[TIPS] Buying a Computer Monitor

Category: Hardware

A computer monitor 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, you may find that that new rules apply to its purchase that were unheard of when you bought it. Here are some of those new rules, without getting too geeky or extravagant...

Time For a New Monitor?

Technology changes rapidly, but when it comes to computer screens, some rules never change. To start with, shop for a monitor in person, and plan to get the biggest monitor your space and wallet permit. 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 21 inches. Screens in the 21 to 26 inch range are affordable, 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: Six Good Reasons to Upgrade.

Tips for buying a computer monitor

Your next consideration is screen resolution. A monitor's resolution is the number of pixels in its display matrix. You'll see terms like 720p, 1080p, HD (High Definition), FHD (Full HD), QHD (Quad HD), UHD (Ultra HD), and 4K. These all refer 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 4K or Ultra HD is top of the line, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels.

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 $500 range. (Here's an ASUS 24-inch Full HD monitor for just $126 at Amazon, and an LG 27-inch 4K Monitor on sale for $398.) 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 Samsung 32-inch HD Curved Monitor is on sale for just $258.

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.

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.

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 have 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.

Finally, 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.

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 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 "[TIPS] Buying a Computer Monitor"

Posted by:

22 Dec 2017

My husband uses two 32-inch 720p televisions as monitors. We bought them last year in a Black Friday sale for $100 each. They provide a lot of real estate and work well for him, although I am sure gamers would want higher resolution and refresh rate.

Posted by:

22 Dec 2017

A friend bought a 40" LCD TV on sale at Walmart and uses that for a computer screen. He swears by it. Would that be any different than buying an actual monitor?

Posted by:

22 Dec 2017

Mr. Rankin,
It appears that your blog is referring to the "frames per second (fps)" spec as the "refresh rate". That is all fine and dandy! Another important criterion that requires mention is the panel "response time", which is measured in milliSeconds (lower the mS value; the better it is).
Whether an LCD is an IPS or a TN (Twisted Nematic) design, it is still important to evaluate its 'response time' spec as a part of the purchase equation. One of the hardware examples you cite provides 2mS response time; another provides no response time spec, at all (usually when it is in the range of 8 - 10mS). Such higher response times are usually associated with blurring of fast moving scenes, even if the refresh rate is @120fps (or even @144fps).
In the case of a dual-monitor setup at higher than 60fps and/or greater than 1080p resolution, a dedicated graphics card may also be warranted to optimize the operation of the monitor. In such cases, the HDMI interface may not provide as good results as one that utilizes the DisplayPort interface; especially for computer displays (HDMI was created for TV monitors and includes wires for Audio Return Channels (ARC) not essential for PCs).
I use a dual 27” Acer (#XG27OHU) monitor setup. Unfortunately, I was forced to replace my spiffy graphics card, so that I was not forced to use an HDMI interface for one of them and a DisplayPort interface for the other.
For those up in the technology nose-bleed section, there should also be an honorable buzzword mention of VSync/G-Sync/FreeSync compatibility.

Posted by:

Bill Riley
22 Dec 2017

Thanks Bob, this is excellent information. Thank you for helping us technologically challenged people understand things a little better !! Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Posted by:

22 Dec 2017

Something else to consider is the type of connection(s) your computer has. For instance, if it has only a DVI input, that's what the monitor will need.

Posted by:

Robert A.
22 Dec 2017

If one is using their computer for casual daily use (email, watching YouTube videos Microsoft office) consider looking for a monitor that has built-in speakers. Such a monitor may cost a little more than one without speakers, but with simple, one cable HDMI hook-up, carrying both the video and audio, one's desktop will be less cluttered. In the early days of computing, most monitors came from the factory with built-in speakers, but with in the past ten years, or so, it seems more and more monitors are shipping without them, requiring the user to by a pair in the aftermarket.

If one wants to continue using a perfectly good older monitor that maybe has only a VGA or DVI port on the back, but now has a new computer that doesn't have a matching output port, there's probably a good chance there is an adapter available to make things work. Usually a place like Newegg.com or Microcenter.com. will carry such a part, if it's available.

Posted by:

22 Dec 2017

I have a Samsung Syncmaster 214T. About 5 years ago it packed up. I did a search and was informed that many monitors of that era had crappy capacitors. I found a site that offered a replacement package so I blew the whole 10 bucks and replaced them in the circuit board. It's still going strong.

Posted by:

John Norden
23 Dec 2017

If you are buying dual (or triple) monitors for gaming, then thin bezels (perimeter frame) would be desirable to help with the continuity between screens.
However, a decent sized curved screen would probably be a better way to go, giving a more immersive experience if you are relatively close to the screen.

Posted by:

George Roberts
23 Dec 2017

Thanks Bob for all your information and tips throughout the year. Merry Christmas

Posted by:

23 Dec 2017

My $125. pc is a refurbished workstation desktop. It came with a legal new install of Win10 pro. It has VGA and a Display Port output. A $10 adapter converts Display Port to HDMI, then to my 40" Samsung 4K LED Smart TV. It watches 4K videos and movies online without a pc. It works fine as a pc monitor. My pc is only HD (1080p). A 4K 27" monitor costs quite a bit more than I paid for this 4K 40" TV ($325). I like 4K viewing well enough that I'm now considering pc upgrades such as a PCIe video card and a faster CPU.

A warning comes with flat panel LED TVs to avoid long periods of an un-moving screen image. This could burn a ghost of the image into the screen??
I don't leave it running showing my desktop overnight. If this tv is reliable for 3 or 4 years? I'll be happy with it.

Prior to getting this TV, I had a 32" Vizio 1080p Smart TV. It worked well for about 3-1/2 years, then the LED back lights behind the screen quit working and the screen went black.

Posted by:

23 Dec 2017

Bob, sorry, but that article is a little outdated. There is no mention of VA (Vertical Alignment) LCD displays that actually now are the third main player with TN and IPS. I would formulate the main idea of article shorter. There are main characteristics of modern displays from consumer's point of view: reaction time, quality of picture and viewing angle. There is no ideal display. TN offers the best response time with weak picture quality and viewing angles. IPS has the best picture quality (excluding bad black color), perfect viewing angles, but low reaction time. VA is exactly in the middle - it has pretty good picture image (especially black color), good viewing angles and good reaction time. Other characteristics are pretty close, since there are pretty few panel manufacturers, so main set of characteristics is almost the same for each type of underlying technology. Perks of mass production...

To all enthusiasts of using TVs instead of computer displays: There is a reason for higher price of computer panels - their quality is higher. It's from personal experience - I bought 24" TV when prices dropped to around $100 as a replacement for 19" display. It was perfect for images and movies. But after a couple of hours of working with text my eyes began to hurt. Maybe the technology wasn't as good as today, but I learnt my lesson and don't guess any more.

Now I work at 32" LG monitor 1920x1080, IPS (32MP58HQ-P) and pretty satisfied.

Posted by:

26 Dec 2017

Sharp, 32" LCD-TV, on sale at Best Buy for $100. Had to get a (*powered) VGA-to-HDMI adapter for my older computer (not that old, really). If I want to retire it as a monitor, then I have an extra 32"-TV. This works for me; I'm very happy using a TV as a monitor.
*Adapter had to be powered, or the screen would randomly cut out.

Posted by:

01 Jan 2018

Excellent article, Bob! I love it. For me, who happens to be a computer savvy person, it had the right amount of geek with good explanations for the Newbies.

Thanks Randio for your input, you helped me to understand what Bob was talking about with the fps and I think in response time like 1ms, 2ms, or 5ms. I wouldn't go slower than 5ms for your monitor, even if you are a "casual" computer user. Response time is a key feature to remember when choosing a monitor.

Suggestion - I have always purchased my monitors online and didn't look at them in a store. Bob is absolutely correct on going to a store to see how they really look and which one is the right one for your system.

Bob just touched on warranty and that is vital. I look for those that have a 3 year warranty by the manufacturer. The 3 year warranty must also cover the panel, meaning the screen, not just the pixels which most will not do anything if the monitor has only one or two or three missing pixels. But there are many manufacturers who do NOT cover the panel meaning the screen, yet the rest of the monitor is covered for 3 years. Then there are the manufacturers that warranty for 3 years, but only 1 year for the panel/screen.

I have a ASUS monitor and it did have a 3 year warranty for both the monitor and panel/screen. I purchased mine and my Hubby's, both are the same model and size, in April 2013, so my warranty has expired. Both are working quite well except for one back-lit on both of them. The issue is the same back-lit area, too.

When you turn on my Hubby's, the back-lit area is darker, not black but darker like the light is out. My is in the same spot, but, I can still turn my monitor off and back on, then the back-lit area becomes bright, like it should. I know that mine is going, but I must say it really doesn't bother me reading my emails, playing casual games, creating greeting cards, writing letters and so on. I will get the both of us, new monitors in the future.

Our monitors have 2 HDMIs on the back. I was able to use one of the HDMI connections when I purchased a new graphic card. I say - WOW what a difference HDMI makes for your computer!!!

Check out what you think you want before going to the store, so that you know what to expect. Things like speakers or no speakers, what does the warranty entail and if the size you thought you want is actually correct or too big or too small. Oh, don't forget the price, especially if the monitor is on sale. }:O)

Posted by:

The Other Al
10 Jan 2018

Another source is to watch for companies going out of business or being taken over by others. I have three perfectly serviceable monitors (about 23") which cost $15 or less each.

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