More screen real estate generally means better productivity, but that doesn’t always mean bigger monitors are better. There’s a lot more to choosing a monitor than the screen size in inches, including what you’re using it for, your expectations, and how far away you’re sitting.
Keep in Mind How Pixel Density Affects Image Quality
Regardless of which size monitor you pick, your experience can vary dramatically based on pixel density. This is a separate measure from resolution, which measures the total number of pixels on a panel. Pixel density is closely tied to how close you need to sit to experience the monitor’s “sweet” zone. For example, a 4K 65-inch TV and a 4K 27-inch monitor have an identical resolution, but massively different use-case scenarios.
Pixel density is measured in pixels per inch (PPI) or pixels per centimeter (PPCM) and is used as a measure of how close individual pixels are together on a display. The higher this number, the harder it is to distinguish individual pixels. A display with a higher PPI is more desirable since the display will look sharp and crisp even at close viewing distances.
You can work out a monitor’s pixel density using a PPI calculator. This information isn’t always available on the manufacturer’s spec sheet, so you’ll need to work it out for yourself using the overall resolution (vertical pixels multiplied by horizontal pixels) and the size of the screen.
Higher DPI displays are suitable for use up close. For example, a 4K resolution on a 21-inch monitor will yield a high pixel density of 209.8 PPI. By comparison, the same 4K resolution on a much larger 42-inch display yields a pixel density of 104.9 PPI. This doesn’t mean that a larger display is a worse display, but that it’s intended to be used at a greater distance.
Check Your Desk Space and Sitting Distance
Keeping pixel density in mind, sitting distance can go a long way in helping decide on the ideal monitor size. If you have a deep desk and can sit further away from your monitor, a larger monitor with a lower pixel density might be a good option. But how far should you be sitting from your monitor, anyway?
A good general rule is to sit one arm’s length away from your monitor, or around 20 to 30 inches away. You should be able to read comfortably without moving your eyes too much or peering forward and straining your neck if things are too small. For considerably larger monitors (like those 42-inch and 48-inch gaming OLED displays) you’re going to want to sit much further away than arm’s length.
Ultrawide and super ultrawide monitors muddy the waters further. These monitors lack vertical resolution in favor of width. Using these types of monitors is more akin to having two regular-sized monitors side by side, albeit with no gap. You’ll need to use your judgment to make sure you can see everything comfortably based on how you use the space since you won’t be “maximizing” a single browser tab to a 21:9 (or similar) ratio.
For a traditional 16:9 or more common 16:10 monitor setup, we can apply the logic recommended by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for buying the “right-sized” TV. A field of vision between 30º and 40º is recommended for comfortable viewing, which mostly applies to watching video and may not translate perfectly to desktop use.
To calculate the ideal viewing distance by screen size, multiply the diagonal screen size by 1.6 (for 30º) or 1.2 (for 40º). So for a 15-inch laptop, the ideal distance for a 30º field of view would be 24 inches (61 cm). To calculate the ideal screen size by viewing distance, multiply your viewing distance by 0.6 (30º) or 0.84 (40º).
You should also take available desk space and desired setup into consideration. The larger your monitor, the more desk space it will take up. This isn’t necessarily only true in terms of horizontal space, but also for depth too. Larger displays require a more stable base for example LG’s OLED range has a stand that protrudes out of the back to keep it upright, while Alienware’s curved 34-inch QD-OLED takes up a fair chunk of the desk in front of it.
Dell Alienware AW3423DW
A stylish and well-built 34-inch curved display, that produces incredible colors, deep blacks, and bright HDR images.
You can help increase viewing distance and save desk space by mounting your monitor on an arm or on the wall.
Be Mindful of Your Own Expectations
Your expectations can play a large role in deciding whether your choice in monitor size works or not. Not only do you need enough desk space and distance, but you also need to factor in what you’re currently using. If you’re coming from an old 27-inch monitor that tops out at 1080p, almost anything is going to be an upgrade.
But if you use a laptop with a high DPI display, as so many do these days, then you’ll be used to a crisp and sharp Windows or macOS desktop. The benefits of a larger and more comfortable eye-height display might not sway you if your desktop looks like pixellated garbage.
That’s why it’s important to take a look at what you’re currently using and decide what you need to invest in for a similar (or better) experience. For example, a modern 16-inch MacBook Pro (2021) has a pixel density of 226 PPI, the M2 MacBook Air (2022) manages 225 PPI, and the Acer Chromebook 516 GE (2022) manages 189 PPI.
Apple is known for its beautiful “Retina” displays that pack in the pixels. The 21-inch iMac crams in a 4K display while the 24-inch iMac goes hard with a 5K display. If you want to pair a monitor with a machine like this, you’ll want to try and get somewhere close to “native” pixel density. If possible, take your laptop to a showroom and plug it in or try and compare any monitors you’re interested in with similar models to get a better idea of what you’re in for.
Think About Your Usecase
Sitting too close to a large monitor can be fatiguing and cause eyestrain, especially if you’re staring at spreadsheets, code, or web pages. This isn’t always the case for gaming, where an immersive display in a dark room can elevate the experience. This is particularly true if you’re staring at a fixed point, like when playing shooters or racing games.
OLED displays have grown in popularity among gamers over the last couple of years, with more people turning to them as do-it-all PC displays. One of the “best” choices (and our best TV picks) here is the 42-inch LG C2, which combines OLED picture quality with a 120Hz refresh rate, support for VRR, and a brighter-than-ever WOLED panel. The colors don’t pop quite like a QD-OLED does, but it’s close enough.
LG 42-Inch Class OLED evo C2
The 42-inch C2 is an affordable OLED at a perfect size for a monitor, supporting the latest variable refresh technologies for gaming, and offering all the benefits of OLED, provided you can put some distance between yourself and the display.
These 42-inch variants can now be snapped up for less than $800 and pull double duty when you want to watch movies, stream Netflix, or plug in a console. A 42-inch 16:9 would have seemed like a ridiculous choice for a monitor only a few years ago, even at 4K. But many have committed to proving it can work as long you can put enough distance between you and the display (and burn in doesn’t concern you).
The takeaway is there there’s no “right” or “wrong” answer, and that the rules about what is too big or not big enough are being torn up and rewritten all of the time. If you add up the screen real estate offered by a good multiple monitor setup, you’ll likely end up with more space than the average large gaming display or super ultrawide monitor. How you use your display is as important as the overall size.
Why not check out some of our buying guides to help guide you? We’ve covered the best overall monitors, best Mac monitors, best ultrawide monitors, best curved monitors, and best gaming monitors.
Remember, Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Better
You can use a 65-inch TV as a monitor if you want, but most of us probably shouldn’t. If you can put enough distance between you and your display though, the sky is the limit. You could project your Windows desktop onto the side of a building and as long as you’re happy and it’s usable, who cares?
Budget and available space will likely drive much of your decision, but it’s good to be aware of the other contributing factors that help dispel the idea that bigger always means better, or that larger panels provide more screen real estate.
Resolution, pixel density, and overall screen size aren’t the only important things impacting your decision. You should also consider upgrading to a monitor with a higher refresh rate for smoother motion and better gaming performance (even if your primary use is office work).
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