Monitors Buyers Guide

What is a Monitor?

A monitor is the display screen that connects to your computer to provide visual information. It is the primary interface with the PC regardless of whether you are browsing the web, working on spreadsheets, gaming or content creating. The importance of your monitor choice cannot be over stated as all other components within the computer play a part in how the final image appears on the screen.

For example, the processor power and memory capacity will affect how an application is perceived on the monitor, whilst the graphics card will affect how the images from an application are rendered on the monitor.

Since the monitor plays a pivotal role in your computer experience, it is always worth investing in the best specification that your budget allows - primarily because monitor technology does not evolve as fast as many PC components, so you may only change your monitor once every three or four PC upgrades. That is not to say you will change your entire PC three or four times, as you may only need to upgrade a graphics card (GPU) to get an uplift in visual performance, however you need to make sure any benefit from such an upgrade will be reflected on the monitor.

This is why investing in your monitor is crucial to support a future-proofing pathway to upgrade your PC and gain maximum lifespan from your entire system.

In this guide we’ll discuss all the attributes involved in how a monitor displays the image, the type of panel used, the image resolution, and other parameters that play a part in how the final image looks. There are many interleaved aspects of monitor design that affect the end images and it can appear quite complex at times, but understanding these facets and the impact they have will ensure you make the right decision when purchasing your screen, resulting in maximum enjoyment for the longest time.

How to use this guide

There's a lot to consider when choosing a monitor so we've broken down this buyers guide into topics.
If you don't want to read the whole buyers guide at once, or one topic is more important to you than the others,
you can use the buttons in this index to skip to the relevant topic.

Types of Monitor and Uses Monitor Size Resolution Aspect Ratio Curved Monitors Monitor Stands Image Quality Panel Types Colour Gamut Refresh Rate NVIDIA G-SYNC and AMD FreeSync Response Time Contrast Ratio Brightness Inputs and Outputs Multiple Monitors Additional Monitor Options

Types of monitor and uses

The array of monitors available on the market is vast and their descriptions are full of acronyms, abbreviations, ratios and values that mean nothing without some background knowledge. This guide will get into all their meanings, but here are a few basic pointers that can be applied to get a general steer on what features to look out for in a monitor description depending on what you intend to do with it. The below table rates these facets from 1 to 5 in degree of importance to summarise the level of specification to look out for.

TYPE OF USE Screen size Sharpness of image Range of colours Fast-moving images Recommended Mid-Range panel type Recommended High-End panel type
General Home or Office 2 2 3 1 TN IPS
Professional Graphics 4 5 5 3 IPS IPS
Professional Video 4 5 5 5 IPS IPS
Gaming 5 4 4 5 TN IPS

Although the above acts as a quick guide to monitor selection, as with most things regarding technology this isn’t the whole picture, so we’d recommend you read on to understand more about the different features that define exactly how the display will look.

Monitor size

As highlighted in the table above the size of the screen has a large part to play depending on what you are using the monitor for. Screen sizes are usually shown in inches and are measured on the diagonal from top left to bottom right. Common sizes used in many home or office environments range from 19” to 25”, professional users working with video or graphics should opt for 27” and above to have a larger viewing area and greater image detail, while gamers should go for as a large a monitor as possible, as this will provide better peripheral vision in games, particularly first-person shooters.

Resolution

Whist it is true that a larger screen will give a larger image and provide more space to have more applications open at once, the screen resolution has to be sufficiently high to ensure the larger image remains sharp. Resolution is the number of pixels (the tiny dots that make up the image) that the screen possesses - it is shown as a number for screen length and a number of screen height - the regular types are listed below with commonly used names you may also see. Also shown is the recommended screen size required to result in a good image.

Resolution Name Screen Size
Recommended
1920 x 1080 FullHD Up to 25”
2560 x 1440 QHD 27”
3440 x 1440 UW-QHD 28” +
3840 x 2160 4K or UHD 28” +

It is also worth mentioning that higher resolution monitors are beginning to filter into the market - commonly referred to as 5K (5120 x 2880), 6K (6016 x 3384) and 8K (7680 x 4320), however these are very expensive at present and require a very high-end graphics card within the PC to power them effectively. Even with a 4K resolution screen you should ensure your graphics card has a high enough specification to do the image justice.

Aspect ratio

The aspect ratio refers to the difference between the screen width and height, and gives a representation of the screen shape. If you compare a tablet screen to a laptop or monitor screen you will see that the tablet appears squarer and the laptop or monitor appears more rectangular - the tablet uses a 4:3 aspect ratio whereas the laptop or monitor is more commonly a 16:9 aspect ratio.

If you refer back to the table above, you’ll see the FullHD, QHD (Quad HD) and UHD (Ultra HD) all work out to be a 16:9 aspect ratio, but the UWHD (Ultra Wide HD) is actually 21:9. This ratio is the height as a regular 16:9 monitor but much wider.

Wider 21:9 aspect monitors come in larger sizes like 34” and 38” and are particularly useful when graphical applications or documents are required to be viewed side by side. Previously the only way to achieve this was with two 16:9 monitors sat side by side, however the advantages of a large single 21:9 screen is the lack of central bezel between screens so a single unbroken image is possible, and the need for only one power cord and cable connection to the PC. This not only reduces cable clutter but may also have an impact on your choice of graphics card - a saving could be made if the ability to power multiple monitors is not required.

Another scenario where an UWHD monitor is beneficial is gaming as the extra viewing area provides a more immersive experience. This is particularly apparent in first person shooters and flight/space sims as the wider screen allows for greater perception of your surroundings and possible danger.

Curved monitors

Although wider aspect monitors offer a greatly expanded field of view for gaming scenarios it is still preferred that your eyes move rather than your whole head to track the action, it may therefore be advantageous to consider a curved wide aspect monitor. Not only is this easier on the eyes, but the edges of the screen suffer less distortion due to the improved viewing angle too.

It is worth mentioning that as graphics capability progresses screen sizes and shapes to do them justice is evolving too. Super Ultra Wide aspect monitors are becoming increasingly common ranging up to 49” sizes, with aspect ratios of 32:9 and resolutions of 5120 x 1440.

Monitor Stands

Depending on the size and shape of the monitor you choose there are several options when it comes to positioning your screen or screens. All monitors will come with a stand, cheaper ones may have a fixed stand offering no adjustment, whereas high-end monitor stands have height, tilt and swivel adjustable stands. Correct monitor positioning is critical so that you can maintain a healthy posture when sat at your desk using your computer. Some stands allow the screen to be rotated vertically - often seen when in use by programmers - to enable a taller but narrower view.

There is also the option to use monitor mounting arms instead of the supplied stand. This is of particular use where two or more screens are being used together and desk space is limited - we’ll discuss monitor mounting options further, towards the end of this guide.

Image Quality

There are many factors that ultimately affect the quality and sharpness of an image displayed on your monitor and we’re going to look at each of these in turn, but first we’ll start with a quick comparison of which ones are most important to consider depending on what you’ll be using the monitor for. The table rates these facets from 1 to 5 in degree of importance for various use cases.

PRIMARY SYSTEM USE Panel Type Colour Gamut Refresh Rate Response Time Contrast Ratio Brightness
General Home or Office 2 2 1 1 3 3
Professional Graphics 5 5 3 3 5 5
Professional Video 5 5 3 3 5 5
Gaming 4 4 5 5 5 4

As with any summary, further knowledge of each factor is advisable to ensure you make the correct decision when choosing your monitor.
Read on to get a more detailed view.

Panel Types

There are three panel technologies to choose from. Twisted Nematic (TN), In-Plane Switching (IPS) and Vertical Alignment (VA) - all of which exhibit different characteristics making some panel types better suited for specific uses.

TN IPS VA
PROS High refresh rate, low price Huge colour depth, best viewing angles High colour depth, good viewing angles
CONS Narrow viewing angles, limited colour depth High price, older panels have a low refresh rate Limited availability, older panels have a low refresh rate

TN Panel monitors are the lowest-price models on the market, with the highest refresh rates, however the technology does suffer notable drawbacks. The first is limited viewing angles, particularly on the vertical axis. Colour reproduction is also compromised - this can result in visible colour banding, and inferior contrast ratios when compared with IPS or VA panels. Color gamut (the range of colours a monitor can display) is another area in which TN panels often fall flat, which makes them unsuitable for video or photo editing or any other application for which colour accuracy is essential.

IPS panel monitors will cost more than a TN-based equivalent, but they have vastly superior viewing angles than TNs. This means you can view IPS panels from extreme angles and still get accurate colour reproduction. Newer models are exhibiting higher refresh rates and reduced input lag with each product refresh, so IPS panels make an ideal choice for applications requiring good colour reproduction and a wide gamut.

VA panel monitors offer a feature set and price somewhere in between TN and IPS panels. They offer the best contrast ratios of any panel, and although a VA panel can’t quite match the performance of an IPS panel, the difference is minimal. Compared to TNs, VA panels do offer much better colour reproduction and are usually favoured by media professional for this and due to their wide colour gamut.

It is also worth noting that various monitor manufacturers refer to these three types using slightly differing names too, so you may see things like Nano-IPS, AH-IPS, MVA and AMVA+ to name just a few. This is just their own branding and the monitor panels will still fall into one of these three types.

Colour Gamut

We’ve already mentioned that colour gamut is the range of colours a monitor can display. This is important as it defines how true the colours of an image can be reproduced when transferred from one device (camera or scanner) to another computer screen or printer). For design and media professionals this is the key attribute when considering a monitor. It is also important for accurate graphical representation when gaming.

There are various standards that cover colour gamuts. The three standards frequently cited in relation to PC monitors are sRGB, Adobe RGB, and NTSC. The colour gamut defined by each standard is depicted as a triangle on a graph called the xy chromaticity diagram. These triangles show the peak RGB coordinates connected by straight lines. A larger area inside a triangle is desirable as it represents a screen capable of displaying more colours.

NTSC is the colour gamut developed for the US television broadcast, whereas Adobe RGB and sRGB are gamuts used in professional graphics reproduction. Figures for colour gamut are displayed as a percentage followed by the standard it is based on. A higher percentage is better as it means the range of colours on offer is wider, so the image will have most life-like quality. For example most gamers will benefit from a high colour gamut such as 72% NTSC or 99% sRGB, while a photo or video editing professional may want a 100% NTSC or 99% Adobe RGB rated monitor to get the most realistic screen images. It is also worth mentioning that to gain true colour representation on a monitor it is advised to have it professionally calibrated.

If you are on a limited budget where a TN panel monitor may be your first choice, it is worth remembering that they deliver a low colour gamut that can lead to colour banding - a phenomenon where you begin to see lines in blocks of graded colour as the screen doesn’t possess the range of colours needed to render it properly.

Refresh Rate

The refresh rate is the frequency at which the monitor redraws the image per second and is measured in hertz (Hz). A faster rate of refresh (higher Hz value) will make for a smoother experience, so is particularly important when viewing rapidly moving content such games. Entry level monitors typically have a refresh rate of 60Hz, whereas 120Hz is common now in mid-range screens. High-end monitors for gaming now have rates as high as 240Hz or 300Hz. It is also fair to say that a higher refresh is preferable when using any application as the smoother appearance reduces eye strain especially over longer periods of time using the monitor.

GT76

The video above shows the benefits of a higher refresh rate, with the game running at 60Hz on the left side of the screen and 300Hz on the right. Note how much smoother the game appears at 300Hz.

It is worth mentioning that although a high refresh rate is better for the resulting image, your experience will also be determined by the frame rate, the frequency at which the graphics card redraws the image per second which is measured in fps. A frame is a single image and so the rate of fps determines how smoothly a moving image will ultimately appear. If the graphics card can only deliver 60fps and your monitor is 120Hz rated, you’ll only be using half its capability for smoothness. Transversely if you have a GPU capable of rendering at 120fps, but only a 60Hz monitor you’ll only see the first 60 frames that the GPU is sending to the monitor. It is therefore recommended that you consider your monitor purchase or upgrade in conjunction with the capabilities of your graphics card - an increase in specification in only one of them may not result in any visual benefit.

NVIDIA G-SYNC and AMD FreeSync

NVIDIA G-SYNC and AMD FreeSync are similar technologies that are driven from the graphics card but have an impact on the monitor refresh rate. They each operate in a slightly different way but both have the same result in dynamically adapting the monitor refresh rate (Hz) to the GPUs frame rate (fps). This acts to reduce ‘tearing’ and ‘ghosting’ when gaming to deliver a smoother experience.

At present only G-SYNC certified monitors will work with NVIDA GPUs, and likewise only FreeSync certified monitors will only work with AMD GPUs, so ensure you check compatibility prior to purchasing your monitor.

Response time

Response time is the time it takes a pixel to shift from one colour to another. Usually, this is measured in terms of going from black to white to black again, and is given in terms of milliseconds (ms). Response time isn’t really a factor for general home or office use but does have significant impact when it comes to gaming. For games with fast moving action a low response time is key - under 5ms is good, 1ms is better. This will ensure image blurring is minimised and rapid action sequences remain sharp, so if gaming is a primary intended use for your monitor then look out for a 1ms response time listed in the specifications.

Contrast ratio

The contrast ratio is simply the difference between the darkest blacks and the brightest whites any given monitor can display. Typically, computer monitors have a contrast ratio of about 1000:1, meaning that the brightest state a pixel can be in is 1000 times brighter than its dimmest state. As we’ve often seen in this guide, once again it is gaming usage that sees the greatest advantage from a higher contrast ratio so some higher end monitors offer a higher contrast ratio. It is also worth remembering that any ambient light falling on the screen will affect how the contrast looks, so placement of your screen is always important too.

Brightness

Brightness is a measurement of the amount of light the monitor screen produces. It is given in nits or candelas per square meter (cd/m²). One nit is equal to one cd/m². Typical brightness ratings range from 250 to 350 cd/m² for monitors that perform general-purpose tasks. The higher the brightness figure the more flexibility you have - if your monitor is in variable natural light then the ability to significantly adjust the screens brightness is a big advantage. Also if you are positioned father away from the monitor screen then a greater level of brightness may be required. For more realistic colour reproduction and wider colour ranges, brightness levels can be increased by choosing High Dynamic Range or HDR monitors.

High Dynamic Range

A High Dynamic Range or HDR monitor has the ability to display a broader spectrum of colours and contrasts. Basically, this means that an HDR monitor more realistically displays nuances and colour tones, and shows more detail when it comes to light and dark. In order to display HDR image material, both the monitor and the content need to be suitable for HDR. HDR content tells a monitor exactly which colour and black levels are best for the most realistic display. Content that's suitable for HDR has this colour information embedded in it, so a game or video can easily use it provided you have the right screen.

There are various types of HDR, ranging from HDR400 to HDR1600 where the number corresponds to the brightness level achieved in cd/m² - going much higher than standard monitor levels. This technology also offers a wider colour gamut (exceeding that of sRGB) and contrast ratios of up to 100000:1. Perhaps not surprisingly, these HDR monitors occupy the more expensive end of the market.

Inputs and outputs

Monitors usually have a number of interfaces available for you to connect them to your PC (or laptop if you’re using it as a second screen), and in this section we’ll look at each one you’re likely to find, some details about it and advise which one is best for given applications.

HDMI or High Definition Multimedia Interface is probably the most common connection you’ll see on a modern monitor. It is designed to carry uncompressed audio and video data in a single cable. There have been several version of HDMI and you will usually see HDMI 1.4 or HDMI 2.0 around now. These differ in the bandwidth capability, so it is important to know which version the monitor supports as HDMI 1.4 will only support 4K content up to 24fps. HDMI 2.0 now enables 4K content at 60fps and 144Hz at FullHD (1080) resolution. HDMI 2.0 also features 12-bit colour versus the 8-bit colour available on HDMI 1.4 - this will have growing significance when using HDR content.

DisplayPort is another combined audio and video option that offers up to 4K resolution at 120Hz. The most common version is known as v1.2, the older v.1.1 only supports 144Hz at FullHD. There is a new v.1.3 / 1.4 beginning to increase in prevalence which has bandwidth sufficient to support 4K resolutions at 144Hz - perfect for gaming. The main advantage of DisplayPort is the ability to output to multiple displays through Multi-Stream Transport (MST). You can do this by daisy-chaining compatible monitors over DisplayPort to your single DisplayPort output on your PC or laptop. You have to work within the bandwidth limitations of whichever DisplayPort specification you’re using, such as two 1920 x 1080 monitors using v1.2 or two 3840 x 2160 displays using the v1.3 / 1.4 specification. As such, DisplayPort is often a great choice for those looking to use multiple monitors.

DVI stands for Digital Visual Interface, and is another common connection found on PC monitors. Things can become a little confusing when you consider there are several types of DVI. There is DVI-D (digital signal) and DVI-I (integrated analog and digital signal). Not only that, but both have single-link and dual-link versions. The differences between single-link and dual-link refer to how much bandwidth the cable can carry - single link supports 1200 resolution whilst dual link tops out at 1600. It also supports a FullHD (1080) resolution at 144Hz refresh rate - ideal for gaming.

VGA is the oldest of the connections you may find - it stands for Video Graphics Array but can also be referred to as an RGB connection or D-Sub. While VGA can technically output to FullHD (1080p), the problem is that it’s an analog connection, as you push the resolution higher you get image degradation as the signal is converted from analog to digital. Unless you absolutely have to, use one of the newer connections instead of VGA

USB-C is the newest standard connector and is primarily, but not exclusively, seen on Apple monitors. It has the advantage of being able to not only output video, but also to transmit audio, data and power. This makes it an extremely versatile video cable. Furthermore the USB Type-C connector is a fully reversible plug and its cross-platform compatibility with new smartphones, tablet, laptops and computers, make it likely to get more widespread in the coming years.

It is worth mentioning again at this point that monitor performance is tied to graphics card (GPU) capability, so always ensure you have compatible hardware so you get the resolution and refresh rates you expect to see.

Whilst we’re talking about connections, if you are looking for a monitor screen to give a second or larger display to a laptop, then the ports on the laptop may differ - USB-C is becoming increasingly common, but Mini DisplayPort or Mini HDMI interfaces will require adapters added to the standard DisplayPort or HDMI cable coming from the monitor. It is always advisable to check what available ports you have on both your laptop and monitor.

Multiple monitors

We’ve mentioned using multiple monitors several times in this guide, and if you want to go down this route (as opposed to an ultra-wide single screen), then there are a few considerations. Firstly, how you plan to connect them to your computer - this can be done by daisy chaining them one to the other, so you only have a single connection to the PC (or laptop). Either DisplayPort or USB-C support this type of connectivity.

Alternatively you can use different ports on your graphics card(s).

When using multiple monitors you naturally have additional cables in the form of video connectors and power cables, plus extra desk space taken up by several stands. It is therefore advisable to fit the monitors on mounting arms, as these not only keep desk space free, but allow some cable management too to keep things neat. The majority of monitors have standard mounting holes on the back of the screen casing to take a VESA bracket for mounting on a flexible arm, fixed stand or wall attachment.

It is worth pointing out too that VESA mounting arms can also be used for a single monitor too, either clamping to a desk, or attaching to a wall.

Additional Monitor Options

As a buying guide for monitors, naturally we’ve concentrated on the main screen and image parameters, but there are a number of additional options you may want such as inbuilt speakers, a camera or extra USB ports.

When considering speakers for your PC, your choice will be driven very much by what you are using it for it. For gaming or video work you will almost certainly want external PC speakers to get maximum sound immersion and quality, however if you are a general home or office user, then inbuilt monitor speakers may be perfectly adequate. Though they won’t reproduce the best sound they do act to keep a desk uncluttered.

Having an integral camera within your monitor is another way to reduce additional devices and cabling around your desk space. It. Is also increasingly important with the growing use of video calling applications such as Zoom, Teams or Skype. Although there won’t be a huge amount of difference between monitor brands and the quality of their cameras, it may be worth looking for features such as compatibility with Microsoft Hello face recognition capability, and a sliding camera cover to guarantee privacy.

Having additional USB ports located within your monitor has a number of advantages - not least extra ports for connecting peripherals, such as a webcam if you don’t opt for an inbuilt one. Extra ports may be especially important if you are using the monitor to add to a laptop, as many lighter and thinner laptop models are now lacking the number and type of ports seen on their bigger cousins. Having ports on the monitor gives added flexibility when the laptop is ‘docked’. Although it is worth noting that to use the USB ports on the monitor there will need to be a USB connection back to the PC or laptop. The USB-C interface we spoke about earlier suits this scenario ideally due to the audio, video, data and power transmission capability.

Time to choose

Hopefully you’ve found our guide to monitors useful, however if you still want further advice or have specific questions,
don’t hesitate to contact our friendly advisors on 01204 474747.

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