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Even though CRT monitors are obsolete, the second-hand market is rife with this outdated technology.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. Since then, Philips has launched IPS-ADS (Advanced Super Dimension) technology, while a few other companies including AOC, sell AH-IPS, which stands for "advanced high performance". There's little evidence to suggest that these variations are as much of an improvement as they claim to be.
- 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 curved, and 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).
Also, marketing terminology doesn't always match what's on screen. 4K, for example, is used by many monitor manufacturers to sell ultra-high definition (UHD) which is technically 3840 x 2160, not the 4000 horizontal pixels one would assume. Because of this, you'll often see UHD monitors sold as "4K UHD". This is considered acceptable practice as terms typically refer to the approximate number of pixels, rather than the exact amount. See the chart below for a full list of resolutions and codenames/marketing terms.
Resolutions and codenames
Ultra-high resolution screens are favoured by designers, photographers, animators and so on, as the increased-detail can make intricate work easier compared to HD. 4K also claims to have a much wider range of colour reproduction. But there's no practical way to verify this, unless you want to try to count thousands of shades of red.
A 4K screen also gives you the freedom to watch UHD video and play UHD-supported games, and offers extra screen real estate (more space on the screen to view multiple programs at once). And while 4K and 5K resolution monitors can theoretically produce a higher quality image, you'll need to find optimised content. You'll need recently released mid- to high-end hardware to display content at these resolutions, which can increase the overall cost of an upgrade.
The downside is that older programs and standard- and high-definition video can look average or worse in 4K. However, you can adjust the system magnification and resolution to compensate for this. Also, having 4K UHD capability doesn't guarantee quality. A poorly made monitor is a poorly made monitor, regardless of its resolution.
- Screen finish: There are two types of screen finish – gloss and matte. These affect picture quality in different ways. Gloss typically presents a vivid image with greater contrast, but the reflective coating makes these screens difficult to use in bright light. Matte screens combat this with anti-glare coating, but usually at the expense of vibrancy.
- 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.
- Pixel policy: Some monitors have dead pixels on arrival. This can be a bright or black spot on the screen. Most companies have a pixel policy that defines the acceptable number of dead pixels that can be present before you can request a warranty replacement.
- 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.
- Webcam: Some models include an inbuilt webcam, which saves you from having to connect an external camera to your computer if you want to take photos, record video or use web-based video chat services such as Skype. This feature appears to to have been largely discontinued, based on what we found in our 2017 large computer monitor reviews.
- 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.
- 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. You're unlikely to find more than a handful of 3D capable monitors.
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.
A fourth category has emerged, thanks in part to bigger screen sizes:
- The TV substitute. A large monitor can be a decent alternative for a TV in small apartments, bedrooms or university dorms, for example. Most have multiple HDMI inputs and audio out, so you can connect various devices and external speakers.
Just 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.