can have a _very_ tidy setup! We recommend using USB-C if possible, otherwise falling back to DisplayPort.
Across one USB-C connection, all of these things can travel, all at the same time:
The Good News
The BenQ SW321C supports direct hardware calibration.
Paired with the excellent i1Display Pro calibrator (or the new i1Display Pro Plus) - you get a relatively simple and high quality approach to calibrating your screen.
We have a comprehensive guide to getting up and running with Palette Master Elements.
There are 3 hardware slots available, and you can use the included and programmable HotKey Puck to fairly quickly move between them.
In all it's a pretty good solution to hardware calibration, and the monitors do have such good native response that even if you have issues with the BenQ software, you can use e.g. i1Profiler with an i1Display Pro and get near identical results.
The Bad News
Palette Master Elements still does not have proper contrast calibration features. BenQ have been promising this for some time now, but it has not appeared.
This is an essential feature for setting up for really high end print work in the home 'digital darkroom' - and a real missing feature that would be relatively easy for BenQ to add.
The hardware is certainly capable...however BenQ seem to have been distracted by making a 'simple solution' to colour control (see section on Paper Color Sync below).
This is a mistake and BenQ should be spending more time getting the fundamentals properly in place before they move on to new systems.
(Eizo ColorEdge monitors now have up to 9 calibration slots, do have proper contrast control, and much faster mode switching, which is nice if you are constantly changing workflows for different jobs).
The Ugly News
Palette Master Elements is ...well, it's ugly.
It's simply not well designed, doeasn't look great in general and especially on high DPI screen, and it can definitely be a bit buggy.
BenQ do frequently fix problems with the software, but when compared to something like ColorNavigator from Eizo - which offers a host of professional features with their ColorEdge monitors - PME feels an amateur effort at best.
As is often the case with hardware vendors - the software and support side is lagging versus the whiz bang hardware. And unfortunately, it's here that many users encounter their issues in practise.
We've given BenQ a bit of a pass in this area over the years as calibration software is complex to make, and keep working, as operating systems and hardware change over time. But frankly BenQ have now been in the market long enough to be doing a bit better here, and at this point it's fair to say the software is falling well below our expectations.
We'll have an in depth article about this later, but BenQ are making much of their new 'Paper Color Sync' technology.
In practise, this is a very similar concept to Eizo Quick Colour Match - basically, the idea is that with very high quality monitors, when they are calibrated, that one can basically do away with most of the complexity of colour management and just download an app that can 'do-it-all' - that is, you just download the app, tell it what paper and printer you're using, and all the monitor setup and printer setup will be done, automatically, for you. A great idea in theory, and the Eizo version works fairly well in practise.
Unfortunately, as it stands, the BenQ implementation and level of hardware and paper support is sadly lacking.
Currently there are just three printers (Canon Pixma Pro 10, Epson P600 and P800) and a grand total of just five (manufacturer only) papers supported. E.g. for the Epson P800 the only paper currently supported is Epson Velvet Fine Art - a paper that, in practise, very few people even use!
There's a promise that more will come, of course, but in the several months the app has been out this has not yet happened.
Further, the app appears to take a very simplistic approach to how it works - basically it loads the profile into the monitor - resulting in a far too warm display. We'll discuss why this tends not to work well in our later Paper Color Sync article (should the software get to a point where it justifies an article) - but the software also does nothing other than provide a few screenshots to help with the actual printing, which is where most people struggle the most.
If you compare it to the Eizo offering (https://www.eizoglobal.com/products/coloredge/qcm/) …that is also not perfect but it does FAR more than this does…firstly it supports about 10 printers, all the most common current models, and then there is a library of something like 70+ of the most popular inkjet papers, from all brands.
Further, and importantly, it actually directly controls the print settings in Photoshop/Printer Drivers to make sure this will actually work as a complete end to end thing. Together all that makes a reasonable option for beginners (although even then we’re not in love with the results vs. calibrating your monitor properly and using a custom printer profile – which we acknowledge is absolutely more complex to do (and so is obviously for folks wanting to move beyond completely casual use) - but offers vastly better results too).
Finally, releasing an app that isn’t ready for high DPI displays (has fuzzy text etc) – in 2020 is just wrong. And when it is specifically supposed to be paired with a shiny new 32” UHD monitor – well that’s just embarrassing.
So - as it stands Paper Color Sync is at best an alpha release, not really a product all, and I am a little surprised BenQ are even marketing it at this point as it really doesn't offer much of practical value to anyone.
It's quite possible in a year or two it will be much more interesting, but it's a long way from being a useful and easy solution to print colour matching as it stands.
Of course, the easy option here is to simply not download/use it. Stick to traditional monitor calibration and use good (ideally custom) printer profiles and you'll get FAR superior results.
This monitor is most relevant to enthusiast and professional photographers and videographers (graphic designers will probably prefer the SW271 with its amazing sharpness).
If you want a really substantial, accurate, and impressive screen for imaging work - this has to be near the top of your list to consider. Whilst the software is without doubt the weak point, the hardware is really in all very good, and the monitor has a lot to offer image maker, at a very reasonable price for this monumental size of screen.
It will handle - easily - the vast bulk of professional work for typical photographic tasks, be they wedding and portrait, wildlife, landscape, editorial etc. It will look amazing and be very comfortable to use for all of that work.
If you're selling prints to customers, they will buy more and buy bigger when you show them your work on this glorious expanse of screen.
For very high end commercial (cars, fashion, architecture etc.), or fine-art work, we'd still lean towards the Eizo ColorEdge line where the slightly better uniformity and higher accuracy, and more refined software, might make a real practical difference. You certainly could do this work with the BenQ SW321C, but BenQ have not quite caught up to the refined Eizo ColorEdge experience in full yet.
If your primary output is for the web or similar, this model will serve you very well indeed. With the solid blacks and generous size, it will give you a decent predictor of TV output as well.
Of course nothing in the desktop monitor space comes close to e.g. the contrast of OLED or cinema. So this monitor is great for cutting and some grading work, but in a production studio you'll still want a reference monitor of course.
Of course, if you're doing TVC or real mastering work for cinema or Netflix etc., then you'll almost certainly have the budget and be better suited by a CG319X.
Of course, this monitor also suits really anyone looking for a very high quality general purpose monitor.
We're often asked if monitors like these can be used for 'normal work' - spreadsheets, web apps, etc. The answer is absolutely yes. They're not just better monitors for imaging work - the superb display quality has a positive impact on all that day to day stuff as well. And having such a vast workspace can greatly help with productivity - whether it is code in one window with a preview in another, or having four financial feeds (all at the equivalent of a 24" HD monitor eadch - 1920 by 1080) - display at once - screens like this make more complex work more comfortable.
- Michael D -
I was a little bit sceptical on how much better these profiles would be.
I definitely had nothing to worry about, they are brilliant. Certainly worth while!