HOWTO: Buying a Computer Monitor

Category: Hardware

A reader asks: 'My 7-year-old monitor is slowly fading, and it's time for a bigger screen, so I'm ready to buy a new one. Does brand really matter, and what features would you say are important when buying a new monitor?'

What To Look For in a New Monitor

Computer monitors come with a bewildering array of specs. Some are important; others, not so much. If you are buying a monitor for home or office use, here are the specs you should carefully consider and the ones you can safely ignore.

Screen size is important, obviously. LCD screen size is measured diagonally across the viewable area of the screen. The size you choose depends on your budget, available space, and comfort. The screen should be large enough to comfortably display all the windows you are likely to have open simultaneously, but not so huge that you strain your neck to look into its corners.

Given that you can find 20-inch monitors for under $100 now, I would set that as a minimum size. You can find good quality 24-inch monitors for under $150. Expect to pay around $200 for a 27-inch model. When you move into the 30-inch realm, prices start to spike into the $500 to $100 range.

Computer Monitors

My personal preference is to go with dual monitors, and the pair of 22-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, speadsheet or graphics program on the other. See my related article Dual Monitors: Six Good Reasons to Upgrade.

Other Monitor Specs to Consider

The monitor's resolution is the number of pixels in its display matrix. Images and text look their best when displayed in a monitor's native resolution. The larger the screen size, the higher the native resolution, generally speaking.

Common resolution sizes are 1280x1024, 1600x900, and 1920x1080. The latter qualifies as "Full High Definition Television" resolution, which may be important if you plan to watch HD movies, if you do photo editing, or you're a gamer. Before you buy a new monitor, check your computer's display adapter to see if it supports the monitor's native resolution. If not, you may need a new display adapter too.

You should also consider the connectivity options on a monitor. Check the back of your computer to see what type of video output ports it has. The most common ports are DVI and HDMI. Some laptops have only the older VGA ports. Ideally, a monitor will have all three ports for maximum flexibility. You'll want to make sure the monitor you buy has input ports that match your computer's video outputs.

The display aspect ratio is either 16:9 or 16:10 in most modern LCD wide-screen monitors. The 16:9 aspect ratio is gaining popularity because it is the same as most wide-screen movies. A 16:9 movie displayed on a 16:10 screen will look a bit "squashed.

The response time of a monitor (sometimes referred to as latency)is measured in milliseconds, and indicates how well it can display moving images. Slow response times can cause jittery or blurry images. Ghosting can occur when the monitor is struggling to keep up with the video action. For most office tasks, anything under 15 milliseconds (ms) will be sufficient, but I recommend a response time of 10 ms to avoid any display quality problems. If you're into gaming, you may prefer a monitor with a response time of 5 ms or even 2 ms.

Specs That May Not Be As Important

You may see some manufacturers touting the virtues of their monitor's high contrast ratio. Technically, the contrast ratio refers to the difference between the darkest and lightest images that a monitor can display. Subjectively, it means "how black are the blacks." So a higher contrast ratio should mean a richer, deeper image. The problem is lack of standardization. Each manufacturer uses a different formula to calculate the contrast ratio, so the numbers end up almost meaningless. You'll see advertised contrast ratios all the way from 300:1 to 30,000,000:1. If you have the opportunity to compare monitors side-by-side in a retail store, you probably won't be able to tell the difference. So my advice is to take these numbers with a grain of salt, when considering which monitor to buy.

Here's one bit of jargon you should know if you're looking for a higher-end monitor. IPS (In-Plane Switching) and TN (twisted nematic) are two display technologies. IPS is a cut above, so colors are richer and more lifelike, even when viewed from extreme side angles. Avoid a TN-based monitor if you're into graphic design or photo editing.

Display colors is the number of distinct colors a monitor can display. Standard computer monitors display 16.7 million colors, which is fine for all but the most demanding users. Some IPS monitors can display over a billion shades of color. Just keep in mind that the human eye can distinguish only about 10 million colors.

Personally, 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 always had no-name or off-brand 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.

Do you have something to say about choosing a computer monitor? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "HOWTO: Buying a Computer Monitor"

Posted by:

26 Sep 2013

I just bought a Vizio 40" TV to use as my computer monitor. Yes, I know, they say the dot pitch isn't as tight and letters might be a little blurrier when using a TV instead of a "real" monitor, but for me, the huge size is awesome and I got a 40" monitor screen for the same price as a 27".

Posted by:

John Bradford
26 Sep 2013

You've only mentioned widescreen monitors, which slavishly follow the fashion trends of TVs.
Do many people routinely watch films on a computer monitor? Personally, it's much more comfortable in my lounge sitting in an armchair. I don't watch films on my computer, I do officey-type things, look at email and the internet, where the fact that a widescreen monitor has chopped off the top of the screen thus reducing the depth of a document I can view or the number of rows of a spreadsheet I can see. What's even more irritating is that Microsoft decided that I wanted even more of the top of the screen chopped off so added a ribbon - how stupid is that? I use a 20" 4 x 3 aspect ratio monitor.

Posted by:

26 Sep 2013

Great information, Bob. I happen to love the ASUS monitors. They simply look good, plus they have a 3 year limited warranty, including the LCD panel. Many other name brands have a 3 year limited warranty, but, only a 1 year limited warranty on the panel.

Overall, I am of the opinion, that you get more "bang for your buck", with a LCD/LED Computer Monitor, than you do with a LCD/LED HDTV. To date, I haven't seen a 3 limited warranty on any LCD/LED HDTV, only the standard 1 year limited warranty.

As I stated, in the beginning, I am a ASUS fan. I have purchased 5 of them, over the past couple of years and yes, they all are still working, beautifully. The last 2 I purchased, was to increase the size of the monitors, for hubby and me. 23" is a great size, for older citizens. :)

Posted by:

26 Sep 2013

Another relevant topic Bob Rankin.
I hope you would not mind me putting in my 2cents worth herein:
LCD monitors w/LED back-lighting consume much less energy than the older "CCFL" back-lit models.
"Local dimming" LED technology provides improved dynamic and local contrast ratios but not fully required unless viewing action/fast content.
If you are going to watch movies and action sports, you may wish to consider a monitor that has a "Response Time" of ~5milliSeconds (mS). A 60 frames per second (fps) movie needs an A 'hybrid' technology called "Edge-lit" (rather than "Back-lit") LCD panels have not made it to the PC-world fully and not essential unless you are a serious gamer!
Don'get caught up in the "thinner" hype as it is nothing but an advertisement blitz, since you are not going to put the darn thing in your pocket, or stare at it from it side!
Some models provide a built-in TV-tuner for the monitor to act as your TV [e.g. Samsung, et al]
Some models are offered with touch-screens [e.g. LG, et al]
Some models also provide dual-HDMI input connectors [e.g. Samsung, et al]
Some models also provide a camera, as a built-in option [e.g. Asus, et al]
Some models also provide built-in speakers and USB inputs [e.g. ViewSonic, et al]
Some brands offer longer warranty than others [e.g. some Samsung models, et al]
You may also wish to consider the purchase of a refurbished monitor that is provided with a "FULL" length warranty [e.g. Dell, et al]
IMHO, paying for extended warranties are self-negating!

Posted by:

26 Sep 2013

High definition movies are either 720 or 1080. And you only notice the difference for displays over 40". So if your display is smaller it doesn't matter what resolution it is if you're only interested it in to watch movies. If you using it as a monitor then it might make a difference.

Posted by:

26 Sep 2013

I've had 2 monitors fail after the first year, but both were covered by warranty as I insist on having a 3 year warranty.

Posted by:

26 Sep 2013

I've been happy with my 32-inch Panasonic Viera 1080p TV monitor purchased for $400 over 2 years ago. At arms length I can just barely make out the pixels but have no trouble reading all but the very tiniest print on websites.

My question is whether a monitor with more pixels, i.e., better resolution, would be supported by the computer's video card and show even more detail. What do you think??

Posted by:

26 Sep 2013

Note: A 16:9 movie will not look "squashed" on a 16:10 monitor, there will just be black bars on the top and bottom of the picture assuming the aspect ratio is not changed.
I find it much harder to mess with the movie aspect ratio on a computer/computer monitor - TVs make it easy with 'fill', 'zoom', 'stretch', etc. modes just so all the pixels are lit up.

Posted by:

27 Sep 2013

I have a limited amount of space for a monitor. My current monitor is just 14 1/2 x 12 inches. I want to keep that size.

Posted by:

27 Sep 2013

Lowell, you would have to compare cga and ega monitors. EGA is usually a sharper picture. Also the more pixels, the resolution should be better. When I took computer graphic classes in college, I learned a lot about pixels.

EDITOR'S NOTE: EGA monitors are a thing of the distant past. Think 1989...

Posted by:

27 Sep 2013

I find resolution important. I used to use 24" monitors with a resolution of 1920 x 1200. About a year ago I upgraded to 30" at 2580 x 1600. There is no point in increasing screen size without increasing resolution. 1920 x 1080 is only useful to watch movies.
I use Dell monitors which are fine for business use. Their 4-port active USB hub is useful.

Posted by:

Old Man
28 Sep 2013

Does anyone know why they still use diagonal measurements for monitors? This is really quite deceptive.

For examples, I have three LCD monitors: two 17" and one 18.5".
One of the 17" monitors is approximately 11" x 13", and the other is 9" x 14.5". There is a significant difference in available resolutions, as well as what is displayed.

My 18.5" monitor is also 9" high, but 16" wide. So, its display is noticeably different from the 9" x 14.5".

When I needed new monitors, I went to the manufacturer's website and got the actual height/width figures to see what would fit my wishes. After all, a 4" x 16.5" would give me a diagonal of 17", but of what use would it be?

Posted by:

30 Sep 2013

I use a second monitor (a 20" P2011H Dell) rotated 90 degress (portrait). I find it very helpful for viewing online newspapers, various websites, MS Access, and MS Word.

I'd like to buy a 24" monitor to replace the dell but very few monitors support 90 degree rotation and the specs don't always spell out this capability.

Posted by:

06 Oct 2013

A few thoughts:

I just bought a brand new ultrabook and find that in order to get the DVI type interface it's pretty much only available via certain models of the companie's docking stations, not on the computer itself. This seems to be more an issue of space limitations than anything else. Some docking stations have multiple "sets" of video outputs, but you can only use one "type" per set. In summary, check the options and specs of the systems you own or plan to buy, and if there adapers or other ways to get the outputs you need.

There was a comment about CGA VS EGA resolution. I'd like to mention that none of the current crop of computer monitors I've played with even support those resolutions anymore. Some don't even seem to support the older basic VGA "standards."

PS you need to edit that comment about larger monitor prices in your opening article. You left off a zero on the upper price quote. $500 to $1000 is probably what you meant.

Posted by:

16 Oct 2013

Mr. Rankin: I read your other article re: dual monitors and now I seem Hooked on purchasing same. What brand/models would you recommend? (What do you use specifically?)

I have a laptop and it has a HDMI port and resolution of 1920x1080 display. I will use it for watching HD movies; doing spread sheets and working on a website.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I have a pair of "no-name" 24-inch monitors that came with a 2006 Gateway PC. They have served me very well. As mentioned in the article, I've always been brand agnostic. Check out the last paragraph again.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- HOWTO: Buying a Computer Monitor (Posted: 26 Sep 2013)
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