Update (October 2019): I've since sold the panel due to some unacceptable quality issues that happened over the year or so of owning the monitor. Scroll down to the end for my updated conclusion.
Disclaimer: Even though I was sent a review unit, I'll be as forthcoming as possible in my writeup. I did purchase the panel to test it out as it seemed to be a compelling replacement for my NEC at that point in time.
In the world of highly-accurate colour-management monitors that are needed for colour-critical work, brands like Eizo and NEC often comes to mind. However, the market for these special screens is small, and there aren't a lot of choices that photographers can choose from. Monitors that include the much-required in-built LUT for hardware calibration and profiling are indeed specialised tools, but the price can be off-putting for many, and photographers on a budget usually will have to consider a full sRGB panel from the Dell Ultrasharp line or even depend on their uncalibrated screens for their work. As for me, I've been depending on my trusty NEC PA272W wide-gamut monitor for quite a while now, and it's been an integral part of my workflow - helping me get accurate colours across different devices and on print as well.
BenQ is a relatively newcomer in this specialised market segment, releasing their well-regarded SW2700PT 27-inch only as recently as 2015, as compared with the other more established brands who have been in the market for a longer time. Their SW271 model is their most-recent release, along with the smaller SW240. Like its bigger sibling the SW320, the SW271 is also a HDR-capable, wide-gamut 4k monitor with in-built LUT for hardware calibration. Coming in at an RRP of $1699, the SW271 is priced much lower than my NEC PA272W, with higher resolution to boot. At this price point, it offers very good price-to-performance ratio especially when compared to similarly-specced high-end models from Eizo, NEC and HP Dreamcolor. The BenQ even bundles a monitor shade to reduce glare, an optional accessory for most other brands that can go for up to $200 a pop.
Thanks to ClubSnap (a local photography forum where I've been sharing my works and my reviews) helping to link me up with BenQ Singapore, I've been very graciously sent a set from them for review. As an unabashed tech and photography geek, I jumped at the opportunity, keen to see how it compares with my current NEC PA272W, my personal benchmark for colour-critical work.
Piecing together the monitor is a relatively straightforward affair, and BenQ includes a handy quick start guide showing users how to connect the two pieces that make up the stand and mounting the monitor on it, as well as instructions on how to piece together the monitor shade. Included in the box are also a variety of cables (HDMI, Displayport to Mini-Displayport, USB 3.0, USB-C and power cable), the calibration report, and the Hotkey Puck for controlling the On-Screen Display (OSD), a useful tool that I'll elaborate more on later.
BenQ SW271 monitor on my desk
Out-of-the-box, the SW271 comes pre-calibrated and includes a calibration report, like many other monitors of its class. Although the built-in sRGB and Adoble RGB modes are good, it's generally recommended to do your own calibration for your workflow.
Cables and accessories bundled
Monitor hood is included in the kit as a standard-issue item, and comes with its own box
A glimpse of my workspace - yes, I'm processing my photos on a Windows PC, specifically an Aftershock s15!
It's also worth mentioning that the monitor stand is plenty stable and does not wobble - especially with the wide base shown in the set-up above. Also, the monitor is VESA-compatible, so should you opt for a monitor arm for multiple displays instead, that shouldn't be a problem. Two USB ports and a high-speed SD card slot are located at the left side of the monitor as well. In addition, it has a rather slim profile - with the screen having thin bezels and not being very thick, especially when compared against NEC or Eizo. It's nice to have a tool built for professional use also having a sleek and modern design that will fit well on a minimalist set-up too.
The monitor features well-thought out design inclusions, such as the opening at the top of the monitor hood to allow access for a calibrator, and the velvet felt-like material lining the interior of the hood to further reduce reflections which can cause glare. These small but important design elements really show that BenQ has put a lot of thought in the design of the monitor to cater to the needs of photographers.
Opening at the top of the hood allows for a calibrator to be placed
One of the key features that set this monitor apart from its competitors is BenQ's innovative Hotkey Puck, which conveniently allows photographers to store up to three calibration profiles in its pre-set buttons, and generally allows more intuitive control over the OSD with its multi-directional and OK buttons. A feature that BenQ cleverly carried over from their gaming lineup, it provides better control as compared to the standard buttons along the bottom bezel of the screen and helps users to quickly proof images by switching between the different profiles. For example, I have my calibration stored in one of the keys, and Adobe RGB and sRGB stored in the other two. At a press of a button, I can switch to another state without having to dive into the OSD menu.
BenQ Hotkey puck
The puck can be nested in its little holder in the middle of the monitor stand, which minimises its footprint. It's connected to the display via a Mini-USB cable, should you wish to remove it.
While the monitor's in-built colour profiles are already calibrated out-of-the-box, the monitor can also be hardware calibrated - which is the main selling point of these specialised displays. Hardware calibration allows the profiles to be stored directly into the monitor itself, thus preventing any software or the operating system from messing with the calibration as compared to software calibration on a computer. In order to do that with this monitor and similar screens, you will need to have a supported colorimeter like the i1 Display Pro or the Spyder 5.
BenQ's software, Palette Master Element, for performing this hardware calibration is also included in the bundle, or can be downloaded from their website. Although not as feature-rich as NEC's Spectraview or Multiprofiler, it's straightforward and easy to use. Before calibration, it's good practice to let the monitor warm up for at least 30 minutes to minimise any colour shifts during the process.
My custom settings for calibration
When starting up Palette Master Element, be sure to click on 'Advanced' for more options, and 'Profiling' for the calibration and profiling workflow. You will come to this screen, which offers you a bunch of profiles and settings. For me, I always profile my monitor at 'Panel Native', which uses the display's native gamut for the widest possible gamut. This will be wider than Adobe RGB, as the monitor is able to cover slightly more than the Adobe colour space. As for the luminance value, the screen's default setting of 160cd/m2 is too bright for post-processing work, and generally any value between 80 to 120cd/m2 would be acceptable.
Clicking next from the previous screen, you will come to this screen before starting the actual calibration process. Here, you can set up to three different calibration presets, and they can likewise be programmed into the Hot Key Puck for convenience. For me, I set the profile type to be '16 bits LUT' and the patch set to 'large' for the greatest accuracy. After that, you can click 'Start Measurement' and wait for the monitor to finish profiling before unplugging the colorimeter. It's a rather straightforward process from start to finish, but in order to keep the monitor accurate, it's best to calibrate once every month or so, as displays tend to shift in colour and brightness over time.
The SW271 produces very punchy and saturated colours especially through its Adobe RGB presets, with a high-definition 4k panel for incredibly life-like detail. Natively, results from the panel are fantastic to admire - and the monitor gives very accurate results as well.
After calibration and profiling, you can validate the results by having the monitor run through a test batch of colour patches, which measures the error range of the monitor. The SW271 performs exceptionally well with an average delta E of around 0.63 in my calibration, and 0.39 in BenQ's factory calibration. Generally, monitors with a delta E of 3 and below are considered very good, and a delta E of 1 and below will be imperceptible to the human eye. All-in-all, colour accuracy is superb as expected from a monitor in this class.
With its native gamut, the SW271 covers slightly more than the Adobe RGB gamut, hence actually overstating their 99% coverage - a good thing indeed! This is why I chose to profile my monitors at their native gamut rather than limiting the calibration to one of the pre-set colour spaces. This way, I get the maximum gamut of colours out of the screen.
Monitor native gamut vs Adobe RGB, with the monitor's gamut shown in the rainbow outline, and Adobe RGB in the grey dotted triangle
As measured, the monitor can cover slightly more than the Adobe RGB spectrum
This is where even high-end monitors will struggle, as it is very difficult to obtain perfectly even backlighting. The SW271 definitely shows a bit of backlight bleed especially when displaying a black screen or very dark colours, though I would find it a non-issue for day-to-day photography work. Bear in mind that I had to bump up the ISO on my camera to expose for the backlight bleed, so in reality the issue is inconsequential unless you process your photos in a very dark room with the screen brightness cranked way up while working on images with deep black levels.
Black screen showing some backlight bleed around the edges of the display
As for the brightness uniformity, I took measurements in a 3x3 grid across the screen to see how much they would deviate from the centre of the screen, which is where the calibrator would normally be placed. As can be seen in the below table, brightness and colour temperature values tend to taper off from the centre of the screen (cd/m2, K). This is where a monitor of NEC's or Eizo's uncompromising standards would shine in - panel uniformity for those high-end brands would never differ more than a few cd/m2 or K across the screen, even at the edges and corners.
Brightness and temperature variances
While still a pricey piece of kit, the BenQ SW271 offers exceptional value-for-money, especially compared to similarly-specced premium models from Eizo and NEC which can cost more than twice the asking price of the BenQ. Combined with included extras like the monitor hood, and innovative features like the Hot Key Puck making the user experience more straightforward and convenient, it's hard to say no to this bezel-less 4k monitor for photo-editing. Definitely a great piece of gear for the discerning photographer.
As of October 2019 I've sold the monitor after returning two units for unacceptable image burn-in and corner light bleed issues. After a few months of use, my initial unit started exhibiting image burn-in around the corners - at the top of the screen and the bottom where the windows start button is. This happened even though I did not use my monitor in a professional setting - the panel was turned off always after use, and my daily screen-on time averaged 6 hours. The corners also started getting brighter over time and was especially noticeable when processing dark images or viewing darker content.
Notice the uneven brightness issue on the corners of the display
A closer look at the corners exhibiting discolouration and unenvenness
These issues were definitely unacceptable to me, especially since I did not stress test the monitor by running it 24/7. Of course, I wasn't expecting the BenQ to perform as well as a high-end Eizo or NEC, but I would not expect such quality issues at a monitor aimed at a professional crowd too. The issues I experienced persisted even though I changed the panel twice, and so I finally decided to continue relying on my chunky NEC which has been my trusty workhorse for years and sell off the BenQ.
To BenQ's benefit, their customer service has been very helpful with my issues and with the exchanging of panels, but ultimately I cannot see myself changing panels every few months till the warranty expires. They have created a very compelling product at a very attractive price point, but sadly the issues that plagued my units were far too unacceptable. At this time, I cannot recommend this product to anyone who needs a colour-critical monitor. Hopefully, BenQ will address these quality issues and improve on their next iteration.