I’m in the process of upgrading my computer, which is currently a 2014 iMac Retina 5K, to a late model MacBook Pro 16”. As such, I will need an external monitor when I’m in my studio for critical tasks such as image evaluation, editing, and printing. BenQ monitors have been at the top of my list based on past experiences using them at trade shows, their excellent reputation for color accuracy, and high value.
Coincidentally, and without my involvement, I was recommended to BenQ as a potential ambassador by some of my friends at Canson Infinity. My specialty in printing fits nicely with BenQ’s desire to promote their monitors to photography professionals and serious amateurs, so I agreed to test one of their monitors. I am under no obligation to write a positive review or use their monitor if it doesn’t totally satisfy and exceed my needs as a printmaker.
Why An Accurate Monitor Is Critical
You could argue that the most important piece of equipment a digital photographer (or visual artist) uses regularly is a display monitor. It’s the tool you use to make evaluative technical and aesthetic judgments of your images, at every stage of your particular workflow. For me, that extends to making museum-quality prints.
From this perspective, I’d even argue it’s the most important investment you can ever make to your toolbox. After all, the more accurate your display is in terms of color, detail, and tonality, the more accurate your decisions will be, especially when you’re making adjustments to an image.
A comparable analogy is that back in the day when I spent most of my time in a recording studio, sound monitors (they weren’t called speakers) were the most important tools we relied on to make critical creative decisions.
I’m also a visual person, and so while specifications and features can sound impressive, I need to see those features to really appreciate them. I don’t subscribe to the idea that even if I can’t see a difference, it must be better since the specs say so. This is photography, and if I can’t see a difference, then it’s not as relevant to my workflow.
That’s the perspective that I want to establish as I share my field test/review of the BenQ SW271 27” 4k HDR IPS monitor. If you want a discussion about specs, jargon-laden features, and comparisons to a dozen other monitors, then please look elsewhere—you can find that easily. I’m not saying there’s no merit in that, it’s just not what I care about.
What I want to share is my experience in a real-world situation using the monitor daily for image evaluation, editing, and printing.
The monitor arrived in a rather large rectangular box, with all the components well-padded and sealed. The first thing you see when you open the box is a factory calibration report sheet which documents that the monitor meets or exceeds its design specs (more on this later.). Setup is covered in the Quick Start Guide which is included, but the PDF manuals for the monitor and the Palette Master Element software must be downloaded from the BenQ website. I also recommend downloading the software itself from the BenQ website since there may be an update from the time the included CD was manufactured.
There is a bit of assembly required, such as attaching the arm that holds the monitor to a very sturdy base and then attaching the monitor panel itself to the arm. The stand is awesome, allowing adjustments to the height of the monitor, as well as the tilt and viewing angle for total customization.
A sturdy and well-designed shading hood is included, and can be set up in either a horizontal or vertical orientation—I chose horizontal of course. The purpose of the hood is to reduce screen glare from ambient lighting, which greatly increases color and contrast accuracy.
There’s also an external controller that BenQ calls a “hockey puck” which sits below the monitor in a convenient slot and allows easy access to all the monitor’s controls. You can also access them using the 4 buttons next to the power switch along the bottom right side of the panel.
The SW271 includes several inputs, including 2x HDMI, DisplayPort, and USB-C. It also has a USB hub built into the side which provides 2 USB ports and an SD card reader. A USB port on the bottom must be connected to your computer to activate the hub. All cables are included to make every connection, and the cables are very high quality.
Because I’m attaching it to my iMac at the moment, I’m using the Display port cable plus the USB connection for the hub and for hardware calibration (more on that below.)
The SW271 has a long list of impressive features that you can read about on BenQ’s website, so I’m only going to focus on those I think are most important to know and understand., especially with regards to my real-world use in my studio.
- 27” Size – For me the physical size is perfect—any larger in size and I would probably have to turn my head to see around the screen.
- 4K Resolution (3840×2160) – While this is more of a luxury than a necessity, I prefer the extra resolution which provides more room in applications like Lightroom and Photoshop. I can also display images side by side without them appearing too small. Remember that in order to use the monitor at its native resolution (4k) you must have a computer or graphics card capable of supporting 4k. This means many older MacBook Pros will not work optimally since they do not support 4k external monitors. In this case, you can consider the BenQ SW270 which is very similar but operates at 2k
- 99% AdobeRGB – Offers the greatest range of vibrant colors that will come closest to the original colors captured. This is especially critical for printing workflows.
- Color Accuracy – Because it uses a 14-bit 3D Look Up Table (LUT), color accuracy is very impressive. This essentially determines how colors will be displayed based on what’s sent from the computer. The better the LUT, which maps the source color to the destination color seen on screen, the more accurate and rich the color you will see.
- Hardware Calibration – Because the SW271 (and BenQ’s other PhotoVue monitors) has a hardware-based LUT (see previous), it can be hardware calibrated using Benq’s own Palette Master Element software and a compatible colorimeter. Software calibration (used by most monitors) adjusts graphics card output while hardware calibration enables adjustment of the LUT in the monitor which displays more accurate colors. It also means that once properly calibrated, you can expect exact color accuracy regardless of which computer you attach to the monitor. Note: The ability to hardware calibrate is only available with the Palette Master software, and NOT with any other software.
Finally, I want to return to the calibration report sheet included in the box, which is actually part of a set of design and manufacturing principles that BenQ calls AQColor Technology. In essence, it’s a strategy that they use to make sure their monitors produce the best color accuracy possible given current technology.
This involves the components they choose, how they design and factory calibrate the monitors, and finally, their pledge that they are adhering to strict industry standards – which is reflected in the included report. I wish all manufacturers would do this!
Calibration / Palette Master Software
The first thing I did once everything was set up and working was to calibrate the monitor. Unless you are using a USB-C connection, you must have a USB connection in addition to the display cable. This is to allow the Palette Master Element (PME) software to write directly to the internal hardware of the monitor when a calibration is performed.
The PME software supports colorimeters made by Datacolor and X-Rite, including the ColorMunki. I used my Spyder X colorimeter connected to the USB port on the monitor without any issues. Unfortunately, the counter-weight on the Spyder X cable does not fit through the small port at the top of the shading hood, so I simply used a small clamp to hold the cable at the proper height on the monitor screen.
There’s a basic and advanced mode, and I used both with equally good results. I suggest you start in basic mode unless you have any issues. I recommend using the standard settings for monitor calibration, such as D65 for white point and 120 for luminance. (Setting your monitor too bright makes you susceptible to making prints that appear too dark.)
During the calibration, PME will read a series of color patches to create the proper values for the LUT, and then actually write that into the hardware. Another nice feature is that it will set the brightness of the monitor automatically based on the luminance value you selected.
Once the calibration is complete, you can store the calibration in one of 3 possible slots, or presets, allowing you to create different calibration types depending on the configuration you need. I only need one for my editing and printing, so I used preset 1.
You can also “verify’ the calibration to make sure it’s as accurate as possible. When finished, the software will generate a calibration report with the target and actual values for each parameter.
I can’t speak to all possible scenarios of colorimeter and operating system, but the software worked seamlessly for me. I do know of others who have had some issues with a dual monitor setup, so it may be something BenQ will address in a future update.
I love the sleek and minimalistic look and feel of the entire package. The super-thin bezel around the panel creates an almost edge to edge appearance, and images displayed in full screen look wonderfully consistent across the entire display. Compared to my iMac Retina, which already has a fantastic display, I found the SW217 a bit smoother in the shadows, and just as sharp and crisp. Another advantage is that at 5k, I sometimes have a difficult time seeing small details in the UI of an application, whereas in 4k, I have no issue with that. Granted my eyesight is pretty good, but it’s a welcome advantage.
What I love most about 4k is that when working on images, there’s a much smoother appearance to detail that makes the images look more like what I’m used to experiencing on paper. There’s less of a discrepancy between the two mediums because displayed images look less like they’re composed of pixels. This is hard to describe in words, but one comparison that comes to mind is the difference between my Kindle paperwhite and my iPad. The Kindle just looks more like paper, and that is similar to the effect I’m describing.
If you’re coming to 4k from a 1080p monitor, there will be a transition period in terms of sharpening your images. You may be tempted to apply more sharpening to an image given that there are more pixels and images will appear smoother as I described before.
I suggest evaluating an image you’ve already printed that has your preference for sharpening and then get used to how it looks on the SW271. Over time, that will recalibrate your sense of what is properly sharpened for you. I say “you” because there is no standard sharpening for every image or artist. You need to decide what works best for your images and your vision.
For example, I prefer my images and prints to appear as organic and natural as possible, so I apply the least amount of sharpening in Lightroom to achieve what I’m after. I also try to be meticulous about achieving the maximum sharpness possible in-camera, which means I don’t need to rely on software sharpening as much. This translates to much better looking prints.
I found the SW271 to be excellent in this regard, giving me complete confidence that my adjustments would translate faithfully to print. Again, I was already comfortable with this on my iMac, but I think it’s even better now, and that was certainly a surprise.
Printed images match the SW271 in both color and brightness to my satisfaction, which had to be at least as good as my previous setup with the iMac. That was excellent already (as anyone who has taken my printing workshops knows,) and this is definitely better, especially with regards to shadow detail as mentioned before, and also colors with high chroma values (saturation.)
The additional USB ports and SD card reader on the back are a nice addition when you need more ports or perhaps don’t have a card reader on your laptop. Combined with the shading hood, working on the monitor for hours was a joy and didn’t lead to eye fatigue as it might with an inferior monitor.
The manuals supplied by BenQ cover all the basic aspects of setup and operation but aren’t as detailed as I’d like, especially with differences between Mac and Windows operating systems. Their website does have an extensive knowledge-base and FAQ section, and BenQ also has a YouTube channel with many tutorial videos.
Being slightly on the “inside,” I can tell you that my personal interactions with BenQ have been great. They are professional and committed to providing customers with the best possible user experience of their products. That’s something I always look for when considering an ambassador position with a company.
I don’t need free products. One of my core values is being completely independent to use what I want without being beholden to a corporate agenda. There are companies that support and respect you as an artist, and others that only see you as a tool to gain market share. I can say with confidence that BenQ is part of the former, and I appreciate that in today’s competitive environment.
That also provides the confidence to say that BenQ stands behind their products after you make a purchase, and that’s important in my world where my mortgage depends on the tools I use on a daily basis.
Overall, I am really pleased and excited about the SW271 and look forward to using it over the foreseeable future. If you visit my studio for a workshop, you will see it being used as my primary display, and hopefully, that shows the value I put into its accuracy and usability.
I think the Palette Master software could be a bit easier to navigate, and the manuals could be a bit more detailed in their explanation of available options, but otherwise, it’s hard to find any real weaknesses. (I will be writing a subsequent article going through all the options in the PME software.)
I highly recommend you take a look at the SW271 and other BenQ PhotoVue monitors if you’re in the market for a great looking wide-gamut monitor.