Improve Your View
The monitor you’re using right now might have come bundled with your desktop PC, or maybe you bought it back when 1,240 by 768 was considered high resolution. Since you spend a huge part of every day looking at it, however, it pays to be picky when picking the right screen. Price ranges vary widely, as do the quality of panels. We’ll walk you through the latest trends in display technology, as well as the specific features to look for when buying your next desktop monitor.
Regardless of the 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 around $130 to $200, you can pick up a 22-inch, no-frills model, but don’t expect niceties such as USB ports and a height-adjustable stand at this price. But these panels do use LED backlighting, require little power, and are very bright. Performance is adequate for most entertainment or basic business and productivity purposes, but not well suited to tasks where color and grayscale accuracy are key. At the other end of the spectrum are your high-end models that are geared toward graphic design professionals and photographers. These are 30- to 34-inch high-end panels that can display four times the resolution of a typical full HD (1,920-by-1,080) monitor. Moreover, they offer such features as a highly adjustable stand, USB ports, and a wealth of advanced image settings, including calibration hardware and software. Expect to pay $1,000 and up for a fully loaded, high-performance 4K or Ultra-High-Definition (UHD) monitor. Bottom line: Be prepared to pay for extras, but don’t overspend on features you will never use.
Size: Desktop monitors generally fall between 15 and 34 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. A 24-inch monitor is a good choice if you wish to view multipage documents or watch movies, but have limited desk space. But there’s nothing like watching a movie or playing a game on a large screen, so if you have room on your desktop, a 27-inch display delivers a big-screen experience for a reasonable price. Or, if space is not an issue, consider a massive 34-inch, curved-screen model to bring a true movie-theater experience to your desktop. If you’re looking to replace a dual-monitor setup with a single display, check out one of the ultra-wide, big-screen models. They are available in sizes ranging from 29 to 38 inches with curved and non-curved panels, have a 21:9 aspect ratio, and come in a variety of resolutions, including Wide Quad High-Definition (WQHD) and Ultra High-Definition (UHD).
Pixel Response Rate: Measured in milliseconds (ms), this is the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white (black-to-white) or to transition from one shade of gray to another (gray-to-gray). The faster the pixel response rate, the better the monitor is at displaying video without also displaying artifacts, such as ghosting or blurring of moving images. Monitors with a fast 1ms (gray-to-gray) pixel response are very good for gaming, but even monitors with a higher 6ms (gray-to-gray) pixel response can display games without much blurring or ghosting. The fact is, most users won’t notice lag, which is the time it takes for the display to react to a command, but hard-core gamers consider this a key factor when choosing a monitor and typically seek out the fastest models available. The fastest monitor we’ve seen has a lag time of 9.5ms, but you can get by with up to around 25ms before lag becomes a problem.
Resolution: This is the number 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 1,080 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 27-inch range have a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 and are referred to as full HD monitors. There are also plenty of 24- to 27-inch displays that offer a WQHD (2,560-by-1,440) native resolution. Stepping up to a UHD or 4K (3,840-by-2,160) monitor usually means you’ll need a 28-inch or larger screen, although we have seen a few 24-inch UHD models. UHD monitors are 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 coworker or family members, consider a model with an ergonomic stand that lets you position the screen for your most comfortable viewing angle. A fully adjustable stand offers tilt, swivel, and height adjustments, and you can rotate the panel for Portrait-mode viewing. If you transfer lots of data back and forth between USB devices, look for a monitor with built-in USB ports. Ideally, at least two of these ports will be mounted on the side of the cabinet, making it easy to plug in thumb drives and other USB peripherals. Embedded webcams are ideal for Web conferencing, but don’t expect stellar image quality, as they typically have low resolutions.
Most monitors come with built-in speakers that are adequate for everyday use, but 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 general rule, the higher the power rating, the more volume you can expect, so if you want a monitor with a little extra audio pop, check the specs. A display with a built-in card reader makes it easy to view 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 colors, 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.
Popular panel types used in desktop displays are Twisted Nematic (TN), Vertical Alignment (VA), Patterned Vertical Alignment (PVA), Super PVA (S-PVA), Multi-Domain Vertical Alignment (MVA), and In-Plane Switching (IPS).
Up until recently, the majority of displays used TN technology, as it is the least expensive panel to manufacture, and offers superior motion-handling performance. But affordable IPS monitors are out in force; plenty of 27-inch IPS models cost around $250 and offer very good color quality and wide viewing angles. VA monitors also offer robust colors, but viewing-angle performance, while better than on a typical TN panel, is not quite as sharp as what you get from an IPS panel.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a desktop monitor that does not deliver full HD imagery. To do this, the panel must have a native resolution of at least 1,920 by 1,080, and it must have a 16:9 aspect ratio to do it without stretching or cropping the picture. Graphic design professionals who require a high degree of image detail should be looking for a WQHD or UHD monitor.
In the not-too-distant past, most LCD monitors used cold-cathode florescent lamp (CCFL) technology for backlighting, but nowadays LED-backlit monitors are ubiquitous, and with good reason. LEDs offer a brighter image than CCFLs, they are smaller and require less power, and they allow for extremely thin cabinet designs. CCFL displays are generally less expensive than their LED counterparts, but they are few and far between these days. Now we’re seeing monitors that utilize quantum dot technology to offer superior color accuracy, increased color gamut, and a higher peak brightness than what you get with current panel technologies. The next wave of monitors will feature Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) technology that promises ultra-high contrast ratios, true blacks, and a super-fast pixel response. Expect these displays to carry a hefty price when they hit the market.
Although its popularity has faded recently, 3D technology is also an option on some monitors. Passive 3D uses inexpensive polarized glasses to create depth, and active-shutter 3D uses battery-operated glasses with lenses that turn on and off in sync with a 120Hz panel to deliver 3D imagery. Passive 3D doesn’t require a 120Hz panel, and images remain bright, but it is prone to motion artifacts and doesn’t always look good from a side angle. Active 3D typically offers good side viewing and does a good job of displaying jag-free images, but it produces more crosstalk than passive technology, and the glasses are usually uncomfortable and require charging. Either way, if you’re interested in 3D, expect to pay a bit more for a monitor that can handle it.
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 $200 you can get a 15-inch model that will let you double your viewing area while on the road.
Types of Monitors
We’ve broken this guide down into five categories, all of which target different audiences: Budget, Business/Professional, Multimedia, Touch-Screen, and Gaming. Prices vary within each category, depending on the panel technology used, the size of the display, and features.
Budget: If you’re looking for a basic monitor for viewing emails, surfing the Web, and displaying office applications, there’s no reason to spend a fortune on one with features 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 grayscale 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 probably won’t offer height and pivot adjustments. As with nearly all displays, costs will rise along with panel size; you can buy a simple 24-inch TN panel for between $130 and $150, while a budget 27-inch screen can be had for well under $300.
Business/Professional: This category includes a wide variety of monitor types, from small-screen energy-conscious “green” models for everyday office use to high-end, high-priced, 32-inch-and-up professional-grade displays that use indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) or Advanced High-performance In-Plane Switching (AH-IPS) panel technology and cater to graphics professionals who require a high degree of color and grayscale accuracy. Business monitors 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 monitor with an auto-rotate feature that flips the image automatically when you change the orientation. Other business-centric features include a generous (three-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 don’t offer much in the way of features, but their low power characteristics can help businesses save money through reduced energy costs.
For more, check out the Best Business Monitors.
Touch-Screen: With the advent of Windows 8 and Windows 10, touch-screen displays are gaining popularity. Most touch-screen models will work with the latest operating systems, but in order to become a certified Windows monitor, certain criteria must be met. For instance, the display must offer a bezel-free design that does not interfere with swiping in from the side, and it must have at least five-point touch capabilities. You’ll pay a bit more for touch-screen technology, but it’s worth it if you care about the Windows touch experience. Look for a model equipped with a stand that lets you position the panel so that it is almost parallel with your desktop.
Multimedia: Multimedia displays are popular because they typically offer a nice selection of features to help you create home photo and video projects, offer decent performance, and in some cases, include digital TV tuners. A good multimedia panel 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 versions found on most monitors. If audio output is a deciding factor, look for displays with speakers rated at 2 watts or better. Other multimedia bells and whistles include a built-in 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 email. (If you’re a serious photographer, check out our picks for photography-friendly displays.)
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 dorm rooms, studio apartments, RVs, and other environment where space is an issue. Again, expect to pay a premium for a 3D-capable multimedia model.
Gaming: Displays for gaming require fast response times in order to display moving images without producing motion errors or artifacts. Panels with slower response times may produce blurring of fast-moving images, which can be distracting during gameplay. On smaller displays, the flaw may not be so noticeable, but when you’re gaming on a screen that’s 27 inches or larger, you’ll want to keep blurring to a minimum. Look for a panel with a response time of 5ms (black-to-white) or 2ms (gray-to-gray) or less. Gaming monitors should also offer a variety of digital video inputs to accommodate multiple sources, including consoles such as the Sony PS4 Pro or the Microsoft Xbox One S, or multiple PCs. The latest crop of gaming monitors offer G-Sync (Nvidia) or FreeSync (AMD) display technologies that reduce screen tearing artifacts and provide an ultra-smooth gaming experience, but your computer will need compatible graphics hardware to take advantage of that functionality.
Since audio is a big part of the immersive gaming experience, look for a model with a powerful speaker system, ideally one with a subwoofer. A jack mounted on the side or the front of the cabinet for plugging in your gaming headset is also preferable. If 3D gaming is your thing you’ll need a monitor with a 120Hz frame rate (most monitors are 60Hz) and bundles in Nvidia’s 3DVision 2 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 film-type patterned retarder (FPR) models that operate at 60Hz and use passive glasses. A monitor with a USB hub to plug in several controllers is also desirable. For more, check out the Best Gaming Monitors.
Whatever your needs or budget, there’s a monitor out there that’s right for you. Below we present a sampling of the best of the displays we’ve tested recently for a variety of use cases and at various price levels. We update this story monthly. For the most recent reviews, see our monitor product guide.