Planning to buy a monitor? What should you look for to buy the right one?

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Take it for granted that TV sets are going to have features like 4K and HDR, but that’s not the case with monitors. Different models have different features and with that is the price, so your choice has to be on certain important basics. 

Ask yourself the following questions: What is the purpose that the monitor is going to fulfil? How many colours do you want your monitor to display? Is HDR important? How important is colour accuracy?

Interesting questionnaire, how about if the requirement is for gaming monitors here? However, if you are aware what is the usage of your monitor and your budget, then you’re already well ahead of many who are confused with this mammoth issue. We’re here to help you to understand what should be the specifications to look out for in the monitor for your budget and needs.

The basics

Curved VS Flat 

So much hype. For us, curved monitors are the best way to make a single display wider without forcing you to sit too far back. Optimally, you should be able to see the entire screen without moving your head too much, and once you get beyond roughly 27 inches, that requires a curve. At 27 inches and below, not so much. The big “but” here is that curved displays can look so much more attractive. The 34-inch models tend to have a 21:9 aspect ratio, which means they’re wider and shorter than other displays and full-screen video will have the pillarbox effect. The amount of curve is expressed in “R”, the radius of its arc in millimetres. Too much of a curve can be distracting, while too little may as well be flat. However, ignore all the talk of how “immersive” they are. They really aren’t yet. On the other hand, unlike curved TVs, you’ll always be sitting in the sweet spot, so glare shouldn’t be an issue.

Resolution

If you have  a powerful PC or are planning to buy one then best is to have a 4K monitor (or 5K or even 8K). Otherwise, you might be better off with a 1080p or 1440p display.

Who all need a 4K monitor? For a content creator, a video pro – 4K monitor is a must nowadays. We would suggest get at least a 27-inch 4K display and preferably a 32-inch one. With anything less than 27”, it would be tough to notice the difference between a 4K and 1440p model.

For gamers, FPS players probably prefer 1080p or 1440p because frame rates can drop substantially at 4K unless you have a highly powerful PC. However, if you games you play are less demanding and they look beautiful, a 4K display might be more appropriate. For watching streaming movies, a 4K HDR display is preferred.

Screen size and shape

The most preferred display ratio is  16:9. However, there are some other options, ultra-wide 21:9, curved and 16:10. As far as size is concerned, monitors keep getting bigger, with 32 or 34-inch sizes now relatively common. Samsung came out with the first ultra-wide 49” monitor specifically for gamers. You can find plenty of massive 40-inch monitors on the market, but these curved, ultrawide displays are a special breed of huge. They used to be the weird new player in the monitor world, but these days, ultra-wide aspect ratios have found their place.

Aspect ratio is also important because it can confuse buyers as to the true size of a monitor. For instance, a 30-inch super-wide 21:9 monitor is the same height as a 24-inch model, so you might end up with a smaller display than you expected. A good way to make sure you get the right size is to choose a 16:9 size you like and add 25 percent for a 21:9 monitor. So if you’re good with a 27-inch 16:9 screen, then you’ll probably want a 34-inch super-wide display.  

HDR

What is HDR? The abbreviation stands for “high-dynamic-range”. It has been used in photography for quite some time now, and it has one singular goal: displaying images with lighting that is as realistic as possible.

And how does it accomplish that?

Essentially, HDR improves the contrast between light and dark areas, while also enhancing the lighting and the appearance of the displayed colours in a way that is meant to make them more vibrant and make them seem closer to how you’d see colours in real life.

The end result is a much more vivid image that you could easily mistake for a real-life scene, even if it is rendered in-game.

We can broadly divide monitors into HDR and non-HDR models. On a basic level, HDR is a standard that improves monitor brightness, contrast and colour range over regular models. It has the potential to punch up movies and graphics in a more noticeable way than the resolution boost offered by 4K.

Most PC monitors support HDR 10 and most can’t reach the required 1,000 nits of brightness, so other features and specifications are more important. Until late last year, there was no set baseline for HDR monitors, other than that they need to be bright, high contrast and colour rich. 

Refresh rate

The refresh rate of your monitor refers to how many times per second the screen refreshes the image on it. It’s measured in hertz (Hz), and the higher the number the more times per second your monitor refreshes.

Generally speaking, 60Hz is the minimum for a good quality, solid experience from a monitor. If you’re a gamer then the higher the refresh rate, the better. Refresh rates now go up to a whopping 240Hz. For gamers, it’s important to have a fast refresh rate to keep things sharp and reaction times high. Speedier frame rates in games make them super smooth.

Even for non-gamers, going below 60Hz will start to hurt your overall PC experience. If you went down to say, 30Hz, that’s only 30 redraws a second, which isn’t going to look great. The good news is that even without spending a lot of money, 60Hz is common enough nowadays that you should be able to find one.

As you increase the resolution of your panel, however, you’ll generally decrease the refresh rate. You won’t find a 4K monitor with a 240Hz refresh rate right now, for example, but you will find one at 60Hz. That’s something to balance, particularly if you’re a gamer. You have to make a sacrifice somewhere.

If you were wondering what the jargon is about, this story hopefully helps. If you’re a PC gamer, then a 144Hz monitor will be a great shout. A console gamer or an average PC user will get by just fine with 60Hz for now. However, if you’re on the bleeding edge and like things faster than fast, 240Hz is calling your name.

Inputs

There are essentially two types of modern input: DisplayPort and HDMI. Most monitors will come with both, matching the outputs on a desktop PC, while a select few (typically built for Macs) will use Thunderbolt. If you’re monitor shopping for a laptop with no HDMI or DisplayPort, USB-C and Thunderbolt support DisplayPort natively, a DisplayPort to USB-C cable or dongle is the way to go.

Panel type

The overwhelming majority of computer monitors, laptop screens and tablets are based on TFT-LCD (Thin Film Transistor – Liquid Crystal Display) technology, but not all of them are equal. LCDs are divided by type, each having their own strengths and drawbacks. Here are the most common types, along with the benefits and drawbacks of each.

TN: your father’s flat screen

The most common and least expensive LCD panels are based on TN, or Twisted Nematic designs. Since TN screens are made on a vast scale and have been around a long time, they are very affordable. Online retailers stock an abundance of attractive 27-inch 1080p monitors with reasonable features. The price is nice, but the pixel density isn’t—and neither are the colour quality or viewing angles, TN’s greatest weaknesses.

All TFT LCDs work by passing light, such as an LED, through a pair of polarised screens, a colour filter, and liquid crystals that twist when current is applied to them. The more current applied, the more the liquid crystals twist and block light. Precise adjustments allow virtually any colour or shade to be reproduced, but TN implementations have some limits.

Each pixel in an LCD display is made of red, green and blue sub-pixels. Colours are made by mixing varying brightness levels for these pixels, resulting in a perceived solid colour to the user. The problem with TN is its widespread adoption of a 6-bit per channel model, instead of the 8-bit per channel used in better displays.

TN compensates for this shortcoming via FRC (Frame Rate Control), a pixel trick that uses alternating colours to produce a perceived third, but it’s a poor substitute for proper 24-bit colour reproduction. When combined with the inversion and washout that comes from narrow viewing angles, TN’s elderly status in the LCD display world becomes clear.

However, TN has one advantage: response time. Display responsiveness is measured by the milliseconds it takes for a pixel to change from one colour state to another, frequently reported as the grey-to-grey or GTG speed. Lower values are better, and TN’s many years of development have resulted in ultrafast GTG times, with many boasting 1ms or 2ms response times. Combined with higher 144Hz and even 240Hz refresh rates, there are a growing number of enthusiast model TN LCDs that provide a crisp, lag-free experience especially well-suited to action games.

IPS: the professional’s choice

IPS, short for In-Plane-Switching, was designed to overcome TN’s shortcomings as a display technology. IPS screens also use liquid crystals, polarised filters, and transmitters, but the arrangement is different, with the crystals aligned for better colour visibility and less light distortion. Additionally, IPS panels typically use 8-bit depth per colour instead of TN’s 6-bit, resulting in a full 256 shades to draw upon for each colour.

The differences are pretty dramatic. While TN displays wash out at shallow angles and never truly “pop” with colour no matter how well they are calibrated, IPS panels have rich, bright colours that don’t fade or shift when viewed from the sides. Moreover, pressing a finger on an IPS screen doesn’t cause trailing distortions, making them especially useful for touchscreen applications.

While touted as the high end display technology of choice by giants such as Apple, the truth is that IPS screens still have drawbacks. Due to their more complex construction and the additional transmitters and lighting required for each pixel, IPS screens cost more than their TN counterparts. Thankfully, over the past few years, the popularity of no-frills import IPS monitors from Asia has helped drive down prices and force bigger monitor brands to sell more reasonably priced IPS displays.

The complexity introduces additional overhead that reduces panel responsiveness. Most IPS displays clock in a few milliseconds slower than TN panels, with the best models managing 5ms grey-to-grey, and the more common 8ms panels can have noticeable blurring in gaming. Most IPS displays use a 60Hz refresh rate, though the best gaming displays now utilise IPS panels with 144Hz refresh rates, and a price to match.

VA: the middle man

In between the high speed of TN and the colour richness of IPS sits a compromise technology, the VA, or Vertically Aligned, panel. VA and its variants (PVA and MVA, but not AHVA) normally take the IPS approach with 8-bit colour depth per channel and a crystal design that reproduces rich colours but retains some of the low latency and high refresh speed of TN. The result is a display that’s theoretically almost as colourful as IPS and almost as fast as TN.

VA panels have a few unique qualities, both positive and negative. They have superior contrast to both IPS and TN screens, often reaching a static 5000:1 ratio, and produce better black levels as a result. Advanced VA variants, such as the MVA panel used by Eizo in the Foris FG2421, support 120Hz officially and offer pixel latencies on par or better than IPS.

Unfortunately VA has a few problems that are hard to ignore. First on the list is a TN-like colour and contrast shift that occurs as viewing angles increase, which can make VA panels a tough pick for tasks that require accurate colour reproduction. For gamers, there’s another problem. While light-to-dark pixel transitions are speedy, darker colour shifts have longer latencies which can result in blurring. VA panels aren’t cheap, either. Still, if you want the best contrast ratios available in LCD technology, you won’t find better than a good MVA panel. As a bonus, prices are quite competitive.

OLED: the future is now

The flood of innovation in the display market shows no signs of abating, with TVs on one side and smartphones on the other driving new technologies such as curved screens and desktop-grade OLED panels that promise speeds, contrast and colour beyond anything seen so far.

Dell had its UP3017Q 30-inch OLED display in 2017, but it was then canceled. It’s unclear if the display was pulled due to reliability and cost, or if there was some other factor. Asus showed a 22-inch PQ22UC 4k OLED in 2018, but it so far hasn’t become available for purchase. The pixel density on that one might be a bit too small to be practical, unfortunately. But HDTVs like the LG OLED65E8PUA are here, now you can leapfrog the competition with a 65-inch gaming HDTV.

The primary benefit of OLED technology is that each pixel can be individually controlled. That means true blacks instead of approximations, and this can make the colours and display look more vibrant. Realistically, we’re still a couple of years away from larger OLED displays become affordable. But the advantages are such that the best VR headsets exclusively use OLED panels, typically running at 90Hz. Hopefully we’ll see PC gaming display equivalent this side of 2020.

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