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How to Buy an LCD Monitor

  • Category: Buying Guides

By John Delaney

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 was considered high resolution. Since you spend a huge part of everyday looking at it, however, it pays to be picky when picking a LCD monitor. Price ranges vary widely, as do the quality of the panels. So how can you make an informed choice? Start buying reading this Buying Guide. 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, the AOC e2243FW, a no-frills model that uses a 22-inch TN panel, costs around $150. It lacks niceties such as USB ports and a height-adjustable stand, but it does use LED backlighting, is ultra thin, and requires very little power. Its performance is fine for most entertainment purposes or for viewing business and productivity apps, but it's not well suited for tasks where color and grayscale accuracy are key. The NEC MultiSync PA301W, on the other hand, uses a 30-inch IPS panel and offers a highly adjustable stand, USB ports, a built in KVM switch, and a wealth of advanced image settings. It carries a premium price ($2,299) and is ideal for graphics professionals and photographers. 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 24inch 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 desktop, 27-inch monitors such as the Asus MT276HE ($350 list) 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 gray to another shade of gray (g-g). The faster the pixel response rate, the better the monitor is at displaying video without displaying artifacts such as ghosting or blurring of moving images. Monitors with a fast pixel response, say 2-milliseconds (black-to-white) or 5 milliseconds (gray-to-gray) are very good for gaming, but even those monitors with a higher pixel response (7 to 12-ms) 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 hard core 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 1920 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 27 inch range have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and are referred to as full HD monitors. Bigger displays, such as the Dell U3011, have a maximum resolution of 2560 x 1600, 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 general rule, the higher the power rating the more volume you can expect. 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.

DISPLAY TRENDS

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 a few affordable IPS monitors hit the market, such as LG's IPS236W, a 23-inch model that goes for $260 and offers very good color quality and wide viewing angles.

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 1920 x 1080 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. For example, the LED backlit 24-inch BenQ V2420H is only ¾-inch thick compared with the 22-inch CCFL backlit ViewSonic VX2258wm, which comes in at around 3 inches.That said, CCFL displays are known to provide better screen uniformity and are generally less expensive than their LED counterparts.

While the HDTV market prepares for the onslaught of 3D movies and TV broadcasts, certain gaming monitors have had the ability to display stereoscopic, or three- dimensional imagery, for some time. Currently, there are close to 20 displays that Nvidia has certified as being 3D ready, which means they are 120Hz displays that will work with their 3D Vision kit.

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 Web, 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 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 very rarely offer height and pivot adjustments. As with nearly all displays, costs will rise along with panel size; you can expect to pay around $200 for a basic 23-inch model such as the Asus ML248H, while the 27-inch HP 2711x gets you more screen real estate for around $350.

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 and cater to graphics professionals who require a high degree of color and grayscale 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. The NEC PA241W is a fully-loaded model with outstanding performance characteristics thanks to its top-shelf IPS panel, but it is relatively expensive. Still, photographers and other graphics pros will appreciate its superior image quality. At the other end of the price spectrum is the HP 2310e, which is short on features, but being one of the greenest business displays around, it helps businesses save money through reduced energy costs.

MULTIMEDIA DISPLAYS

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 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. 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 speakers found on most monitors. If audio output is a deciding factor, look for speakers rated at 2 watts or better. The Asus VW266H is a well-appointed 26-inch multimedia display that delivers solid performance, better-than-average audio output, and a good selection of ports. 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 dorm rooms, studio apartments, RVs, and other environment where space is a premium. The Samsung SyncMaster FX2490HD is a versatile 24-inch HD hybrid with lots of ports and a fairly reasonable price tag.

GAMING DISPLAYS

Gaming monitors 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 game play. On smaller panels the flaw may not be so noticeable but when you're gaming on a 25-inch or larger display you'll want to keep blurring to a minimum. Look for a panel with a response time of 5 milliseconds (black-to-white) or 2 ms (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 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 utilize 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. Two such models are the LG W2363D and Samsung SyncMaster 2233RZ A USB hub to plug in several controllers, such as that found on the Alienware OptX AW2210, is also desirable.

Whatever your need or budget, there is an LCD monitor out there that's just the right fit for you. Check our monitor product guide to find the one that's perfect for you.

GLOSSARY

Aspect ratio: the ratio of height to width. 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 meter: unit of measure 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.

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

CRT (Cathode Ray Tube): Older TV and monitor technology using a vacuum tube and electron guns to display images.

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.

Grayscale: shades of gray varying in intensity from the darkest black to the whitest white. Grayscale 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 color and viewing angle characteristics. It's also the most expensive to manufacture of the three.

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display): used in everything from laptops and TV sets to digital watches, LCD panels utilize multiple sheets of glass, a liquid crystal material, and various amounts of voltage to create an image on the screen.

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

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 gray to another shade of gray (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 color and grayscale accuracy.