Monday, March 28, 2011

NEC PA301w: The Baddest 30-inch Display Around

It's been a busy and short two weeks since Anand and I thoroughly covered smartphones, tablets, and SoCs at MWC. I got back to an ever-growing pile of monitors that need reviewing, he got back to the Xoom and new SSDs.
In the monitor space, it's been an interesting couple of months because everyone has been updating their 30-inch display. We reviewed the HP ZR30w back when that happened and came away impressed but wanting more in a couple of areas - more input options, an OSD, and a better scaler. Then came Dell U3011, which brought equally decent performance, a wealth of input options, and that OSD we wanted.

Today we're looking at NEC's latest and greatest, the MultiSync PA301w. I've been playing with a pre-production unit which is identical to what will be shipping, and have put it through the usual paces of our monitor testing suite. First up is the specification table:
NEC MultiSync PA301w
Video Inputs 2xDVI-D w/HDCP, 2xDisplayPort 1.1a
Panel Type P-IPS 10-bit with CCFL Backlight - 0Z100223UW
Pixel Pitch 0.251 mm
Colors 1.07 billion (30 BPP color w/appropriate GPU)
Brightness 350 nits (typical)
Contrast Ratio 1,000:1 (typical)
Response Time 7 ms (GTG), 12 ms (max)
Viewable Size 29.8" (75.6 cm)
Resolution 2560 x 1600 at 60 Hz
Viewing Angle 178 degrees horizontal and vertical
Power Consumption (operation) 165 watts (typical), 90 watts (eco)
Power Consumption (standby) 1.7 watts (standby), 0.2 watts (off)
Screen Treatment Matte/Anti-Glare
Height-Adjustable Yes: 5.9 inches (landscape), 1.2 inches (portrait)
Tilt Yes: +30 degrees, -10 degrees
Pivot Yes: Landscape and Portrait
Swivel Yes: +/- 30 degrees
VESA Wall Mounting Yes: 100 mm x 100 mm
Dimensions w/ Base (WxHxD) 27.1" (688.0 mm) x 18.4-24.3" (466.4-646.4 mm) x 11.9" (301.6 mm)
Weight 41.5 lbs (18.8 kg) with stand
Additional Features Integrated USB 2.0 Switch (2 upstream, 3 downstream, 500mA), self calibration support with i1D2, 10-bit color, quick warmup
Limited Warranty 4 years
Accessories Power, DVI-D, DisplayPort, and USB cables, 4x VESA screws
Price PA301w: $2299, PA301w-BK-SV: $2549

Right away you can tell the PA301w is in a different class of professional displays than the two other counterparts I've already mentioned. It's priced accordingly, and has the professional-oriented inputs and other features. There's no HDMI or component in, nor is there audio pass through. The PA301w is aimed at the professional that demands uncompromising performance and has the budget to satisfy that need. The PA301w is built around a 10-bit P-IPS (Professional-IPS) panel likely sourced from LG. Like the current crop of 30-inch monitors, that means you can drive 30 bit per color (10-bit per channel) content over DisplayPort if you have a capable GPU and the right software. I'm still searching for software that actually uses 30-bit color (if you know of any, I'd honestly love to hear about it), but when that time comes, it'll be supported.

The PA301w also has a few features that I haven't seen in a monitor before. Chief among them is onboard support for some basic calibration with an X-Rite i1D2 colorimeter. Plug it into a USB port on the side of the monitor, go into the OSD, and the display will automatically calibrate white point, brightness, and the color tristimulus values. It doesn't displace software calibration, but gets the monitor to a very workable initial starting position you can tweak from, which (if you've ever calibrated a display before) can be a huge timesaver. The other interesting hardware feature is something of a built-in KVM USB switch. There are two USB downstream ports, which can be associated with particular display inputs and switch peripherals accordingly. Lastly, there are a number of green/power-saving features to both show power use and offer power savings by doing some auto brightness adjustment when applicable.

On to the hardware itself - the PA301w is seriously a beast. It's the biggest, baddest monitor around in terms of just sheer size. I don't usually start off talking about boxes, but there's just no other way to really demonstrate the magnitude of the PA301w's size without doing so.

The box is easily two times the size of the HP ZR30w box, and almost three times how big I remember the Dell U3011 box being. It doesn't fit underneath any table or surface in my living room. It fills a good chunk of that room just sitting around, empty, even right now. I've never seen something like it on a monitor box (maybe a refrigerator?), but there's even a wince-inducing typo-ridden warning message encouraging that the monitor be remobed[sic] by two people.

Luckily, I have superhuman strength (yeah right...) and managed to get the thing out intact just by myself. It's a heavy monitor, at just over 41 lbs (18.8 kg) including stand. The PA301w comes fully assembled and in the upright position. There was more than adequate packing to keep the whole thing safe during transit.

That's a nice segue into the hardware features of the PA301w. At the bottom of the display arm is a locking switch for holding the monitor at its lowest position.

The display ships with it locked in position so you can lift the thing without the height adjustment arm fully extending. It's seriously surprising how many displays lately lack locking height adjustment arms, which makes transportation a pain, so it's nice to see it here.

Also on the back of the display is a cable routing guide, which NEC calls a "cable cover." You route the cables underneath on each side, then slide the plastic cover down and hide everything. In practice, it's really only useful if you don't rotate the monitor 90 degrees, since doing so will always create cable flex and demand more slack than you've got back there. It works if you keep things strictly landscape, however.

The backside of the PA301w is on the whole very spartan. There's an NEC logo up top, the two hand grips for transport if you're lucky enough to have a friend handy, and as we'll get to in a second the standard fare kensington lock and ports on the underside. There's a total of 5.9 inches of travel in the vertical direction when the monitor is in landscape mode, which is a huge amount, but necessary for portrait mode.

The PA301w has a generous amount of tilt in the upward direction (30 degrees), and only a slight 5-10 degree tilt in the downward direction. There's a lot of monitor to move around, but in spite of that, the springs on the PA301w are nicely preloaded. Tilt can still be somewhat challenging to manipulate though, and definitely requires use of both arms to manipulate the display.

There's also +/- 30 degrees of swivel support on the base. You can see the circular section at the back which the display arm rotates around. The base is weighted and there's no chatter as the huge thing rotates around, which is awesome. Thankfully, swivel is easily accomplished with one arm.

You'll notice so far that there's really no superficial aesthetic extras tacked onto the PA301w; this is a serious professional display. There's no metallic bezel running around the whole thing, no fancy shiny chrome parts, no gigantic self-aggrandizing logos on the back, no stickers plastered everywhere selling you what you've already ostensibly purchased and taken out of the box. It's just one huge monolithic slab of serious business.

The front of the PA301w is also understated. The OSD control buttons are at the bottom right, and they're actual real clicky buttons, nothing capacitive. At the far left is the ambient light sensor, followed by power, followed by the power/status LED which glows blue when on, amber when in standby. The rest of the buttons are self explanatory and as we'll show in the OSD section get their own LCD driven labels when you actually jump into the OSD.

I've already shown it, but on the right side of the PA301w is one of the three downstream USB 2.0 ports. This port is rather special, however, since it's the one you can plug the X-Rite i1D2 in for onboard calibration. Of course, the port also works like normal when you're not in that special OSD section. The opposing side is spartan. I should also mention that the PA301w actual display panel is super thick, around 5" (12.7 cm). It's not a big deal, but it's just absolutely huge in comparison with other displays, so be prepared. The remainder of the ports are along the bottom of the lip underside. From left to right, the two remaining downstream USB 2.0 ports, two USB 2.0 upstream ports, 2x DisplayPort 1.1a, 2x DVI-D, and power.

What really sets the PA301w apart in my mind, however, is pivot support. That's right, you can use it in portrait orientation without using your own VESA mount. I should mention that although I didn't do it, you can get to the VESA mounting holes by pushing on the metal quick release lever right at the bottom of the mount.

Getting to portrait orientation is a bit of a challenge, however, as you can't simply just rotate the display 90 degrees - doing so crashes one side down into the base. The display also only rotates in the clockwise direction a significant amount. Counterclockwise rotation is limited to just a few degrees when facing the display from the front.

First, the display has to be tilted all the way out, then it can be rotated 90 degrees, and tilted back into perpendicular position. Rotate orientation in the display driver, and you're good to go. Vertical travel is limited to 1.2 inches in portrait, but hey, it's something, and it totally works.

Build quality of the PA301w isn't wanting for improvement at all. Though the exterior is entirely plastic, the entire display feels beefy and doesn't vibrate or chatter around when being adjusted. If you vibrate your desk while typing, the whole thing doesn't shudder either. Again, the spring preloads are just perfect for buttery smooth adjustment and damping on essentially every degree of freedom.

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