How essential is having a monitor calibrated and profiled to obtain images that are congruent and reflect our vision is a topic that we have already covered extensively among the pages of my blog.
However, as it is certainly clear to you, having perfectly profiled a low quality monitor will be useless. For this reason, whether you’re a landscape photographer or a photographer of any other kind, having a good photographic monitor becomes more than just a whim over time, but a real necessity.
The enthusiasm for the purchase, however, usually fades quickly because it’s difficult to find professional products with prices in line for the offered technology.
Fortunately BenQ came to rescue us and decided to create a series of monitors specifically designed for us photographers: we are talking about the PhotoVue series.
In a previous article we had the opportunity to analyze the SW271 model. Today we’re going to take a closer look at the features of the brand new BenQ SW321C.
The features you should look for in a Photographic Monitor
Once again, before we get into the details of what the new BenQ SW321C monitor offers, let’s take a quick look at what monitor features are essential if you are a photographer and why a generic monitor is not suitable.
Personally, I think the minimum features we really need to keep an eye on are at least 5.
- Technology: it is important to have an IPS monitor. IPS means “In Plane Switching” and in other words it means that the saturation and contrast does not vary with the angle I look at the screen. With any non IPS monitor, any correction we make to our image will be constrained by the exact position we are looking at the screen. If we move even slightly, saturation and contrast will vary: absolutely unacceptable not only if we want to print our image, but also if we simply want to publish it online. For this reason, most of the generic monitors we find on the market are not suitable for accurate post production activities.
- Gamut. Our monitor must be able to reproduce as many colors as possible. This capacity is defined by the so-called Gamut (in fact, the Gamma should also be considered, but it does not contribute to the choice of a monitor if we are talking about a product released in the past decade). For a photographer it is not only essential that the monitor covers 100% of the sRGB color space (essential for our online publications), but it must be able to cover as much as possible the Adobe RGB color space in order to allow us to manage printing as well.
- Uniformity. Once defined how many colors can be reproduced by our monitor, it is necessary that they are reproduced uniformly throughout the entire panel and without variations in brightness in the different areas that make it up.
- Contrast. Often overlooked, it is an essential parameter to have a perfect reproduction of your image. In an IPS monitor it is good to have it around 1000:1.
- Calibration: it should be possible to perform a hardware calibration via LUT (let’s check details on this later) in order to achieve DeltaE values below 2 and fidelity in color reproduction.
Key Features of BenQ SW321C
If we trivially compare just the basic features we are looking for with the technical features offered by BenQ SW321C we can only be satisfied.
We get an IPS monitor with LED backlighting and a very high gamut: we have 100% sRGB color space coverage and 99% AdobeRGB color space coverage. The DeltaE is guaranteed to be less than 2 through an individual calibration certificate. This means that once the monitor is connected to our computer we can use it immediately, and we are sure to have the highest fidelity in reproduction: a nice advantage if we are still in doubt about which calibrator to buy (maybe take a look HERE and HERE). The contrast is 1000:1.
Is that all? Definitely not as you can imagine.
The BenQ SW321C has other really interesting technical features, as well as unique and exclusive features.
First, let’s start with the resolution. The BenQ SW321C is a 32″ 4K beast. This means that the maximum resolution will be 3840 x 2160 pixels, and at 32″ this translates into a density of 140PPI. If you are one of those who think the value of PPIs in a 27″ 4K monitor is too high, you’ll find the perfect balance in the BenQ SW321C that will allow you to better manage sharpening, both for online and printed publications.
A really important feature for me is that the monitor supports Hardware Calibration. What is it? Simply said, when you go to calibrate a generic purpose monitor, the correction curves generated by the probe/software system act on your computer’s video card. One of the main limitations of this method is that the calibration curves managed by the video card allow to act only on 256 levels per color (8 bit), so just enough for the correct display of a photographic image. The hardware calibration instead provides that the correction curves are applied to the LUT (Look Up Table) inside the monitor itself, allowing not only a greater constancy in time of the calibration performed, but not to have limitations in the color rendering of the tones thanks to the higher number of levels per color available. The BenQ SW321C has a 16-bit 3D LUT and can therefore handle 65,536 levels per color (instead of 256). Note that this further improves on the previous BenQ SW320 and the 27-inch BenQ SW271 that offered a 14-bit 3D LUT (that was already epic). Not bad, right?
To perform hardware calibration you need to use a calibration probe (such as THIS) with BenQ’s Palette Master Element (PME) software. Remember that using the probe’s native software or open source solutions such as DisplayCAL only allows you to do the software calibration. (For the record, there are alternative softwares that allow hardware calibration among other things, but I guarantee you that they cost more than the monitor itself, while PME is free and works great. By the way, you can read my PME calibration guide for BenQ PhotoVue monitors HERE!)
It is clear that BenQ has understood that color accuracy is a top priority for us photographers and for this reason they have developed and included AQCOLOR technology in the BenQ SW321C to ensure maximum color fidelity, smooth gradations and natural color transitions. In addition, BenQ SW321C implements the second generation of Uniformity Technology: in essence, this allows for uniformity of different areas of the monitor through automatic adjustment of hundreds of screen sub-areas, finely controlling brightness and color fidelity in any color mode.
There are other really interesting features, but rather than simply listing them here, I prefer to discuss them later during the test.
So let’s go and see what awaits us inside the package.
Unboxing and first impression
The monitor comes in a robust and well-protected packaging: if you are likely to buy it online and not in a physical store, you can sleep soundly. My shipment has suffered the normal mistreatment of heavy and bulky packages typical unfortunately of Italian couriers, and despite several signs on the outer package that remind me of the description of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, the interior is really spotless and well protected.
As always BenQ’s set is very rich and unlike other solutions on the market we do not have to spend more money for cables or other accessories. In fact, in addition to the monitor itself and the structure needed to hold it in place, we find:
- Instruction manual
- CD with Software
- Power cable
- HDMI/DP/USB-C cables
- Hotkey Puck G2 (we’ll talk about it later)
- Shading Hood
- Screen cleaning roller
I confess that at first I was very surprised by the presence of this roller and not a trivial cleaning cloth, and only later I understood the reason for its presence. Have a little more patience, I don’t want to spoil the surprise!
Once mounted on its pedestal, the BenQ SW321C shows itself in all its elegance: despite the size given by a 32″, its presence is discreet: seen from the side it is really thin and almost invisible while seen from the front the design is wonderful as the panel occupies almost all the space available.
All that’s left to do is to try it!
Connectivity, GamutDuo and Hotkey Pucks
First, we need to connect the BenQ SW321C to our computer. BenQ has designed the SW321C to be connected as we prefer between HDMI, DisplayPort or USB-C. Without a doubt, I would suggest you to take advantage of the USB-C capabilities if your computer is predisposed, because if you use a laptop it will allow you to power and charge it, and to use it while folded without having to insert the battery charger (a dream come true for me!). On the side of the monitor there is also an SD card reader: very appreciated especially for those like me who have a MacBook Pro of the latest generation where it has been removed.
One of the ports of the monitor is reserved for the connection of the Hotkey Puck G2, the small external control device that allows you to recall specific actions and to access the OSD menu. I confess that at first I found it a bit strange and useless, but after some time it has become really irreplaceable.
In particular, I use it to quickly set the color mode of the monitor I’m working on: when I’m not doing post production, with a simple click I switch the monitor to Display P3, that is the same one my MacBook Pro uses and doing so the transition from laptop to external monitor is really neutral and perfect and if it wasn’t for moving from 15″ to 32″ I wouldn’t even notice it.
When I start working on my images, with a click of the Hotkey Puck G2 I’m in AdobeRGB and here I can really exploit all the potential offered by the monitor gamut. Another click, and I’m in sRGB to quickly preview what my image will look like once published online.
(Note: for a really accurate result it is good to make a profiling for the desired color mode to associate to the corresponding button on the Hotkey Puck G2)
This is really priceless for me: switching from one color space to another I can pre-visualize in any moment of my workflow how the image will behave, allowing specific adjustments to produce a final image congruent to my vision regardless of the media on which it will be displayed or printed.
Icing on cake is represented by the GamutDuo function: connecting the BenQ SW321C to our computer simultaneously through two connections (eg: DisplayPort and USB-C) we can display simultaneously the image in two color spaces! For example, we can display the image in sRGB and Adobe RGB on the screen simultaneously to further optimize our post production workflow.
Paper Color Sync Technology
Finally it’s time to tell you about a feature that I think would be enough to justify the upgrade from whatever monitor you’re using: I’m talking about Paper Color Sync Technology.
Basically BenQ developed the SW321C monitor not only for those who like to post produce and publish their images online, but especially for those who love to print without wasting money and time. This is made possible thanks to two main factors:
First, the monitor panel is made with a special coating that makes it slightly matt: in this way reflections are further minimized and the effect given by a photographic paper is simulated more effectively. This is the reason why there is a roller for cleaning the screen: this small accessory allows us to keep the surface of our screen perfectly clean. The second fundamental factor is the presence of this exclusive technology (Paper Color Sync Technology) that helps to reduce the difference in color and contrast between the monitor and the print. Once the prediction of the printing result is displayed on the screen taking into account the precise combination of printer and paper, it is possible to adapt the post production to obtain a congruent print. In short, it is a soft proof far more accurate and immediate than what I hope you do in Photoshop or Lightroom before printing.
To take advantage of this technology, simply download and install the free BenQ Paper Color Sync software on your computer and select your printer and the paper you want to use from the drop-down menus.
Paper Color Sync currently works with a limited number of printers and papers because it uses profiles made by BenQ that take into account the paper, the printer and the specific characteristics of the monitor. These profiles are released periodically so I trust that by the time you read this article you will have already released several new profiles.
User experience and cocnlusions
The new BenQ SW321C is undoubtedly a monitor that many photographers have been waiting for. Finding another 32″ 4K panel of such quality and features at this price is virtually impossible.
A clean, slim design makes it perfect for any desk, and thanks to the new technologies implemented, spending hours in front of the monitor is not at all tiring for the eyes.
The second generation of Uniformity Technology implemented makes every job accurate and some of the youth issues of this type of panels are undoubtedly overcome.
Working on the images is an absolute pleasure and regardless of whether the final destination is a print or an online publication I am confident that the result will be congruent to the expected, and thanks to the possibility to quickly perform hardware calibrations that further increase the accuracy.
BenQ Paper Color Sync has also been a real revelation: the level of accuracy achieved is truly impressive and this will literally save you hours (and money) of hard proofs or approximative soft proofs with a simple click.
Although I was already completely satisfied with my 27” BenQ SW271, working in 4K on a 32″ is actually a big leap that I’m happy to have made because it allows me to really focus on the details, and I’ll hardly be able to go back.