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.

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.

The thing is, unless you have your head around the technical jargon, finding the right monitor can be maddening. This guide breaks down everything you need to know, whether you need a single screen for your PC tower, an additional one for your laptop or a multiple-monitor desktop setup.

Types of monitors

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.

Even though CRT monitors are obsolete, the second-hand market is rife with this outdated technology.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.

  • 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.

Size, ratio and resolution

These are the three key points you want to consider when shopping for a monitor. 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. Just don't forget that as they get bigger, they get heavier.

CRT monitors used the 4:3 aspect ratio for years but, like TV, have abandoned it in favour of 16:9 widescreen. A few manufacturers are releasing ultra wide 21:9 monitors, which are useful for working with multiple programs or windows at the same time without having to buy a second screen, working with long images documents such as spreadsheets, or widescreen video games.

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. Most modern monitors are capable of displaying an HD 720 picture. 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.

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

4K technology is new to the monitor market, and while it can theoretically produce a higher quality image, you'll need to find 4K optimised content. The problem is that right now there isn't a whole lot out there. On top of this, you'll need recently released mid- to high-end hardware to display content at 4K, which can increase the overall cost of an upgrade.

Other features

  • 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. Make sure the connections match the outputs on your laptop or desktop. 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 you'll need to buy an HDMI, DisplayPort or dual like DVI cable.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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, but the average eye is unlikely to notice the difference between 1ms and 5ms.
  • 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.
  • Ergonomics: 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.
  • 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. Note the button placement too, and whether they're easy to access.
  • 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' which covers pixels that are permanently on or off.
  • 3D: For the average user, a 3D monitor may not be a worthwhile investment for two reasons. 1) Poor industry uptake: Most games still treat 3D as an afterthought, with few titles utilising the technology to create a truly immersive experience. 2) Additional costs: When you're viewing 3D, 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.

So where do you fit in?

Once you've got your head around the technical terms, you need to work out which monitor will suit your daily needs. Most people will fit into one of these three broad categories which can help point you in the right direction.

  • 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.

How to check image quality

The last thing you need to do before laying down your hard earned cash, is to check the image quality. These steps will help you separate the quality monitors from the shoddy screens:

  • 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.