If you’re like us, you spend a lot time staring at your PC monitor—so, shouldn’t it be a good one? Join us as we decode the specs and cut through the jargon to help you find the best possible monitor for your needs.
Connection Type: Can It Hook Up to Your PC?
The first question you should always ask yourself when buying a monitor: can it even connect to your computer? You’ll need to check the output on your computer and see what kinds of ports are available (if you have a dedicated video card, you’ll want to look at those outputs). Then, make sure your monitor features the same type of ports—if it doesn’t, you’ll need some sort of adapter or special cable.
Here are the different types of ports you’ll see.
Video Graphics Array (VGA): Old and Out of Date
VGA is the oldest video-out standard still available on new computers, mostly on cheaper systems and business-class laptops (to make sure they can connect to older projection systems). The small, trapezoidal connection usually comes with a screw-down plug colored blue. VGA carries only a video signal—not audio.
VGA has a lot of limitations compared with the other connection types available. It operates on an analog standard, so there’s no technical limit to its resolution or refresh rate, but it’s practically limited by the electrical power and length of the cable itself. Generally, VGA connections are only recommended for displays lower than the standard 1080p resolution, which rules out most new monitors on the market today. To put it bluntly: you probably don’t want to use this.
Digital Visual Interface (DVI): Old, But Still Usable
DVI is the digital successor to the analog VGA standard. While it’s also quite old now, it’s still commonly used on monitors, desktop motherboards, and discrete graphics cards, though its relatively large size and screw-down connection means it’s not popular on laptops. Dual-link DVI connections and cables support resolutions up to 2560×1600 at 60 hertz. That’s enough for most small and mid-sized modern monitors. DVI also carries only a video signal.
High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI): Extremely Common and Convenient
If you have a flat screen television, odds are pretty good that you’re already familiar with HDMI ports and cables. HDMI is a digital standard that carries both audio and video—that means if your monitor includes built-in speakers or a headphone jack, there’s no need for a separate audio connection. Between its handy video-plus-audio capability and its ubiquity across televisions and monitors, HDMI is probably the most popular video connection standard on the market.
HDMI ports and cables come with different capabilities based on when they were released. The original standard (1.0) could handle only a maximum of 1920×1200 resolution at 60 hertz, but the latest revision (2.1) can send a massive 10,000-pixel-wide picture at 120Hz. If you’re looking for a monitor with a high resolution or refresh rate, an HDMI connection with the latest revision is an excellent choice.
DisplayPort: Lots of Features for PC Users
A newer monitor with all-digital connections. Left to right: HDMI, HDMI, DisplayPort, Mini-DisplayPort, DisplayPort.
DisplayPort is one of the most advanced connections available to modern PCs. Like HDMI, the standard is constantly updated, and it can handle both video and audio on a single cable. But as a connection designed specifically for computers, it includes other capabilities as well. For example, some DisplayPort-enabled monitors can be connected to each other in a “daisy chain,” allowing two or more displays to be connected to a PC with just a single cable going from the last monitor to the computer.
DisplayPort version 1.4 supports 4K resolutions at up to 240 hertz—a huge plus for gamers—or 8K at up to 60 hertz. The trapezoidal connection is standard on most discrete graphics cards and some laptops, but some space-saving designs use the smaller Mini DisplayPort connection.
USB-C and Thunderbolt 3: New, But Not Ubiquitous Yet
Newer laptops using the USB-C connection standard (a reversible oval rather than the rectangle connection of USB-A) can also send video and audio through the connection using an interface called Thunderbolt. The third revision of Thunderbolt uses the USB-C plug instead of a proprietary connection. This is extremely useful, since it’s possible to charge a laptop, connect it with devices like phones, and output media to an external screen, all using the same connection.
However, Thunderbolt 3-compatible monitors are still rather rare at the time of writing, and only the most compact and “stylish” laptops omit 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 a Thunderbolt video-out option. Even then, it’s possible (and quite common) to use an adapter cable.
Multiple Connections and Adapters
Even cheap monitors tend to come with at least two different options for video connections. Mid-range and high-end ones will have more—for example, my Dell monitors support DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort connections. Take a look at the specs of any monitor you’re considering to see your full range of options. Even if the monitor you want doesn’t have the exact flavor of connection you’re looking for, most digital connections can be adapted to each other with adapter cables. These are generally reliable, though they do default to the specifications of whichever connection is older or less complex.
Screen Size: How Big Is It?
Screen size 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, and so on.
- If you do a lot of work on your PC, you might find 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.
- Note that some monitors may be simply too big to use comfortably on your desk. Anything above 34 inches is generally too big for standard PC viewing distances.
With these guidelines in mind, pick a size (measured in diagonal inches) that works for you.
Aspect Ratio: What Shape Is It?
The aspect ratio of a monitor is the ratio of the width of the screen panel to its height. Most monitors sold today use 16:9, the same aspect ratio as televisions, to make for ideal full screen video viewing. 16:10 is a little taller, especially for “professional” or graphics models, though it can be a bit harder to find. Older “square” aspect ratios, like 4:3 and 5:4, are rarely seen in modern monitors.
16:9 is probably ideal for most users, but a new category of ultrawide monitors is also gaining in popularity. These ultrawide monitors are designed for multitasking with multiple program windows or a providing a super-widescreen field of view for gaming. These monitors use a stretched aspect ratio of 21:9 or greater, and tend to be much more expensive than their conventional counterparts.
Screen Resolution: How Sharp Is the Picture?
Now that we’re out of the age of the cathode ray tube (CRT), every modern display creates its image with grids of pixels. The resolution of a monitor refers to its total number of pixels, expressed as a number value of Horizontal by Vertical. So a standard resolution size, 1920×1080, actually includes over two million individual pixels in the display.
Generally speaking, higher resolutions are better. Even cheap monitors these days have at least 1920×1080 resolution, the standard format known as “1080p.” That particular resolution is shared with most standard LCD televisions, many phones and tablets, and a wide variety of other technologies, like the streaming resolution of most web video and Blu-ray discs.
But there are bigger, better options out there, as well. You generally want as much resolution as you can afford and fit in your monitor.
- 1280×800, 1440×900, 1600×900, 1680×1050 are older resolution standards that are only found on very small, cheap monitors.
- 1920×1080 or “1080p,” is the standard monitor resolution, available at almost any size. This is a standard 16:9 aspect ratio, making it the same shape as the TV in your living room. This is also sometimes called “Full HD.”
- 1920×1200 is slightly taller than 1080p, and popular with business and graphics-oriented monitors.
- 2560×1440 is a higher-res 16:9 option, sometimes called “2K.”
- 2560×1600 is a 16:10 variant of the 2560×1440 resolution.
- 3840×2160 is “4K” resolution, so called because it’s four times as sharp as 1080p.
You will also see other resolutions out there for super-premium “5K” and “8K” displays, as well as ultrawide monitor designs primarily used for gaming and media watching.
A monitor generally looks its best when displaying an image at the same resolution as its panel, also known as its “native” resolution. Configuring your PC to show it at a lower resolution, especially if the aspect ratio doesn’t match, results in a blurry or distorted image.
There are some situations in which a super-high resolution display may not be ideal. Farsighted users (or those of us who have trouble 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.
Panel Type: How Are the Colors and Viewing Angles?
Modern LCD panels can be split into two primary design types: twisted nematic (TN) or in-plane switching (IPS). The differences between these are highly technical, but all you really need to know is that LCD-TN panels are cheaper to produce and are therefore found in less expensive monitors, while LCD-IPS panels have a better color 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 newer design aims to combine the fast response time of TN with the higher-quality colors and viewing angles of IPS.
OLED panels are becoming more and more popular in phones and televisions. Their incredible contrast and bright colors are appealing, but these panels have been very slow 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 Motion?
A monitor’s refresh rate describes how often it refreshes the image on the screen, expressed in hertz. The standard for LCDs is 60 hertz. Most users don’t need a monitor with more than this value.
Gamers, however, often prefer faster refresh rates, which allow for smoother, more dynamic animation and motion in games (if the PC is powerful enough to push the frame rate higher). Gaming-branded displays can go up to 120, 144, or even 240 hertz.
Some of these higher-end gaming monitors even have feature a technology knows as variable refresh rate. They are designed so that the monitor refreshes at the same frame rate output by your system (and whatever game you’re playing). So, for example, if your game is rendering at 50 frames per second, the monitor refreshes at 50 frames per second. If the game jumps to a different rendering speed, the monitor instantly matches it. This feature is dependent on your graphics card, and there are two different standards for the two major graphics card manufactures: NVIDIA’s is named G-sync and AMD’s is named Freesync. Look for a monitor that supports whichever type of card you use.
Brightness: How Much Light Can It Put Out?
Monitor brightness is usually not something that most of us need to concern ourselves with. Brightness is measured in units of candela per square meter (cd/m22), more commonly known as “nits.”
A rating greater than 200 nits should be good enough for nearly anybody. Brighter monitors—at 300 nits or greater—allow for better display of color and better contrast ratios. Graphics professionals (designers, photographers, etc) and gamers may prefer a brighter monitor for richer and more accurate colors.
Contrast Ratio: Blacker Blacks and Whiter Whites
Contrast Ratio is the difference between the luminance of 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 the differences in color and value a monitor can display.
Contrast ratio is a difficult specification to quantify. It is very important for judging a good display. The problem is that there’s no real industry standard for contrast ratios, so most manufacturers use their own in-house techniques for making the measurement. One manufacturer might claim a 30,000:1 ratio and another a 600,000:1 ratio, but when their monitors are placed side by side, you might not even notice the difference.
Many pros recommend a minimum Contrast Ratio of 350:1 (and we generally agree), although with current LCD technology, you’re actually unlikely to see ratios that small. Our best recommendation is to buy according to your needs and budget, and to check out what other people have to say about the monitor you’re thinking of buying.
Some monitors also have advanced tech to boost contrast ratios: these are sometimes called “Dynamic Contrast Ratio” or “Advanced Contrast Ratio.”
Colors: How Many Can It Display?
Any monitor worth its salt displays the full 16.7 million colors (24-bit) possible from an RGB color space. 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.
If you’re looking to buy a new monitor, this is a value you don’t really need to worry about. Pretty much all modern monitors are 24-bit color capable.
Viewing Angle: Does the Picture Distort from the Side?
Viewing angle refers to how far to the side of the monitor you can get before the image is distorted. 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.
Really, this is a value that is much more important on TVs, where you often have multiple viewers sitting at different locations around the room. Monitors are most often used by one person sitting directly in front.
Still, if you use also use your monitor to watch shows with other people, or maybe you’re a graphics professional who needs to accommodate groups of people viewing the monitor, you might want to take the viewing angle into consideration. Otherwise, most people will be happy with viewing angles of 140 degrees and up.
Response Time: Is There Any Motion Blur?
It takes a finite amount of time for the pixels in a monitor to change from color to color, and the lag between those changes is called the “response time.” This is measured in milliseconds (ms) and the smaller the number, the better the response time.
A fast response time can make for improved video quality, but for most people (even graphic professionals), it’s not a vital specification.
Faster response times are, however, critical to the performance of PC games, as slower response times can cause motion blur. Gamers should demand a quick response time (under 8ms and the lower the better) to ensure that their monitor isn’t subtlety affecting their performance in fast-paced games.
Other Features to Look For
Other features to consider in a monitor purchase include:
- USB hub: a built-in set of USB ports that let you plug in devices when your computer is out of reach. Very handy for mice, keyboards, and flash drives.
- Curved screen: a slight curve to the LCD panel. Some prefer it for stylistic or viewing angle reasons, but it’s not an essential feature.
- Adjustable stand: premium monitors allow the height of the display to be adjusted. Some can even rotate the display for a portrait display.
- VESA compatibility: a standard mounting bracket. It’s essential if you want to use a double- or triple-monitor stand, or mount your monitor to the wall. Some cheap or ultra-thin models do not have VESA mounts.
- Daisy chain: the ability to string multiple monitors together with a single connection to a PC.
- Integrated speakers or cameras: speakers or webcams built into the display. Some business monitors offer add-on speaker bars as well.
- Picture-in-picture and multiple inputs: some high-end business monitors can display inputs from multiple computers at a time.
While these aren’t quite as important overall as some of the other specifications we’ve covered, they could be quite important to you.
Obviously, there’s no single monitor that has an ideal combination of the features above (at least, not at anywhere near a reasonable price). Take a good look at the specifications of all the monitors you’re considering, weighed against their price and reviews. If at all possible, see if you can view the monitor in person at a local electronics retailer.
Also, be sure you understand the return policy and period when you finally make the call to buy, since you’ll often find that monitors look different in your home than they do when sitting on a store display.
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