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Hardware Upgrade: The HTG Guide to Picking the Right PC Monitor

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You spend all of the time you’re on the PC staring at that monitor—shouldn’t it be a good one? Today, we’ll decode the specs and monitor jargon to help you find the best possible LCD screen for your needs.

If you’ve ever been to an appliance store, you might have been intimidated by how much you need to know to buy the right monitor. In plain English, with simple bulleted points are some of the most important specs and information that most HTG readers will need to know before putting money down on that expensive new monitor. Have a lot of experience with displays and monitors? Let us hear your experience in the comments, or simply read on, and enjoy.

(Author’s Note: CRT monitors are all but extinct in today’s monitor marketplace, so we’ll be more or less omitting them from this article, focusing mostly on LCD monitors. If you’re a die hard CRT monitor fan, tell us your reasons in the comments.)

Types of Connections

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A standard DVI monitor cable A standard VGA D-Sub monitor cable

The first question you should always ask yourself when buying a monitor is what type of connection is supported, including by the monitor, and by your video output. This can mean either on your video card or on your motherboard, depending on which output you’re using. Here’s a brief rundown of the two listed above, which are the two most common for monitors.

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A DVI output A VGA output
  • DVI is  a digital output for PC monitors, and is a standard for modern video cards. If your PC or video card is newer, it most likely supports DVI. Televisions are also easy to port to DVI video cards, as DVI and HDMI are essentially the same information, and can easily be used in place of each other by using cheap converters on the cables.
  • VGA connectors are no longer the standard, but if your PC is older, you might not even be able to install a video card that supports DVI. (Some newer laptops only support VGA for secondary screens.) If your PC will only accept a VGA monitor, you’ll be locked out of buying the better, more modern monitors. In fact, you might be forced to buy a new monitor off of eBay.

Screen Size

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This is a personal choice, and is one of the major contributors to the cost of a PC monitor. While you know your needs better than we do, we can suggest a few guidelines.

  • Larger monitors are better if you’re using them for graphics related purposes: watching or editing video, graphics intensive video games, photography, etc.
  • If you do a lot of work on your PC, it’s been shown that larger (and multiple) displays can make people more productive.
  • If you don’t use the PC intensely for any of these purposes, you may not need a large display.
  • And even if you want a large display, there’s a point where display sizes can get to be a little ridiculous.

Native (or Recommended) Resolution

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Modern LCD monitors create images out of points of light called pixels. This model is slightly different than older style analog CRT monitors, which could easily use lots of different resolutions without loss of quality. LCDs have these pixels at fixed points, and these fixed pixels make up the native resolution of the display. If your monitor has a native or recommended resolution, it means that that resolution is in a 1:1 ratio with the actual number of pixels the monitor can display. With other resolutions, the computer will be redrawing the images on screen (with visible loss of quality) by using a process called interpolation.

  • Pick a monitor with a high native or recommended resolution.
  • Make sure you use that resolution for the best possible video quality.
  • Farsighted users (or those of us with trouble for reading small text) may prefer displays with smaller native resolutions, although there are settings in most modern operating systems to accommodate for illegible small text.

Brightness

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Monitor brightness is usually not something that ordinary users will have to concern themselves with. Brightness is measured in units of candela per square meter.

  • A rating greater than 200 cd/m2 should be good enough for nearly all users.
  • Brighter monitors allow for better display of color, and for better contrast ratios. Graphics professionals (designers, photographers, etc) may prefer a brighter monitor.

Contrast Ratio

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Contrast Ratio is the difference between the brightest white and the darkest dark a display can produce. This is important to a display, because the greater the contrast in these two extremes, the more subtle differences in color and value a monitor can display. This is one of the best references you have to understanding the quality of your display. Newegg.com recommends a Contrast Ratio of 350:1 or better, although with current LCD technology, there’s not much reason to settle for less than 1000:1. Many monitors sell at reasonable rates, even with ratios of 10,000,000:1. Buy according to your needs and to fit your budget, as not every user needs an extremely high contrast PC monitor.

  • Ratios higher than 350:1 are preferable, with many modern PC monitors selling at reasonable prices with a 1000:1 contrast ratio.
  • Some monitors have advanced tech to boost contrast ratios: these are sometimes called “Dynamic Contrast Ratio” or “Advanced Contrast Ratio.”

Colors Displayed

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Any monitor worth its salt will display a full 16.7 million colors (24 bit) possible from an RGB colorspace. Some older VGA monitors may not  display all of these, and will only work in color modes lower than 24 bit. Simply put, don’t use these if you can help it.

  • Most users buying newer monitors won’t have to worry about colors, and DVI monitors are most likely to be 24 bit color capable.

Viewing Angles

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Viewing angle refers to the image distortion that happens when an LCD monitor is viewed from the side, or from a non-ideal angle, distorting and ruining the picture. In a perfect world, an LCD viewing angle would be 180 degrees, meaning that you can view the screen at any point, as long as you’re looking at it from the front. As it stands, many LCD monitors have viewing angles as high as 170 degrees.

  • Most users will be happy with viewing angles of 140 degrees and up, and will be the only ones using the monitor.
  • Graphics professionals (photographers, graphic designers, etc) may need greater viewing angles to allow groups of people to look at a monitor.
  • Monitors used for movie viewing will also need wider viewing angles to accommodate groups of viewers.

Response Time

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It takes a finite amount of time for the pixels in a monitor to change from color to color, and the lag between changes is called the “response time.” This is measured in milliseconds (ms) and the smaller the number, the better the response time. Response time is not important for graphics professionals, but a slow response time could possibly affect video quality, and can be critical to the performance of PC games. PC gamers should demand a quick response time to ensure that their monitor isn’t subtlety affecting their performance in a fast paced action game.

  • PC Gamers (and console gamers too!) should look for an 8ms or faster response time from a monitor or television.

Aspect Ratio

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Two of the most common monitor aspect ratios are 4:3 5:4 (Edit: 4:3 is more common than 5:4) and 16:9. These are the older “standard” aspect ratio, and the newer, widescreen aspect. The current trend is toward widescreen monitors, and given the way screen space is used in most ordinary tasks, wider monitors may simply be easier to use.

  • Users watching lots of movies may find that widescreen monitors are better suited to their needs.
  • Widescreen monitors are the new standard, although they are far from the only game in town.

Picture Quality, and Brand Loyalty

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So what remains to be said about picture quality, and about which brands perform better? Ask ten friends for recommendations for any hardware, and you’ll usually get ten different recommendations. Brands are not terribly important in terms of video quality, although the manufacturing processes of some companies may affect the length of life of the product. We won’t comment on that, but in order to determine if your monitor has good picture quality, do the following:

  • Look at the specific specs of the monitor (the ones listed above) and pick out the best one for your needs. All of these specs should give you an idea of how the monitor should perform.
  • If at all possible, look at the actual picture quality in person, and see if you like it. The best monitor on paper could disappoint you if you don’t like it.

Feel like we’ve missed anything you look for in a monitor? Tell us about it in the comments. Otherwise, direct all of your graphics related questions to ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com.

Image Credits: Dual Monitors by Blue Gazelle, available under Creative Commons. Ergo Issues by FngKestrel, available under Creative Commons. Bandrik by mjancatis, available under Creative Commons. #FFFFFF by Andreas Blixt, available under Creative Commons. Color Calibration by John Brian Siverio, available under Creative Commons. David Leatherwood, Mike Lombardi of Apache Stone by Alain Christian, available under Creative Commons. Limited Viewing Angle by C_Dave, available under Creative Commons. Intel Asia PC Gaming Showdown by Nick Knupffer, available under Creative Commons. Dell Widescreen vs Dell LCD Monitor by Cheon Fon Liew, available under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 10/17/11

Comments (38)

  1. Hatryst

    Very informative. I was looking for the answer to “What’s the difference between VGA, DVI, and HDMI picture quality, and which one is generally preferred (If I’m on a budget)?”…

  2. rob

    ha! i went to buy a monitor this morning and came back empty-handed because i was confused by all of the different specs and prices. this is exactly what i needed to read – thanks 10,000,000:1 !!

  3. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Hatryst: Matthew Guay wrote about the difference in DVI and HDMI about a year ago. The only difference I’m seeing is that HDMI supports more colors, although IMHO if your video card is DVI, using an HDMI cable and a converter isn’t going to improve that for you.

    Also IMHO DVI > VGA, or at least that seems to be the current trend. VGA is analog, while DVI is Digital. I think that the digital video makes the images more precise and clean compared to analog.

    You’re just as likely to find either one in an inexpensive monitor. I recommend using DVI or HDMI whenever possible.

  4. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Rob: Great! Glad to help!

  5. Jonathan

    One reason for having CRTs: Superb colour reproduction. Colours are always perfect (assuming a correctly calibrated monitor) and you get none of the colour banding that you get with LCDs.

    On that note however, I still wouldn’t give up my Dell Ultrasharp U2311H for a CRT… ^.^

  6. Midnight

    My very first flat panel PC monitor was a Samsung and my current 24″ monitor is a Samsung Syncmaster.
    Everything else is second class and as for Acer, pictured in the article, their products are Total garbage, bar none!

    Here’s my thoughts on Monitors.
    1) Samsung. The best of the best. Just like their TVs and screens used on Apple products.
    2) LG. Great resolution, fast response time and excellent viewing.
    3) HP. They do not make their own monitors and based on the good quality, I would guess that either
    Samsung or LG make them.
    4) Asus. Very nice monitors. Great resolution and top quality.
    5) Acer. Crap! Just like their Laptops and Desktops. Substandard components! Same as DELL!

  7. x3geek

    LOL at the acer laptop screen in “Colors displayed”

  8. the_r

    I’ve got 24″ Eizo screen. Price was abysmal (well, to a typical user at least – about 1100$) and it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles modern screens get, but in terms of image quality and build quality – superb. Best money I spent EVER.

  9. hotnikkelz

    contrast ratio is a marketing term, and is useless in deciding what monitor you should buy. The article also neglects one of the most important components to make your decision, and that is the LCD panel type i.e Twisted Nematic (TN), iPS (in plane switching), Pattern vertical alignment (PVA). These will determine your quality, contrast, viewing angle, response etc.

  10. BenRitter

    You left out a major area of concern: Input delay.

    First note that input delay is NOT response time. Whereas response time is how long a pixel takes to completely change color, input delay is time time it takes the image to leave the computer and appear before your eyes. You may have unintentionally misled your readers into thinking lower response time is better for gaming – this is only partially true. Many monitors will “overdrive” the panel to reduce response time, holding some frames from being shown just long enough to calculate how much to charge the pixels to avoid “ghosting.” An average user and movie watcher will not notice this added delay. An artist or a gamer will notice it as a laggy mouse or tablet pen. Combine one of these overdriven panels with a wireless mouse and feel like you’re swimming. Plug in Rock Band or DDR and you’ve got a big problem.

    If you share these concerns, you will want to be sure overdrive (sometimes called “AMA” as well) can be turned off in the monitor’s settings before you buy.

  11. kelltic

    I was glad to find this article and it proved to be informative. (They always are. Great website!) I do have concerns that weren’t delved into deeply.

    My monitors (I use two) are Samsung LCDs, 19″, 1024 x 768 resolution. I call them the twins. They are perfect, but they won’t last forever. I’m always on the look-out for monitors. However, as you mentioned, everything these days, is wide-screen.

    I use my computer for work. Lots of text. The more of it I can see at once, the better – and I despise ClearType tuning. Whenever I have to work with my wide screen laptop, my eyes are in distress within minutes. What to do? I begin to feel like both hardware and software developers are forgetting those of us who still use our computers (desktops and laptops) for things other than pictures, video, email, and games. I hoped your article would address the text issue. But, maybe there just isn’t much to say. ?

  12. BenRitter

    A note on brands: they don’t matter much. I should know. I sold them for a time before becoming a professional artist and avid music/fps gamer. What DOES matter is what panel is used.

    A respectable website will list the panel type. TN are common because they are inexpensive and you can achieve very low response time through overdrive – both good marketing things. IPS panels are /slightly/ more expensive, but they offer superior colors, viewing angles, and low input delay.

    I own a BenQ with an IPS panel for this very reason. I NEED the low input delay and color reproduction for everything I do. BenQ are expensive, but that’s not the end of it all. Both for monitors and televisions, the cheaper you can buy the better. If you can only afford a TN, seek the lower priced models as they often leave out all the fancy features that cause input delay. LG are good for this reason, as are many licensed off-brands.

    The more expensive models /will/ look amazing, but good luck playing games on them reliably. I tested one Samsung television in 2010 against some nameless Apex television. You could tell the Samsung was smoother and had deeper blacks than the Apex – good for movies – but it rang in at an insane 160ms delay (a level at which Halo is unplayable). It had a “game mode” that tested at 90ms (at which point Rock Band is unplayable). The Apex was 25ms, comparable to an old CRT. The Apex was also $800 less expensive. I bought the Apex, haven’t looked back.

  13. BenRitter

    kelltic,

    You’re not the only one calling out for text readability. As we are unlikely to see a change in display technology for a good while, software developers have been addressing things the best they can. control-plus and control-minus are almost universal keyboard shortcuts to enlarge and reduce screen text on the fly. Windows 7 can dock windows to the sides of your screen by dragging them there, helping you with windows that are too wide to read from comfortably. Cleartype is honestly pretty up to par with CRT display, though you really do have to be at the monitor’s native resolution (cleartype is a pixel-level anti-aliasing of text). You may also consider upping the DPI of the operating system, as this will enlarge everything you see without compromising the pixel density. Running at a lower resolution than the native forces the monitor to blend an image that’s already trying to blend between parts of pixels.

  14. MichaelTunnell.com

    @hotnikkelz you are right about the Panel Type comment and very odd that it was ignored in this article. However, your statement about Contrast Ratio is only partially true. Yes, Contrast Ratio is used as a marketing tool but they are ALWAYS talking about the Dynamic Contrast Ratio but tend to refer to it without the word “Dynamic”.

    When looking at monitor specs you will see both Contrast Ratio and Dynamic Contrast Ratio…the Dynamic spec is the garbage spec that means absolutely nothing…the regular Contrast Ratio has merit and can be used to determine which to buy however should NEVER be the key selling point when you decide.

  15. James

    One point that has often puzzled me is the ‘fad’ for glossy screens, whereas several years ago most screens were dull or matt. Whilst acknowleging that the gloss screen will theoretically deliver slightly sharper resolution, they are just about as bad for the eyes as possible. Unless the monitor is facing a very dull room, there will be reflections. Such reflections are in violation of display screen regulations here in the UK. At work, we would never permit such displays to be used.
    I would always try to buy a matt screen, even if other parameters were slightly poorer.

    Gloss screen = eyestrain, pure and simple. WHY are these things made!

  16. rg

    The aspect ratio quoted is wrong . 4:3 , not 5:4 is the normal old fashioned aspect ratio!

  17. studio_p

    . Though I use LCD monitors for general viewing I use a CRT for retouching and printing I find that what I see on the CRT is what I see when printed.

  18. ExWEIMan

    What annoys me the most with wide screens is the new MS Office Toolbars. They use up too much screen real estate. Wide screens may be good for movies or games but for office applications they are a very poor second to the traditional aspect ratio.

  19. Eric Z Goodnight

    @rg: Updated. Don’t know where I got that information. 640 x 480 reduces to 4:3, and not 5:4.

  20. Chappers

    http://www.tftcentral.co.uk/ was the most useful site I found when I was looking for a new monitor recently: they do a very thorough analysis of everything you ever need to know.

    I ended up with http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B004GV9ADW , because I wanted an IPS screen that was >=1080p and a decent price. The only gripe I have is that the brightness hasn’t got a low enough setting for it to be pleasant to use at night. The viewing angle is very nice, especially after a TN screen.

    http://www.lagom.nl/lcd-test/ is a decent way to check your calibration, although it’s obviously not a patch on using one of those pieces of expensive calibration hardware. The most interesting page to me was the viewing angle one: my Macbook Air’s screen was very disappointing, especially on the purple.

    As with most computer hardware, the sheer amount of variables is quite daunting, and it does help to read about them beforehand. In-depth reviews like on the site I linked are a good way to start, and there’s always Wikipedia if you need to look something up in more detail. (Power supplies are far worse in this regard, since you almost need an electronics qualification to make an informed choice.)

  21. HVR

    @Midnight

    I am willing to bet that even Acer dont manufacture their own screens.

    And for the record, I have seen some pretty decent Acer panels. Not all shite.

  22. BenRitter

    @HVR

    True. You’ll find even across brands the panels may be assembled by competing names. Most of the major brand names have common sources for the panels themselves, individually determining the look and software to power it. Also, most major brands will sell their cheaper models under a different brand name for one reason or another.

  23. rohn

    I agree with Sudio_P, CRT are better for maximizing the screen resolution to be able to see much more on the screen than any size LCD.

    For the programmer, try rotating a widescreen LCD into “Portrait” mode. It’s great for being able to see much more of your document at one time. It also minimizes the pain of the phat ribbon.

    If you do have a CRT, make sure you bump up the screen refresh rate from the Windoze default of 60 khz, and play with the screen resolution.

  24. Facemelt

    While 16:10 wasn’t mentioned for an aspect ratio (I can understand why, since most manufacturers are going away for that because of the economy behind glass cutting and the amount they can yield from a 16:9 is better). I disagree with the notion that 16:9 is the standard for computers. 16:10 IMO is for desktop computing. It gives more screen real estate to where it mostly counts, the vertical. For most users, documents tend to be vertical, this makes more sense to have the screen be longer vertical. I will upgrade my Dell 2209wa IPS panel to another 16:10, hopefully with a larger resolution then 1680×1050. Thanks for the great article!

  25. Mallie

    Input…? OUTPUT!!!

  26. Kraktorus

    What about LED?

  27. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Mallie: D’OH!

  28. John

    A very useful article but you’ve forgotten a VERY important point. My old Dell laptop had a matt screen but my (relatively) new “superbrigh”t HP is shiny; this gives very annoying reflections and I regret the change.

  29. Chappers

    It is definitely annoying that 16:10 seems to be dying: I did look for one, but they were about twice the price of similar 16:9 ones. Larger resolutions than 1920 x 1080 also suffer from price hiking, although probably not many people would notice much benefit from them: I feel I have plenty of space on this 23″ 1920 x 1080, even to use the useful Aero Snap thing to have 2 windows side-by-side. There’s always those enormous, expensive Apple monitors, of course… if you can stand the shine.

    I have used dual monitors, which is normally an improvement over one larger monitor, but normally an extra VGA one plugged into a laptop, which wasn’t exactly ideal. Probably will eventually get a similar monitor to combine with this one, but I don’t really need it yet, and the desk space is more useful as physical space at present.

  30. David

    I too think this article was a little unfair to acer monitors. Just looking at the one displayed for example under the heading “Colors Displayed” it has either been deliberately adjusted to display off colour or is faulty! (Could we infer from this that the ASUS screen display may have been photoshopped to look more vivid)
    The issue now is people will leave with negative thoughts on acer based on that (One already has “LOL at the acer laptop screen”) Screen adjustment/calibration is extremely important, as I have to keep pointing out to prospective customers in the Home Cinema fraternity.

    And as to ‘Contrast Ratio’, don’t get me started! Mentioning 300:1 as a ballpark figure then going on to say there are screens with “10,000,000:1″! Come on it does not take a rocket scientist to realise there is the smell of ‘snake oil’ in the air!
    There is NO industry standard for measuring/stating contrast ratio in display screen, advertisers/promoters seem to grab these numbers out of thin air. Ask the MANUFACTURER for their figures and see what they say (Many have NONE!)

    IMHO it is better to ignore these figures completely, I doubt that you will find a bad one on sale in today’s market and instead concentrate on the specifics of the display. You will also generally find the screen with the least amount of ‘correction/boost’ circuits the better and if you have one with them…turn them off and calibrate your screen correctly!
    Just my 2 cents worth…..

  31. Fred

    Control location and method of adjustment are also important considerations. I prefer them to be on the bottom face of the bezel, clearly marked and easily accesible.

    Another consideration is monitor stability. Some have “flimsy” bases. Tilt control is also a plus.

    I agree that seeing it in person is prudent. It allows you to determine if it meets your requirements

  32. christian apicella

    I don’t understand why you would have such a lousy article on monitors. This website is for the tech/geek, extra knowledge, type information. But, this doesn’t even touch on what the new guy at the store would say. Eric, please don’t take offense, I enjoy reading your articles and find them useful. You are a positive addition to How To Geek, but this article seems casual. I don’t understand the point of writing an article when a simple google search can out class it a hundred times over.

  33. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Christian: HTG has a pretty wide audience. Some readers are very techy and very geeky, and some aren’t. We all try to write articles that will help our readers somehow, and not all of our readers are supergeeks–in fact many come here for basic computer help. Sorry this one wasn’t for you, but it was written with the specific purpose of explaining common features to help people make informed decisions. If you have questions or an idea for a “better” PC monitor article, I’d be happy to hear it, and if it sounds interesting, I’ll research and write it.

  34. Dan

    As Kraktorus asked, what about LED. Kraktorus is probably reading, and waiting. So what better LED vs LCD? Thank You

  35. JuanK.

    So is it best to have DCR on or off for my HP 2011x desktop?

  36. JuanK.

    I think someone said it’s not much of a difference between DVI and HDMI outputs? What are your thoughts? Should i replace my DVI for HDMI cables because i do want the best picture quality i can get.

  37. Aurora900

    You left out 3 different kinds of connections… HDMI, Display Port, and now Apple even has displays using thunderbolt now. While the second two aren’t really popular yet, HDMI is becoming more and more of a standard on PCs and laptops these days and I think that’s an important one to include in the article.

  38. nailesh gandhi

    Very informative and has reduced my confusion on many aspects.

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