Buying Guide: 3D Monitors (Part 2)

12/1/2012 3:25:28 PM

What Technology Should You Look For?

We've mentioned passive and active technologies, so we should explain the specific differences between them.

All 3D technology works by projecting two slightly different images into your eyes, which your brain combines to form a three-dimensional combination of the two in the same way our binocular vision works. Both active and passive 3D achieve this effect, but by two different means. (It's also possible to find 'glasses-free' 3D, such as in the Nintendo 3DS, but this has not yet become popular in PC monitors.)

Description: the Nintendo 3DS

Passive 3D is the cheaper of the two main technologies, and involves using special lenses to filter out certain polarizations of light. The monitor is adapted to display two different polarizations, ensuring that two simultaneously displayed images are divided into each eye by the glasses.

The advantages are that because the technology requires no power, just a simple filter, the glasses are cheap, and because the images are displayed simultaneously, you can see them at your monitor's full frame-rate.

The main disadvantage is that because they block a lot of light, the glasses will make the image considerably dimmer. You can compensate by brightening the image manually, of course. There's also a problem that because they display two images at once, you actually only get half of the resolution on each, which can lead to a lower-quality combined picture.

Active 3D (also called active shutter) is the more expensive and newer iteration of the two. Rather than polarizing light, active 3D monitors switch rapidly between the image for the left and right eye. Only one is displayed at any given time. And the glasses, which are powered, switch their lenses on and off to allow in only one image at a time into the appropriate eye.

Description:  active 3D glasses

active 3D glasses

The advantage is that you get a full-resolution, full-brightness picture with little to no bleed between the two different images.

The disadvantage is that the frame-rate is cut in half, which is why active 3D monitors must be 120Hz rather than the standard 60Hz, and why the glasses are expensive and require their own power source and a separate sensor to sync up the monitor and the shutters on the glasses. Obviously, because they're more complicated, more can go wrong.

The choice of technology really depends on which you can afford. Active arguably offers a better experience, but it's more expensive with it. Passive is affordable but looks worse. If you're likely to only have one person using the screen at any given time, we recommend active 3D. If you're likely to have multiple users, passive may be better, but ultimately the tradeoff is yours to decide on.

Is Now the Right Time to Buy?

3D monitors have been dropping in price fairly consistently for the last couple of years, and those drops show absolutely no sign of abating. The first sub-$250 3D monitors arrived only recently, and you can probably expect a sub-$150 3D monitor within a year.

Description: The new ViewSonic

The new ViewSonic

In that sense, 3D monitor technology follows a typical pattern for the computer industry. It's constantly getting better, and you'll save more money the longer you wait. The question you have to answer for yourself is whether you'll use the 3D capabilities once you have them. If so, there's no huge reason to wait. If not, it's best to hold off.

There's also a chance, as standards begin to emerge and normalize, that you could buy a 3D monitor that turns out to be obsolete before the end of its lifespan. If you're keen to avoid this, we recommend you seek out one compatible with NVidia's 3D Vision kits, since they're fast becoming the industry standard after signing deals with various manufacturers.

What Are The Technical Constraints?

Despite what you might think, there are very few technical constraints that might prevent even an average computer system from outputting a 3D signal.

The obvious bottleneck is the graphics interface, but this isn't particularly likely to be an obstacle to anyone with a recent PC. Any dedicated graphics card is more than powerful enough to output a 3D signal. It's more important that the monitor is capable of interpreting it.

The brand of graphics card you're using does matter to an extent. NVidia has formed relationships with numerous companies to create a line of products that are branded '3D Vision' and make the process of setting up a 3D display into a simple one. There's no direct AMD competitor to the NVidia 3D Vision brand at the moment, so if you're using an AMD card you'll need to take extra steps to view 3D signals on an active display. It's not simple, but it is possible.

If you're using a passive display, however, you can use both AMD and NVidia cards with equal ease. This normally involves installing a software component called TriDef Ignition, which is bundled with 3D monitors and allows you to set up a 3D display using either model of graphics card. It's also worth mentioning that you can improve the performance of 3D visuals by adding a second graphics card to your system and running them in SLI/CrossFireX configuration.

Regarding high-definition movies, do be aware that the limitations of copy protection mean you can only view Blu-ray video over digitally protected connections such as HDMI. If you're trying to watch a 3D film over a VGA connection, you won't get the full picture, as it will be automatically downscaled to standard definition! mm

What's The Alternative?

If you don't want a 3D monitor, there's very little you can do that has any chance of replicating the same effect. For obvious reasons, of course, because the technology is either available in your monitor or it isn't, there's no other way to get it.

That said, certain games do have anaglyphic 3D modes that work with any monitor, while media players such as the Stereoscopic Player (available at will allow you to view certain 3D video files using anaglyphic glasses. In case you're unfamiliar with the term, these are the typical red/green (or red/blue) glasses that for decades represented the height of 3D technology.

Of course, anaglyphic 3D hasn't exactly improved over the years; it's just easier for modern systems to display. You can forget about seeing anything in its original color while using such glasses, and prepare yourself for headaches and distorted vision as your brain attempts to compensate for two different-colored visual inputs.

The poor quality of anaglyphic 3D will largely defeat the point of watching or playing a high-end 3D game or viewing high-definition movies in 3D, because there's no way you'll be getting a good experience while doing so, but if you want 3D without a 3D monitor, you don't really have any other choice. Just don't think that we're recommending it as a sane course of action.

Of course, if you're just interested in a high-end monitor, rather than a 3D one, you have plenty of options available. For the price of a 3D monitor, you can buy a normal LCD screen that performs beyond your wildest dreams!

Although any LCD monitor over $323.1 can be considered high-end, the best kind to look for are those with IPS panels, which have better color replication and wide viewing angles. Just make sure the latency is as low as possible if you're planning to use it for gaming or watching video. It won't be 3D, but with picture quality that fine, you won't care!


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