Buying a Computer Monitor (Size Matters)

Category: Hardware

A computer monitor (sometimes called the screen or display) is often kept for many years, even longer than the computer to which it was originally connected. So when it’s finally time to replace your monitor, bigger is better of course. But there are some new “rules” that that must be considered, that were perhaps unheard of when you last bought one. Read on for some of those new rules; I’ll spare you the geekspeak (and maybe save you some cash)...

Time For a New Computer Monitor?

Technology changes rapidly, but when it comes to computer screens, some rules never change. To start with, shop for a monitor in person if possible, and plan to get the biggest monitor your space and wallet permit. Yes, size matters, especially for those with older eyes. Technical specs are often meaningless compared to hands-on experience with a monitor. For example, the screen may be too reflective, or the connectors may be difficult to reach, or the adjustable stand may be difficult to adjust.

When shopping for a computer monitor, size is usually the first consideration. Personally, I would not consider a screen size less than 24 inches. Your needs, and available desktop real estate may vary. Screens in the 22 to 24 inch range are affordable (typically under $150), and will serve well for most home and office tasks (email, web browsing, composing documents, online video). If you are into photography, graphic arts, or serious gaming, you'll want a monitor that's 27 or more inches. Just remember that screen sizes are measured on the diagonal, just like televisions.

My personal preference is to go with dual monitors, and the pair of 27-inch monitors I've had on my desk the past few years has served me well. I think it makes a big difference in productivity, especially if you use the computer several hours a day. Quite often, I will have a web browser open on one screen, and a word processor, spreadsheet or graphics program on the other. See my related article Dual Monitors: 7 Good Reasons to Upgrade.

Look for “frameless” or “thin bezel” in the description when buying a pair of monitors that will sit next to each other on your desk, and you’ll better achieve the look and feel of one large screen. And don't forget you can add an extra monitor to your laptop, if you have an available video port.

Tips for buying a computer monitor

Your next consideration is screen resolution. A monitor's resolution is the number of pixels (dots) in its display matrix. You'll see terms like 720p, 1080p, HD (High Definition), FHD (Full HD), QHD (Quad HD), UHD (Ultra HD), 4K, and 8K. These all refer in some way to the number of pixels on the screen, and ultimately how crisp and clear the screen image will be. My recommendation is to avoid anything that's less than "Full HD" which is a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, equivalent to modern 1080p HDTVs. Quad HD (2560 x 1440) is a step above, and until recently, 4K or UHD was top of the line, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels. You can now find 8K monitors with 7680 x 4320 pixel resolution. But unless you’re a media professional with about $4000 to spend, cross 8K off your list.

There is a sharp price jump between 24-inch full-HD and 27-inch 4K monitors; the former should cost $150 or less, while the latter is probably in the $400 range. (Here's an HP 24-inch Full HD monitor for just $120 at Amazon, and an LG 27-inch 4K Monitor on sale for $377.) If you watch lots of movies or play sophisticated games, the bigger and costlier monitor makes sense. Or, you could put that money into a big 4K television set, and stream your PC display to it.

A curved screen may be helpful on monitors 32 inches or larger. A curved screen puts the vertical edges nearer to your eyes, reducing the amount of refocusing they must do when looking from the center of the screen to one of the edges. Curved screens also reduce the amount of head-turning you must do to view every part of the screen. And they don't have to be super-expensive. This ASUS Gaming 32-inch 1080P Curved Monitor with speaker is priced at $289.

More Monitor Buzzwords

The vast majority of consumer monitors sold today use LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) technology. Even in so-called LED (Light Emitting Diode) displays, the LED is a backlight behind the LCD panel. LED monitors are helpful when the brightness of the display is critical or room lighting is variable. The most expensive monitors may boast OLED (Organic LED) tech, in which each pixel provides its own illumination.

Another buzzword you may encounter is IPS (in-plane switching). IPS monitors offer deeper blacks and more accurate color rendering than LCD or LED monitors. They also have wider viewing angles, so the picture looks the same, even if you're not directly in front of it. This ViewSonic 27-inch IPS 1080p Frameless LED Monitor is a good example.

Along with IPS, you'll also find TN (Twisted Nematic) and VA (Vertical Alignment) LCD displays. Here's a quick, non-geeky overview of the three types: TN offers the best response times with lesser picture quality and viewing angles. IPS has the best picture quality and viewing angles, but lower reaction time. VA is exactly in the middle - it has good picture image, viewing angles and reaction time.

The ideal aspect ratio of a general-purpose monitor is 16:9, or approximately 1.77:1. That’s the native aspect ratio of most movies, so if your monitor matches it you won’t see any stretching or compression of images. If the aspect ratio is not stated explicitly, divide the horizontal display pixels by the vertical display pixels, e. g. 1,920/1,080 = 1.77.

The refresh rate of a monitor is, loosely speaking, the number of times per second that the entire display area is updated. For old-fashioned, bulky Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors, the minimum acceptable refresh rate was 60 Hz, or 60 times per second. Today’s flat-panel LCD monitors use a slightly different metric called the “frame rate,” expressed in frames (images) per second or fps. Most LCD displays are locked at 60 fps, which is adequate for comfortable, flicker-free viewing at resolutions up to 1,920 x 1,080. But 120 fps will make 4K content much more enjoyable. The trade-off is that a faster refresh rate makes hardware work harder and possibly fail sooner.

Oh, and there's also the response rate, which is measured in milliseconds. A monitor with a good response rate will clock in at 5ms or less. Some gaming displays boast a response rate of 1ms.

If you’re using your computer for email, casual web browsing and word processing, you needn’t worry about any of these specs, acronyms or buzzwords, except screen size. If you watch movies, do image editing, or graphic design on your computer, you should give them consideration.

Computers and monitors often have multiple video I/O ports. Common port types are DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI, and VGA. A new monitor’s video input port must match the video output port on your computer, of course. DisplayPort is best for high-end resolutions, but the HDMI standard is the simplest and fastest connection widely incorporated in monitors and computers today. Avoid VGA, which is an older technology. Don’t let ports you’ll never use influence your monitor purchase.

Strings, Sealing Wax, and Other Fancy Stuff

If you run Windows 10, you may want a touchscreen monitor. But don’t get one if you normally sit at full arm’s length from the screen, or further. It’s just too awkward to use a touchscreen at great distance.

The monitor stand should be adjustable to the height and viewing angle that you prefer. Pay attention to how easily the stand can be adjusted, and how firmly it supports the monitor.

Higher-priced monitors may be packed with extras like speakers, front-panel display control buttons, or even all the components of a desktop PC. Buy what you need, not what’s on sale. The fewer things inside of a monitor, the fewer things that can cause overheating and early death.

Some monitors advertise “low blue light” technology to help protect your eyes and help you sleep better. I wouldn’t pay extra for that, because the Night Light software built into Windows 10 (and Night Shift for Macs) can do that as well.

Read warranties carefully; a five-year warranty doesn’t help if it excludes dead pixels that develop after one year. Don’t buy third-party warranty extensions. They’re pushed so hard by sellers because they are extremely profitable, and they’re extremely profitable because hardly anyone ever qualifies for a replacement under their terms.

Finally, I've not found brand to be an important factor in computer monitors. Some people are loyal to ASUS, LG, Samsung, or other well-known brands, but I've had no-name monitors that have served me well. Pay attention to the specs I've mentioned above, and check consumer forums for experience with specific models before buying, and you'll do fine.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below…

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Most recent comments on "Buying a Computer Monitor (Size Matters)"

Posted by:

Bill Pfeifer
15 Mar 2021

About "Night Light software built into Windows 10 (and Night Shift for Macs)" - add to that "Redshift for Linux"

Posted by:

Richard Schmitt
15 Mar 2021

For my law office, I recently purchased a Insignia™ - 32" Class LED HD TV Model:NS-32D310NA21 and a Westinghouse 32". I use both in tamdem. Paid about $ 120.00 each. One of the better buys I have made to improve my office. The colors look great to me, but I am not an expert, just a user.

Posted by:

Bill Dogterom
15 Mar 2021

You may have mentioned this and I missed it in my flying read but... it may be helpful to verify that a monitor if VESA compliant, allowing it to be easily mounted on a wall or an arm for easy movement or in a dual monitor display. Adapters are available, but they tend to be less than elegant and may get in the way.

Posted by:

15 Mar 2021

What about the curved monitors I see? Any advantage? I mostly use a browser, Word and Excel.

Posted by:

15 Mar 2021

My ultrawide was one of the best buys I made and Many films are in the wider format.

Just a thought - 1080p is about what a human eye is capable of seeing at up to about 24" and most of us would find it adequate at larger sizes. I had a pir of Hanspre 27" a few years ago and the guarantee was useless - I gave up long before the guarantee ran out - the contracted out repair company just hung on to the monitors for months blaming parts problems but would not supply a replacement item initially when they did - you nailed it - daead and wrong colour pixels all over the centre of the screen.

Posted by:

15 Mar 2021

I bought a Samsung 4K UHD smart TV with a 40" screen
(about the smallest size you'll find 4K UHD..).
Being "smart" it can also go on internet on its own, and has the higher resolution than my older refurb pc. The TV lets me watch Netflix, Youtube and other online video sources that are at UHD 4K, directly from the internet, while the pc can only go to 1080 resolution. After 3 years of all day long use the TV is still working okay.

Posted by:

15 Mar 2021

I am also a big fan of dual-27" monitors but ONLY if they are the same exact (matched-down to the serial numbers) models. My two Acer monitors (#XG270HU) were purchased 3 months apart (2016) and I do notice very subtle differences between them. I would also strongly recommend to feed BOTH monitors' input with the same type of interface (DisplayPort/HDMI/DVI)... which may require an outboard/add-on graphics card.
There are also the possible incurred costs for a mount/stand and dual-monitor software, if required.

Posted by:

15 Mar 2021

I seem to go through computers like a fish through water. I have three working at the moment, two semi-working, and one waiting for a hard drive. (Plus others, mostly disassembled, in storage.) The three working are one laptop (which is getting slower and more shaky all the time) and two desktops. The desktops were both bought refurbished. The "larger" one has a 16:9 monitor which was given to me after considerable use. The "smaller" one has a 5:4 monitor, the cheapest I could find, bought refurbished. Both work extremely well, at least for my purposes, and will probably outlast the computers. We'll see what I have to come up with next. Hey, if they work, they work.

Posted by:

Bob K
15 Mar 2021

What are the disadvantages to using a TV for a monitor? Generally speaking a TV will run half the price of a monitor of the same size and resolution. Maybe the price difference is due to simply the quantities of a model being made. But seems like a TV should be able to handle everything a monitor can.

Posted by:

15 Mar 2021

Thank you so much for that specific advice: "Don’t buy third-party warranty extensions. They’re pushed so hard by sellers because they are extremely profitable, and they’re extremely profitable because hardly anyone ever qualifies for a replacement under their terms." I notice that this is what Best Buy frequently does, and I simply say "No! Thank you!" Somehow, I was always suspicious that they are "too good to be true". I appreciate the4 excellent information.

Posted by:

Mike in Colorado
15 Mar 2021

I've gone from two 27" monitors to two 32" monitors and a 27" off to the side. I use Nvidia's G-Sync tech to control my main 32" for gaming and such. Star Citizen definitely looks beautiful on it :)

Posted by:

15 Mar 2021

For the truly cheap - recycled flat screen TVs make an adequate monitor for lower performance computing, provided they have HDMI input. Think garage sales, Goodwill, or trash picking.

I recently "upgraded" to a 27" Seiki 1080p TV. It replacea an 18" monitor on a machine mainly used for Excel spreadsheet like applications. The cost was less than $30. The one-time setup was to switch the input to HDMI. It is fine for this lower performance need.

Posted by:

15 Mar 2021

My computer and screen are all in one. It is an HP Pavillion and it measures about 27". It seems pretty good to me and seemed like a good idea. I do work with photos, but nothing professional. Should I have opted for separate components?

Posted by:

Richard R
15 Mar 2021

Great post on the monitors! it was a short and sweet piece of education that i will take with me on my next monitor shopping trip - soon. Tks

Posted by:

Robert A.
15 Mar 2021

Most monitors, these days, DO NOT have internal speakers, so it's something a buyer must consider when shopping, especially if one's old monitor had them. I picked up a Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 desktop speaker system, with a powered 8" subwoofer, at Costco, a few months ago, for $99.00, regularly about $150.00 (and seems to come on sale every few months) The sound is phenomenal, and they blow away any cheapo speaker pairs sold at the computer stores, or on Amazon in the $100.00 range

Posted by:

Oliver Fleming
15 Mar 2021

I use a TV as a monitor. I began with a 34 inch now graduated to 40 inch Samsung. SO much better on the eyes and the quality of the picture is excellent.

Posted by:

16 Mar 2021

My Benq 1280 x 1024 must be about 15 years old now. After about 5 years it seemed to simply die one day. I thought that was too soon so I decided to see if I could fix it.
I discovered that a common cause of such failures was bad capacitors (a dastardly tale of industrial espionage - look it up). With nothing to lose, I opened up the display and sure enough some of the electrolytic capacitors were blown so I replaced all of them and it's still going strong.

Posted by:

Bob Pegram
16 Mar 2021

The old CRTs were better at 72 refresshed per second. At 50 per scond they produced headaches in many people abd/or eye problems. That is because the eye and brain can sense the flickering at 60 cycles per second and constantly tries to adjust the eyes. A flat screen doesn't flicker so it isn't an issue there.

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