Buyers' Guide: LCD Monitors

The monitor you are using right now probably came bundled with your desktop PC, or maybe you bought it back when 1,240 by 1,024 pixels was considered high resolution. Since you spend a huge part of everyday looking at it, however, it pays to be fussy when choosing an LCD monitor. Price ranges vary widely, as do the quality of the panels. So how can you make an informed choice? Well, that's where we come in. We will walk you through the latest trends in the display market, as well as the specific features to look for when buying an LCD monitor.

The Basics

Regardless of what kind of monitor you're in the market for, there are some general factors to consider:

Price:

Monitor prices depend on the type, size, and features of the display. For example, a no-frills model that uses a 22in TN panel will probably cost around £130. Budget monitors usually lack niceties such as USB ports and a height-adjustable stand, but they do use LED backlighting, require very little power, and are very bright. Performance is adequate for most entertainment purposes or for viewing business and productivity apps, but not well-suited for tasks where colour and greyscale accuracy are key. At the other end of the spectrum are your high-end models that are geared towards graphics professionals and photographers. These monitors might use huge 30in screens with IPS panel technology and offer features such as a highly adjustable stand, USB ports, a built-in KVM switch, and a wealth of advanced image settings. Expect to pay well over £2,000 for a fully loaded, high performance monitor. Bottom line: Be prepared to pay for extras but don't overspend on features you will never use.

Size:

LCD monitors generally run anywhere from 15 inches up to 30 inches. The size of the panel is measured diagonally. While it's always nice to have a big viewing area, it may not be practical given desktop space constraints. Plus, the bigger the screen the more you can expect to pay. Monitors in the 22 to 24in range are popular as they offer enough screen real estate to view multipage documents or watch movies without taking up too much room. Still, there's nothing like watching a movie or playing a game on a large screen, so if you have room on your desk, 27in monitors offer a big-screen experience for a reasonable price.

Pixel Response Rate:

Measured in milliseconds, the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white (b-w) or to transition from one shade of grey to another shade of grey (g-g). The faster the pixel response rate, the better the monitor is at displaying video without displaying artefacts such as ghosting or blurring of moving images. Monitors with a fast pixel response, say 2ms (black-to-white) or 5ms (grey-to-grey) are very good for gaming, but even those monitors with a higher pixel response (7 to 12ms) can display games without much blurring or ghosting. The fact is, most users won't notice things like lag, which is the time it takes for the display to react to a command, but hardcore gamers consider this a key factor when choosing a monitor and typically seek out the fastest monitors available.

Resolution:

This is the amount of pixels a monitor can display, both horizontally and vertically. For example, a monitor with a 1,920 by 1,080 resolution can display 1,920 pixels across the width of the screen and 1080 pixels from top to bottom. The higher the resolution, the more information can be displayed on the screen. These days, most monitors in the 22 to 27in range have a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels and are referred to as full HD monitors. Bigger displays, (30 inches and up) can display at a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 pixels, making them ideal for viewing highly detailed images or viewing multiple pages in a tiled or side-by-side format.

Extra Features:

If you have to share a monitor with a co-worker or family members, consider a model with an ergonomic stand that lets you position the screen for your most comfortable viewing angle. Most stands offer tilt adjustability but swivel and height adjustments give you more flexibility. If you transfer lots of data back and forth between USB devices, look for a monitor with built-in USB ports, as it's much easier to plug one into your display than to have to constantly reach around the back of your PC (side-mounted USB ports rule). Embedded webcams are fun for video chats and e-mailing photos, but don't expect stellar image quality, as they are typically low-resolution cameras. Most monitors come with built-in speakers that are adequate for everyday use but usually lack the volume and bass response that music aficionados and gamers crave. If audio output is important, look for speakers with a minimum rating of 2-watts per speaker. As a rule, the higher the power rating the more volume you can expect. A monitor with a built-in card reader makes it easy to view and transfer photos and play music without having to reach under your desk to plug in a media card. Finally, glossy screens can provide very bright, crisp colours but may also be too reflective for some users. If possible, compare a glossy screen to a matte screen before you buy to decide which works best for you.

The three basic panel types used in desktop displays are twisted nematic (TN+), PVA/S-PVA, and IPS. The majority of displays use TN+ technology as it is the least expensive of the three and offers superior motion handling performance. However, we're starting to see more affordable IPS monitors hit the market.

The latest trend in displays brings full high definition capabilities to the desktop. To do this the panel must have a native resolution of at least 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, and it must have a 16:9 aspect ratio to do it without stretching or cropping the picture. Until recently, most LCD monitors used CCFL (cold cathode florescent lamp) technology for backlighting, but LED backlit monitors are quickly becoming the more popular choice for several reasons; LEDs offer a brighter image than CCFLs, they are smaller and require less power, and they allow for extremely thin cabinet designs. That said, CCFL displays are known to provide better screen uniformity and are generally less expensive than their LED counterparts.

What was once a novelty aimed at the gaming crowd, 3D technology has taken the desktop monitor market by storm, thanks to the proliferation of 3D movie and gaming content as well as 3D-ready Blu-ray players and 3D-cameras. The two major technologies used today are passive 3D, which uses inexpensive polarised glasses to create depth, and active shutter 3D, which uses battery operated glasses with lenses that turn on and off in sync with a 120Hz panel to deliver 3D imagery. Each has its benefits and drawbacks; passive 3D doesn't require a 120Hz panel and the image remains bright, but it is prone to motion artefacts and doesn't always look good from a side angle. Active 3D typically offers good side viewing and does a good job of displaying jaggie-free images but it produces more crosstalk than passive technology and the glasses are usually uncomfortable and require charging. Either way, expect to pay a bit more for a 3D-enabled monitor if you want to watch 3D movies or bring your gaming experience to the next level.

For laptop users who require dual screen capabilities, a portable USB monitor fits the bill. These lightweight devices use your PC's USB port for power and to receive video, usually with the help of DisplayLink software. They are ideal for small office presentations and for extending your laptop's screen real estate, and their slim profile makes them easy to travel with. For around £110, you can double your viewing area while on the road.

Types of LCD Monitors

We've broken this guide down into four categories: budget, business/professional, multimedia, and gaming displays, all of which target different audiences. Prices vary within each category depending on the panel technology used, the size of the panel, and features. We've also included a glossary to help you decipher some of the terms used to describe display technology.

Budget Displays

If you're looking for a basic monitor for viewing e-mails, surfing the Intenet, and displaying office applications, there's no reason to spend a fortune on a model with features that you'll never use. Budget displays are usually no-frills models that eschew such niceties as USB ports, card readers, and built-in webcams. They typically use TN+ panel technology and are not known for their performance attributes, particularly when it comes to motion handling and greyscale accuracy. Don't expect much in the way of flexibility either; most budget displays are supported by a rigid stand that may provide tilt adjustability but very rarely offer height and pivot adjustments. As with nearly all displays, costs will rise along with panel size; you can expect to pay between £100 and £150 for a basic 23in model, and a 27in model gets you a lot more screen real estate for around £250 plus.

Business / Professional Displays

The Business/Professional display category includes a wide variety of monitor types, from energy-conscious "green" models for everyday office use, to high-end, high-priced models that use In-Plane Switching (IPS) and Patterned Vertical Alignment technology to cater for graphics professionals who require a high degree of colour and greyscale accuracy. Business monitors will usually offer ergonomic stands that can be adjusted for maximum comfort. Very often, they will offer pivot adjustability, which lets you rotate the screen 90 degrees for viewing in portrait mode. Look for a model that has an auto-rotate feature that flips the image automatically when you change the orientation. Other business-centric features include a generous (3-year) warranty with an overnight exchange service, built-in USB ports, and an aggressive recycling program. A fully loaded model with a high-end panel is going to cost plenty, but for photographers and other graphics pros, it is money well spent. At the other end of the price spectrum are the no-frills, energy efficient monitors. They may be short on features, but their low power usage can help businesses save money through reduced energy costs.

Multimedia Displays

Multimedia displays are popular because they typically offer a good selection of features that help you create home photo and video projects, offer decent performance, and in some cases, include digital TV tuners. A good multimedia display will usually provide a variety of connectivity options, such as HDMI, DVI, and VGA inputs, while the more robust entertainment-class models will also include component video and audio connections and a DisplayPort connection. At least two USB ports should be available, preferably mounted on the side or front of the cabinet for easy access, and the speakers should be a cut above the typical low-powered ones found on most monitors. If audio output is a deciding factor, look for speakers rated at 2 watts or better. Other multimedia bells and whistles include a built-in multi-card reader, which makes it easy to view photos and video directly from your camera's media, and a webcam for video chats and for taking quick stills and videos that are easy to e-mail. Hybrid displays are multifunction devices that pull double-duty as a desktop monitor and a TV set. You'll pay a bit more for the TV tuner but these displays are ideal for university halls of residence, studio apartments, and other environments where space is a premium. Again, expect to pay a premium for a 3D-capable multimedia model.

Gaming Displays

Gaming monitors require fast response times in order to display moving images without producing motion error or artefacts. Panels with slower response times may produce blurring of fast-moving images, which can be distracting during game play. On smaller panels, the flaw may not be so noticeable but when you're gaming on a 25in or larger display you'll want to keep blurring to a minimum. Look for a panel with a response time of 5ms (black-to-white) or 2ms (grey-to-grey) or less. Gaming monitors should also offer a variety of digital video inputs to accommodate multiple sources, including consoles such as the Sony PS3 or Xbox, or multiple PCs.

Since audio is a big part of the immersive gaming experience, look for a model with a powerful speaker system, ideally one with a sub-woofer. A headphone jack mounted on the side or the front of the cabinet is also preferable. If 3D gaming is your thing you'll need a monitor with a 120Hz frame rate (most monitors are 60Hz) to utilise Nvidia's 3DVision Kit, which uses dual 60Hz images and a dual link DVI connection to display games in 3D with the use of special stereoscopic glasses. Or, check out one of the many FPR (film-type patterned retarder) models that operate at 60Hz and use passive glasses. A monitor with a USB hub to plug in several controllers is also desirable.

Whatever your need or budget, there is an LCD monitor out there that's just the right fit for you.

Glossary of LCD Terminology

Active Shutter Technology: a 3D technology that uses battery operated glasses and a 120Hz panel to deliver a 3D image.

Aspect ratio: the ratio of width to height. Early LCD monitors and CRTs have a 4:3 aspect ratio. Some widescreen monitors have a 16:10 aspect ratio, but most of today's models offer a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is the format used for high definition movies and television broadcasts.

Candelas/square metre: unit of measurement describing a panel's luminous intensity.

CCFL (Cold Cathode Florescent Lamp): the most common form of monitor backlighting used today. Not as bright as LED backlighting but less expensive to manufacture.

Contrast Ratio: the difference between the panel's ability to display the darkest blacks and the brightest whites.

Colour gamut: a panel's ability to display a full field, or a range of colours. Most monitors display around 70 per cent of the NTSC (National Television System Committee) gamut. Wide gamut models can display anywhere from 80 per cent to 110 per cent of the NTSC gamut (or PAL gamut).

CRT (Cathode Ray Tube): Older TV and monitor technology using a vacuum tube and electron guns to display images on a phosphor target (in a raster pattern).

DisplayLink: the technology used to send video via a USB port.

DisplayPort: Similar to HDMI, DisplayPort provides a digital interface between the monitor and a video source (PC or other external device) to transmit high definition video and audio via a single cable.

DVI (Digital Visual Interface): an industry standard interface used to accept digital signals from a video source.

Greyscale: shades of grey varying in intensity from the darkest black to the whitest white. Greyscale accuracy determines the panel's ability to display all steps of the scale.

HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface): a widely used digital interface that sends high definition video and audio via a single cable.

IPS (In Plane Switching): One of three major LCD panel technologies (TN+ and PVA being the other two) known for its excellent colour and viewing angle characteristics. IPS panels used to be the most expensive to manufacture of the three but the newer e-IPS panels are significantly cheaper to produce and deliver very good colour and viewing angle performance.

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display): used in everything from laptops and TV sets to digital watches, LCD panels utilise multiple sheets of glass (polarising and electrode substrate layers), a liquid crystal material, and switching voltages to change the orientation of the liquid crystals (and thus control the transmission of light from the backlight) in order to create an image on the screen.

LED (Light Emitting Diode): a low-power semiconductor that lights up when voltage is applied.

Passive 3D: also known as FPR (film-type patterned retarder) technology, it delivers 3D imagery using lightweight polarised glasses.

Pixel response: the amount of time needed for a pixel to go from black to white (b-w) or to transition from one shade of grey to another shade of grey (g-g). Also referred to as response time, it is measured in milliseconds.

PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment): panel technology known for high contrast ratios, very good black levels and wide viewing angles. Sluggish pixel response compared to TN+. Less expensive than IPS but more costly than TN+ panels.

TN+ (Twisted Nematic +): the most common panel technology used in desktop monitors. Relatively inexpensive to manufacture. Known for fast pixel response but less than stellar viewing angles and mediocre colour and greyscale accuracy.

Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc.