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Quest for an Apple Cinema-Esque Display For Under $1,000

It's not obvious when you meet me. I'm creative, but I'm not square-frame-glasses-skinny-jeans-and-bangs about it. I don't own an iPhone. I liked Justin Long more in Dodgeball than I did in their commercials.

Still, I'm a bit of a Mac fanboy.

I got my first unibody MacBook three years ago. You could say it was "love at first swipe" for me. Everything was intuitive and just worked.

But the best part had to be the screen. It was bright, crisp, vibrant...visually a step above what I'd grown accustomed to with past laptops and LCD monitors. I even found myself putting extra effort into choosing my desktop wallpaper. Whatever I chose needed to be worthy of occupying those thirteen diagonal inches.

So when I realized I could be more productive with an external monitor, which monitor to get became complicated. I'd grown accustomed to the MacBook's display, and I didn't want to be underwhelmed with my supplementary screen. Clearly some "trying before buying" was required.

But when I demoed monitors in person, I was less than enthused. I was looking at relatively high-end LED monitors with 1080p resolution, but nothing was POPPING like my MacBook's screen.

As I demoed and Googled, I realized my disappointment had nothing to do with resolution, pixel pitch, or backlight. Even the sole IPS panel I saw didn't compare, even with its full coverage of the color gamut. The panel Apple uses in the unibody MacBook screens is just a regular 6-bit TN panel. So what made it look better (to me) than most other displays?

In a word: gloss.

No, not like Lil' Mama's lip gloss (although it'd probably look even more poppin' on the MacBook's display). Screen gloss.

Glossy screens: a background

Most monitor screens come with a matte coating. The rough surface acts as a polarizer, diffusing ambient light that strikes the screen. This reduces glare in well-lit environments, but unfortunately also diffuses light coming from the panel itself, effectively dimming and blurring the image while reducing perceived contrast, making it appear "flat" or "muted".

While glossy screens do reflect some ambient light, the images they produce appear crisper and "pop" more than those on matte screens, making them ideal for photography or video editing. If you work in low light or can handle a little reflectivity, the glossy screens seem like the way to go.

Thus the quest began...

So I Googled "glossy screen monitor" - but the first results I got weren't very helpful. While there were several matte vs. glossy threads, very listed current glossy models. For being touted as "preferred by many consumers," glossy screen monitors were an elusive bunch.

Apparently I wasn't alone in my search. I found numerous threads that began with, "I'm looking for a glossy screen monitor."

Without fail, this lead-in awoke the trolls.

If you wanted a glossy screen, you were either an idiot or wanted to check yourself out constantly in the monitor's reflective screen. The fact that you might prefer a better image in a controlled environment was inconceivable.

The remaining search results were mostly for "glossy" monitors - in other words, monitors with matte screens and glossy bezels. Fingerprint magnets without the crisp image? No thanks.

As I continued to search, I realized I might have better luck finding glossy screen monitors based on manufacturer branding. To that effect, I found this helpful Wikipedia page. While many of the brands were either defunct or designated laptop screens, I eventually stumbled upon HP's BrightView products.

Unsurprisingly, it wouldn't be that easy. Even within a model line, different sizes would use different coatings. For example, while the 25" HP 2511x featured a BrightView glossy screen, the 23" HP 2311x's screen employed a matte coating.

Eventually I found and settled on the HP x2301 monitor, pictured below.

So, did I discover the Grail?

Well, not exactly...

While most people had only incredibly positive things to say about the monitor, a handful of reviews complained that the monitor seemed to display a very faint grid that made viewing images reminiscent of looking out through a screen door. And once the excitement wore off after the unboxing and the first ecstatic night of feverish multi-screen multitasking, the grey light of dawn illuminated a harsher reality.

I noticed the grid.

So I contacted HP Support. The representative was incredibly friendly and apologetic, and the entire return process was painless and quick. A new x2301 monitor was rush-shipped to my house...

...and as soon as I turned it on, I noticed the grid. It may not have been as pronounced, but it was still faintly visible.

Then I looked closer, then stepped back (literally) and assessed the situation again.

If I put my face within a foot of the screen, I couldn't see the grid at all. And if I moved about two feet back - the typical distance I sat comfortably from the monitor - I couldn't see it there, either. The grid was only faintly visible when viewing the screen from a distance of about fifteen inches.

My suspicion is there's an anti-glare coating on the screen that's not designed to adversely affect light transmission as a matte screen coating would, and at a certain distance, the regular pattern of distortion it produces is more readily visible to the naked eye.

So I didn't discover the Holy Grail - the sub-$200 monitor that would kill the Apple Cinema displays. But I discovered something far more valuable - and excusing the clichéd analogies to romantic relationships and general life, I'll share it with you.

The importance of realistic expectations

If you purchase any product and set out to find flaws, you'll find them. The more important question is whether they're deal-breakers.

And in the case of this monitor, they certainly aren't. If I hadn't read those reviews complaining about the faint grid, I probably never would've noticed.

I'm sitting two feet back as I type this blog post, and everything looks gorgeously bright and crisp. Movies and photographs look better on this than they do on my IPS panel HDTV. And looking at the images side by side, my MacBook Pro's screen actually looked a little muted. (Before getting this monitor, I didn't realize it was dirty.)

For under $200, I'd recommend the x2301 to almost anyone without hesitation.

Now to turn it off and mess with my hair a little in the reflection...

    Past Editor’s Notes and Discussions

  • scottApr 04, 2012

    I'd been looking for a monitor for a long long time and recently bought the HP 2511x after reading a ton of reviews online about people comparing it to mac screens and saying they thought it was actually better. After falling in love with it at Fry's it was a really nice grab for $250 (and I've seen it much cheaper). Highly recommend that monitor. The only con I have so far is monitor tuning options are a bit tricky to navigate through but who cares.

  • Daniel BrasherApr 04, 2012

    Nice! My response below to Anonymous wasn't showing for a while there, but you can read I actually checked out the 2511x at Office Max, and seeing it was sort of what "got me going" again right when I was about to settle for a matte screen. Glad you've had a good experience with it. If the price had been comparable and pixel pitch more comparable, I would've picked it up.

  • Douglas KennettApr 04, 2012

    Thank you for using our name: cinemaesque - we love when people use that term to describe great cinema, or great cinema gear. I am with Cinemaesque Home Theatre Company.

  • AnonymousApr 03, 2012

    Loved the article...i have been looking for the same thing. I am an apple the grid thing that bad?...and is it possible to buy 3 of these and flip them vertically and align them side by side? p.s trying to build a surround monitor "gloss" system using nvidia surround with my hackintosh.

  • Daniel BrasherApr 04, 2012

    Hey, glad you enjoyed the article. :)

    The grid is almost not noticeable at all, to the point where I hadn't thought about or consciously noticed it between writing this blog post and reading your response. There are newer Amazon reviews that say they don't notice the grid. There's of course the slight chance that I got two slightly defective x2301 monitors in a row, but if this is a defect, it's unbelievably minor and unnoticeable if you work a normal distance from the screen. So no, it's not bad at all. That said, I did NOT notice the grid on the 2511x at my local Office Max...but didn't get that because it was more expensive AND I wanted a pixel pitch more comparable to the MBP screen.

    As far as vertical flipping...well, not natively. The x2301 achieves its thinness by having all connectivity in the base, which makes it very stable and...thin...but also prevents it from being VESA mounted in its shipped configuration.

    However, it's a pretty sweet monitor, and having three rigged up with Nvidia Surround sounds amazing...if you have the time and inclination, the bottom of the base is sturdy metal. You could always unscrew the bottom of the base and drill holes for some screws to fasten to a standard mount. That approach wouldn't let you get the monitors flush to each other in a portrait orientation (at closest, there'd be a two-inch gap to accomodate the height of the base and stem), but then you could always go further and remove the base and...well, you get the idea. Unfortunately the 2x11x line of monitors doesn't seem to support VESA mounting natively, either...

    Send us pics of the setup if and when you build it, because it sounds awesome, whatever monitors you end up using.

  • Daniel BrasherApr 02, 2012

    The Stones famously said that you can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. This is a story of how that happened in my epic(ally time-consuming) quest for an external monitor to complement my MacBook Pro's screen and increase my productivity.

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