Review : Dell UltraSharp U3011

Dell comes out swinging with an advanced 30-inch pro LCD.

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Product Manufacturer: Dell

Price: $1,499

The Good

  • Superb color depth.
  • Huge selection of input and ports.
  • Tilt, swivel and height.
  • Taller resolution.
  • Easy onscreen controls.

The Bad

  • Undeniably expensive.
  • Plastic bezel and frame.
  • Limited adjustment range.
Design and specs

The 30-inch viewable LCD panel in the U3011 has a 16:10 aspect ratio and a native resolution of 2560x1600. At this resolution users will need a dual-link DVI or full-size DisplayPort connector (a mini-to-full DisplayPort adapter will also work here). That's getting easier every day and is possible even with a diminutive system like the 11-inch MacBook Air, many even fairly recent Windows notebooks and entry-level desktops might be ruled out In fairness, this LCD is aimed squarely at power users, graphics professionals, and serious gamers who would likely have high-end hardware to begin with, but it does mean a significant cash outlay, especially if you plan to play games at full resolution.

Dell built the U3011 with IPS (in-plane switching) technology which produces much richer colors, 1.07 billion of them, than TN (twisted nematic) or PVA (patterned vertical alignment) and helps colors stay uniform across a wide 178 degree viewing angle. While it's the key reason for the elevated price, the technology at least theoretically makes it easier to proof photos or videos, or even just to get the real sense of an image, than it is on most any other display. The dynamic contrast ratio isn't as extreme as on some displays, but it's noticeably high at 100,000:1; be careful about turning it off, though, as the static ratio is just 1,000:1. It has a fairly responsive 7ms gray-to-gray pixel response time, although this will seem very slightly slower compared to a 5ms or even 2ms TN panel.

There is no shortage of connectivity on the U3011, and this is arguably the incentive over alternative screens. This LCD sports two HDMI ports, two DVI-D ports, one full DisplayPort adapter, one VGA adapter, and set of component video inputs. In addition to the video inputs there is also a four port USB hub and a seven-in-one memory card reader. Surprisingly, the monitor only weighs about 20 pounds; that's not trivial, but it's lighter than a 27-inch Cinema Display. The stand is certainly more flexible than Apple's, and allows for left and right swivel as well as 45 degrees of up and down tilt. Our biggest complaint in terms of design is the limited tilt and swivel angles and the quality of the materials used in the bezel compared to quality competitors like the Apple LCD. Dell as often is still fond of plastic, and while we don't expect it to break easily, it's not reassuring for a screen that costs more than a fast computer.

The box also thankfully has no shortage of pre-supplied cables: wires for full DisplayPort, dual-link DVI, USB, and VGA are all in the box.

The controls for the U3011 are on the lower right side and use the ever-popular capacitive touch instead of hard buttons. The controls only light up when you place your hand in front of them; while it might make finding the controls harder in a darkened room, it also takes a distraction away during a movie or an intensive work session. The onscreen menus were thankfully a snap to use -- we're used to overly dense layouts -- and the buttons responded quickly and accurately.

Picture quality and tuning

Being a professional caliber monitor, the U3011 set high expectations when it came to color settings and calibration. The monitor comes preloaded with nine color schemes for those looking to save time or to adhere to a common color standard. Some of the preloaded schemes include Adobe RGB, sRGB, and a custom Dell setting. The monitor was also preconfigured with both Mac and Windows color settings, although as of Mac OS X Snow Leopard, the Windows setting should be the same. Overall. we felt the monitor had excellent contrast between grays, dark grays, and blacks. The colors had a very vivid 'pop' to them with no bleeding or apparent oversaturation whatsoever. We had no trouble distinguishing between even the slightest differences in color tone, which can be an issue even on some of Dell's better PVA-based LCDs.

As one might suspect, text on the U3011 was crisp and very easy to read. Even microscopic copy was readable thanks to the huge screen size. When viewing stock tickers, scrolling sports scores, or even just scrolling through pages of text the words were very easy to read as the scrolling was quite smooth with no jitters, ghosting or other artifacting.

To test the display further, we watched several 1080p movies, some from a connected Blu-ray player and others from a computer. The first movie we tested was The Fantastic Mr. Fox; this movie is all about texture and color definition through the stop-motion animation and kid-oriented palette. The movie played beautifully on the large resolution screen, and the huge color range of the LCD made the movie's warm tones really shine while the textures had just the right amount of grit. Our second test movie was Iron Man, which did a great job of testing the monitor's response time. The action scenes in Iron Man felt explosive yet had absolutely no motion blur. The metal on Tony Stark's mechanical suit shined like a brand new car. Our last movie test was for contrast, and for this task we chose Casino Royale. The U3011 did a great job of defining bright objects and action in even the darkest of interrogation and night driving scenes.

To follow the movie testing, we had to play few video games. We hooked up an Xbox 360 and played some FIFA 11. While it plays at 720p upscaled, the U3011 really impressed us with the crisp difference between in focus and out of focus objects in the game. Other game tests were equally as impressive. We'd also note that the resolution support is important for non-computing video input: the iMac and Cinema Display don't support 1080p in hardware, so they either have to use software or drop to 720p.

Wrapping up

The U3011 is initially a tough choice, but we're fairly convinced it's a good pick, if not the primary choice. For $500, users get three more inches of vertical viewing area, a larger resolution and lots more connectivity. It's simply the ideal choice for a power user in those cases where sheer flexibility and performance trump everything.

We'd add, though, that you don't necessarily need to spend $1,499 if you're willing to make tradeoffs. The 27-inch U2711 costs $1,099 and mostly just sheds the screen size and 160 vertical pixels. And if you're firmly ensconced in the Apple world, especially with a unibody MacBook Air, MacBook or MacBook Pro, the Cinema Display is almost unambiguously better: it'll provide a full docking station with 2.1-channel audio and recharging in a very clean layout.

For about $200 more, you can get a full 27-inch iMac, too; if you're not concerned about maximum performance or independence for the computer attached to the display, it may be a more economic option.

Budgets often dictate reality these days, but if you're already heavily invested in a high-end gaming or workstation PC, including a Mac Pro, the cost may be worthwhile just to guarantee the best possible display with the full range of choices. And should Dell cut the price, it'll be very hard to resist.