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Monitor Buying Guide

This guide covers the basic points to look at when you consider buying a new monitor

What monitors are available?

The monitor is perhaps the most important element of any computer setup, you spend all the time you are at your PC looking at it and it directly impacts on the experience you have with your computer. Unfortunately the monitor is also often the most overlooked component. Only several years ago CRT monitors were the most popular and cost effective screen to be looking at. However due to their bulky size and high freight costs they have rapidly fallen out of favour since the lower cost TFT screens have come to market. There are TFT screens available for every budget and with good quality HD resolution screens now available for under £100.00 there has never been a better time to upgrade to a widescreen HD monitor.

What panel types are available?

There are three main panel technologies currently in use in LCDs. They are twisted nematic (TN), vertical alignment (VA) and in-plane switching (IPS). The majority of all the screens made by the large manufacturers are based on the TN panels due to their cost.

  • TN Panels: By far the most popular and cheapest panel technology, generally with few exceptions all monitors that cost £150.00 or less will likely be fitted with TN panels. TN panels have the advantage of ultra-fast response times (usually 2ms). The major disadvantage of TN based monitors are narrow viewing angles, comparatively low brightness levels and decreased colour reproduction.
  • VA Panels: Most commonly seen as PVA or S-PVA panels. VA screens offer improved viewing angles when compared to TN monitors, better colour reproduction and typically have a much higher maximum brightness level. The also have the lowest black levels of all three panel technologies but unfortunately the VA panels response time, input lag and price point are not quite as good as a TN based screen. This makes VA screens common in higher end panels starting from £150.00-£200.00 upwards, often popular with gamers and movie fans VA screens offer excellent all round performance.
  • IPS Panels: IPS based monitors are usually the most expensive available, however the latest e-IPS based monitors can cost as little as £150.00 for a smaller model. They have the best viewing angles of all the panel types and produce by far the most accurate colours; however the black level is slightly behind that of a VA based screen. IPS screens normally have the slowest response times and input lag however their target market is professional video and photo editing so the limitations of this panel type are minimised. Technically the best screen technology but you have to pay for the privilege of having an IPS based screen.

What difference does a backlight make?

Most LCD monitors use a col cathode florescent tube (CCFL) as their backlight of choice although more and more manufacturers are now embracing LE backlight technology. Some manufacturers advertise a LED screen although this is often just a LCD with LED backlighting as LED and LCD technologies are not mutually exclusive.

There are different types of LED backlight which are suitable for ultra-slim monitors, pinpoint colour reproduction or low power usage. The main benefits however to the end user are much simpler. CCFL technology uses lots of toxic mercury in its production and as such can be a danger to the environment. LED backlights contain no mercury and can be recycled considerably easier. For most people buying a LED based monitor it will offer lower power consumption and be easier to dispose of at the end of its life.

What is the importance of resolution?

The resolution of a LCD monitor is dictated quite heavily by the monitor size. Normally the bigger the monitor you purchase the higher its resolution will be, the higher the resolution of the screen the better the fonts and sharpness of the picture will look. At higher resolutions items appear sharper yet they also appear smaller so more items can fit on the screen.

Why is the brightness of the screen important?

The brightness rating is a measurement of how much light a panel can produce. Luminance is expressed as candelas per square meter. A measurement of 200 to 250 is ok for most office and home tasks while 300 to 400 will produce a superb image that is great for movies and gaming.

What ports should I look for on a monitor?

When purchasing a monitor one of the most important features to consider are the included monitor ports. Many years ago a monitor would just have a VGA connection that would be suitable for all uses; a modern screen however can have an almost unfathomable amount of different connections.

The most common connectors on a modern LCD screen are as follows:

  • HDMI: The HDMI connection is used to connect a display to a HD source like a PC, Blu-Ray player or Games Console like the Playstation 4 or Xbox One. HDMI connections are now very common and it is rare now to find a monitor over 22” that does not come equipped with a HDMI connection.
  • DisplayPort: The newest standard and the planned replacement to HDMI and DVI. DisplayPort is a higher bandwidth connection that could allow for the development of thinner screens due to the need for less circuitry to process the image. Adoption has been slow but more and more screens now feature DisplayPort with it being included as standard on many new graphics cards and laptops such as Apple’s Macbook Pro.
  • DVI: Offers high resolutions and a high quality image. DVI is a good choice for most users, it is normally best to look at a screen with at least one DVI port.
  • VGA: Predominantly found on value monitors as the primary connection or included on higher end screens to provide legacy support the VGA connection’s days are sadly numbered. Also known as a D-Sub connection. The maximum resolution a VGA connection can handle is 2048 x 1536 pixels at 85Hz refresh rate.