How to buy a PC monitor

October 5, 2010

Computer users, and that’s most of us, spend a lot of time looking at their monitors. Therefore, we should take some care in selecting the monitors that we stare at all day. Here are a few hints and tips.

Although it would be very hard to count the total, there are easily hundreds of computer monitors available today, and when you start to look for one, it seems like there are thousands. Worse, the differential in prices is truly substantial, from a low of $100 or so to a high far over $3,000. You would probably not be happy with the cheapest one, unless it is absolutely all that you can afford, and you would probably never discover all of the nifty features of the most expensive monitors.

The trick, then, is to spend the least money that you can on a monitor with just the features that you need or badly want. By now, of course, you have worked out that pretty much all monitors are LCDs and that there are no more of those heavy, bulky CRT’s of old. But there are still plenty of differences in just LCD monitors that you should know about in order to get your money’s worth. All of these features and differences, of course, are reflected in the final price that you will pay for your new monitor.

Size- LCD monitors are generally available in a size range between 17 and 28 inches, diagonally measured. There may be some 15-inch monitors left out there, but they are aimed at the server monitor crowd. A 17-inch monitor is getting so that it looks pretty small these days. If you have a number of programs open and want to be able to see multiple windows at a time, you should be thinking about at least 19 horizontal inches and perhaps even 21.

Personally, my main computer system is a laptop, so I use a dual screen system: my 15” laptop screen and an auxiliary 28” display, which is my main monitor at home. As you would expect, larger monitors cost more. Dual (or more) monitor setups are becoming more common for reasons of convenience. When I’m being a writer, having two monitors allow me to write in one pane and display research material in one or more others. When I’m being a programmer, I can have my code in one pane and the results in another. If you have similar needs, you may want to consider a multi-monitor setup.

Resolution- There is little sense in having a large monitor if all it will display is a small number of pixels. The resolution of displays is measured in horizontal and vertical pixels, such as 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels high, referred to as simple 1920×1080, which is the resolution needed, by the way, to display hi-definition video. Most monitors will display a number of different resolutions, but will have one that is recommended, mainly because it most efficiently uses the entire surface of the screen. Generally speaking, higher resolutions cost more than lower resolutions.

Response Rate- This is the time that a pixel in the monitor takes to go from active (black) to inactive (white) and back to active (black) again, measured in milliseconds. Lower numbers mean faster transitions and therefore fewer visible image artifacts, which are the “shadows” you sometimes see on slower screens. I was especially careful about this specification because I also use my large auxiliary monitor to display video, mainly films from Netflix. Fast pixel response is also essential for gaming. Faster response rates generally cost more, and you should try to stay in the 2 millisecond range.

Techie stuff- There are a number of other technical specs that you may want to investigate, such as the material and technology with which a monitor is made. Most monitors are of twisted nematic (TN)  construction (least expensive) but many are moving to LED, which is brighter but more expensive. LED displays also use less power than TN displays and are thinner. If you’re extremely interested in these technologies, Wikipedia is a good place to start your research.

Extras- There are a number of additional features that you can purchase if you have a need for them. For example, if you have a lot of USB devices that you use regularly, you may want to purchase a monitor that has easy-to-reach USB ports built right into it. It is certainly easier to plug and unplug devices when it is easy to see and reach the ports.

Also consider the way the monitor is mounted in its stand. This is especially important if a number of people are going to be sharing the computer and monitor. The viewing angle will be quite different for a tall adult and an 8-year-old. In cases like this, test out the ease with which the monitor tilts and swivels before you purchase it. Make sure that everyone in your family can use it easily.

If you play music or watch videos on your monitor, you should perhaps consider built-in speakers and the quality of those speakers, which differs widely among available models and manufacturers. If you need speakers, it is more convenient to have decent ones built into the monitor than it is to have standalone speakers that make your desk more cluttered, though monitor speakers are rarely as good as high-quality stand-alones.

Likewise, if you use your monitor to communicate with others via video phone calls over Skype or some other service, you probably want a monitor with a built-in Web-cam. This will save you the hassle of having to set up and aim your camera when you want to use it; the manufacturer will have taken care of that for you at the factory. Again, the built-in models are often not as good as more expensive add-ons, but usually perform well enough for these purposes and cut down on desktop clutter.

After taking all of this into consideration, you should be able to narrow your search down to just a few monitors from manufacturers that you trust. I generally buy Samsung monitors, but you are not going to go too far wrong with a monitor from NEC, ASUS, Viewsonic, LG, or a few others. After you get your possibilities down to a short list, you will probably find that the prices are fairly close together, and you can usually then just go with the least expensive monitor that meets your needs.

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