How to Buy an LCD Monitor

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The monitor you’re using right now probably came bundled with your desktop PC, or maybe you bought it back when 1,240 by 1,024 was considered high resolution. Since you spend a huge part of everyday looking at it, however, it pays to be picky when picking a LCD monitor. Price ranges vary widely, as do the quality of the panels. So how can you make an informed choice? That’s where we come in. We will walk you through the latest trends in the display market, as well as the specific features to look for when buying an LCD monitor.

The Basics
Regardless of what kind of monitor you’re in the market for, there are some general factors to consider:

Price: Monitor prices depend on the type, size, and features of the display. For example, the Viewsonic VA2251m-TAA and the Asus VS229H-P are no-frills models that use a 22-inch panel and cost around $160 to $180. Budget monitors usually lack niceties, such as USB ports and a height-adjustable stand, but they do use LED backlighting, require very little power, and are very bright. Performance is adequate for most entertainment purposes or for viewing business and productivity apps, but not well-suited for tasks where color and gray-scale accuracy are key. At the other end of the spectrum are your high-end models that are geared toward graphic design professionals and photographers. Models such as the Dell UltraSharp 32 Ultra HD UP3214Q use huge 30-inch-plus screens with In-Plane Switching (IPS) panel technology and can display four times the resolution of a typical Full HD (1,920-by-1,080) monitor. Moreover, they offer features such as a highly adjustable stand, USB ports, and a wealth of advanced image settings. Expect to pay $3,000 and up for a fully loaded, high-performance UHD monitor. Bottom line: Be prepared to pay for extras, but don’t overspend on features you will never use.

Size: LCD monitors generally run anywhere from 15 inches to 32 inches. The size of the panel is measured diagonally. While it’s always nice to have a big viewing area, it may not be practical, given desktop space constraints. Plus, the bigger the screen, the more you can expect to pay. Monitors like the BenQ VW2235H are popular, as they offer enough screen real estate to view multipage documents or watch movies without taking up too much room. Still, there’s nothing like watching a movie or playing a game on a large screen, so if you have room on your desktop, a 27-inch monitor, such as the AOC i2757fh , delivers a big-screen experience for a reasonable price. If you’re looking to replace a dual-monitor setup with a single display, consider a 29-inch, ultra-wide monitor, such as the Acer B296CL, with 2,560-by-1,080 resolution, a 21:9 aspect ratio. The panel is 27.1 inches wide and 11.5 inches high.

Pixel Response Rate: This is measured in milliseconds, the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white (black-to-white) or to transition from one shade of gray to another shade of gray (gray-to-gray). The faster the pixel response rate, the better the monitor is at displaying video without displaying artifacts, such as ghosting or blurring of moving images. Monitors with a fast 1-millisecond (gray-to-gray) pixel response, such as the BenQ XL2720Z are very good for gaming, but even monitors with a higher pixel response, including the Acer B276HUL (6 milliseconds, gray-to-gray), can display games without much blurring or ghosting. The fact is, most users won’t notice lag, which is the time it takes for the display to react to a command, but hardcore gamers consider this a key factor when choosing a monitor and typically seek out the fastest models available.

Resolution: This is the number of pixels a monitor can display, both horizontally and vertically. For example, a monitor with a 1,920-by-1,080 resolution can display 1,920 pixels across the width of the screen, and 1,080 pixels from top to bottom. The higher the resolution, the more information can be displayed on the screen. These days, most monitors in the 22- to 27-inch range have a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 and are referred to as full HD monitors. The Viewsonic VP2770-LED , on the other hand, is a 27-inch monitor with a 2,560-by-1,440 native resolution, also known as WQHD (Wide Quad HD). Some high-end screens, such as the Asus PQ321 and the Dell UltraSharp UP3214Q, display at resolution of 3,840 by 2,160, which is considered Ultra HD (or 4K), making them ideal for viewing highly detailed images or viewing multiple pages in a tiled or side-by-side format.

Extra Features: If you have to share a monitor with a co-worker or family members, consider a model with an ergonomic stand that lets you position the screen for your most comfortable viewing angle. The BenQ BL2710PT offers tilt, swivel, and height adjustments, and you can rotate the panel for portrait-mode viewing. If you transfer lots of data back and forth between USB devices, look for a monitor with built-in USB ports. The NEC MultiSync EA274WMi has USB ports on the back and on the side of the cabinet, making it easy to plug in thumb drives and other USB peripherals (side-mounted USB ports rule). Embedded webcams like the one used on the Dell S2340T are fun for video chats and emailing photos, but don’t expect stellar image quality, as they are typically low-resolution cameras.

Most monitors come with built-in speakers that are adequate for everyday use, but usually lack the volume and bass response that music aficionados and gamers crave. If audio output is important, look for speakers with a minimum rating of 2 watts per speaker. As a general rule, the higher the power rating, the more volume you can expect. If you want a monitor with a little extra audio pop, the HP Envy 27 with Beats Audio is a good choice. A display with a built-in card reader makes it easy to view photos and play music without having to reach under your desk to plug in a media card. Finally, glossy screens can provide very bright, crisp colors, but may also be too reflective for some users. If possible, compare a glossy screen to a matte screen before you buy to decide which works best for you.

Display Trends
Popular panel types used in desktop displays are twisted nematic (TN), Patterned Vertical Alignment (PVA), Super PVA (S-PVA), Multi-Domain Vertical Alignment (MVA), and In-Plane Switching (IPS).

Up until recently, the majority of displays used TN technology, as it is the least expensive panel to manufacture and offers superior motion-handling performance. However, affordable IPS monitors are out in force; the AOC i2757fh is a 27-inch IPS monitor that costs around $300 and offers very good color quality and wide viewing angles. MVA monitors, such as the Samsung S24C770T , also offer robust colors, but viewing-angle performance, while better than a typical TN panel, is not quite as sharp as what you get from an IPS panel.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a desktop monitor that does not deliver full HD imagery. To do this, the panel must have a native resolution of at least 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, and it must have a 16:9 aspect ratio to do it without stretching or cropping the picture. Graphic design professionals who require a high degree of image detail should be looking for a WQHD (2,560-by-1,440) or a UHD (3,840-by-2,160) monitor.

In the not too distant past, most LCD monitors used cold-cathode florescent lamp (CCFL) technology for backlighting, but nowadays LED-backlit monitors are ubiquitous, and with good reason. LEDs offer a brighter image than CCFLs, they are smaller and require less power, and they allow for extremely thin cabinet designs. CCFL displays are generally less expensive than their LED counterparts, but they are few and far between these days.

What was once a novelty aimed at the gaming crowd, 3D technology has taken the desktop monitor market by storm, thanks to the proliferation of 3D movie and gaming content, as well as 3D-ready Blu-ray players and 3D cameras. The two major technologies used today are passive 3D, which uses inexpensive polarized glasses to create depth, and active shutter 3D, which uses battery-operated glasses with lenses that turn on and off in sync with a 120Hz panel to deliver 3D imagery. Acer offers 27-inch versions of each technology; the Acer HR274 (passive) and Acer HN274H bmiiid (active).

Each type of 3D technology has its benefits and drawbacks; passive 3D doesn’t require a 120Hz panel, and the image remains bright, but it is prone to motion artifacts and doesn’t always look good from a side angle. Active 3D typically offers good side viewing and does a good job of displaying jag-free images, but it produces more crosstalk than passive technology, and the glasses are usually uncomfortable and require charging. Either way, expect to pay a bit more for a 3D-enabled monitor if you want to watch 3D movies or bring your gaming experience to the next level.

For laptop users who require dual-screen capabilities, a portable USB monitor fits the bill. These lightweight devices use your PC’s USB port for power and to receive video, usually with the help of DisplayLink software. They are ideal for small office presentations and for extending your laptop’s screen real estate, and their slim profile makes them easy to travel with. For around $140, models such as the AOC E1659Fwu let you double your viewing area while on the road.

Types of LCD Monitors
We’ve broken this guide down into five categories, all of which target different audiences: budget, business/professional, multimedia, touch-screen, and gaming displays. Prices vary within each category, depending on the panel technology used, the size of the panel, and features. We’ve also included a glossary to help you decipher some of the terms used to describe display technology.

Budget Displays: If you’re looking for a basic monitor for viewing emails, surfing the Web, and displaying office applications, there’s no reason to spend a fortune on a model with features that you’ll never use. Budget displays are usually no-frills models that eschew such niceties as USB ports, card readers, and built-in webcams. They typically use TN panel technology and are not known for their performance attributes, particularly when it comes to motion handling and gray-scale accuracy. Don’t expect much in the way of flexibility either; most budget displays are supported by a rigid stand that may provide tilt adjustability, but very rarely offer height and pivot adjustments. As with nearly all displays, costs will rise along with panel size; the ViewSonic VX2452mh uses a 24-inch TN panel and costs around $170, while the HP EliteDisplay E271i gets you into a 27-inch screen for a just under $300.

Business/Professional Displays: This category includes a wide variety of monitor types, from the Lenovo ThinkVision LT2013P , an energy-conscious “green” model for everyday office use, to the Lenovo ThinkVision LT3053p , a high-end, high-priced, 30-inch, professional-grade monitor that uses IPS technology and caters to graphics professionals who require a high degree of color and gray-scale accuracy. Business monitors will usually offer ergonomic stands that can be adjusted for maximum comfort. Very often, they will offer pivot adjustability, which lets you rotate the screen 90 degrees for viewing in Portrait mode. Look for a model, like the NEC MultiSync PA242W-BK , that has an auto-rotate feature that flips the image automatically when you change the orientation. Other business-centric features include a generous (three-year) warranty with an overnight exchange service, built-in USB ports, and an aggressive recycling program.

A fully loaded model with a high-end panel is going to cost plenty, but for photographers and other graphics pros, it is money well spent. At the other end of the price spectrum are the no-frills, energy-efficient monitors like the Dell E2014T. It may be short on features, but its low power usage can help businesses save money through reduced energy costs.

Touch-Screen Displays: With the advent of Windows 8, touch-screen displays are gaining popularity. Most touch-screen models will work with the new OS, but in order to become a certified Windows 8 monitor, certain criteria must be met. For instance, the monitor must offer a bezel-free design that does not interfere with swiping in from the side, and it must have five-point (or more) touch capabilities. You’ll pay a bit more for touch-screen technology, but if you want to take advantage of all that Windows 8 has to offer, it’s money well spent. The Acer FT200HQL is a 19.5-inch monitor featuring 10-point touch technology, dual HDMI ports, and a slick design. If you need more screen real estate, the Dell P2714T offers a massive 27-inch screen with 10-point touch capability and a stand that lets you position the panel so that it is almost parallel with your desktop.

Multimedia Displays: Multimedia displays are popular because they typically offer a nice selection of features to help you create home photo and video projects, offer decent performance, and in some cases, include digital TV tuners. A good multimedia display will usually provide a variety of connectivity options, such as HDMI, DVI, and VGA inputs, while the more robust entertainment-class models will also include component video and audio connections and a DisplayPort connection. At least two USB ports should be available, preferably mounted on the side or front of the cabinet for easy access, and the speakers should be a cut above the typical low-powered speakers found on most monitors. If audio output is a deciding factor, look for speakers rated at 2 watts or better. Other multimedia bells and whistles include a built-in multicard reader, which makes it easy to view photos and video directly from your camera’s media, and a webcam for video chats and for taking quick stills and videos that are easy to email.

Hybrid displays are multifunction devices that pull double-duty as a desktop monitor and a TV set. You’ll pay a bit more for the TV tuner, but these displays are ideal for dorm rooms, studio apartments, RVs, and other environment where space is an issue. Again, expect to pay a premium for a 3D-capable multimedia model, such as the Samsung T27A950 .

Gaming Displays: Gaming monitors, such as the BenQ XL2720Z, require fast response times in order to display moving images without producing motion errors or artifacts. Panels with slower response times may produce blurring of fast-moving images, which can be distracting during game play. On smaller panels, the flaw may not be so noticeable, but when you’re gaming on a 25-inch or larger screen, you’ll want to keep blurring to a minimum. Look for a panel with a response time of 5 milliseconds (black-to-white) or 2 milliseconds (gray-to-gray) or less. Gaming monitors should also offer a variety of digital video inputs to accommodate multiple sources, including consoles such as the Sony PS3 or Xbox, or multiple PCs.

Since audio is a big part of the immersive gaming experience, look for a model with a powerful speaker system, ideally one with a subwoofer. A headphone jack mounted on the side or the front of the cabinet is also preferable. If 3D gaming is your thing you’ll need a monitor with a 120Hz frame rate (most monitors are 60Hz) and bundles in Nvidia’s 3DVision Kit, which uses dual 60Hz images and a dual-link DVI connection to display games in 3D with the use of special stereoscopic glasses. Or check out one of the many FPR (film-type patterned retarder) models that operate at 60Hz and use passive glasses. A monitor with a USB hub to plug in several controllers is also desirable.

Whatever your needs or budget, there’s an LCD monitor out there that’s just the right fit for you. Our monitor product guide is a great place to start. And be sure to check out our lists of the best monitors and best high-resolution monitors as well.

Glossary

Active-Shutter Technology: A 3D technology that uses battery operated glasses and a 120Hz panel to deliver a 3D image.

Aspect Ratio: The ratio of height to width. Early LCD monitors and CRTs have a 4:3 aspect ratio. Some wide-screen monitors have a 16:10 aspect ratio, but most of today’s models offer a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is the format used for high-definition movies and television broadcasts.

Candelas/Square Meter: A unit of measure describing a panel’s luminous intensity.

CCFL (Cold-Cathode Florescent Lamp): The most common form of monitor backlighting used today. Not as bright as LED backlighting, but less expensive to manufacture.

Contrast Ratio: The difference between the panel’s ability to display the darkest blacks and the brightest whites.

Color Gamut: A panel’s ability to display a full field, or a range of colors. Most monitors display around 70 percent of the NTSC (National Television System Committee) gamut. Wide-gamut models can display anywhere from 80 percent to 110 percent of the NTSC gamut.

CRT (Cathode Ray Tube): Older TV and monitor technology using a vacuum tube and electron guns to display images.

DisplayLink: The technology used to send video via a USB port.

DisplayPort: Similar to HDMI, DisplayPort provides a digital interface between the monitor and a video source (PC or other external device) to transmit high-definition video and audio via a single cable.

DVI (Digital Visual Interface): An industry-standard interface used to accept digital signals from a video source.

FHD (Full High Definition): A monitor must have a maximum resolution of at least 1,920 by 1,080 to be considered a full high-definition display.

Gray Scale: Shades of gray varying in intensity from the darkest black to the whitest white. Gray-scale accuracy determines the panel’s ability to display all steps of the scale.

HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface): A widely used digital interface that sends high-definition video and audio via a single cable.

IPS (In-Plane Switching): One of three major LCD panel technologies (TN and PVA being the other two) known for its excellent color and viewing-angle characteristics. IPS panels used to be the most expensive to manufacture of the three, but the newer panels are significantly cheaper to produce and deliver very good color and viewing-angle performance.

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display): Used in everything from laptops and TV sets to digital watches, LCD panels utilize multiple sheets of glass, a liquid-crystal material, and various amounts of voltage to create an image on the screen.

LED (Light-Emitting Diode): A low-power semiconductor that lights up when voltage is applied.

MVA (Multi-Domain Vertical Alignment): A panel technology known for high contrast ratios, robust color reproduction, and relatively wide viewing-angle performance.

Passive 3D: Also known as FPR (film-type patterned retarder) technology, it delivers 3D imagery using lightweight polarized glasses.

Pixel Response: The amount of time needed for a pixel to go from black to white (black-to-white) or to transition from one shade of gray to another shade of gray (gray-to-gray). Also referred to as response time, it is measured in milliseconds.

Projected Capacitive Touch: A touch technology that uses a matrix of conductive elements under glass and low voltage to detect fingertip or stylus movement. A disruption in the flow of electricity is used to track movement.

PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment): A panel technology known for high contrast ratios, very good black levels and wide viewing angles. Sluggish pixel response compared with TN. Less expensive than IPS, but more costly than TN panels.

TN (Twisted Nematic): The most common panel technology used in desktop monitors. Relatively inexpensive to manufacture. Known for fast pixel response, but less-than-stellar viewing angles and mediocre color and gray-scale accuracy.

UHD (Ultra High Definition): Sometimes referred to as 4K displays, these monitors have a minimum resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 pixels.

WQHD (Wide Quad High Definition): A monitor with a maximum resolution of 2,560 by 1,400 pixels.

By John R. Delaney, PCMag


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