With this new Samsung monitor, LED backlight technology moves down from the four-figure stratosphere into the mainstream. So what’s special about LEDs? Most monitors use either tubes or strips of backlight material. These glow with a whiteish light that’s not as bright or evenly spread as it could be. It’s also impossible to control the colour accurately. LED backlighting uses a grid of LEDs that generate a smoother, brighter and more accurate white. The light is a mix of red, green and blue, and can be customised for superior colour.
The upshot of the science? LED backlighting provides a brighter image with more saturated colours. Samsung claims its technology displays a wider colour range than almost any other monitor available. The result? Gone is the slightly washed-out look, typical of panels, and in its place come rich and attractive colours, and better accuracy.
At first sight, the XL20 doesn’t look like a design classic. The LED panel adds an extra inch or so of thickness to the display, and it also runs warm – there’s even a fan, but it’s silent. Around the front, the buttons and decorations are on the chunky side; a more minimal look would have been more Mac-friendly.
Set-up is also slightly fiddly, so you’ll be making use of the provided colorimeter (a colour-measuring device). It’s a rebadged Gretag Macbeth Eye-One Display 2, which usually sells for around £150 on its own. The colour presets don’t do the monitor justice, so you’ll need to plug it into the colorimeter and run through a calibration routine. Luckily, this isn’t too difficult, even if you have no previous experience.
Afterwards, the monitor comes alive with some of the brightest and richest colours we’ve ever seen. Performance isn’t quite up to that at the top end, but it’s noticeably better than on cheaper panels.
Colours are both punchy and neutral, with no obvious signs of colour shifts, and a clean contrast curve that didn’t highlight light areas or shadows. Video performance, however, was so-so. The quoted 8ms speed seems slightly optimistic, because some smearing was evident. While this monitor isn’t bad for video, it’s not quite the best available, and watching DVDs is a bit of a compromise.
Other features include a professional wrap-around hood to block out ambient light – designers will use this, others probably won’t – and two DVI connectors, one of which is digital-only; the other is analogue or digital. There’s also a USB hub and a free USB cable. The supplied software can handle portrait mode – the panel can swivel through 90 degrees – but there’s no Mac-based remote control of the display settings, which is available on some other Samsung models.
So should you buy it? While the XL20 offers 90% of the performance of a true high-end monitor for less than 50% of the price, it’s still a hefty price jump from cheaper models. Also, 1,600x1,200 is starting to look limited now, especially considering you can get a giant 2,560x1,600 panel for an extra £100 or so. A year from now it’ll be much more common – and much cheaper.
If you’re a photographer or video maker and want more accurate and punchier colours than you’re currently getting, the XL20 is worth considering as a second panel. But for more casual use, while the extra colour depth may be easy on the eye, the brutal truth is that you’ll get more done on a larger panel.