How to Pick the Right Monitor for Your PC

By Eric Z Goodnight on October 17th, 2011

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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 Stetson-wearing wild man. During the day, he manages IT and product development for screenprinted apparel manufacturing; by night he creates geek art posters, writes JavaScript, and records weekly podcasts about comics.

  • Published 10/17/11
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