Before we get to the review, I want to start this off with a public service announcement. The following product uses a display over USB protocol called DisplayLink. For best results, make sure you are up to date on the latest drivers from DisplayLink.com. This is doubly true if you are on a Mac using OS X 10.9 Mavericks where there have been issues with DisplayLink.
Last year John P. reviewed the AOC e1649fwu portable 15.6 USB 2.0 display and gave it an Editor’s Choice asward. Since then, I think everyone at Geek Beat, myself included, has bought one. This year, they’ve come back with an improved follow-on to the e1659fwu. As much as we liked the previous version, we just had to take a look.
The AOC e1649fwu
It’s a big part of my routine for Geek Beat Live as I use it to display the video while I do the liveblog and the IRC chat on my Macbook’s Retina display. The ability to carry around a second display that is bus powered with a single connection is a godsend for productivity on the go. Mine even went to Chicago with me for the National Restaurant Association Show in my PowerBag.
That’s not to say that the 1649 is perfect. In fact, it’s far from. The resolution is 1366×768. It’s more or less the same type of panel you’d find in a bottom of the barrel Windows laptop. The limited throughput of USB 2.0 allows for a very high 16ms refresh rate and not the best color quality you’ll see with only 262k colors. The kickstand on the bottom isn’t always effective and doesn’t always get you in the best angle. These are things that AOC was not oblivious to. With the higher bandwidth of USB 3.0, they decided to try to correct some of these with the 1649’s successor, the 1659.
I’m going to put this out there right away, if you’re looking for a better resolution than 1366×768, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The e1659Fwu seems noticeably better than the previous version though. It also uses a bit less power at 7w compared to the 8w of the USB 2.0 model. The brightness, color gamut, and refresh rate are a considerable improvement over last year’s model and there’s really no noticeable lag with the higher bandwidth, even with high resolution video. With the exception of the screen resolution, the 1659 corrects almost every criticism I had using the 1649 as a display. If you’re using this with a laptop, one or two of these can give you a credible multi-display setup that’s extremely portable.
The screen isn’t the only thing that’s changed, they’ve made the shell better as well. The casing itself is much improved. It’s a good deal thinner and lighter than the 1649. This makes it even more portable than last year’s model. The kickstand is now much smaller, metal, and only extends in and out instead of being able to swing side to side. You would think that it would make it less stable, but it makes it considerably more so. While the 1649 has a tendency to fall over the higher it got, the 1659 is much better balanced. It will stand up almost vertical and remain stable. It’s not the only mounting option either. The new version has a 75x75mm VESA Mount for your stand of choice. If that wasn’t enough, it also comes with a complementary carrying case to keep the screen safe in your bag.
All USB displays, at least the ones I’ve seen, use a standard called DisplayLink. It’s an external standard in that it’s not natively supported by either Microsoft for Windows or Apple for OS X. You’ll need third party drivers to make it work. Even then, it’s not perfect. You will have some occasional flickering or other issues. It’s a way of life living with a DisplayLink monitor. Like I said earlier, the 1366×768 resolution is going to disappoint a bit. If you’re using a high resolution 13 or 15″ display, like my 15″ Retina whose virtualized display is 1920×1200 (standard setting for that computer is 1440×900), this is going to have a lot less usable space in the same sized display. You can tell how much by the screen capture a little bit further down.
The 1659 has a MicroUSB 3.0 connector. The name is a bit of a misnomer since it’s far from micro. Its almost twice as wide as a micro-usb 2.0 port. This is done as to maintain compatibility with USB 2.0, but it makes the port pretty unwieldy and the cable inflexible. Yes, this little PSA has a point. The port itself is on the left hand side in the cutout for the stand. If you’re using using it on the right hand side of you computer, you shouldn’t have problems. Using it on your left, the cord can be rather short and has to do a u-turn since the port itself is pointing left. I also had an issue with connectivity issues during testing, but this turned out be a faulty cable rather than the display.
On the list price, the 1659 is the same $129.99 as its predecessor the 1649. However, as a much newer product, you might not find it that far under list price. Amazon has it for $122.20 with free shipping. The 1649, on the other hand, can be found at some pretty steep discounts in the real world. The $30 premium you’ll pay is well worth the money when it comes to feature set.
The 1659 like the 1649 has its issues. Most of them, however are related to the DisplayLink standard. DisplayLink can be a bit buggy and even more so if you’re on a Mac. USB was never really meant as an ideal method for connecting a monitor, but it’s high bandwidth and has a good deal of bus power. It’s an arrangement of convenience rather than the best possible solution. It is my hope than eventually similar displays with a thunderbolt connection will come to market. It would also solve the connector issue.
That being said, we have to compare this display to its predecessor and the other USB 2.0 displays on the market. In that case, it rises well above the rest of the pack. It’s brighter, has much better bandwidth, better color, uses less power, and is lighter and more portable than what came before it. It’s also VESA mountable. I’m not going to give it, or any other Display Link display an Editor’s Choice award, the standard is too buggy for that. On top of that, they unfortunately missed the opportunity for a higher resolution panel. It’s flaws aside, if you’re looking for a bus powered display, this is a no brainer. Especially for the price. You simply can’t go back to the old version once you’ve used this.