[TIPS] How to Buy a Computer Monitor

Category: Hardware , Video

A computer monitor (also called a 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, 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 buying computer screens, some rules never change. To start with, shop for a monitor in person, and plan to get the biggest monitor your desktop 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 having 45 horizontal inches of screen real estate 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.

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), 4K, and 8K. 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 3840 x 2160 pixels. At the extreme high end, 8K monitors boast 7680 x 4320 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 $350 to $500 range. (Here's an ASUS 24-inch Full HD monitor for $148 at Amazon, and an LG 27-inch 4K Monitor on sale for $347.) 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. Very little 8K content exists at this time, so I would not spend the money on an 8K monitor.

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 34-inch Ultrawide Gaming Monitor sells for $299.

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 all you do is email and casual web browsing, you needn't worry too much about response rates.

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, HP, 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] How to Buy a Computer Monitor"

Posted by:

09 Jun 2022

I'm surprised you did not talk about the connections. There are so many connection options and converters, etc. I think it may warrant and post on it's own. I would like a better understanding of what these different options are, pros and cons of using converters, etc.

Posted by:

09 Jun 2022

This came at exactly the right time as I need a new monitor. I've been using a TV for my monitor and the sound card is going in and out, so I need a reliable monitor as I'm in a FB group that has live calls and I need to hear them.

I must say, you know your stuff.

Posted by:

09 Jun 2022

Purchased an Acer 24" a few years ago to go alongside my iMac 27". However, I didn't 'over-think' the purchase decision as you suggest, Bob. Paid $98 and this thing has been perfect. The one thing I overlooked, however, was the ease of adjusting the brightness on the Acer. Oh, well, I still think I made the correct decision.

Posted by:

09 Jun 2022

Link to Amazon for 24" ASUS shows $240.

Posted by:

Bob K
09 Jun 2022

I would appreciate comments from those that have used TVs for a monitor. Any problems?

It seems that a TV of a particular size will be far cheaper than a monitor of the same size. Maybe that is simply because TVs are made in larger quantities, or are expected to have a sorter life.

Any thoughts?

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
09 Jun 2022

When I built this computer, I selected the Samsung LC24RG50 display. It has a curved 24" screen with 1920x1080 resolution, supports a refresh rate up to 144 Hz., provides a 4ms response time, 178 degree viewing angle (H and V), and has 2 HDMI ports and 1 display port.

I chose this display as much for price as for its feature set (it was under $200.00). I connect my computer to it using the first HDMI port, but it is nice to know that if (someday) I get a better graphics adapter (with a display port) I can use it. The secondary reason I chose this display was because I believe in getting the best hardware I can afford. Better hardware usually lasts longer, provides a wider array of features, and is a bit more future-safe. This display gives me a feature set that will serve me well today, and into the future.

In daily use, application performance is quick, and graphics are crisp and clean. I am very happy, not only with the computer I built, but with the screen I chose to display its output.


Posted by:

09 Jun 2022

I bought my 21" ViewSonic from amazon at the end of 2010 for $150. Let's see how many more years I get. So far so good! Thanks for the great into, Bob.

Posted by:

10 Jun 2022

Should we address you as Bob, or Dr. Bob? Truly, you excel at presenting technical information in a way that is easy to follow and understand, and today's class is an excellent example of that. My go-to computer every day is a desktop with a dual 24-in monitor setup: The primary monitor is ViewSonic, the 2nd monitor is HP, and both are 1920x1080. Other than color rendition (I find my ViewSonic is better there), I easily switch back and forth from monitor-to-monitor with no noticeable difference. I can't imagine ever going smaller or going to back one monitor. Oh, the frustration that would cause! Thanks again, Dr. Bob, for educating your fan base in a way that makes us want to learn more.

Posted by:

10 Jun 2022

Whoa ... no, no. no.... ".. (Here's an ASUS 24-inch Full HD monitor for $148 at Amazon .." ........Click to there and it's @239... WTF

EDITOR'S NOTE: There's an option on that page to get it for the price I mentioned. The direct SKU is B07HH86RT6.

Posted by:

Kenny D
11 Jun 2022

I bought a 22" AOC from Goodwill Ohio on EBAY 7 years ago, and it's still works. A $55 bargain.

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