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Computer Monitor Buying Guide

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A computer monitor is an integral part of any workstation and choosing the right one for your needs is of utmost importance. In this HardBoiled guide, we will teach you the essentials you need to know about monitors by defining the technical jargon you will usually see on a product page for one. By being informed of what those technical terms mean, you can decide for yourself what monitor you need.

Resolution

When buying a monitor, size is often the first consideration. However, deciding on a resolution is just as important. Below is a list of the more common monitor resolutions. One thing to keep in mind is that the top three on the list have specific computer hardware requirements that must be met.

  • 4K – With a total of 8,294,400 pixels, 4K is a 3840 × 2160 resolution with an aspect ratio of 16:9. Recently, the term 4K has been a popular topic amongst HDTV enthusiasts. However, there are also professional applications for 4K resolution, ranging from professional imaging to digital signage.Working with a 4K monitor is akin to having the screen real estate of four 1080p screens. To maximize such a large resolution, a 27-inch or larger monitor is ideal. Your video card will need to be capable of outputting HDMI 1.4 or HDMI 2.0. However, HDMI 1.4 is only capable of outputting 4K at 30 Hz. DVI and VGA are not capable of carrying a 4K signal. Compatible Connectors: HDMI 1.4 and newer, DisplayPort 1.2 and newer.
  • 1600p – This resolution measures 2560 × 1600 and has an aspect ratio of 16:10. It is very uncommon and is mainly found in monitors larger than 30-inches. Similar to 4K, only certain connection types are capable of carrying a 1600p signal. DVI-D, and DisplayPort, and HDMI 1.4 and newer are compatible. Compatible Connectors: HDMI 1.4 and newer, DisplayPort 1.2 and newer, and DVI-D.
  • 1440p – A large resolution, 1440p is short for 2560 × 1440 and has a total of 3,686,400 pixels. 1440p monitors are often 27-inches at minimum and are some of the largest monitors available. 1440p is similar to 1600p except that it has an aspect ratio of 16:9. Compatible Connectors: HDMI 1.4 and newer, DisplayPort 1.2 and newer, and DVI-D.
  • 1080p – Currently the most common resolution for many different types of displays, including HDTVs, monitors, projectors, and more. Most monitors in the 20- to 24-inch range have a resolution of 1080p. For general office use, 1080p is a well-suited choice. Compatible Connectors: HDMI 1.0 and newer, DisplayPort 1.0 and newer, DVI-I, and DVI-D.
  • 900p – A relatively uncommon resolution that measures 1600 × 900 in size and is found mainly in monitors smaller than 20-inches. It offers slightly more screen space than 720p but 1080p content will be downscaled to fit the screen.Compatible Connectors: HDMI 1.0 and newer, DisplayPort 1.0 and newer, DVI-I, and DVI-D.
  • 720p – The smallest resolution that is still considered high-definition, it measures 1280 × 720. Monitors with 720p resolutions are typically smaller than 20-inches.Compatible Connectors: HDMI 1.0 and newer, DisplayPort 1.0 and newer, DVI-I, and DVI-D.

Panel Type

The type of panel a monitor is equipped with is just as important as its size and resolution. It can have an effect viewing angles, color accuracy, refresh rate, and more. Often, it is better to pick the panel type you want as certain tasks may require a specific type of panel.

  • Twisted Nematic (TN) – The most common and inexpensive to produce type of panel, it also has the fastest refresh rates and response times. The downsides of TN panels include very limited viewing angles and poorer color accuracy. The most popular panel type because of low cost, TN monitors are sufficient for users that do not require high color accuracy.They are also a poor choice for digital signage, as their viewing angles are subpar. If you are buying a monitor for general use and want to prioritize cost over color reproduction, a monitor with a TN panel will serve you best.
  • In-Plane Switching (IPS) – A premium panel type that features color accuracy and viewing angles superior to TN. Refresh rate and response time is not as quick, however. IPS monitors tend to be pricier than TN panels but are better suited for users that require high color accuracy.Under the IPS umbrella though, there are several different subtypes and variations of the technology. You will commonly see variants such as S-IPS, AH-IPS, H-IPS, E-IPS, and more. Several of these types of panels still essentially fall under the category of IPS, but may be trademarked versions.
  • Plane-to-Line Switching (PLS) – Very similar to IPS panels but with a better color range, viewing angles, and are even brighter. However, their response times and refresh rates are not as fast as TN panels.

Tech Terms

  • Contrast Ratio – One of the most important metrics when comparing different displays, contrast ratio is the difference between the brightest and darkest colors a monitor can create. A display with a poor contrast ratio will usually output images that appear to be washed out and not vibrant.Generally, a higher contrast ratio is better. For instance, a monitor with a contrast ratio of 4,500:1 will produce better images than one with a contrast ratio of 1,000:1.
  • Response Time – The amount of time it takes a pixel to change color, with a lower or faster time being better. The most commonly used rating for response time is gray-to-gray or GTG, which the take it takes a pixel to go from gray to a different color and then back to gray. A lower response time will result in less ghosting and motion blur.
  • Refresh Rate – Refresh rate is a measurement of how often a monitor can update the image being displayed on the screen. The standard refresh rate for most computer monitors is 60 Hz, or 60 frames per second. Like HDTVs, some monitors are advertised as being 120 Hz. Unlike HDTVs however, many 120 Hz monitors require a video card capable of outputting 120 Hz.

Connectivity Concerns

When purchasing a monitor, you should also be concerned with what type of connectors are supported or required. The latter can be especially true of choosing a 1440p or larger resolution monitor. If any of the connections mentioned below are required by the monitor, you will need to ensure your video card is capable of outputting them.

  • DVI-I – The standard connector for high-definition monitors, DVI is short for Digital Visual Interface. DVI-I is a specific type of DVI connector that is supported by most 1080p and smaller resolution monitors. 1440p and larger resolutions are not supported.
  • DVI-D – The less common digital-only variant of DVI that is capable of supporting resolutions larger than 1080p. In order for 1440p or 1600p monitors to actually display those resolutions, they must be connected via DVI-D cable.
  • HDMI – The gold standard for many types of displays, from HDTVs and projectors to monitors. There have been many different revisions of the standard, each with different properties. For versions 1.0 to 1.3, the maximum resolution supported is 1080p.For 4K support, you will need HDMI 1.4 or 2.0. However, HDMI 1.4 can only support 4K at 30 Hz. HDMI 2.0 can support 4K at 60 Hz or 60 frames per second.
  • DisplayPort – A digital-only connection that has gone through several revisions much like HDMI. From version 1.2, support for 4K resolutions has been included. DisplayPort support is primarily found in higher-end monitors.

Conclusion

The information above represents the most commonly touted and advertised technical specifications for monitors. Finding the right computer monitor that fits your needs is a process made easy as long as you are aware of which features and specs you need and want. So what features matter most to you in a computer monitor? Let us know in the comments!

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Wallace Chu

Wallace Chu

A self-professed tech hipster that loves computers and music. Uses an iPhone ironically.

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