HDMI Monitor Shootout
I was contacted recently by Cache Media the company that distributes Marshall monitors in the UK asking if I’d like to take a look at some of their newest models. I gratefully accepted the offer as I thought it would be very interesting to compare Marshall’s latest HDMI monitors to the two that I own and use regularly, the Marshall LCD-70 and the SmallHD DP6.
It’s great to know that the latest Marshall gear is available here in the UK now, previously it’s been a bit tricky to find them and a lot of UK buyers have had to order from the states. Click here for a list of UK retailers that Cache Media distribute to.
The models that were supplied were the 5″ V-LCD50 which is a tiny HDMI monitor aimed firmly at DSLR shooters and the larger V-651STX which is a higher end 6.5″ monitor. The smaller of the two retails for around £500 in the UK whereas the V-651STX as aimed more at pro users and as a result costs over three times as much.
Before starting on the review I would like to say that I have not gone down the road of tweaking and calibrating these monitors, I set them all to the factory defaults and started using them without further tweaks. For the purposes of this review I’ll be looking at the basic functionality, build quality and ergonomics of the monitors. I’ll give what I feel are the important factors to consider with each monitor.
My initial plan was to feature all four monitors but my Marshall LCD-70 has been replaced by an updated model, the LCD-70XP. The newer version fixes some of the limitations of the LCD-70 I own so rather than confuse matters by talking about an out of date monitor I decided to leave that one out of the review.
We’ll begin with a quick overview of the three monitors…
I’ve been wanting to get my hands on one of these for a while now. The LCD-651STX is a ‘Super Transflective’ outdoor monitor offering a higher res display than the larger LCD-70 monitors at 1024×768 pixels. As you may have noticed the LCD-651STX is not a standard 16:9 display which is an interesting choice these days considering the prevalence of the 16:9 system.
The LCD-651STX can be configured with a wide range of battery mount options, the one I have for this review has a Sony B adapter so that I can power it with my Sony BPU batteries from the EX1. This monitor is also available in 3GSDI & HDA models but the one I’m looking it is the HMDI only version.
Marshall claim that their technology minimizes surface reflection of both outdoor and indoor light, while featuring a much wider color reproduction range than typical transflective/reflective LCD’s or even those with increased back-light performance. I’ll be putting that to the test a bit later on.
The LCD-651STX features Marshall’s False Colour exposure aid as well as Peaking to help you nail focus.
Marshall introduced the V-LCD-50 as the perfect solution for DSLR users. It really is like a LCD-70 that shrunk in the wash! The monitor features an 800 x 480 pixel 5″ display and offers most of the features that we’ve come to expect from it’s bigger brothers including false colour and peaking.
Powered by four AA batteries the V-LCD50 fits as neatly in the palm of your hand as it does on the top of your favourite DSLR and is very light so won’t put too much strain on your DSLR’s hot-shoe.
The SmallHD DP6 features a high res 1280×800 5.6″ display packed inside a solid aluminium shell. The unit can be powered using SmallHD’s own slimline batteries or various camera batteries using a range of adapter plates that fit on the back. Unlike the Marshall monitors these include SLR batteries as well as more traditional camcorder batteries so you can power the DP6 with the same batteries you use on your DSLR.
The DP6’s proudest feature by far is it’s high resolution, SmallHD are not shy in saying that they feel resolution is one of the most important factors in a field monitor. The DP6 is available as HDMI / Component only or with optional HD/SDI inputs / outputs. Like the Marshall’s it also features focusing and exposure aids such as false colour and focus assist.
Seeing all of the monitors lined up should give you a good idea of the range of sizes we have here. My initial thought for this review was to make it a ‘Shootout’ but that wouldn’t really be fair as each monitor is in a different class and all are in different price brackets. So my aim here then is really just to share my thoughts with you about each and talk about each monitors strengths and in some cases weaknesses.
Size & build
I’ll start this one with the SmallHD DP6, only because I’ve had a lot longer with this monitor than the others so it’s going to make a good benchmark. I purchased my DP6 back in September last year (2010) and since then it’s been on quite a few shoots with me. The build quality of the DP6 is excellent, it’s solid aluminium body instills confidence that it’s going to be able to cope with professional use. The DP6 is very minimal when it comes to controls, which is partly why the unit itself is barely bigger than the display it holds.
The DP6 has four main controls, a power switch on the side with two assignable buttons on the top along with a click-able scroll-wheel. The design and build of the DP6 is really nice although it would be nice to have access to a few more features using assignable buttons. I’ve found the scroll-wheel isn’t very precise when trying to scroll through menu’s quickly but it’s fine for normal (slower) usage.
SmallHD have produced a wide range of accessories for the DP6 including protective screens, battery brackets, sun hoods, protective cases and much more. This one is fitted with a protective cover as I prefer not to get fingerprints all over my monitors. It’s often easier to replace a screen than try to clean the display. Mine is also fitted with a Canon DSLR battery plate so that I can use my 5D / 7D batteries to power it. It also comes with a power supply for mains power.
I knew the baby Marshall was going to be small but when I opened it’s box I was still quite surprised how compact it was. It retains the style and layout of it’s bigger brothers but in a much smaller format. It has a rubberised finished that makes it feel very secure in the hand and although the controls are very small they all remain easily accessible and intuitive. I’m assuming by it’s light weight that it’s made of some kind of plastic.
The back has a protruding compartment that holds four AA batteries and it can also be powered by a supplied PSU. One area that seemed like a bit of a design fault was that the power button sticks out further than the other components on the back meaning that whenever you lay it down on it’s back you can accidentally power it up, draining any AA’s that might be installed. It’s a shame that Marshall didn’t put it on the recessed area beside the battery compartment.
The V-LCD651STX looks and feels like a professional monitor. It’s all metal construction feels very sturdy and much like the LCD-70 it features BNC connectors for Component and Video as well as the HDMI port. The monitor can be purchased with adapters for many camcorder batteries. This one is fitted with an ‘SB’ adapter (Sony B) so that I can use the BPU-60 batteries from my Sony EX1.
Another thing I really like about the V-LVD615 is that it uses an XLR type power connector. These are a lot more robust and secure than the cheapo jack sockets found on the other monitors in the review.
Handling the video from HDMI outputs on a DSLR is a tricky task for all external monitors. These cameras were not designed with live monitoring in mind and as such the video signal they deliver are not the standard type of signals most monitors expect. This is especially true for the 5D mkII as it changes output resolution when you start recording causing the monitor to have to rescale it’s display accordingly.
On both the 5D and the 7D you can cycle through display modes by pressing the ‘INFO’ button on the back of the camera, this causes the layout of the display to change allowing you to use more of the screen space your monitor provides for viewing the image.
The video below shows how each of these monitors handles those displays. Note that the SmallHD DP6 is the only monitor here that actively scales the image to reduce the areas of black around the edge of the image. These areas of black are part of the HDMI signal being delivered by the cameras.
Where a monitor helps
A monitor can help you out in many ways. The first benefit is one of ergonomics and is especially true if you’re shooting with a DSLR. The LCD on the back of the camera has many limitations, it’s small and fairly low res so even at the best of times can be limiting for achieving critical focus. What’s often worse though is that the cameras LCD is often pointing in totally the wrong direction for you to be able to use it comfortably.
You can mount an external monitor on the camera itself or as I usually do on a tripod or light stand giving you the ability to perform camera movements without your viewing angle being effected.
Of the monitors here I would only mount the DP6 or the LCD50 on a DSLR, the larger LCD651 would be too heavy with a BPU-60 attached in my opinion, hot shoes are not designed for that amount of weight.
Having a bigger screen has obvious viewing benefits, especially when using one of the higher resolution screens we have here. Basic tasks like composing your shot, checking the background and setting up lighting etc are all made easier with a bigger monitor.
One of the main reasons for using an external monitor is to help with focusing. The more detail you can see in the image your capturing the more accuracy you have in controlling focus. The SmallHD DP6 is especially strong in this regard, it scales up the image to fill the visible area and displays the results in high resolution making it easy to see a lot more detail in faces or other subjects whilst shooting.
The Marshall V-LCD651 is also very good and resolves a lot of detail although it’s hindered by the fact that the image being displayed is not using the whole screen area, partly because it’s not 16:9 and partly due to hardware / software limitations with DSLR HDMI output. It would be great if it could scale dynamically like the DP6.
The Smaller LCD50 is not as strong for visual focusing as the other monitors. It’s a big improvement over the cameras LCD for sure, but personally I’d go for one of the bigger monitors if focusing is more important than portability to you.
As well as focusing by eye all of these monitors provide tools to help you. Both Marshall models have a ‘Peaking’ function which makes the image grayscale and highlights in focus areas in red. This is very useful although not every red area is in fact in focus. You soon get to grips with it though and it’s easy to see the area in focus whilst adjusting. The Peaking on the LCD50 is not as good as that on the bigger LCD651.
The DP6 features a similar system called ‘focus assist’ which turns the image red and highlights in focus areas in white. I find this more accurate than the Marshall system as it seems to be more reliable at only showing the in focus areas as highlighted.
The following video shows the focus assist features offered by each monitor.
All three of these monitors also feature a 1:1 pixel mapping function function that enables you to expand the displayed image, effectively zooming in on part of the image.
I’d say that an external monitor like the ones on review here are essential to DSLR shooters for exposure reasons alone. It’s impossible to have an accurate understanding of how your shot is being exposed with a DSLR because they do not provide the Zebra stripes that are a standard tool in professional dedicated video cameras. If you haven’t worked with Zebra’s before they simply display lines over any area in the shot which is brighter than a specified setting. The Sony EX1 for example can display two sets of zebra’s, I have one set at ideal skin tone levels and the second showing any area that has blown out to white.
In order to help with exposure control all three of these monitors come with a feature called ‘False Colours’. This works by displaying different areas of brightness in the image as different colours. By dialling in your exposure using false colours you get a very reliable understanding of the part’s of your image that are either too blown out or under exposed.
The following video shows the false colour feature working in each of the three monitors…
Outside use and reflections
All three of these monitors have sun shades available as accessories for working outside but I thought it would be good to put them to the test without shades just to see how they stack up. In theory the Marshall V-LCD651STX should shine here as this is where it’s ‘Super Transflective’ technology comes in to play.
Below are two shots taken of each monitor in similar situations. They were shot on a dull overcast day with the clouds reflecting directly in the monitors, partly shaded by me taking the photo’s to give some clarity.
I think you’ll agree that the Marshall V-LCD651STX does indeed live up to expectations. Where both of the other monitors are almost totally obscured by the reflection of the sky, the LCD651 remains perfectly viewable albeit with a purple tint covering the reflective area. That could come in very handy! The LCD50 seemed to fare slightly better than the DP6 but there wasn’t a lot in it.
As I said at the start of this mammoth article I’m not going to start messing with the settings of these monitors to try and calibrate them, I simply don’t have enough time. What I am going to do however is try to show you the way they display colours at their default settings.
This is a totally unscientific thing, if you’ve got colour test charts etc I’d love to see this all done with a bit more accuracy but for now a shot of a plant will have to suffice :)
First up, the Camera SmallHD DP6. I’ve had a lot of problems with colour on this monitor, it has a tendency to apply a yellow tint, especially on subjects with high green levels. You can see in this shot that the greenery through the window is suffering from this same effect, the window frame should be white!
Next is the Marshall V-LCD50. Interestingly this too displayed an image that was more reddish / yellow than the LCD on the camera. I looked in to this after taking this shot and found that the colour temperature as well as RGB bias can be changed. Changing the the colour temp option to linear got the display much closer to matching the cameras LCD.
Finally the Marshall V-LCD651STX. As you can see this is a lot closer to the colours coming through the window and was by far the most accurate of the three at the default settings. The window frame is closer to white and the greens look more accurate. If anything the image is a bit on the cold side with this one but I actually prefer that to seeing an image that’s warmer than it should be.
All three monitors feature a high enough resolution relative to their screen size to make the displayed images look smooth and pixel free. My 7″ Marshall LCD70P is the same 800 x 480 res as the small LCD50 and at 7″ the pixels start to become visible making critical focus harder to achieve.
I’m not going to end this review by picking a ‘best’ of the three as each one really does have it’s benefits. The little Marshall V-LCD50 is perfect if you’re looking for a small monitor that you can carry around with you with the minimum of fuss. It runs on AA batteries which could be a big benefit for travel projects and when you’re not using it you can put it in your pocket.
I found the peaking feature wasn’t as strong on this monitor as the others tested but it will still make focusing a whole lot easier than trying to use the on-camera LCD. The excellent Marshall false colour feature will definitely help you to get better exposure and you’ll have the ability to do all that with you’re camera in awkward positions where you wouldn’t normally be able to shoot if using the on-camera LCD.
The SmallHD DP6 is a step up from the LCD50 in terms of focusing ability due to it’s focus assist feature, the large high res display and the way SmallHD have developed it’s scaling to work so well with DSLR’s. It’s colours are not the most accurate so you have to be careful with judging white balance but it can’t be beat for focusing duties at it’s size. It’s also very robust and small enough to be mounted on camera so it makes a great choice if focusing is your number one priority. It’s exposure features also work very well, although are not quite as strong as on the Marshalls.
Finally the Marshall V-LCD651STX. In terms of overall image accuracy this monitor was by far the best of the bunch. It performs amazingly outside in the daylight with its Super Transflective display. It’s false colours are excellent and although the peaking isn’t perfect it still made it very easy to get accurate focus. It’s just a shame that it’s not a 16 x 9 monitor and that more of the screen can’t be utilised by DSLR’s. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the V-LCD651STX costs three times as much as the LCD50 and nearly twice as much as a DP6.
Buying in the UK
Buying in the US
The SmallHD DP6 is only available direct from SmallHD, visit their website at www.smallhd.com