It’s the part of your computer you probably paid the least attention to buying, but rely on the most everyday. The monitor is our window to getting things done on our PC or enjoying rich, multimedia experiences like movies or gaming. Whether you’re in the market for a new desktop monitor or shopping for a new laptop, it’s important to sweat the small stuff: the display specifications. This helps ensure you get a quality monitor for your money.
It’s not just about the resolution either. Every manufacturer might advertise their monitor as some form of HD, but their products vary drastically when it comes to color reproduction, contrast and response time. These ancillary factors make a huge difference in real-world usability and eye strain. If you often read text-heavy documents, work in design or play video games, the performance of your computer screen is doubly important.
Before you buy a monitor, ask about these specifications:
The resolution is the first thing anyone looks at when they buy a monitor. It describes the number of horizontal x vertical pixels on the display. The most popular resolutions on the marketplace today are 720p HD (1366 x 768 or 1600 x 900), 1080p Full HD (1920 x 1080) and 4K Ultra HD (3740 x 2160). As you might surmise from its name, 4K Ultra HD displays contain four times the pixels of a Full HD display.
Besides watching videos more clearly, a higher resolution can help increase productivity. You can snap apps side by side for multitasking and see more lines of text on the same screen without scrolling, such as on a lengthy webpage or complex spreadsheet. The greater number of pixels relative to the size of the monitor (pixels per inch, PPI), the less “pixelated” text and graphics on the display will appear.
Monitor size is measured diagonally. Desktop monitors can range from 19″ all the way to 30″. The most popular laptop monitor sizes are 10.1″, 11″, 12″, 13.3″, 14″, 15.6″ and 17″.
Aspect ratio describes the horizontal to vertical proportions of the display. Most desktop monitors are either 4:3 (letterbox) or 16:9 (widescreen). Some laptops, such as the Surface Book or MacBook Pro have a 3:2 aspect ratio. The 3:2 ratio is popular with tablets and 2-in-1s, because it feels like a letter size piece of paper for note-taking with the stylus.
There are two competing technologies for LCD and LED monitors: Twisted Nematic (TN) and In-Plane Switching (IPS). Inexpensive displays are usually of the TN variety. The disadvantage of TN displays are their limited viewing angle, fading out when you view it too far from the left, right, top or bottom, such as when you tilt the lid of a laptop. IPS is a newer technology that eliminates this problem. High-end IPS displays can be viewed at close to a 180° angle without degradation.
Brightness for monitors is measured in nits, the higher the better. A brighter monitor is more pleasant to read, especially in the bright sun outdoors or in an office with harsh, overhead fluorescent lighting. A basic monitor might be rated at 200 nits, whereas a high-end, gaming monitor might be closer to 400 nits.
The contrast ratio describes how deep darker colors are displayed compared to brighter colors. Text (black on white background) looks especially crisp on a monitor with a high contrast ratio. With a high contrast monitor, dark movie scenes appear close to pitch black, while less expensive monitors tend to display blacks with white “backlight bleed”.
Color gamut describes how accurately a monitor can reproduce different colors on-screen. It is measured as a percentage (%) of the sRGB color space, which comprises of 16.7 million colors. Cheap monitors might only reproduce 50-55% of RGB, mid-range monitors are around 85% and professional grade monitors can hit over 100%.
Refresh rate, measured in hertz (Hz) is how quickly a monitor can change the image displayed on the screen. As you may know, motion is simulated by TVs and computer screens by showing a series of still images called frames in rapid succession. The average LCD has a refresh rate of 60Hz with high-refresh rate displays going up to 120Hz. The higher the refresh rate, the smoother motion will look, reducing eye strain and making animations look more realistic.
Early LCD displays were plagued by a problem called “ghosting”. For instance, moving a cursor too quickly would leave a faint trail behind it until the display was able to refresh itself. Nowadays, response times are in the milliseconds even with inexpensive panels, so this isn’t a huge issue anymore. A budget to mid-range monitor might have a 7-12ms response time, while high-end gaming monitors have response times as low as 1ms. Under most applications, the difference is not very perceptible.
Glossy or Matte
Like photo paper, the screen coating on a monitor can be either glossy or matte. The reflective layer makes colors appear more vivid on glossy monitors, but they suffer greatly from glare under direct sunlight. Many people prefer matte screens, especially on laptops they use when working near a direct light source, window or outdoors. However, if you are going for a touchscreen, you don’t have a choice between the two. The way the glass is bonded to the capacitive layer of a touchscreen makes all touchscreens glossy.
Curved vs Flat
Curved displays are a relatively new innovation in the monitor space. The main benefit of a curved monitor (or TV) is the aesthetic appeal. Curved monitors make you feel more immersed in the content you’re consuming with a wider field of view. Because the technology is still new, they are more expensive to manufacture and that’s evidently reflected in the price tag.
Bezel thickness describes the casing that surrounds the monitor at its edges, the thinner the better. There are bezelless monitors, so the image displayed goes from edge-to-edge with virtually no plastic or aluminum material that gets in the way. For multi-monitor setups where you put two, three or more displays side by side, bezelless monitors make the whole setup look seamless.
The interfaces a monitor supports affects the cable you need to use to attach your computer to the display. The most common interfaces are VGA, DVI, DisplayPort and HDMI. High-end monitors may support two or more of these standards. If your video card outputs with a different interface than the inputs on your monitor, you will need a converter like the StarTech Mini Display Port to HDMI adapter to make the connection.
VESA is an industry standard describing the mounting holes on the back of a monitor. If you choose a VESA compatible monitor, you can use off-the-shelf VESA stands and wall mounts, so long as the sizes (e.g. 100 x 100 mm) fit with the accessory. If you choose a monitor that is not VESA compatible, you will need to buy any mounts from the original manufacturer, if they are even available.
Build quality encompasses the overall quality of materials used in the manufacturing of the monitor. All-plastic monitors will be less expensive, while monitors that use more solid, premium materials like aluminum will cost somewhat more. An excessively light monitor can be more frustrating to use than you initially realize, since it will be easily affected by vibrations from typing on the desk.
Dead/Stuck Pixel Warranty
The LCD manufacturing process is not 100% perfect. Some panels will suffer from dead pixels (always black) or stuck pixels (always white) that taint the display especially when looking at solid-color graphics. Some manufacturers offer a 90-day or longer dead/stuck pixel warranty that guarantees you a repair or replacement if your unit is defective.
Featured image used under Creative Commons License, courtesy of Samsung