BenQ SW2700PT Photographer’s Wide Gamut Display Review (Podcast 519)

BenQ SW2700PT Photographer’s Wide Gamut Display Review (Podcast 519)

I’ve recently had the pleasure of trying out a new display aimed at the photography market by BenQ, a company that I had not considered a player in the quality display market, until now. I’ve been using their 27 inch SW2700PT display for the last four months now, and I’ve been highly impressed, so today I’m going to give you a run down of this new offering.

My findings have been mostly very positive with just a few quirks that I can live with, especially at its price. From the design and build quality, to included accessories and ports, not to mention having 99% of the Adobe RGB color gamut covered, I’d say that without doubt, BenQ are now well and truly in the quality display market, with a product totally capable of meeting the quality conscientious photographer’s needs.

The Specs

Let’s first take a look at the impressive specs for this display. I actually checked out the specs before I saw the price, and I was honestly thinking that the SW2700PT was going to be retailing at three times the price that you can buy it for on B&H, which, at the time of writing (April 2016) is just $629.99. Honestly, these are the sort of specs and accessories that you’d usually expect to see in a display two to three, sometimes up to four times more expensive, depending on the manufacturer.

I should mention here of course, that some of the much more expensive alternative displays do include a built-in colorimeter to perform hardware calibration. With this offering from BenQ you have to use your own colorimeter, but if you already have one, that’s perhaps not a big deal. In fact, the reason I bought a display that did not have hardware calibration in the past, was because I didn’t want to pay the extra for a built-in colorimeter as I already owned one.

Firstly, this is an IPS display, which means it uses In-Plane Switching Technology, so it has a very wide viewing angle of 178° from any angle. IPS is becoming more common, but still many budget displays are not IPS, despite being more expensive than the SW2700PT. The resolution is 2560 x 1440 pixels creating an actual resolution of 109 pixels per inch, which is the same as my non-Retina 27 inch iMac screen.

It has DVI-DL, HDMI 1.4 and Display Port inputs, so you have a nice range of optional ways to connect this display to your computer. It also has a headphones socket, although DVI will not transmit audio to the display, so if this is important to you, you’ll need to use the HDMI or Display Port connectors. If you want to use the display at its maximum capability, I recommend using the Display Port connectivity.

It has a 1000:1 Contrast Ratio with 350 cd/m² (candela per square meter) Brightness, which is also impressive. As photographers, we generally want to turn the brightness down a little, to match our images and printers in a color managed digital workflow, but many other displays at much higher prices aren’t this bright. The 5 ms (GtG) Response Time is also 1 millisecond faster than most competitors.

The SW2700PT supports 1.07 Billion colors covering 99% of the Adobe RGB Color Gamut. Again, this is what you can usually expect to see in the specs of displays two to four times more expensive than this one, for the same 27 inch widescreen models. These specs really are very impressive, regardless of the price.

Includes Shading Hood!

Another pleasant surprise was that the SW2700PT display comes with a shading hood as standard. This is often an option for other high end displays, costing sometimes up to $200 just for the hood. I was even more impressed to find that it has a velvet like coating on the inside of the hood, to stop light from reflecting off the hood onto your display, as simple shiny black plastic can.

There is also a square opening with a sliding cover in the top of the hood to feed your calibration device through when calibrating the display, so that you can do this without taking the hood off. The sliding cover of course means that you can close it when you aren’t calibrating the display, to keep stray light out. The hood itself is a nice addition, and BenQ’s attention to these extra details really shows that they are serious about the photography and imaging markets.

Calibrating the BenQ SW2700PT Display

Calibrating the BenQ SW2700PT Display

Matte Finish – Yes!

When I bought my iMac, one of the things I had been waiting for, was the reduced reflectivity in the display, and although this was nice, I have found that the display does still reflect a lot of light, especially on sunny days when I have a lot of bright sunlight bouncing around my studio.

The BenQ SW2700PT display has a beautiful matte finish to it, and I think that is incredibly important for a photographer, especially if you work in an environment with reflective or brightly colored objects, or any bright light sources around you. It’s also much better to use a matte display if you print on matte paper, simply because get a better idea of what your prints will look like than when you view them on a glossy screen.

USB Ports and SD Card Reader Slot

Another nice addition is the pair of USB 3.0 ports on the left side of the display, accompanied by an SD Card Reader slot. You have to plug the display in to a USB port on your computer to enable some of the functionality anyway, so extending that out to give the user a couple of extra ports is nice, and especially useful when calibrating the device, as you can just plug straight into the display. In fact, you have to do this to enable hardware calibration, as we’ll hear shortly.

I would actually love to see manufacturers include a Compact Flash port instead of or in addition to the SD Card slots that we often see, especially when you consider that CF cards are more popular in higher end DSLR cameras, but this is one area where all manufacturers still seem to be catering for the consumer end of the market unfortunately.

Hardware Calibration

Perhaps one of the most important features of the SW2700PT display is the ability to perform hardware calibration. Although you can profile the display with the software that comes with your calibration device, if you use one of the five currently supported colorimeters, you can save your profile directly into the displays internal 3D LUT (Look Up Table) so that your images will look consistently accurate. Currently, you can use the X-Rite i1 Pro, i1 Pro 2, i1 Display Pro, i1 Display 2 and the Spyder 4 from Datacolor to perform hardware calibration. In my tests I have used the i1 Pro 2 from X-Rite.

I’ll walk you through a calibration process later, as this is an important feature, and there are some quirks that you will need to keep in mind too. Before we jump into that though, let’s move on from discussing the specs, and talk about what it really means to use a wide gamut display like the SW2700PT.

What’s the Big Deal About Adobe RGB / Wide Gamut?

I know that some of you are going to be wondering what the big deal is with this display having 99% coverage of the Adobe RGB color space, so let’s explore this a little. What does this mean to us as photographers?

The main thing to keep in mind is that whenever we display our images, a conversion is taking place. As I showed in my post about the ProPhoto RGB color space, it’s best to edit your images in a wider color space than your images are captured in. I know that there are arguments for restricting your images to a smaller color space to avoid problems later in the workflow, but I personally don’t subscribe to this school of thought. Lightroom uses a large color space based on ProPhoto RGB by default, and it’s best to set up Photoshop to use ProPhoto RGB by default too.

Your camera is most likely creating images in a color space larger than Adobe RGB, so it’s best not to restrict your images by working in a smaller color space like Adobe RGB or the even smaller sRGB, which is only really used for displaying images on the web and other low quality imaging technologies. Also, I know you probably have an option to record your raw files in Adobe RGB or sRGB on your camera, but this is misleading. The images are actually using much wider color spaces. This setting is just to tell your camera how to tag your images, and doesn’t actually change the colors used in raw files.

Once we’ve edited our images, although we can keep our original files in raw format if you use a non-destructive editor like Lightroom, or even if you save a TIFF or Photoshop format file, you can save your original images using wide color spaces like ProPhoto RGB. But, when we come to export them, we often have to squeeze them into smaller color spaces like sRGB or Adobe RGB. When we do this, we convert the colors to the closest possible available color in the new color space. Because of this, quite often, if you are viewing your images on a display that doesn’t display many more colors than sRGB, you really aren’t going to see much difference.

If your photo contains mainly colors that are present in all color spaces, there really isn’t much of a compromise to be made during the conversion anyway, so quite often, you won’t see much difference, unless you are pushing your processing quite a bit, or photographing naturally very vibrant subjects, which may contain colors that are simply not in the smaller color spaces.

In these situations it can become more apparent that the conversion is causing issues. I looked through hundreds of my photos to find some that showed me the true benefits of using a wide gamut display, and I finally found a few that had very vibrant colors in, such as this photo of a field of Equinox Flowers (below).

Sea of Red - Original Processing

Sea of Red – Original Processing

When I made this photograph back in 2008, Lightroom was still very new, in version 2, and the ability to use camera profiles to adjust the look of an image had just been added. Because I was a FujiChrome Velvia slide film shooter back in the film days, I like vivd colors, and I’d emulated that back in 2008 by pumping up the reds, bringing the image closer to what I felt I’d seen in the field, or at least that’s what I thought I was doing when viewing my changes on my old display.

Since doing that first process of this image, a lot has changed, and I’ve had multiple computers in the meantime, each with a slightly better screen, but I was always relatively happy with how this image looked, although as things changed, I realized that I was pushing the reds a little bit too far. Velvia was a punchy film, but not quite that punchy.

Anyway, as I scrolled through my images on the SW2700PT display, my Equinox Flower photo looked totally different to how I’ve seen it before. It actually looked duller, nowhere near as vivid as I had been used to seeing it, and that stopped me in my tracks, then it took some figuring out to understand just what was going on.

I took my Equinox flower into a piece of software called ColorThink Pro, which is an application that I use a lot to visualize color spaces both for education purposes and for my own research. I then loaded the Adobe RGB and sRGB color spaces, then the profile for my iMac, and at this point, I noticed that the colors in my photograph were extending out of the Adobe RGB color space and my iMac screen’s profile.

Then, I loaded the ICC profile that I made for the SW2700PT, and when viewed in Color Think Pro, it’s actually larger than the Adobe RGB color space, but apart from some lime greens, all of the colors in my vivid Equinox Flower shot fit inside the SW2700PT’s profile, as you can see in this image (below).

Profile Plots

Profile Plots

So, I believe what’s happening here is that when I view my image on other devices, such as my iMac screen with it’s much smaller color gamut, only slightly larger than sRGB, I am simply not able to see the colors that my processing had created. I’d pushed the image beyond the boundaries of my display’s capabilities. I thought I could see the changes, but what I was looking at was a version that had been shoehorned into the smaller color gamut of my old computer display.

When I was able to view the colors much closer to those contained in my image on the SW2700PT, I was now for the first time in a position to rework the image, seeing all of the colors that it holds, and the result is still a very punchy image, but it’s much closer to vibrant and lush deep reds that I recall from the scene. Of course, my memory of the eight year old shoot is probably fading more than I realize, but this new version feels much closer than my original version from back in 2008.

Sea of Red - New Processing

Sea of Red – New Processing

This for me was a revelation. I’ve heard people talking about the benefits of using wide gamut displays, and didn’t quite understand what this meant, until now. Even as I looked through my images, it just was not apparent, until I came to an image that I’d blindly pushed too far on my lesser displays of the past. The SW2700PT has enabled me to finally move past that.

Now You Know!

You might be thinking, well, I don’t push my images that far, so it doesn’t matter to me, but you know what? I didn’t think that I did either. Sure, I like to push the colors on some of my subjects, especially when the base image contains some very vivid colors, but it wasn’t until I revisited the processing of that old image that I realized the danger of processing an image outside of the visible range of colors that my display enables me to see.

There is a huge difference between blindly pushing colors past a limit that you can’t see, and taking images to the boundaries of what you can see, with the SW2700PT from BenQ.

How Do Regular Photos Look on the SW2700PT?

As a predominantly nature and wildlife photographer, the quality of my display is highly important to me, so I set up Lightroom on the SW2700PT display, with Lightroom’s second display window active on my iMac. I had all of the panels minimized so both screens were displaying my images as large as possible, making them exactly the same size on both screens.

I then sat down and looked through hundreds of my images to see if I could recognize some differences. I’ve already discussed the revelation as I looked at an image that I’d inadvertently pushed too far, but many of my images aren’t quite that punchy, so the benefits of the SW2700PT aren’t that apparent on first glance, but there are differences.

There are times when my images look slightly more defined and clearer on the BenQ display. It’s like what happens when you increase the Clarity slider in Lightroom, but it isn’t across the entire image. The gradations are beautiful and smooth, but areas where the image contains more structure seem to come to life.

There is a definite presence in my images when viewed on the SW2700PT that just isn’t there on my iMac display. The eyes in the animals in my wildlife photographs look more alive, and there is more depth, a distinct feeling of looking into a three dimensional scene when I look at my landscape photographs on the SW2700PT display.

Pensive Power

Pensive Power

Web Browser Woes

There is one other thing that you might want to bear in mind as you buy into a wide gamut display, and that is that if you view web sites in a browser, the colors might get messed up. Although most browsers now understand and utilize the color profiles embedded in images and graphics for display within the browser, at this point in time, I found that both Google Chrome and Firefox on the Mac caused the colors in images to become either under or over-saturated, depending on how they are being displayed within the browser.

Now, although I like some of the features of these browsers, I do quite often use Safari because of it’s tight integration with the Mac OS, and in this case that benefit shines through 100%. Safari seems to handle images perfectly in both displays, so I’m kind of back in the Safari camp at the moment, and have set it back as my default browser.

Of course, none of this affects Lightroom and Photoshop and that will also be the case for any other mainstream application for editing or viewing images. These applications are used to working with images in larger color spaces like Adobe RGB and Prophoto RGB, so your images will always look fine in these applications.

One main difference is that the Safari browser understands version 4 ICC profiles, and Chrome and Firefox do not at this point. Maybe if I were to have created version 2 profiles, this would not be an issue, or maybe Safari would be messed up as well. I haven’t tested this, because the International Color Consortium recommend using version 4 profiles when possible, because of a number of improvements that you can see here. These are good enough reasons for me to not use version 2, so I’m sticking with my Safari workaround until Chrome and Firefox catch up.

Calibrating with the Palette Master Element Software

OK, so let’s walk through the calibration process, as this can be a little bit quirky, but for the quality of this display, at this price, I’m happy to put up with that. Firstly, to perform the hardware calibration you have to use BenQ’s proprietary software, Palette Master Element. The software feels a little bit rough around the edges, and I’ve reported a few issues to BenQ, and I’ll include some of these here as I’ve come up with some workarounds as well, which will hopefully help you if you pick up one of these displays.

To start with, I think it’s probably best to select the Advanced Mode, because it gives you more options, that you’ll probably need as a color management conscientious photographer. On the Display Settings screen, I select D65 as the white point. This is a good base for photographers working in RGB. Probably the most important thing is that you need to decide what Luminance setting to use for your own working environment. It would be nice if the Palette Master Element software had the option to measure the ambient light levels in your workspace and offer a suggested Luminance value, but it doesn’t do that, so I take a measurement beforehand using X-Rite’s i1Profiler software that comes with their colorimeters.

For an overcast day in my studio, I set the Luminance to 80 cd/m2 and for brighter days with sunlight in the studio, or for evenings when I have the room lights on, I use 120 cd/m2. I have performed two different Hardware Calibrations for my SW2700PT. For Calibration 1 I set the Luminance to 80 and for Calibration 2 I selected 120. This enables me to quickly switch between these two settings with the OSD Controller, which I’ll explain more about shortly.

Display Settings

Display Settings

For the Gamma settings, the standard now is 2.2, so if you have no reason to change this it’s best not to, and for a photographer it’s probably best to leave the Black Point set to Relative. If you make any changes to these settings, you might want to hit the Save Settings button and save them as a preset with a name that means something to you before you proceed. That way you can easily recall your settings when you calibrate again in the future. Once you have your settings selected, click the Next button.

On the Measurement screen, select the Calibration preset, then modify the profile name if you want to, and I always check the System Level checkbox so that the profile gets written to my System profiles directory rather than the user directory. I only ever use a computer with one user, so this isn’t a big deal, but I just like to have this stuff saved at the system level.

Display Measurement

Display Measurement

I always use v4 for the Profile version, although there are some issues that I mentioned earlier. Generally though, if you don’t mind using Safari as your web browser, I can’t think of another reason, on a Mac at least, why you wouldn’t use version 4. For the Profile Type option select Matrix to ensure that you use the 3D Matrix for the best possible profile. Also, on the calibration settings, select the Large Patch Set, as you want as much color information gathered to create the highest quality profile as possible.

You are then instructed to place your colorimeter on it’s white calibration tile, and press the button on the device to calibrate it, but there is currently no indication that the calibration has taken place or if it was successful or not, which is one of the disconcerting things that I mentioned.

I am guessing here, but I think the graphic is straight from X-Rite’s i1 Profiler software, and the device is not even waiting for you to press the button at that point. I think the calibrating of the device only starts when you press Continue, after which there is a bit of a delay while calibration is performed, and then you are asked to attach the colorimeter to the screen and click Continue, as you can see here (below).

Attach Device

Attach Device

Then, as the colorimeter is reading the color patches that appear on the screen, there are periods of time when the software seems to hang, and the device itself is covering much of the status bar, which makes this process a little worrisome. Given time though, the process does progress in spurts, then complete successfully. This process could be smoother, or the software could give more reassurance to the user, but it does work.

Profile Validation

On the Calibration Complete screen there is a button to Validate Calibration. If you click this, you’ll have to recalibrate the colorimeter and place it back on the screen, and then wait a minute or so as it scans a few more color patches, but then you will see a report telling you how much delta you have between the color that the software is displaying and what the colorimeter is actually reading from the screen.

BenQ is claiming a Delta E≤2 (color difference) for this display, and in my tests I have found that I’m getting an average ΔE of 0.51 and a Maximum ΔE of 1.43, so they are indeed under two, which is very impressive.

Calibration Validation

Calibration Validation

Make your SW2700PT Your Main Display Before Calibrating

There is an issue that I have reported to BenQ that could cause you problems, so I thought I’d also mention that here. I’m not sure which other systems this could affect, but if you will use the SW2700PT display with an iMac like me, you need to ensure that you set the SW2700PT display to be the main display.

When I first ran hardware calibration I found that my display was not passing this final validation process, and the resulting ICC profiles were not consistent. I contacted BenQ and they could not reproduce the issue, so it had me stumped for a while. Then I realized that BenQ were profiling their display as Display 1, the main display, and I had my SW2700PT set up as Display 2, a second display. When I set it to be the main display, making my built-in iMac screen the second display, the ICC profile was fine and the Validation process completed successfully too.

I have let BenQ know and I’m hoping that this will be fixed in the Palette Master Element software, or a firmware update for the display, but at this point in time (April, 2016) you will need to ensure that you have your display set as Display 1, meaning that the main toolbar is on your SW2700PT, as you can see in this screenshot (below) and not on the iMac display.

Mac Display Properties

Mac Display Properties

Other Nice Touches

THE OSD (On-Screen Display) Controller is an amazingly useful accessory that comes with the SW2700PT display. This is basically a little circular controller that you plug into the display, which sits nicely in the dedicated base when not in use. When you want to control the display though, you can pull the controller closer to yourself, and use the 4 main buttons, 4 directional buttons and OK button to control the display.

BenQ OSD Controller

BenQ OSD Controller

This makes it really easy to change the settings of the display for various situations, such as switching between the built-in hardware calibration settings or changing the brightness etc. Although it’s important to note that you can’t change the brightness when using the hardware calibration stored in the Calibration 1 and Calibration 2 settings. I’ll share how I work around this in a moment.

It’s also possible to easily to change the height of the display, and to rotate it 90 degrees into a vertical orientation to view portrait aspect images full screen when necessary. There are good ranges of tilt and swivel as well, so it’s easy to reposition the display into pretty much any position.

Assigning Calibration Settings to OSD Controller

The only other shortcoming of the SW2700PT display in my opinion, is that is does not have an Automatic Brightness feature. If you work in an environment where the ambient light is constant, this is not an issue, but if you have sunlight in your workspace, you’ll probably find that like me, your ambient light can change quite a lot depending on the weather.

BenQ SW2700PT with iMac 27" Display

BenQ SW2700PT with iMac 27″ Display

The actual colors in an ICC profile that you create for your display don’t really change as you increase or decrease the brightness of the display, so in my opinion, it is fine to adjust the display brightness to match your ambient light conditions. In fact, with my iMac screen, I set the brightness during the calibration process, based on the ambient brightness of my studio, but then I leave Automatic Brightness turned on.

This causes the display to change its brightness according to my ambient light levels, but it maintains the relationship to the baseline brightness that I set during the calibration process, and that makes the brightness of the display appear constant to me, as my eyes adjust to the ambient lighting and iMac display together.

As I mentioned earlier though, the BenQ SW2700PT display does not have an Automatic Brightness option, so I have to manually change the brightness to match my ambient light levels. The problem though, is that when you use the Hardware Calibration presets, the display locks the Brightness Controls. This in itself is a silly limitation that in my opinion needs to be removed.

To overcome this, I used the OSD (On Screen Display) Controller to access the display’s menu, and I assigned the Calibration 1 preset to the number 1 button on the OSD Controller, and I assigned Calibration 2 to the number 2 button. This means that I can easily switch between the 80 cd/m2 brightness of Calibration 1 and the 120 cd/m2 brightness for Calibration 2.

In addition, I have saved a Brightness value of 40 to the Custom 1 preset and assigned that to button 3, and this gives me an actual brightness on the display of around 160 cd/m2 at a guess, which is about the brightest I will use the display, on days when very bright sun is streaming into my studio.

This might sound a bit of a pain, but in practice I’ve found it quite workable. It’s obvious when the display starts to get too bright or too dim, so I simply reach out and hit one of the three buttons on the OSD Controller to change to another preset and therefore another brightness. Because the same ICC profile is being used in conjunction with the hardware calibration, the colors on that I see on the screen do not appear to change when I switch between presets, so this works for me.

Conclusion

I really was pleasantly surprised by the quality of SW2700PT display, both the build quality, and the image quality. This is the real deal. BenQ has entered the Photographers’ display arena with a very strong contender with the SW2700PT. It’s not perfect, and sure, there are better displays out there, but for the price, I think it’s an incredible display. Also, personally I don’t mind keeping some easy to follow workarounds in mind to overcome its few shortcomings.

My final verdict on the BenQ SW2700PT display is, if you want a very high quality display with hardware calibration and a shading hood; all things that are usually found on displays two or three times more expensive, then you can’t go wrong with the this display.

Full Disclosure

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to mention that BenQ has provided me with this unit to test at no charge. Does this affect how I perform my tests and relay my views to you? Absolutely not! I only ever accept products to review on the full understanding that I will relay everything that I find, good and bad. Keeping it real and giving you my 100% honest opinion is my highest priority, and that is exactly what I have done in this review.

Can I say in all honesty that I would have bought a BenQ display with my own money? Without knowing what I know now, no, I cannot. But now that I have seen just how good the BenQ SW2700PT display is with my own eyes, it’s a no-brainer. For this price, you bet I’d buy one with my own money, and I can recommend this display with a definite thumbs-up.

Support the Podcast

Finally, if you’ve found this review useful, you can support the Podcast by buying from our friends at B&H Photo with our affiliate link, which is https://mbp.ac/SW2700PT.


Show Notes

Details of the SW2700PT on BenQ’s Web site: http://www.benq.com/product/monitor/sw2700pt/

Why use ICC version 4? See here: http://www.color.org/whyusev4.xalter

Support the Podcast by buying with this link: https://mbp.ac/SW2700PT

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

Subscribe in iTunes for Enhanced Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

Download this Podcast in Enhanced Podcast M4A format. This requires Apple iTunes or Quicktime to view/listen.


New Kid in on the Block – a 27″ iMac (Podcast 395)

New Kid in on the Block – a 27″ iMac (Podcast 395)

Last week I took delivery of a shiny new 27″ iMac, and having just about got it set up how I want it, I wanted to relay my thinking behind the purchase, and a few important things that I’ve learned from a Photographer’s perspective, especially with regards to the quality of the screen, which has in short blown me away.

This episode is brought to you by Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website, portfolio or online store.  For a free trial and 10% off, go to squarespace.com and use offer code MBP11

First a little background; I was a Windows user since 1994, but I’ve also been using Macs since college here in Japan from 1995, and bought a Mac mini back in 2006 to enable me to create this Podcast in the Enhanced Podcast format. I actually replaced that Mac mini as the old one became slow, and then in January 2011, almost three years ago now, having become somewhat annoyed with Windows for a number of reasons, such as no native 16bit printing, and the lack of ability to put USB hard drives to sleep among other things, so I decided to jump ship completely to the Mac platform.

I bought a MacBook Pro, and told myself I’d give it a year, and if I was still happy with the decision, I would buy a Mac Pro to live permanently in my office/studio. At the time I was thinking of the Mac Pro that was a tower style Mac that looked similar to a lot of Windows based tower style desktop computers. It didn’t take me a year to decide whether or not Mac was for me. I knew before very long at all that I was never going back to Windows.

iMac in a Box (Top View)

iMac in a Box (Top View)

It’s not that I’ve got anything against Windows really, I am just happier with the Mac hardware and Mac OS than I ever really felt I was with Windows. The only thing I missed was the Accounting module that tells me exactly how much each print I make with my iPF6350 large format printer costs, and I also cannot access my business account Internet banking with anything other than Internet Explorer. To overcome both of these problems I use Parallels, and I start it solely for these two reasons, and nothing else.

So, why didn’t I buy a Mac Pro after the first year? Well, basically, for much of what I do, the MacBook Pro and now the MacBook Pro Retina do pretty much everything I want. I have a tendency to max-out new computers I buy, especially now that the MacBook Pros can’t be upgraded, so my powerful Retina laptop has been great, and even encodes video pretty fast, but there was one problem with my setup that has needed a solution since I switched to Mac.

I had been using my MacBook Pros with my external Eizo display when in my office, but the laptop screen was always so far away that I had to move my windows to the Eizo to do pretty much everything, and after switching from the 17″ MacBook Pro to the smaller 15″ Retina screen, this started to become a real problem. By this point I was using my first MacBook Pro as a server in my office, backing up to Backblaze etc. but continued to plug my Eizo into my main Retina computer to do work in the office, and there are times when I need to leave it all connected to do jobs like copying my entire image library from one drive to another or rebuilding all of my Lightroom Previews, so this, coupled with the not ideal display situation, meant that I needed to make some changes.

As with camera equipment, I don’t buy anything new unless the upgrade or new addition to my kit enables me to solve a problem. I now had two main problems to overcome with my office computer situation. I needed a second large screen, and I needed second powerful machine for the jobs that caused me to have to leave my MacBook Pro in the studio overnight, or for multiple days sometimes.

With my office/studio being on the 3rd floor of our apartment, I generally start work answering email etc. while still at the dining table after breakfast, and I come up to the office at around 9am. Then after dinner at 7pm, unless I need to come back upstairs for a meeting or to finish something off, I stay downstairs, and work from the sofa. That keeps me close to my wife but I can still get stuff done, which means having to leave my computer in the office was a problem.

My Options and Thinking

So, I have been weighing up my options slowly over the last few years, then more seriously this year since I got the MacBook Pro Retina with the smaller screen, and here is what I was comparing. First, I had to decide which Mac desktop I would buy. The Mac Pro hadn’t been given a major upgrade for years, so it was obviously ready. I waited for this for a while, but nothing surfaced until a few months ago when Apple announced the upgraded Mac Pro that we’ll see start to hit the stores in a few weeks time. This is a monster of a machine, a black cylinder basically that can be packed with a huge amount of computing power as well as 4k monitor support.

As I said, I tend to try to max specs out when I buy a new computer, but maxing out a new Mac Pro would probably make too big a dent in my bank balance, and frankly, I’m already close to being happy with the amount of computing power I have, so I could not warrant the expense of a mid to high end spec Mac Pro when they become available.

The other option of course, was buying a second external display, and plugging that into my MacBook Pro along with my current Eizo monitor. That of course only solves half of my problem, in that I’d still not have a reasonably powerful computer in the office, plus, a 27″ Eizo CX model would cost me around $1,200 or $1,800 if I went for the CG model with the hardware calibration, but I probably wouldn’t do that, as I don’t think it’s worth the additional cost.

Now, I seriously considered this option. I love Eizo displays, and have been very happy with my current 24″ display for more than 5 years now. But, that’s a lot of money to spend when you consider that it only solves half of my problem. So, I kept thinking that the iMac would be a great compromise.

It has a beautiful screen, and a pretty powerful computer built right in! The problem for me, for the longest time, was the glossy screen. My first MacBook Pro had the matte screen, and I liked it a lot. The Retina screen on my current MacBook Pro is glossy, and although it’s a beautiful screen, you have to be careful where you sit, or the reflection can be very distracting.

In my office I sit to the right of the window, so there are no light sources behind me but I do have a plastic covered first-surface mirror leaning against the wall behind me that is very reflective, especially when the sun comes out, so the glossy iMac screen would have been a problem, until now. When the new iMac was announced, I was really happy to see Apple singing the praises of a new 75% reduced reflection screen. I didn’t have time to go into town to actually take a look, but from what I read online, this looked to be the real-deal.

Mac in a Box

Mac in a Box

After a little more serious consideration, I decided to go for the new 27″ iMac. I almost maxed out the specs, so it has a 3.5GHz Quad-core Intel i7 CPU, that boosts up to 3.9GHz, and 32GB of RAM. I didn’t go for the SSD drive, because $1,000 for a 1GB drive just didn’t seem worth it, especially when you consider the other option of a 3TB Fusion Drive for an extra $350. I didn’t know the size of the SSD component in the Fusion Drive when I ordered this, but a closer look through the system information app shows me that it contains a 128GB SSD drive and a 3TB hard drive. Data that you use a lot is automatically stored on the SSD drive to speed up the entire system, and the hard drive used for slower storage.

NVIDIA CUDA DriverI also maxed out the video card, going for the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M with 4GB of GDDR5 memory which cost an extra $150.00. Remember that some graphics related applications like Photoshop and Premiere Pro now make good use of the Graphics Processor to accelerate processing, so having a lot of video RAM is no longer just to make games run faster and smoother. Note too while we’re at it, that I install the NVIDIA CUDA Driver to give Premiere Pro access to the full power of the Graphics Processor.

Set up from Scratch

When you buy an Apple computer here in Japan, if you customize it, it seems they are assembled in Shanghai, and shipped across. I ordered my new iMac on October 31, a Thursday and it arrived exactly a week later, on November 7. I decided not to migrate my data from my MacBook Pro because there are a few things broken that I didn’t want to chance being copied to my new iMac.

Mini Freezes

There was only one negative experience as I set up my new iMac and that was that for the first few days I experienced a lot of mini-freezes. The mouse would lock up, and sometimes I actually had to do a force reboot to get the system working again. After a bit of trial and error, I’ve come to the conclusion that this was probably due to my old Drobo initially being connected via Firewire, going into the iMac via my Belkin Thunderbolt hub, which has a Firewire port.

I switched the Drobo over to USB, and I haven’t had any more problems over the last few days, so I think that was the cause. My Drobo 5D of course is still connected via Thunderbolt, going directly into the back of the iMac, and I have my external Eizo monitor connected via the extra Thunderbolt port on the Belkin hub.

Eizo vs iMac Screen

OK, so let’s also touch on the quality of the Eizo display compared to the new iMac screen. I have been a huge Eizo fan since my first 17″ Eizo screen that I bought some 12 years ago. I tell you, I almost cried when I first saw my photos on an Eizo screen, the quality was that good. Eizo have continued to improve their screens of course, and my current 24″ wide screen Eizo display, although now some five years old, or maybe even a little more, is still very nice, but it is getting a bit long in the tooth.

I say this, kind of out of loyalty to Eizo though, because the 27″ screen on the new iMac actually beats the Eizo. I honestly didn’t expect this, and I’d love to compare the iMac to a new Eizo, and I’d also like to compare the last generation of iMac screens with my old Eizo, but with what I currently have available to me, the iMac screen wins.

It’s going to be difficult to appreciate the subtle differences in this image, but here you can see the iMac screen on the left and the Eizo screen on the right. They have both been calibrated with the X-Rite i1Pro 2, and you can perhaps make out with this photo on the desktops, that the iMac has slightly more vivid colors, and is more punchy.

iMac to Eizo Comparison

iMac to Eizo Comparison

Now, punchy isn’t always a good thing, especially if that punchiness is not there in your original images. Straight out of the box, the iMac was actually a little over the top for my liking, and calibration brought that down and under control. The colors are now very similar to the Eizo, but the main thing that impressed me, was the iMac screen’s ability to display rich texture and detail.

Think of the punchiness out of the box as the difference between a consumer print and a fine art print. Most printers and printing services aimed at the consumer do all sorts of nasty automated enhancements to images as they print them, so that your average happy snapper gets images back that make them go “wow!”. Us photographers on the other hand either add the “wow” when we shoot, or in post processing, so we don’t need any arbitrary enhancements during the print process. It’s the same thing with most computer displays out of the box, and this is one of the main reasons we need to calibrate them.

Back to the Eizo comparison though–my first MacBook Pro screen always seemed nice, but it definitely paled next to the Eizo. I could see much more detail and texture in photos on my Eizo screen, so I’d kind of come to think of the Apple displays as being inferior. The Retina screen on my current MacBook Pro changed that of course. The Retina screen is incredible, and shows much more texture and better gradations, and although I wasn’t expecting the iMac display this much detail and beat the Eizo, it does.

In this next photo, I brought up a Snow Monkey shot from 2012, because my old MacBook Pro never really showed the fine gradations in the snow in the background of this shot, but as you can see here, the Retina and iMac displays both show the shot very similarly.

iMac, Retina and Eizo Comparison

iMac, Retina and Eizo Comparison

If you open up your browser window and click on the image to view it as large as possible, you will probably also notice that the Eizo display has lighter shadow areas. This is great for seeing detail in areas that might otherwise be a little on the dark side, but they don’t print. When I print, the shadows will plug up a little, and actually look more like what we see here on the Retina and iMac displays, so I think the days of me using my Eizo display as my final soft-proofing screen before I print may be coming to an end.

Don’t worry about the difference in color temperature between these example images by the way. I’ve shot these images at various times while setting up the iMac, some with the sun shining into my studio, and other while it was overcast, so the wall behind my displays varies quite a lot, but they are correctly white balanced.

This photo also of course gives you an idea of the difference in screen real-estate that I now have. Basically, the Retina display and my Eizo was my old configuration, with the Retina a little bit further back on my desk. I would do most of my work on the Eizo, so I was always sitting at an angle, which I didn’t like, but now, I can sit straight on, and the iMac display is so large that I can have multiple application windows open at one time and not even have to switch between them. I’m currently writing my third Craft & Vision ebook, and I can’t wait to start writing again as soon as I have released this week’s Podcast episode.

Lightroom is Lightening Fast!

So, as photographers, one of the major jobs we need to do on our computers is processing large batches of images. As software gets more advanced and more resource intensive, we start to notice it slowing down, and this is one of the main reasons we end up having to upgrade our computers every three or four years, but most of us at some point, have had to run our workhorse applications like Lightroom on slow machines, and this can be incredibly frustrating.

Earlier, I said that I didn’t really need the power of the Mac Pro, especially when I considered that I was already happy with my MacBook Pro for most of the stuff I do. Still though, I didn’t want to buy something new, that I will have to keep for probably four years, only to find that it was a little bit sluggish. I didn’t expect it to be, but I was blown away by the speed at which I can work through large batches of images in Lightroom.

When I moved my Lightroom catalog to the iMac, I deliberately didn’t copy my Previews folder over, as I wanted to create this again on the iMac, but I also wanted to do some speed tests, and not having any previews makes that easier. This isn’t a scientific test, but here are my findings.

When I had already had Lightroom create standard previews for the images in a folder, I can navigate through images full screen in the Library module without the “Loading” message displaying at the bottom of the screen for the majority of the images. For a few, the Loading message displays for about half a second. The image is either there in full resolution from the start, or the quality snaps in after that half a second.

If I’m in the Develop module, which always creates a new Preview unless you’ve just created one, the Loading message displays for a fraction of a second longer, but still under a second. That in itself is very impressive, but what’s even more impressive, is when I view images in a folder that I have not yet created any previews for, literally, with gray thumbnails instead of images, it only takes a fraction of a second longer. In the Library module, we’re probably talking one second, and in the Develop module, we’re talking maybe a fraction over a second, and even for 120MB TIFF files, it doesn’t go over 1.5 seconds.

We’re talking basically stress-free image editing here, and if you are wondering, yes, I already have all the other software that I need installed, so my machine is no longer a fresh install. My MacBook Pro Retina is fast, and that is running on an SSD, but it still takes about three seconds for the images to res-in in the Library module. It’s actually faster in the Develop module on my MacBook Pro for some reason, usually taking just over a second, so still no complaints, but the iMac just doesn’t make you feel as though there is any wait at all.

Widescreen Lightroom Rocks!

Another thing that I really like but wasn’t quite expecting, is how incredibly comfortable Lightroom feels on the not only large, but wide aspect screen. With a 27″ display sitting on a desk, the chances are you are sitting pretty close to it, so although images look spectacular full-screen, you don’t feel as though you are missing much by having some of the Lightroom menus showing. I’m always quick to hit SHIFT+TAB to get rid of all of my menus on a smaller screen, but on the iMac screen, as you can see in this screenshot, it’s really not a pain at all to have some menus showing.

Widescreen Lightroom Rocks!

Widescreen Lightroom Rocks!

Also, because the screen is a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, with the two side menus and the top menu the image fits perfectly in the space left over. In fact, with the 27″ monitor being this high quality, and images in this view being roughly the same physical size as an image displayed full screen on my Eizo 24″ display, I’m quickly finding that when going through images in Lightroom I don’t really need the second screen, so it’s becoming more useful when doing other tasks like having multiple Web browsers open as well as Excel and email etc.

Syncing Email with ChronoSync

On the subject of email, there was always one problem that I wanted to avoid and was partly a reason for me sticking with one main computer for a while, and that is the syncing of data between the two computers, especially email, as I’m using that on both computers, switching at least twice each day. This is not a problem is you use IMAP for all of your email, but I have a lot of locally archived email, so I need to copy this between computers to stay in sync.

You might recall that I use an application called ChronoSync to synchronize my images with my external hard disks, so I was happy to see an article from the people at Econ Technologies, the makers of ChronoSync, when I searched for ways to synchronize email between two Macs. I won’t go into detail here, although I will link to the article, but basically, you have to create a few synchronization jobs, then a container to run all of these jobs with one click, and then launch that container to sync your email every time you switch computers.

This may seem like a bit of a pain, but I’ve been doing this for a few days now, and I’m pretty happy with this method, at least until I find a totally automated method. Basically all I have to do is run the synchronization job after breakfast, before I come upstairs, and then run it again when I go back downstairs in the evening. It takes about a minute and a half to run, and that’s to sync the difference between a bunch of mailboxes total 17GB. I know, I should clear out my mailboxes.

Lightening Fast Wake-up Speed

Another thing that I really like about the new iMac is that it wakes up from Sleep mode in just a few seconds. It goes to sleep when the monitor goes off, and I have my system setup to turn off the display when I move the mouse to the bottom right hand corner of the screen or after 10 minutes of inactivity using the Hot Corners feature. Then when I come back to the computer, I tap the space bar on my keyboard, and it wakes up and displays the login screen in just a few seconds. It also wakes up over the network just as quickly, so I can do those email syncs without having to come up to the studio to physically wake up the iMac.

My two connected Drobos and Time Machine backup hard drive go to sleep with the computer too, but then also wake up very quickly, so as long as I don’t power the computer down totally, I can access my images on the Drobo over the nextwork from anywhere in the house. Note too that while I am doing a Backblaze backup of all of my images from a trip, that can take a few days, I just select not to put the computer to sleep with the display in the system preferences.

And on that note, I switched my Backblaze backup from my old MacBook Pro to the iMac by selecting to Transfer the Backup State from the Backblaze menu. It took just under two days for Backblaze to run through the 5.2TB of data that I have backed up and confirmed that they were the same files from my old system, and then backup the new stuff from the new iMac as well. Now that I’m fully backed up, I’m allowing the iMac to sleep when I’m not using it.

The last thing that I wanted to note is that despite the iMac containing a very powerful computer, it has generally been very quite so far. The fan has so far only kicked in once, when the mouse had frozen and something was obviously putting a lot of load on the CPU. When it did kick in, it was quite loud, so I’m hoping this doesn’t happen a lot, but so far, even when flicking through image after image in Lightroom, the fans stay off and you can’t hear any noise from the iMac at all. In fact, it’s really hard to believe that there’s even a computer inside there at all.

Expandability

In fact, before we finish, I should also touch on expandability. I mentioned earlier that I have a bunch of stuff connected via the USB 3.0 ports and Thunderbolt. Although it’s difficult to actually change out parts yourself with an iMac, this is really the reason I max these computers out when I buy them. That way, I can get the maximum life out of them. Pretty much everything else that I need is already connected via USB and Thunderbolt, and these offer virtually limitless expandability.

I know that the new Mac Pro will have Thunderbolt2 instead of plain old Thunderbolt, but I’m happy enough with what I have here. It’s going to take a few years for companies to really maximize the benefits that Thunderbolt 2 brings, and I don’t mind hankering after the next best thing for a few more years after that, while I get my four years out of this iMac. If I can get four years out of a desktop style computer, I’m happy, and so is my tax accountant.

Thumbs Up!

All in all, I can say without a doubt that it’s a big thumbs-up all round for the Apple 27″ iMac. I knew I was going to love this computer, but I didn’t know I was going to love it this much. The new low reflectivity screen has certainly been worth waiting for, and all the power under the hood, or more to the point, hidden conspicuously behind this incredible display, makes it the perfect computer for someone that needs power, but not necessary a Ferrari.


Squarespace LogoThis Podcast is Sponsored by Squarespace

The Martin Bailey Photography Podcast is proud to have Squarespace on board as our current sponsor.

Visit www.squarespace.com and use the code MBP11 for a free trial and 10% off new accounts.

Show Notes

Here a link to the synching article on the ChronoSync web site.

Music by UniqueTracks


Audio

Subscribe in iTunes for Enhanced Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

Download this Podcast in Enhanced Podcast M4A format. This requires Apple iTunes or Quicktime to view/listen.