The Problem with New Wide-Gamut LCD Panels

Warning:  I am a video snob.  I often lambaste electronics store managers for doing such a terrible job adjusting their display TV's.  TV store managers have decided that the way to sell a TV is to jack up its color temperature as far into the blue range that they can, jam the contrast setting all the way to the top, irrespective of any blooming effects they get, and over-saturate the colors.

Anyway, the newest LCD panels have a property that theoretically makes them better:  They can display a much wider color gamut.  That means that there are more colors that they can display.   They do this by creating panels where the base colors are truer to their theoretical values, and by pushing each color value deeper into its possible range.  This means that the bluest blues are even bluer, if that makes sense. 

But these extreme colors are ones one seldom sees, because they are over saturated.  If you were to see the most saturated red or blue in any large field on your TV or monitor, it would make your teeth ache.  These colors look like neon lights, for lack of a better comparison.

But a wider color palette is good in theory.  My guess is that adobe photoshop running on a well-calibrated monitor could take advantage of this feature to improve the resemblance between on-screen and printed material, a key concern of graphics designers. 

The problem is that most software and color choices on the internet and in movies are based on what, say, a level 256 blue used to be.  A level 256 blue is now more saturated in the current monitors, but most software (and monitor drivers) are not smart enough to take this into account.  That means that if you buy a new LCD monitor, you will likely be looking at colors that are more saturated and therefore that glow more than your eyes can really stand, and most graphics cards and monitors do not have a control for saturation (as I found today, having to take an LG 26" monitor back to the store because everything just glowed too much  (I replaced it with a Samsung 2693M, which is much better).

You will know that this may be a problem if the literature or sales person describes the monitor as having "more vibrant" colors.  This is a euphemism for saturation, and would be all fine and good if monitor colors have previously been under-saturated, but if anything they have been the opposite.  Sales people like this feature, though, because the colors look more dramatic in their fluorescent-lighted showrooms and tend to make the monitor look "better" when next to less saturated choices.  My advice is be very wary -- Videophiles tend to run away screaming when told that a TV has some gadget that makes the colors more vibrant.


  1. Stephen Macklin:

    Here's a handy way to visualize the concept of color gamuts.

    Draw a circle. This circle represents all colors possible (I think it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 billion)

    Draw a square inside the circle with the corners touching the circle. This represents the gamut of colors that can be produced using CMYK (standard color printing)

    Draw a triangle inside the circle with the corners touching the circle (but not at the points as any of the corners of the square) this represents the gamut of colors that can be produced using the RGB color model of displays and televisions.

  2. ErikTheRed:

    I like my video display, speakers, etc. to nicely reproduce what the recording artist / director / whatever recorded and intended to have played back. I guess that's too much to ask these days.

  3. Tony Edwards:

    One other maddening aspect of misused wide screen displays, both in video stores and in bars etc., is the tendency for the bar owner to leave the full screen display in use, which means that there are a lot of short fat people in the picture. Or another one I saw the other day was when a cricket ball was shown in close-up and looked more like an American football. Weird.

  4. improbable:

    I wonder how soon video playback will support colour profiles... I guess on editing computers it probably already does, but not on DVD players.

    You are correct that when using Photoshop on a calibrated monitor, wider monitor gamut is better. In the days before calibration it was important to buy a monitor which matched the standard - if I remember right Apple's CRTs were supposed to display the Adobe1998 colour space. Whereas now these two things are decoupled for serious users. (I think PCs by default, and most web browsers, still assume everything is sRGB without asking.)

    I'm also astonished that preserving the aspect ratio isn't the universal default of all video systems. I know it's a little more complicated than stills (where pixels are always square) but it's just one number, it can't be that hard.

  5. Matthew Brown:

    I think the aspect-ratio issue is due to lingering paranoia about burn-in; pillarboxed (black bars to either side of a 4:3 image displayed to correct aspect on a 16:9 display) images would cause burn-in on many older widescreen TVs, especially plasmas.