ASUS' monitor trail has been a pleasing one to watch -- with each iteration it learns and improves on the previous generation's mistakes, showing not only that it's watching and listening, but that it's dedicated to taking on the heavyweights of the industry.
The PG221 takes its design cues from the earlier PG191, the first in ASUS' "gaming" range. We'd kindly like to submit that piano black designs are past their use-by date, as we're tired of the police station's worth of fingerprints that turn up. To any vendor that reads this: please stop making products in piano black.
A thin blue LED lights up the touch button control panel at the bottom of the monitor. It's a nice touch, and those who are annoyed by it can turn it off easily enough. If you change the audio presets, it cycles from blue, to red, green, pink or orange, depending on the preset.
All the settings are controlled by touch sensitive buttons, which react well and are easy to use. It feels a bit weird if you're used to tactile feedback, but the adjustment period isn't too harsh -- just like the piano black finish though, you should expect greasy digit juice. A row of red LEDs in the middle can be tapped to bring up volume control, and then slid Star Trek-transporter-style to the left to lower the volume or to the right to increase. Double tapping at the far right will increase the sound to 100%, on the left will mute it and in the middle hits the perfect 50%. One major gripe is that it isn't immediately apparent what the volume control is -- the LEDs certainly don't change to match the volume level, and so it just looks like decoration, leaving us to feebly fondle the up and down buttons wondering where the control actually was. The fact that the slider can also be used to adjust other properties once in respective menus confuses things further.
The subwoofer extends out the neck of the screen like a cylindrical cyst, the satellite speakers sitting on either side of the controls. These are hooked up through a 3.5mm jack that is unfortunately attached to a VGA cable, another 3.5mm cable for a microphone passthrough and USB cable for the three port hub/webcam. Much cable clutter could be cleared by separating this mutant cable monstrosity. A big, needless cable connects the subwoofer to the speakers, creating more clutter and a possible catching problem. Since the whole monitor is one unit, we can't see why the need for this cable exists -- potentially for removing bass altogether when roomies are sensitive to noise, but then surely a menu item would suffice?
The aforementioned USB ports are on the left side of the monitor beneath the SRS TruSurround button, which attempts to fake out the ears that 2.1 sound is, well, surround sound. Also on this side are headphone and microphone passthrough ports, so your headset's cables don't have to stretch too far.
A 1.3-megapixel webcam is embedded along the top of the screen, and can be easily rotated on a vertical axis to match the height you're after. The monitor's stand can also be rotated, and the panel itself tilted, however that's it as far as comfort adjustments go.
Unusual for a 22-inch monitor, the ASUS features component, composite and s-video inputs, usually more common on 24-inch monitors and above. It also allows you to switch to "music" mode, where there is no video input, but the 3.5mm jack remains active, allowing you to keep streaming stuff off the PC, or more likely a nearby portable audio player.
The menu is well laid out, but quite laggy and combined with the lack of tactile response from the buttons can make navigation quite a chore.
The monitor is bogged down with a bunch of pointless presets for both video and audio -- setting these to "standard" easily nets the best results. An equaliser is available for the sound, and for best results you should spend some time tweaking in here, not to mention adjusting the subwoofer volume. SRS TSXT is available, which attempts to create "phantom" speakers around the two supplied speakers -- a sort of virtual surround sound. It does a decent job, although it's entirely up to the listener as to whether they find the effect pleasant -- either way it can be switched on or off with a simple press of a button.
Pleasingly, 1080p worked over both component and DVI, the image scaling to fit the smaller native resolution. Not so pleasingly, the aspect options on component are Full (stretched to fullscreen), 4:3 (stretched), Panorama (presumably 16:10, stretched) and Zoom (er, zoomed).
Using DVI opens up a 1:1 option, however it would have been nice to see this on the analogue inputs as well. Testing an Xbox 360 (component) and a PS3 (HDMI to DVI), 1080i flat out looked the best we've seen on a PC monitor, hinting that ASUS has spent some time with deinterlacing filters. The glossy coating on the screen helps improve the image as well, and ASUS seems to have found a nice balance between reflectivity and colour enhancement.
The PG221 blitzed through the DisplayMate tests, capable of defining levels 4 to 254 on the greyscale tests (in which 255 definable shades are shown). Gradient ramps were acceptable (so long as no presets were used), gaming was excellent, and movies were the bomb.
It's not all praise -- vertical viewing angles could be better, and there was noticeable light bleed from the left, right, and top of the screen. As usual this only really raises its ugly head during dark scenes, yet it's distracting and surprising to see on a monitor in this price range.
Bowers and Wilkins they're not, but the speakers are better than expected -- they don't handle high dynamics too well at full volume, intentionally deadening the curve so as not to blow out the speakers, buzz or clip the sound, but the subwoofer fills in the tonal void left by most monitor speakers, and after some tweaking in the equaliser things sound well balanced and definition is acceptable. If you're not an audiophile, these speakers will suit most gamers, providing they're willing to give up 5.1 sound (hah!). The rest of us will stick with our Logitech Z5500-Ds.
The retail price of AU$799 might cause some to cough in disbelief as well -- but at the time of writing you can find it on the streets for around AU$100 less. While there are some short comings and the huge array of additional "features" piled on may annoy purists, we still can't help but like the ASUS PG221. Still at this price, it's almost worth going that extra mile and getting a monitor that can do 1920 x 1200 and 1:1 scaling over component, for that proper high definition experience.