|Can a 3" thick 14" LCD monitor really function as a broadcast monitor?
|Joaquín 'Kino' Gil
kino, Marina del Rey (L.A.), California USA
©2003 by Joaquin Gil and CreativeCow.net. All rights are reserved.
Joaquin 'Kino' Gil -- noted major film effects artist, independent filmmaker and Creative Cow's Maya and High Def forum host -- reviews the Panasonic BT-LS1400 color LCD broadcast monitor. Kino looks at the pluses and the minuses of the BT-LS1400 LCD monitor and gives it a rating of 4 out of 5 Cows. Why? In this article, Kino gives Cow members his own real world studio results...
IMAGE OF THE TIMES
When Panasonic asked for one of our "real world" reviews for the BT-LS1400, I was intrigued enough to move things around in preparation of its arrival to patch our "program" feed into the 14" BT-LS1400 and patch our "preview" feed into a 14" CRT monitor so we could run playback side-by-side and check this little guy out against the technology its kind is bound to eventually displace.
The things you need from a professional monitor in 2003 are far different than the needs of 1963 and the technology has changed yet again. Where in the past you only got a professional picture by lugging around a big glass bubble mounted inside a tin box with a set of electronic guns to excite color phosphors inside it, today you can have practically just as good an image by plugging your video connector into a BNC in the back of a Liquid Crystal flat display. This little jewel is the proof.
The first thing you notice taking it out from the box is how easy it is to handle the BT-LS1400. The thing feels like a light, compact slab that you can handle confidently. It weighs in at about a third/fourth of the weight of the 14" CRT. More to the point, I can lift it to arrange cables behind or dust the desk without danger of hernia, and yet it weights enough to stay put nicely. This is one unit you may want to take out on location shoots, where its sturdy construction and light weight make it a practical resource.
The display, only three and a half inches thick and fourteen across, can be rack-mounted with a set of "ears" or can stand on a flat metal foot, perfect for standing it in a shelf in any editing bay but also provided with pre-drilled screw-holes in all four corners, ideal for affixing it to the desk in a mobile unit. This foot has a tilt mechanism that allows for a broad range of inclinations both forward and backward, which is a must in the case of LCD's, which still vary widely in color value and saturation depending on the view angle and the BT-LS1400, although much better than most, is no exception. The robust construction of the swivel foot shows both realism and consideration for the user. The screen is of good quality and the decreased reflectivity of the LCD plastic surface lets you use it in more conditions, specially where a CRT would be subject to unavoidable reflections.
A very complete array of inputs and loop-thru's insure the widest compatibility I have seen in a flat panel monitor. You get your basic composite and component A and B BNC connectors, but you have also S-Video and my review model came with the SDI add-on module which handles embedded audio as well as video, giving away the fact that a very decent processor lives inside the BT-LS1400. And ALL of the inputs have out/loop-through connectors.
The switches are the grade one would expect in professional products. Sturdy yet pleasing design and materials make the controls of the display easy to understand and use. Dedicated buttons under the display call the input switcher, overscan (yes, Virginia: it IS a PRO model) and the blue-only mode, useful for setting several monitors to similar color in our NTSC world, mocked by some as "Never Twice the Same Color", in applications such as edit bays, video walls or multi-monitor setups as in mobile units or small production studios. Finally, a Tally light in front suggests field work and mobile unit trucks.
Special mention must be made of the unit's internal menu of functions. All communication is easy with a consistent set of buttons for selecting, changing and exiting any user-modifiable setup. You can control Chroma, brightness and the usual suspects as well as some image qualities that may come in handy shooting where you cannot use a lot of light or where light is too much, but in addition the menu lets you set the display for studio and exterior color temperatures, the aspect ratio (4:3 or 16:9) of the image, the degree of backlight, determine which inputs are active and whether to use a remote for control. Interesting is the "Maintenance" item that shows you the hours the unit has been on. Handy for maintenance and come to think about it, for billing too, if you remember to use it.
The 16:9 setup alone makes this beastie a creature of two worlds, as acquisition and even 16:9 editing of formats like HD (which is 16:9) and DV 16:9-originated material becomes of wider and wider use. It also becomes a very decent alternative to lugging around a monitor that displays 16:9 if you use a DV camera with a 16:9 lens adaptor. The Panasonic AG-DVX100, for instance.
It was a matter of time for LCD's to get fast enough so that viewing images in motion in such a device was possible. The BT-LS1400's specs quote a 16 millisecond screen refresh, which is fast enough to get rid of the "persistency" effects and "trails" that have plagued LCD video monitoring in the past. We played different dance choreography sequences and fight sequences using the loop-through feature to pipe the display in cascade to a CRT and the BT-LS1400 performed outstandingly in both. No phantoms or trails were visible even when strong contrast was present, as in a dark-clad dancer against a white or yellow set, or white-clad, contrasty dancers against a black curtain. This baby rocks.
Part of our test involved using the monitor in normal editing conditions and, like most editors, my sessions are long. We left the BT-LS1400 on continuously for our usual spans and there was no appreciable difference with the display after five minutes, five hours or fifteen hours.
Watching the screen when placed perpendicular to the line of sight yields what can be considered as the "neutral" color so mounting at eye height or using the swivel foot are the best bets for maximizing the benefits the machine can give you. As we mentioned before, LCD displays have an inherent linearity to their light emission: as you deviate from the "neutral" line (or small angle) of sight the colors traditionally have changed from subtly to garishly. Horizontal color drift has been controlled by designing the LCD's like columns, so emission of light occurs not only perpendicularly to the screen but also fans out laterally. Vertical color drift, on the other hand, needs to be avoided by making rows in the LCD screen, but design constrains make the angular area where the screen's color remains constant harder to widen. Go too far up and your colors seem to "invert". Go too far down and the color pales into whites.
For normal use, I find the BT-LS1400's horizontal usable angle excellent and exceptional for today's standards and the unit price range. Vertically, the BT-LS1400 is not as forgiving as horizontally, but it is still pretty decent: while the vertical usable angle is vastly wider than on other, competing monitors, it is usable roughly on the outside of 100 degrees. Still, this is impressive in an LCD.
In terms of color information displayed, this monitor is state-of-the-art for LCD's. The human eye sees a range of colors that are usually represented in terms of hue plotted against saturation or value, which results in a triangular area whose vertices are the "pure" or "primary" colors of the scale. In video and electronic imaging, these colors are RED, GREEN and BLUE. The interesting thing is that a CRT video monitor cannot display the full "triangle" of human perceptible colors: its triangle is "smaller" and "inside" the human one, since the CRT cannot get to all the nuances of nature. The LCD's of this day and age are not yet capable of displaying the same "triangle" area as CRT's: LCD colors describe still a "smaller" triangle within the human spectrum of color perception. This, coupled with the lower vertical angular tolerance makes LCD's in general less adequate for color-critical tasks.
This means that playing your reference tapes or disks through the BT-LS1400 will result in realistic hues, but with perhaps less color saturation/value than what you are used to with a CRT, (specially compared to the somewhat too vivid colors used in competing Sony CRTs, but then again, Panasonic uses a different choice of color palettes, one which many find more realistic and pleasing). This does not mean that the image is less detailed in any way, simply that some colors will be represented by approximations within a practical, perceptible limit. It is in color-critical applications where the unit seems to still have space to grow. Watching a reference tape through the The BT-LS1400 yields a slightly "golden" feel at both the unit's color temperature settings when compared to a CRT, both screens set at the middle of their color/brightness/hue control ranges. There are color drifts in both when compared with a "control" RGB display. I am not sure I would prefer the CRT's color drift. The image of the BT-LS1400 is clear, luminous, saturated and perfectly usable for location and recording monitoring, editing and setup tests/shoots in the field.
Panasonic BT-LS1400 is a worthy addition to your setup: It emits almost no radiation because it is an LCD, therefore it has considerably less health risk than a comparable CRT. That alone makes it recommendable for those of us who work long periods with screens. Once you get used to the slightly smaller color range (negligible for practical purposes short of professional color gradation or finishing) you can adjust your camera setup trusting its display. The BT-LS1400 exhibited a working color gamma out of the box that falls close to the SMTP color "norm" It also has a smaller footprint, so it will leave more space free and ventilation will be easier. It is much lighter in weight than a comparable CRT box, so installation in a space-constrained suite, mobile unit or editing van is completely appropriate and cheaper in materials. Four Cows, we'll reserve a rating of a perfect five Cows for when the color range is as wide as in tube CRT's and the tilt variation is vanquished so we can use these babies in our finishing suite as well as the edit suites.
Any of a number of considerations will make the BT-LS1400 a worthy addition to your setup: Has a smaller footprint than a comparable CRT monitor, so it will leave more space free and ventilation will be easier. It is much lighter in weight than a comparable CRT box, so installation in a space-constrained suite, mobile unit or editing van is completely appropriate and cheaper in materials. In the studio it not only looks good but emits almost no radiation since it uses an LCD. That alone makes it recommendable for those of us who work long periods with screens. Once you get used to the slightly smaller color range (negligible for practical purposes short of professional color gradation or finishing) you can adjust your camera setup trusting its display. The BT-LS1400 exhibited a working color gamma out of the box that falls close to the SMTP color "norm", perhaps as I said before, with a bit towards gold which is pleasant if anything. In any case, in NTSC-land slight variations are the norm, ask any TBC. Computers just make us think otherwise.
The BT-LS1400 is actually one of the best LCD monitors I have seen out of the megabuck range. I would much enjoy using the 16:9 setup in the field with something like the Varicam: the menu control ranges should make it usable in exteriors as long as you shield it from direct sunlight. The usable angles horizontally and vertically are wide enough for practical day to day use. The display is much more uniform to viewing from a distance (as angles are reduced), so producers nervously hanging behind the editor will not be unduly worried about color. The digital nature of the beast should also produce more homogeneous image qualities across several units so their use in edit bays, mobile units, multi camera setups and edit vans is not only practical but recommended. The price is very decently positioned. A slightly higher initial investment gets you an additional 50% or more of increased lifespan of the machine compared to CRT's, low or no burn-in, lower power consumption and smaller support and real-estate costs.
Four Cows, we'll reserve a rating of a perfect five Cows for when the color range is as wide as in tube CRT's and the tilt variation is vanquished so we can use these babies in our finishing suite as well as the edit suites.
Marina del Rey, October 2003
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