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Samsung's S27B971D—also called Series 9, or S9 if you prefer a more elegant phrase—is the company's flagship monitor for 2013. With an MSRP of $1199, it's certainly not a budget model, but is not the most expensive monitor on the market either.
While touted as a graphic design display for its perfect color and WQHD (2560 x 1440) native resolution, the Series 9 has the sleek look and port selection of a business type, and its packaging and included accessories bill it as irrefutably fancy.
For the asking price, consumers are getting a lot of quality for their dollars. If a 27-inch PLS display that looks good, offers high flexibility, and packs professional-grade performance for a little over a grand isn't a good deal, what is?
The S27B971D is a direct descendent—the offspring even—of last year's S27B970V. While stylistically very similar, the two are not identical. 2013's iteration does away with last year's glossy bezels. The screen is bordered in a black matte synthetic, brushed to an attractive grain, and wrapped in a subtle, striking silver—all the while appearing to float upon a smooth aluminum disc.
The S9 isn't as flexible as the most gymnastically-geared monitors out there, but neither is it stuck in one place like much of the budget horde. Upon its long-necked stand, the S9 tilts on a small axis, and slides to change height. It doesn't rotate to portrait or swivel, however, and is too heavy to casually slide around on a desk. Expect to wrangle about 20 degrees of tilt out of the S27B971D, and just about five inches of height shift. We think the decision not to allow the S9 to rotate to portrait orientation was an odd one. Most, if not all other high-end displays destined for the desks of graphic designers do so. After all, sometimes you've just got to work in both orientations.
That small misstep can be overlooked, though, because everything else about this Samsung's design is peachy. The aluminum disc it sits upon serves a dual purpose: Yes, it's stylish, but it also provides a connectivity hub for all of the S9's video and USB inputs, effectively keeping the entire panel smooth and attractive. On the right side are two USB 3.0 ports; on the rear, inputs for the monitor's power adapter, HDMI, DVI, DisplayPort, and USB B. The USB port here is meant to work in conjunction with a PC to allow calibration of the monitor via Samsung's Natural Color Expert software, which will be discussed in the next section.
On the curve of the stand that sits above the disk-shaped base, Samsung has placed touch controls for operating the monitor. Power and on-screen menu controls are easily accessible, and glow faintly when the S9 is powered on. Each button serves multiple functions, save the power button, allowing quick changes to speaker volume, picture mode, and input.
Like Samsung's flagship TVs, the S27B971D comes with a full accessory kit. This bundle includes the monitor's install disc and power cable, as well as a quick setup guide, warranty card, NCE data sheet, user manual (on disc), HDMI-MHL cable, DisplayPort cable, USB A-to-B cable, DVI-D cable, and a cleaning cloth. With so much in tow, I'm surprised it doesn't come with a computer, too.
The Samsung S27B971D is a unique mix of form and function. It does its best to capture the minimalism that Apple products are famed for, but is not afraid to appear techy and complex at the same time. It's an attractive product, to be sure, but emanates a "Jack of All Trades" kind of aura with its tri-focus on appearance, usability, and picture quality.
Samsung's included Natural Color Expert (NCE) software is not the first of its kind. Within the industry, a serious divide exists between monitors that live on either end of the price spectrum: Either you understand what makes a monitor valuable, or you don't. The budget brands live for this lack of knowledge, marketing to price points and physical attractiveness. The high-end displays choose, instead, to bombard buyers with specs concerning their color accuracy, resolution, or response time—depending on the niche being targeted. The S27B971D definitely falls into the latter category.
That said, Natural Color Expert is so interesting precisely because it puts so much control into the user's hands. This software is included on the S9's driver disc, and controls the image output of the display via a USB A-to-B cable.
What's not included, however, is a color measurement device: Samsung makes it clear that, to use NCE properly, you'll need one. Oddly enough, NCE requires users to plug their calibrator (in our case, the Xrite i1Display Pro) into one of the monitor's USB 3.0 ports. A queer image of the Ouroboros comes to mind.
Booting up NCE and beginning the calibration process can be done without a calibrator, however. Samsung supplies a series of reference pictures to aid users in making changes to settings like light output and brightness (black level). The advantage of these "by eye" calibrations lies in their immediate relevance to users on an individual level. Calibrating the monitor in its place of use, during the time of day or under the kind of lighting it'll be used most often, allows users to make beneficial changes to the tune of "What looks best to me right now?" That is, after all, the heart of calibration. Calibration of color coordinates and uniformity will require a calibration device, however.
Even without a calibrator handy, NCE prompts adjustments to color, brightness, color temperature, and RGB gamma using a series of reference photos (our favorite is the Santa Baby, of course). The photos center upon the primary colors of digital displays—red, green, and blue—though to assume that one could perfectly calibrate the S9 using only reference photos would be assuming a lot.
Ignoring display standards, however, isn't the worst thing in the world—if you can adjust the monitor by eye to its most common environment, that is plenty useful for a variety of consumer and professional purposes. ICC calibration profiles can be saved and loaded up again through NCE, meaning you can save one for general use, one for photo editing, one for gaming, etc.
Natural Color Expert is by far the most interesting and unique feature of the S27B971D—its other attributes are worth discussing, but are common to most high-end displays these days, too. The S9 features a number of pre-set use modes, such as Standard, Movie, and sRGB. Each mode can be adjusted independently of the others, so if you eye-calibrate beyond the point of return in one, you can always individually reset them to factory defaults.
Typically, high-performance monitors meant for graphic designers are quite pricy. Eizo's ColorEdge CX240 costs $1,500; the previous graphics unit was twice that much. While prices have fallen over the years, the S9 is probably the cheapest monitor on the market capable of the color accuracy required by professionals.
We found its sRGB mode to be extremely accurate, per international standards, without any further calibration. Samsung claims this product has been hand-calibrated; while there's no way to prove that, it certainly seems like it's possible.
Against the international color standard dictated for it, the S27B971D is a little eager, testing with oversaturated red and green. These errors can be corrected quite easily, however, and it makes for a slightly more commercial-looking display outside of graphics works; gamers and Netflix watchers aren't going to complain about more color, after all.
Just as impressive is the S9's white balance, wherein it nailed the D65 standard for white. While many displays do this, they don't all play fair: Many a monitor achieves perfect white using an imbalance of sub-pixels, which can lead to problems down the road, especially after the panel breaks in. This PLS-equipped flagship balances its red, green, and blue signals with a praiseworthy amount of accuracy.
As for dynamic range, it certainly isn't a TV (despite looking like one), but is capable of an acceptable contrast ratio. The S9 achieves levels of brightness suitable for most environments, and can produce palatable black levels under the right lighting conditions.
The only performance area it doesn't ace is response time—as a PLS (Plane-to-Line Switching) paneled display, I wasn't expecting anywhere near 2 or 3 ms. Samsung's claim of 6 ms seems accurate, though I'd recommend trying the S9 in person before purchasing it specifically for intensive gaming. That said, it does everything else marvelously.
At an MSRP of $1199, the S9 is not super affordable. It's clearly engineered and calibrated for the needs of professionals, though it's certainly elegant-looking enough to sit on more than a few receptionists' desks. It's simply too well-tooled to be used for non-serious work, though anyone with a hand in techy endeavors or high resolution would benefit from it.
For that price, however, buying into performance ability like what we tested on our sample unit is a great deal. The S9's attractiveness, mild flexibility, and included calibration software make for great additions, but its performance is its greatest strength.
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