If you’re like us, you spend a lot of time staring at your PC monitor, then shouldn’t that be a good one?
Connection type: Can you connect to your PC?
The first question you should always ask yourself when buying a monitor: can it even connect to your computer? You will need to check the output on your computer and see what types of ports are available.
Video Graphics Matrix (VGA) – Old and outdated
VGA is the oldest video output standard available on new computers, mostly cheaper systems and business-class laptops (to make sure they can connect to older projection systems). You probably don’t want to use this.
An old monitor that still accepts analogue input. From left to right: HDMI, DVI, VGA.
Digital Visual Interface (DVI)
DVI is the digital successor to the analogue VGA standard. While it is also quite old now, it is still commonly used in monitors, desktop motherboards, and discrete graphics cards, although its relatively large size and bolt-on connection mean that it is not popular in laptops. Dual-link DVI cables and connections support resolutions up to 2560×1600 at 60 hertz. That’s enough for most modern small and medium-sized monitors. DVI also carries only one video signal.
High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) – Extremely Common and Convenient
If you have a flat-screen TV, chances are you’re already familiar with HDMI ports and cables. HDMI is a digital standard that carries both audio and video, which means that if your monitor includes built-in speakers or a headphone jack, there is no need for a separate audio connection. Between its convenient video plus audio capability and its ubiquity on televisions and monitors, HDMI is probably the most popular video connection standard on the market.
HDMI ports and cables come in different capacities based on when they were released. The original standard (1.0) could only handle a maximum resolution of 1920×1200 at 60 hertz, but the latest revision (2.1) can send a massive 10,000-pixel wide image at 120Hz. If you are looking for a high resolution or refresh rate monitor, an HDMI connection with the latest revision is a great option. Read more
USB-C and Thunderbolt 3: New but not yet ubiquitous
Newer laptops that use the USB-C connection standard (a reversible oval connection instead of the rectangular USB-A connection) can also send video and audio through the connection using an interface called Thunderbolt. The third revision of Thunderbolt uses the USB-C connector instead of a proprietary connection. This is extremely useful, as it is possible to charge a laptop, connect it with devices such as phones, and send media to an external display, all using the same connection.
However, monitors that support Thunderbolt 3 are still quite rare at this writing, with only the most compact and “stylish” laptops omitting a more common video connection option like DisplayPort or HDMI. Buying a monitor with a USB-C or Thunderbolt connection should only be a priority if you frequently connect a laptop with only one Thunderbolt video output option. Even then, it is possible (and quite common) to use an adapter cable.
Various connections and adapters
Even cheap monitors tend to have at least two different options for video connections. The mid and high-end ones will have more; for example, my Dell monitors support DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort connections. Take a look at the specifications of any monitor you are considering to see its full range of options. Even if the monitor you want doesn’t have the exact type of connection you’re looking for, most digital connections can be matched together with adapter cables. These are generally reliable, although, by default, they conform to the specifications of any connection that is older or less complex.
This NVIDIA 65-inch monitor may be too big.
Screen size is a personal choice and is a major contributor to the cost of a PC monitor. While you know your needs better than we do, we can suggest some guidelines:
- Larger monitors are better if you use them for graphics-related purposes – viewing or editing video, graphics-intensive video games, photography, etc.
- If you work a lot on your PC, you may find that larger (and multiple) screens can make people more productive.
- If you don’t use your PC intensively for any of these purposes, you may not need a large screen.
- Keep in mind that some monitors may be too large to use at your desk comfortably. Anything over 34 inches is generally too large for standard PC viewing distances.
With these guidelines in mind, choose a size (measured in diagonal inches) that works for you.
The aspect ratio of a monitor is the ratio of the width of the display panel to its height. Most monitors sold today use 16: 9, the same aspect ratio as televisions, to provide an ideal full-screen video display. 16:10 is a bit higher, especially for “professional” or graphics models, although it can be a bit more difficult to find. Older “square” aspect ratios are rarely seen on modern monitors, such as 4: 3 and 5: 4.
16: 9 is probably ideal for most users, but a new category of ultrawide monitors is also gaining popularity. These ultra-wide monitors are designed for multitasking with multiple program windows or providing a super-wide screen field of view for gaming. These monitors use a stretched aspect ratio of 21: 9 or higher, and they tend to be much more expensive than their conventional counterparts.
Now that we are out of the cathode ray tube era (CRT), every modern display creates its image with pixel grids. The resolution of a monitor refers to its total number of pixels, expressed as a numerical value of Horizontal times Vertical. So a standard resolution size, 1920 × 1080, actually packs more than two million individual pixels on the screen.
In general, higher resolutions are better. Even cheap monitors these days have a resolution of at least 1920 × 1080. The standard format is known as “1080p.” That particular resolution is shared with most standard LCD TVs, many phones and tablets, and a wide variety of other technologies, such as the streaming resolution of most web videos and Blu-ray discs.
But there are bigger and better options too. Usually, you want as much resolution as you can afford to fit your monitor.
- 1280 × 800, 1440 × 900, 1600 × 900, 1680 × 1050 are older resolution standards only found on very small, cheap monitors.
- 1920 × 1080 or “1080p” is the standard resolution of the monitor, available in almost any size. This is a standard 16: 9 aspect ratio, so it is the same shape as your living room TV. This is also sometimes called “Full HD”.
- 1920 × 1200 is slightly higher than 1080p and is popular with commercial and graphics-oriented monitors.
- 2560 × 1440 is a higher resolution 16: 9 option, sometimes called “2K”.
- 2560 × 1600 is a 16:10 variant of the 2560 × 1440 resolution.
- 3840 × 2160 is a “4K” resolution, so named because it is four times sharper than 1080p.
You will also see other resolutions available for super-premium “5K” and “8K” displays, as well as ultrawide monitor designs that are primarily used for gaming and media viewing.
A monitor generally looks best when it displays an image at the same resolution as its panel, also known as its “native” resolution. Setting your PC to display it at a lower resolution, especially if the aspect ratio doesn’t match, results in a blurry or distorted image.
There are some situations where a super high-resolution screen may not be ideal. Forward-thinking users (or those of us who have trouble reading small text) may prefer smaller native resolution displays, although there are settings in most modern operating systems to accommodate small, unreadable text.
Panel type: What are the colours and viewing angles like?
Modern LCD panels can be divided into two main design types: twisted nematic (TN) or in-plane switching (IPS). The differences between these are very technical, but all you need to know is that LCD-TN panels are cheaper to produce and therefore found in less expensive monitors, while LCD-IPS panels have better colour reproduction and viewing angles. However, IPS panels also tend to have a slower response time, making them less suitable for gamers.
There are also vertical alignment LCD panels (LCD-VA). This new design aims to combine the fast response time of TN with the highest quality colours and viewing angles of IPS.
OLED panels are becoming more and more popular in telephones and televisions. Their incredible contrast and bright colours are attractive, but these panels have taken a long to migrate to computer monitors. At the time of writing, the only OLED monitors on the market still cost thousands of dollars.
Refresh rate: How smooth is the movement?
The refresh rate describes how often it updates the image on the screen, expressed in hertz. The standard for LCD is 60 hertz. Most users do not need a monitor with more than this value.
Gamers, however, often prefer faster refresh rates, which allow for smoother, more dynamic animation and movement in games (if the PC is powerful enough to increase the frame rate). Gaming brand displays can go up to 120, 144 or even 240 hertz.
Some of these high-end gaming monitors even have a technology known as variable refresh rate. They are designed so that the monitor updates to the same frame rate emitted by your system (and whatever games you are playing). So, for example, if your game renders at 50 frames per second, the monitor updates at 50 frames per second. If the game jumps to a different render speed, the monitor instantly matches it. This feature depends on your graphics card, and there are two different standards for the two major graphics card manufacturers: NVIDIA is called G-sync and AMD is called Freesync. Look for a monitor that supports whatever type of card you use.
Monitor brightness is not usually something that most of us need to worry about. Brightness is measured in units of candela per square meter (cd / m2 2 ), more commonly known as “nits.”
A rating greater than 200 nits should be sufficient for almost anyone. The brightest monitors, 300 nits or higher, allow for better colour display and better contrast ratios. Graphics professionals (designers, photographers, etc.) and gamers may prefer a brighter monitor for richer and more accurate colours.
Contrast ratio: blacker blacks and whiter whites
The contrast ratio is the difference between the luminance of the brightest white and the darkest darkness that a screen can produce. This is important for a display because the higher the contrast at these two extremes, the more subtle the differences in colour and value that a monitor can display.
The contrast ratio is a difficult specification to quantify. It is very important to judge a good display. The problem is that there is no real industry standard for contrast ratios, so most manufacturers use their own in-house techniques to perform the measurement. One manufacturer may claim a 30,000: 1 ratio and a 600,000: 1 ratio, but when your monitors are placed side by side, you may not even notice the difference.
Many professionals recommend a minimum contrast ratio of 350: 1 (and we generally agree), although, with today’s LCD technology, you are unlikely to see such small ratios. Our best recommendation is to buy according to your needs and budget and check what other people say about the monitor you are thinking of buying.
Some monitors also have advanced technology to increase contrast ratios: these are sometimes called “dynamic contrast ratio” or “advanced contrast ratio.”
Colours: How many can you show?
Any monitor worth its salt displays 16.7 million full colours (24-bit) possible from an RGB colour space. Some older VGA monitors may not display all of these and will only work in lower than 24-bit colour modes. Bottom line: don’t use them if you can help it.
If you’re looking to buy a new monitor, this is a value you really don’t need to worry about. Almost all modern monitors support 24-bit colour.
Angle of view
Viewing angle refers to how far you can get to the side of the monitor before the image becomes distorted. In a perfect world, an LCD screen viewing angle would be 180 degrees, which means that you can see the screen at any point, as long as you look at it from the front. As is, many LCD monitors have viewing angles of up to 170 degrees.
Actually, this is a value that is much more important on televisions, where there are often multiple viewers sitting in different places in the room. Monitors are most often used by a person sitting directly in front.
Still, suppose you also use your monitor to watch shows with other people, or perhaps you are a graphics professional who needs to accommodate groups of people viewing the monitor. In that case, you may want to take your viewing angle into account. Otherwise, most people will be happy with viewing angles of 140 degrees or more.
Gaming brand monitors focus on fast response time.
It takes a finite amount of time for the pixels on a monitor to change from one colour to another, and the delay between those changes is called the “response time.” This is measured in milliseconds (ms), and the lower the number, the better the response time.
A fast response time can improve video quality, but it is not a vital specification for most people (even graphics professionals).
However, faster response times are critical to PC gaming performance, as slower response times can cause motion blur. Gamers should demand a fast response time (less than 8ms, and the lower, the better) to ensure that their monitor does not subtly affect their performance in fast-paced games.
Other features to look for
Other features to consider when buying a monitor include:
- USB hub – A built-in set of USB ports that allow you to connect devices when your computer is out of reach. Very useful for mice, keyboards and flash drives.
- Curved screen: a slight curve towards the LCD panel. Some prefer it for stylistic or viewing angle reasons, but it is not an essential feature.
- Adjustable Stand: Premium monitors allow you to adjust the height of the screen. Some can even rotate the screen for vertical viewing.
- VESA compatibility: a standard mounting bracket. It is essential to use a double or triple monitor stand or mount your monitor on the wall. Some cheap or ultra-slim models do not have VESA mounts.
- Daisy Chain – The ability to connect multiple monitors with a single connection to a PC.
- Built-in Speakers or Cameras – Speakers or webcams built into the display. Some commercial monitors also offer additional speaker bars.
- Picture in Picture and Multiple Inputs: Some high-end commercial monitors can display inputs from multiple computers at the same time.
While these aren’t as important overall as some of the other specs we’ve covered, they could be very important to you.
Not a single monitor has an ideal combination of the above features (at least, not at a price close to a reasonable price). Take a look at the specifications of all the monitors you are considering, comparing them to their price and reviews. If possible, see if you can see the monitor in person at a local electronics retailer.
Also, make sure you understand the return policy and the period in which you finally make the call to buy, as you will often find that monitors look different in your home than when placed in a store display.