Computer monitor buying guide

Of all the pieces in your PC (or Mac), the monitor is the part you spend the longest time looking at. Our guide helps you select the best model to suit your needs.
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 
 

01 .Find the right screen to suit you

monitors-lead

Big screens are cheaper than ever, but there’s much more to consider than the size and price. You can buy anything from low-cost simple screens for the average user all the way up to high end models aimed at designers and hardcore gamers, with price tags to match. So how do you find one that’s right for you?

Our buying guide breaks down the technical jargon so you can find a monitor to suit your needs. Whether you need a single screen for your PC tower, an additional one for your laptop or a multiple-monitor desktop setup, we’ll tell you everything you need to know.

In this guide we look at:

You may remember the old cathode ray-tube (CRT) monitors, those bulky white boxes that precariously perched on your desk. Over the last decade, CRT screens have been completely phased out in favour of liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, which produce a higher quality picture in a much slimmer and lighter package.

Traditional LCD technology still exists, but modern LCD screens are using LED (light-emitting diode) to provide the necessary backlight. LED supposedly produces are richer image while consuming less power than older LCD technology. Manufacturers often advertise their monitors as being LED rather than LCD, but in these cases they are selling LCD screens that include LED backlighting.

Types of monitors

  • Standard LCD/LED: Consumer grade monitors that range from 18 to approximately 30 inches.  There are many variables involved depending on the amount of money you are prepared to spend (see Key features). In most cases, the cost of the monitor will rise as the image quality, resolution and refresh rate increase. There are two types of standard LCD/LED monitors:
    • Twisted nematic (TN): Most common; fast response time; capable of higher refresh rate; least accurate colour reproduction of all monitor types, but still suitable for the average user and gamer.
    • Vertical alignment (VA): Less common; better colour reproduction and slightly slower response time than TN, but more expensive. Usually found on mid-range standard monitors.
  • IPS (In-plane switching): These offer better quality colour reproduction, better contrast, darker blacks and a generally better image overall. Image quality does not degrade as much as standard monitors when viewed from different angles. Their response time is slower than standard monitors although this has improved substantially in recent months. In 2012 Samsung released their own version of IPS called PLS (Plane-to-Line Switching), which claims to offer a brighter, clearer picture and better response time for a lower price.
  • 3D 120/144 Hz: Monitors that can output 2D and 3D images. They require a 3D compatible graphics card.

The right ratio

Although the 4:3 aspect ratio dominated screens for years, industry standards have shifted towards 16:9 widescreen. A few companies still make 4:3 monitors but these are usually cheaper models with lower-quality parts. Most models are capable of HD resolution, some can display at ultra-HD, and a handful of recent releases push their resolution up to 4K (4000 pixel resolution). Some retailers even carry 3D monitors. 

Even though CRT monitors are obsolete, the second-hand market is rife with this outdated technology. Their low cost, usually between around $10 and $30, makes them pretty tempting, especially if you’re shopping on a budget. But their picture quality, size and weight do not compare to modern monitors, and they’ll chew through a lot more power as well.

On that note, if you’re still using a CRT monitor and want to upgrade, see our computer recycling guide to learn how to safely dispose of your old screen.

Price

You can pick up a high-end 27-inch LCD/LED monitor for under $800 with little effort, while low-end models for the budget-conscious start at around $150. They produce reasonable image quality for everyday use, but we recommend buying a good quality monitor unless you’re really strapped for cash. A slightly higher cost can deliver a substantially clearer and sharper picture.

Most major retailers carry a handful of models, while specialised computer stores usually have a broader range of stock. You’re likely to find the largest and latest range of monitors at online-only retailers, with prices that are generally better than bricks and mortar stores.
 
 

Sign up to our free
e-Newsletter

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

 

Top of the line equipment is always tempting, but unless you’ve got a seriously swollen wallet, the best of the best may be out of your price range (over $3000 to be specific ). More importantly, the features offered by a hotshot screen may be perfect for a graphic designer, but less useful for the average user.

So before you head out to the shops, make a list of your usual computer activities. This can point you in the right direction to find a monitor without bells and whistles you’re unlikely to use. Also consider the footprint your monitor setup will have – dual monitor setups for example are tempting but they take up a large amount of space, so you may be better off buying a single widescreen monitor rather than two medium-sized models. 

User profiles

Most people fit into one of these broad user categories:
  • Average users: Using your computer for typical day-to-day activities such as office work, web browsing and watching movies? Any LCD/LED monitor will do, but we recommend sticking to mid-range models as a minimum as they usually offer a substantially sharper picture for a slightly higher price. Look for a screen that’s at least 23 inches in size with a minimum refresh rate of 60Hz. Programs typically used by standard consumers are unlikely to utilise the features of high-end monitors, such as high refresh rate.
  • Gamers: You can get by on a mid-range monitor, but a high quality screen with a high refresh rate and low response time can improve the experience for fast-moving action games. Aim for 75Hz or higher unless you’re looking for top-end image quality, in which case 120–144Hz is the go. A response time of 5ms will suit offline games, but fans of online shooters should aim for 2ms or lower. TN monitors are generally better than VA and IPS screens for serious gamers due to their faster response time.
  • Designers:  If you’re serious about photo editing or design, look for an IPS/PLS or 4K monitor. They offer very high image quality with colour reproduction that is much more accurate than an LCD/LED screen. The trade-off however is a slower response time, and while IPS/PLS response time is improving, they are still largely on the slow side for serious gamers.

Remember that these are general guidelines. The best way to find out if a monitor will suit your needs is to test it in store.

Key features

Two monitors that appear similar same in size and shape can still vary greatly depending on the specifications. These are the key features you should investigate when shopping for a monitor, some of which should be considered in conjunction. For example, a monitor may advertise a very high resolution, but the quality will suffer if the pixel pitch is spacing is too large.

  • Size and weight
  • Connections
  • Refresh rate
  • Response rate/time
  • Ergonomics
  • Aspect ratio
  • Resolution
  • Pixel pitch
  • Controls
  • Speakers
  • Warranty

  • Size and weight

    Monitor size is measured diagonally, usually in inches. A handful of monitors smaller than 20 inches are available, but most are between 21 and 30 inches across. Larger monitors provide more work space for complex programs with lots of onscreen menus such as photo editors and spreadsheets, so if you’re an average user, aim for a monitor no smaller than 21 inches. Designers and gamers will usually get more out of an even larger screen, as they offer an increased work or play space. However, even the average user can find that a bigger screen makes multitasking easier, as you can work with multiple documents onscreen at once. Bear in mind however that as monitors get bigger, they get heavier.

    Connections

    Higher-end monitors include multiple input/output options for video including: VGA (D-sub), DVI, HDMI, Mini Display, Thunderbolt and in some cases S-Video. Checking the inputs before you buy your monitor is essential, as the available ports may not match the outputs on your computer. Most consumers will find that HDMI provides suitable image and audio quality in a single cable, whereas older computers will probably require a VGA input. DVI is also an option, but is limited to video so you will need to connect a separate audio cable.

    However, certain features on some monitors are only available with specific cables. For example, monitors that offer high refresh rates of 120-144Hz (see Refresh rate) require a DVI (specifically dual-band DVI) cable. Although HDMI cables can transmit this data, the majority of consumer grade HDMI chipsets built into the motherboard are limited to 60Hz. If you want to run a 4K monitor however, you will need to buy an HDMI cable as DVI lacks the required bandwidth. In most cases, HDMI and DVI can support 3D signals. 

    Finally, check the placement of these ports as well. Convenient access is preferable, especially for audio ports such as the headphone jack, as these are regularly plugged in and unplugged.

    Refresh rate

    The refresh rate, sometimes called frequency, defines how often the screen image is refreshed (redrawn) each second. A higher refresh rate theoretically results in a smoother picture with less evidence of flickering, ghosting, double images and shadowing.

    Think of it this way: imagine you're watching a video of an insect flapping its wings. It flaps its wings 120 times in one second. A 60Hz monitor will only be able to draw 60 of those 120 actions each second, while the other 60 are blurred over, which can cause ghosting. A 120Hz monitor can draw each action, hence the clearer picture. In practice, however, you may not notice a difference.

    LCD/LED monitors have a minimum refresh rate of 60 Hz, which is suitable for comfortable viewing, and anything above 75Hz is considered a good refresh rate. Top end monitors refresh between 120 and 144Hz. Having a monitor that can adjust and optimise refresh rate, or be set to different refresh rate levels, is advantageous for game playing, but if you’re not into video games you’re unlikely to benefit from a monitor beyond 75Hz. 

    Response rate/time 

    This is the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white and back to black. Most LCD/LED and 3D LCD/LED monitors respond within 5-6ms, while IPS monitors traditionally have a slower response time, starting at 6ms and dropping to as low as 14ms. Recent IPS models tend to hover around the 6ms mark which is an improvement, but not quite as fast as top end LCD/LED screens that can respond within 1ms. Slow response times can create blurry images or show ghosting.

    While the average eye is unlikely to notice the difference between 1ms and 5ms, for gamers, a quick response time can mean the difference between life and death in fast-paced shooters. Some consumers claim that monitor manufacturers are forced to reduce image quality to improve response time, but this is a subjective position that only applies to response rates under 5ms.

    Although some IPS monitors advertise response rates down to 5ms, they are still considered slower than standard LCDs. Average consumers may not notice, but gamers will likely find IPS screens too slow for fast-paced games.

    Ergonomics

    Most monitors have limited adjustability. You may be able to rise, drop and pivot your monitor to suit your viewing needs, but these options vary between models. Before you buy, try to set the monitor to your optimal viewing angle and note if it’s possible and how much effort was required. Also check the viewing height, which should have your eye-level in the top third of the screen when seated.

    Aspect ratio

    Almost all monitors follow the 16:9 aspect ratio industry standard but some manufacturers are still producing 5:4 models. We recommend a widescreen 16:9 monitor, as they offer a larger workspace and optimal conditions for watching DVDs. You may find monitors with 4:3 and 16:10 ratios on the second-hand market.

    Resolution

    Resolution is the number of pixels (picture elements) that are used to draw your screen image. The more pixels, the more detail you will see. Resolution refresh rate and pixel pitch all contribute to the clarity of the picture, but resolution plays the most significant role. The appropriate resolution generally depends on the size of the monitor, or on the amount of available video memory. Most modern monitors are capable of displaying an HD 720 picture, although the most popular resolution is 1366 x 768.

    We recommend aiming for the highest resolution monitor within your price range, but always remember to check the refresh rate and pixel pitch (see Pixel pitch) at the same time. Occasionally, resolution is listed as a codename such as “WXGA” (1366 x 768) or “WQHD” (2560 x 1440). See the chart below for a full list of resolutions and codenames. 

    NAME ASPECT RATIO WIDTH (pixels) HEIGHT (pixels)
    VGA 4.3 640 480
    SVGA 4.3 800 600
    XGA 4.3 1024 768
    XGA+ 4.3 1152 864
    HDTV 720 4.3 1280 720
    WXGA 15.9 - 16.1 1280 768 - 800
    SXGA 5.4 1280 1024
    WXGA (max) 16.9 1366 768
    SXGA+ 4.3 1400 1050
    WXGA+ 16.1 1440 900
    UXGA 4.3 1600 1200
    WSXGA+ 16.1 1680 1050
    HDTV 1080 16.9 1920 1080
    WUXGA 16.1 1920 1200
    ULTRAWIDE 21:9 2560 1080
    WQHD 16.9 2560 1440
    WQXGA 16.1 2560 1600
    QFHD (4K) 16.9 3840 2160

    Pixel pitch

    In general terms, the pixel pitch (sometimes dot pitch) is the distance between adjacent sets of red/blue/green dots (clusters) that make up your monitor screen. Measured in millimetres, a smaller pixel pitch means a sharper, more detailed, realistic image and a better quality picture at closer viewing distances. As the number increases, the visible grain in the picture will intensify, and in extreme cases, the dots can become visible.

    Pixel pitch may be measured vertically, horizontally or even diagonally; it pays to check which measurement is being quoted. While suitable dot pitch can vary depending on the size and type of monitor, you should always aim for a pixel pitch below 0.28mm. 

    Controls

    Adjusting your monitor for best effect requires fine-tuning controls – these may be handled by buttons on the face of the monitor that let you adjust contrast, brightness, horizontal and vertical alignment, and so on. Many monitors have additional software controls, including calibration settings for fine-tuning colour. If possible, test out the monitor’s adjustment before buying.

    Speakers

    Some models include inbuilt speakers, which saves you from having to connect a dedicated sound system to your computer. This is handy if you have limited desk space, but inbuilt monitor speakers are unlikely to produce the same sound quality as an external speaker setup with a subwoofer.

    Warranty

    Most monitors will come with a three-year warranty but they should come with at least one year's worth of protection as a minimum. However, the fine print can vary greatly between brands.

    Some manufacturers of LCD monitors also include a separate 'dead pixel policy'. Dead or bad pixels are pixels that are permanently on or off. They look like small black, white or coloured dots on the screen and can be distracting if they're in the middle of the viewing area or you view a lot of graphics. Dead pixel policies allow a certain number of faulty pixels within a specification, before you're entitled to a replacement product. 

    Many pixel policies are well hidden, and they vary between manufacturers. Some provide details on their websites or in product manuals. If you can't find any information, call the manufacturer.

    03.Image quality and multiple monitors

     

    You shouldn’t buy a monitor without seeing it in action. Check the quality of image for text, line art, and flesh tones to give you a good idea of how well it displays colours and lines. You may need to ask the retailer to adjust the settings for you. Some will have prepared running displays that can show the monitor's capabilities. 

    Note that monitors on display in stores may have been wrongly adjusted by other shoppers. Check with in store staff if in doubt.

    Checking the image quality

    • Sharpness/focus: Check the text or graphics at the corners of the screen compared to the same text/graphics in the centre. A good monitor should be sharp at both centre and corners.
    • Text sharpness: Open a text program such as Notepad and type a few lines. If the text appears blurry, or shows signs of a purple, red or green outlines (known as colour fringing) the monitor may not be of good quality.
    • Brightness: Check the brightness settings. Monitors on display may be set to maximum for bright in store conditions, which may not reflect home use.
    • Straightness: Are horizontal lines horizontal? Vertical lines vertical? Check at the edges of the monitor particularly for any deviation.
    • Ratios: If you draw or view a circle it should be a true circle, with the same diameter no matter which direction you measure it. 
    • Colours: Red, green, blue and yellow should be pure colours, not muddy, dark or too bright. Flesh tones should look correct, without a green, red or blue tinge to them. Check colours at the edge of the monitor as well as the centre. 
    • Glare: Some monitors are more susceptible to glare than others. This can occur when working outdoors or under bright lights. Viewing the monitor at multiple angles will help determine how much of an impact the glare can have.

    Retina display 

    The Retina display is Apple’s flagship monitor technology, which claims to be capable of producing a pixel density greater than the human eye can distinguish (around 200ppi – pixels per inch – depending on the size of the monitor) at normal viewing distance. Thus, humans are unable to notice pixelation at normal viewing distance, resulting in a very high quality, very sharp onscreen image.

    The Retina Display is only available on some Macbook Pro models, as well as the iPad (4th generation), iPad Air, iPad Mini, iPhone 4, 4S, 5, 5C and 5S, and the 4th generation iPod Touch . Apple has recently released a 27-inch IPS monitor with Thunderbolt connectivity, inbuilt speakers and 2560 x 1440 resolution, but it is not marketed as a Retina model, as its actual pixel resolution is 109ppi.

    3D or not 3D?

    Like TVs, computer manufacturers were quick to jump on the 3D monitor bandwagon. The cost of 3D screens has come down substantially, but is it worth the price of admission? For most consumers the answer is not yet, because of two key factors:
    • Poor industry uptake: Most games still treat 3D as an afterthought, with few titles utilising the technology to create a truly immersive experience. It’s fun at first, but you may find that the gimmick wears off after an hour or so. If you’re a 3D movie fan, you’ll find that a good 3D TV is a better investment than a 3D monitor.
    • Additional costs: Buy a 3D monitor, plug it in, and everything’s hunky dory right? Wrong. Just because your monitor can display 3D doesn’t mean that your computer has the components that can output and render 3D images. When you’re watching a 3D movie for example, your computer needs to simultaneously process two separate images to create the illusion of a third dimension. Only a handful of graphics cards can do this, and these are usually high end models that can cost up to, or over, $1000.

    Multiple monitors

    Why stop at one monitor when you can buy two, three or even five? Five may be overkill, but there are plenty of benefits that can come from adding a second monitor to your system.

    A dual monitor setup increases the size of your workspace, which can improve productivity. The extra space can be used to display multiple documents or websites if you need to quickly reference information, or compare different versions of files. You can also run and view multiple programs at once, without having to flick between windows.

    Tech savvy gamers, who are confident with upgrading their computers software and hardware, can add a third monitor, and arrange them to create an immersive gaming environment. The centre monitor serves as your main field of vision, while the outer two extend your peripherals. It’s particularly good for first person shooters and racing games, but you will need a powerful graphics card, or dual cards, and extra desk space.

    Multiple monitor buying tips

    • Make sure you have enough desk space for your extra monitor(s).
    • Check your hardware. Most computers can run two monitors off a single mid-range graphics card, but if you want to run three or more you may need high end equipment or dual cards.
    • Check your computer’s ports. If it only has one monitor input, you will need to buy a splitter to add a second screen. These are available online and sell for as little as $10.
    • Try to buy monitors that are the same size. This is a must if they are being placed side by side for an extended desktop effect.
    • Try to buy the same brand and model. This will retain image consistency and make calibration easier.