Does anyone actually use dynamic contrast?

18 Sep 2009

Playing around with Samsung's XL2370 TFT this week, I hit a bit of a wall. In fact, not so much hit it, more slammed my head straight through it in sheer, irate frustration. You see, it uses an LED backlight, which Samsung's press bunf confidently told me would produce a level of contrast the old CCFL kind simply can't match.

And it does. Not just any old contrast, but MEGA contrast! Yes, MEGA, in capitals. In non-marketing speak that converts into a figure of 5,000,000:1, or 5,000 times higher than the standard contrast ratio on most of today's TFTs.

Except the XL2370 doesn't manage that at all.

As with all of these ridiculous figures it's a dynamic contrast ratio, and while it may be several magnitudes higher than the 10,000:1 or 20,000:1 of the best CCFL monitors, it still relies on adjusting the backlight on the fly during a video in order to maximise both the blacks and the whites depending on the type of scene.

Now, I've commented before in the magazine that I simply cannot bear dynamic contrast modes. I can count on one hand (with around three fingers to spare) the number of DCR modes I've ever seen that were even slightly bearable. I don't even need fingers to count the number I'd actually contemplate using.

If you've never seen one of these modes in action, it goes something like this: during all but the most uniformly lit scenes the backlight swings wildly up and down to make shadows darker and highlights lighter in a manner that's monumentally distracting and in no way better than what you had before.

The most brilliant DCR moment I've had was just a few days ago with the Samsung, as it looked at the blackness of a space scene in Wall-E, couldn't tell there were stars scattered liberally across it and switched the backlight off entirely. It was certainly an impressive black level but it didn't exactly help me follow the action.

Worst of all, I know the UK product managers at several TFT manufacturers hold the same opinion as I do on the subject. To them it's nothing more than a figure the marketing department slap on the information card in the shop - and some have started doing so at the expense of any standard contrast ratio figure at all.

So who actually uses these terrible dynamic contrast modes? Do you have a monitor that offers DCR, and if so do you choose to enable it? Or perhaps you've been wondering why your films look so bad without realising your monitor came with DCR enabled by default?

I'm willing to admit I'm in the minority if it turns out you all love feeling nauseous during films, so if you're a DCR fan do your best to convince me in the comments below.

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