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Inside the shadowy underground of Korean monitor sales

If you're in the market for a new high-definition desktop monitor, take note: You may be able to pick up a very good Korean-made display for far less money than what you'd spend on, say, an Asus, Dell, HP, or Samsung model. Sure, you'll have to cope with odd product branding, limited functionality, and less-than-inspired product design; but if your primary concern is image quality, a Korean display purchased on eBay could be just the ticket.

It all depends on your appetite for adventure.

When I first stumbled across a long thread about Korean monitors at Overclock.net, I didn't take much notice. But when another thread popped up on Quarter to Three, one of my regular Web hangouts, my interest was piqued. The first post was pretty negative but, as it turned out, mistaken. Both threads gave advice on the different manufacturers and resellers, and included descriptions of feature sets and information on which outfits were the most reliable. I was still hesitant, sure, but I began to think that this Korean-monitors thing was for real. So I dug deeper.

On eBay I found numerous small Korean resellers offering 27-inch, 2560-by-1440-pixel monitors at fantastic, sub-$400 prices. And many of them listed high buyer satisfaction rates, which eBay buyers generate themselves.

I was still skittish about buying a monitor from an overseas source: Even if a reseller's customer support is excellent, shipping a defective monitor back to Korea isn't a low-cost endeavor. Then I noticed that some of the resellers were offering "perfect pixel" guarantees. Those weren't enhanced warranty exchange programs, however. Instead, "perfect pixel" meant that the reseller opened the box, connected the display, and visually inspected it; the reseller would ship only those monitors without hot or missing pixels.

So I decided to take the plunge. But whom to buy from? And which specific display should I choose?

Putting my money where my mouth is

When you search eBay for one of these Korean IPS displays, you won't find familiar brands such as LG or Samsung. Instead you'll be looking at something from Imon, Shimian, or Yamakasi. Yes, these are not household names.

Clearly, most of these items are actually private labels, because they're all quite similar. I found some monitors that cost less than $300, but typically they were untested displays with a single DVI dual-link connector. Most of the least-expensive displays don't support HDCP content protection, so if you should want to play Blu-ray movies or other protected content from set-top boxes, you may be out of luck.

You can find units with additional features, such as HDMI and DisplayPort support, but the costs then rise to a little over $400. Even then, you'll encounter limitations. HDMI inputs, for example, may not support the higher-bandwidth HDMI 1.4a standard, so output resolution will be limited to 1920 by 1080 pixels when you connect the monitor via HDMI. Units with HDMI 1.4a support rise to almost $500.

All I wanted was another LCD monitor for a gaming system I have in my basement lab, so I didn't really need bells and whistles such as HDMI connectors and built-in speakers. Eventually I settled on a Shimian QH270-Lite from a vendor called "ta_planet". The net cost was $363.95, which included an extra $10 for the "perfect pixel" guarantee. That cost also included FedEx shipping from Korea. So all in all, I considered it a good deal.

About an hour after placing the order, I received an eBay message from ta_planet telling me that the monitor was out of stock. But the message also said that ta_planet would be happy to ship an alternate display with built-in speakers at no extra charge, and with the "perfect pixel" guarantee intact.

I immediately filed this in my "too good to be true" mental folder. "Uh-oh," I thought to myself. "Here it starts. I'm going to get a piece of junk."

I thought about the problem for a few hours, and then responded to ta_planet via eBay messaging, accepting the offer. Within 10 minutes I received a response declaring, in effect, that ta_planet had received a new shipment of the QH270-Lites, and would be shipping one of those out to me per the original order.

The Shimian QH270-Lite display seems fairly stock in other ways. The glossy surface is a little annoying, but, hey: $364!

I made some interesting discoveries when I unboxed the monitor. It uses an external, switching power brick that can run in either 220-240V or 110-120V mode. As with most of these bricks, one end is a standard three-pin, capable of accepting most power cords. However, only a Korean power cord came in the box, so I had to dig up a standard cord with U.S. plugs.

No documentation or CD accompanied the monitor, but that didn't surprise me much.

Bottom line: Fire it up!

Finally, it was time to stop scrutinizing the aesthetics of the display and actually use it. I connected the DL-DVI cable to a system running a Sandy Bridge Core i7 CPU and an Nvidia GTX 580 graphics card. I checked out all-white images and all-black images to see if the display had issues with individual pixels. Careful examination revealed no hot or missing pixels. The black image exhibited a small uniformity problem, though: In full black mode, the backlight in the lower right of the display was a touch brighter than the rest of the display. But it was hard to spot unless I was looking for it.

Since installing the monitor, I've used it for some lengthy gaming sessions. I've seen no issues with frame rate, flickering, or other potential pitfalls. So the QH270-Lite is working well for its chosen task.

I wouldnt recommend this kind of monitor for intensive photography work or video editing. Although you can, in theory, calibrate the display, the backlight hotspot is probably a negative for any serious task. Also, since the display has no built-in hardware for scaling the video, you're at the mercy of the graphics card and driver when it comes to video rendering quality. For instance, on my screen, HD video from Netflix streaming looked very soft, whether at 2560 by 1440 or 1920 by 1080.

You can spend up to $150 for additional features, such as video scaling and high-bandwidth HDMI. But my QH270-Lite has acquitted itself well as a standard desktop monitor, and it certainly handles games with aplomb. Maybe I was just lucky. Quite a few users have bought such displays from a variety of Korean resellers on eBay with good results. But others have received very poor displays, with plenty of dead pixels. It pays to research the vendors, and it's worthwhile to hand over a few extra dollars for a perfect pixel guarantee.

Don't want to take a chance on eBay and on Korean shipping? Some of these monitors are starting to show up at resellers in the United States. For example, Microcenter is offering a display labeled the Auria EQ276W for $399, and it seems quite similar to these Korean displays. You can also buy from Amazon resellers, though they tend to ship directly from Korea.

What this experience really illustrates is how international tech buying has become. In one sense, purchasing a Korean monitor is like buying a gray-market product. However, gray-market products are typically brand-name gear intended for overseas customers but sold into the United States instead, whereas these monitors are purely local Korean brands. If you do find one at a nearby source, you may get better support. Wherever you shop, be aware of the risks. If you can't afford to lose $300 to $400, you might not want to take a chance.

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