Monitors are the window to the PC’s soul. Without a strong display, everything you do on your PC will seem lackluster, whether you’re gaming, looking at or editing photos, video or even reading text on the web.
How do you pick a PC monitor? (Credit: Shutterstock)
Monitor vendors are well aware of how the PC experience changes with different monitors specs and have flooded the market with all sorts of options. But which features and specs are most valuable for the ways you’ll be using your monitor? Do you need 5K, 4K, 1440p, 1080p, or just plain HD—and what’s the difference anyway? How much should refresh rates and response times influence your purchase decision? Do features like flicker-free, low blue light, G-Sync and FreeSync really matter? And how do your needs vary if your focus is gaming vs. professional applications vs. general use?
Quick Monitor Buying Tips
- Determine your monitor’s main purpose: gaming, professional, or general use. Generally, gamers should prioritize fast refresh rates and low response times, professionals should prioritize color accuracy, while general use users have less specific needs but will often opt for a monitor with a high-contrast VA panel.
- The higher the resolution, the better the picture. A monitor’s resolution tells you how many pixels a monitor has in length x width format. 1920x1080, also known as 1080p / Full HD (FHD) / HD, is the minimum you need, but you'll see sharper images on a QHD or 4K monitor.
- Refresh rates: bigger is better. This tells you the number of times your monitor updates with new information per second and is measured in hertz (Hz). Bigger numbers equal better, smoother and less choppy images. If you’re a gamer, refresh rate is especially important, and you’ll want a monitor with at least 75Hz (most monitors designed for gaming offer at least 144Hz), combined with the lowest response time you can find. If you’re not gaming, a 60Hz refresh rate should do.
- Response times: shorter is better. But it's not a big priority unless you’re gaming. Response time tells you how long a monitor takes to change individual pixels from black to white or, if its GTG response time, from one shade of gray to another. Longer response times can mean motion blur when gaming or watching fast-paced videos. The highest response time you’ll likely see is 5ms, while the fastest gaming monitors can have a 0.5ms response time.
- Panel technologies: for image quality, TN < IPS < VA. TN monitors are the fastest but cheapest due to poorer viewing angles. IPS monitors have slightly faster response times and show color better than VA panels, but VA monitors have the best contrast out of all three panel types. For more on the difference between panel types, see the dedicated section below.
- Should I get a curved monitor? This depends on preference. Curved monitors are supposed to make your experience more immersive with a large field of view, said to be less eye-straining. However, they can be prone to glare from certain angles (light sources are coming from various angles instead of one). They’re usually ultra-wide (and more effective if so) and can also be more expensive as some say curved monitors should be at least 30 inches.
If you do buy a curved monitor: an 1800R curvature has a curved radius of 1800mm and has a suggested best max viewing distance of 1.8 meters and so on.
Images on an LCD panel are comprised of millions of tiny dots. Each pixel consists of three sub-pixels, one for each primary color. A monitor’s resolution provides a screen’s length x width in pixels. The more pixels you can pack into each square-inch of a monitor, the more realistic and smooth the image. A higher resolution (QHD / 2K or better) is important if you want a monitor that's larger than 27 inches.
You can tell how many pixels a monitor has based on the name of its resolution. Some resolutions have multiple names. Below are the most common resolutions you’ll encounter from best (highest number of pixels) to worst (least number of pixels). Except where noted, we’re talking about a 16:9 aspect ratio.
|5K resolution||5120 x 2880|
|4K resolution||3840 x 2160 (typical monitor resolution)|
4096 x 2160 (official cinema resolution)
|Ultra HD (UHD) resolution||3840 x 2160|
|Quad HD (QHD) aka Wide Quad HD (WQHD) aka 1440p resolution||2560 x 1440|
|2K aka 1440p resolution||2560 x 1440 (typical monitor resolution)|
2048 x 1080 (official cinema resolution)
|WUXGA resolution||1920 x 1200|
|Full HD (FHD) aka 1080p aka HD resolution||1920 x 1080|
|HD aka 720p resolution||1280 x 720|
While more pixels is generally better, two things can make you second think getting a QHD or 4K monitor.
The first is your PC's graphics card. The more pixels you have, the more processing power your graphics card needs to alter those pixels in a timely fashion. 4K monitors display stunning images, but if your system isn’t up to the task of driving 8.3 million pixels, your overall experience will suffer and that extra resolution will actually become a hindrance.
The second thing that can hold back a high resolution monitor is your operating system's font-scaling capabilities. Windows is best at a pixel density of 90-100 pixels per inch (ppi). If a monitor has a pixel density much greater than that, objects and text will look extremely small and potentially impossible to read. When reviewing 27-inch 5K monitors, we’ve been forced to use dpi-scaling for any hope of reading text in our applications. Scaling varies in quality among monitors and is not always a sure fix when text is too tiny.
What resolution do I need for gaming?
For the best picture, more pixels are better. But if you’re gaming those pixels can also slow you down if you don’t have a beefy enough graphics card. Most video interfaces don’t support refresh rates faster than 60 Hz for 4K/UHD or 5K signals. Video interfaces are just beginning to support higher refresh rates at 4K resolution, but you still need a very expensive graphics card play at 4K resolution and push past 60 frames per second (fps). Our Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan X barely managed it even with detail levels down.
Minimum graphics card requirements vary based on the game, but if you plan on buying a monitor for gaming at QHD/2K resolution (and don’t want to have to turn the in-game settings down to low), you’ll want at least a GTX 1060 or RX 580. 4K gamers will want at least a 1070 Ti or RX Vega 64, unless they happen to have a dual-card set up running in Nvidia SLI or AMD Crossfire (for help picking a graphics card, see our Graphics Card Buying Guide, Best Graphics Cards and , GPU Performance Hierarchy pages). For help choosing gaming in 4K, see our Best 4K Gaming Monitors page.
The current sweet spot seems to be QHD/2K (2560x1440) resolution. With monitors up to 32 inches, you see good density and a detailed image that isn’t too difficult for mid-priced graphics cards to handle.
If you want ultimate speed, FHD (1920x1080) delivers the highest frame rates (you won't find gaming monitors today with lower resolution). But avoid stretching that resolution past 27 inches, as you may notice a dip in image quality, with pesky individual pixels being visible.
What kind of panel do I need? TN vs. VA vs. IPS
There are three major technologies used in today’s LCD panels: twisted nematic (TN panel), vertical alignment (VA panel) and in-plane switching (IPS panel). Each has several variations that offer different advantages, like better viewing angles, faster panel response, lower power consumption and the like. We won’t get into the intricacies of how these differing panels work. Instead, the chart explains how each impacts image quality and the best use cases for each panel.
|Performance||Fastest: low response times, highest refresh rates, minimal motion blur; Low input lag||Longest response times typically; Higher refresh rates possible||Slower response times than TN, faster response times than VA; Gaming-quality refresh rates are rare|
|Display||Worst viewing angles;|
|Viewing angles typically better than TN, worse than IPS; |
Best image depth
|Best viewing angles; |
|Pricing||Cheapest||Pricier models can have performance comparable to TN||Most expensive|
|Best Use||Gaming||General Use||Professional|
While that graph should be enough to make a quick decision on panel type, if you want to dive deeper, consider the following:
- Contrast is the most important factor in image quality and reliability (5,000:1 is better than 1,000:1). As such, we consider VA panels to offer the best image quality of the three.
- We’ve reviewed plenty of TN screens that can hold their own in the color department with more expensive IPS and VA displays. While the general perception is that TN offers less accurate color and contrast than VA and IPS panels, there’s a chance you won’t notice the difference. Many gaming monitors use TN panels for their speed. We’ve found that color quality differs by price more than it does by panel tech.
Gaming monitors: Which features matter?
There are many confusing choices and even more confusing marketing for gamers to sift through when shopping for a monitor. Here, we’ll break down the features that actually benefit gamers. Note that some factors depend on a player's skill level.
For our top gaming monitor recommendations, check out our Best Gaming Monitors page. And for 4K stunners, check see our Best 4K Gaming Monitors page.
What should my gaming monitor’s refresh rate and response time be?
Ideally, you want a monitor with at least a 75 Hz, combined with the lowest response time you can find. Refresh rate is particularly important for gamers, so most gaming monitors have a refresh rate of at least 144 Hz, and you’ll want a maximum response time of 5ms. However, there are some worthy 60 Hz gaming monitors, and many 4K ones are limited to 60 Hz. If you do opt for a 60 Hz display and plan to game, G-Sync or FreeSync is a must (more on that below)
Lower resolution + good graphics card = faster refresh rates. Look at the on-screen display above from the Acer Predator Z35 curved, ultrawide. Its resolution is low enough where a fast graphics card can hit a 200 Hz refresh rate with G-Sync enabled. If you’re buying a monitor for the long-term, remember that the graphics card your PC uses one to three years from now may be able to hit these speeds with ease.
Worried about input lag? Input lag is how long it takes your monitor to recognize output from your graphics card or when you’ve pushed a button and is something gamers should avoid. High refresh rates generally point to lower input lag, but input lag isn’t usually listed in specs, so check our monitor reviews for insight. Sites like DisplayLag also offer unbiased breakdowns of many monitors’ input lag.
Should I get a G-Sync or FreeSync monitor?
G-Sync and FreeSync
Gaming monitors usually have Nvidia G-Sync (for PCs with Nvidia graphics cards) and /or AMD FreeSync (for right running AMD graphics). Both reduce tearing and stuttering and add to the price tag, although G-Sync monitors usually cost more than FreeSync ones. For more on what these features do, see our What Is Nvidia G-Sync? and What Is AMD FreeSync? articles.
Regardless, if your budget only has room for a low-to-mid speed graphics card, you’ll want a monitor with either G-Sync or FreeSync with a low minimum refresh rate.
Which one should you get? Here’s what to consider:
- Which hardware do you already have? If you’ve already dropped $1,200 (£1,100) on a shiny new Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, for example, the choice is clear.
- Team Nvidia or Team AMD? If you're not tied to either, remember that G-Sync and FreeSync offer comparable performance for the typical user. We learned this when we tested both against each other in our Nvidia G-Sync vs. AMD FreeSync faceoff.
- G-Sync monitors operate from a 30 Hz refresh rate up to the monitor’s maximum. FreeSync displays are not as consistent. FreeSync monitors usually support adaptive refresh up to a monitor’s maximum refresh rate. But it’s the lower limit you must consider. We’ve reviewed screens that bottom out at 40 Hz and even as much as 55 Hz. This can be a problem if your graphics card can’t keep frame rates above that level. Low frame rate compensation (LFC) is a viable solution, but it will only operate if the max refresh is at least 2.5 times the minimum (example: if the maximum refresh rate is 100 Hz, the minimum must be 40 Hz for LFC to help).
Do I need overdrive or motion blur reduction?
Overdrive and motion blur reduction are available in many gaming monitors (under various brand names). To understand their value, you’ll first need to understand ghosting. Ghosting is that blurry trail a moving object creates on the screen sometimes. That’s caused by uneven pixel transition, or when it takes a monitor’s pixel longer to change from Color A to Color B than from Color B to Color A.
Overdrive reduces ghosting by speeding the rate at which pixels transition through higher voltages. When done correctly, the pixel reaches that level quickly, then changes for the next frame before voltage gets too high.
Motion blur reduction, also known as ultra low motion blur (ULMB in the photo below) maintains motion resolution when on-screen action becomes more intense.
Here’s what to consider before deciding for or against the two:
- Overdrive can create inverse ghosting artifacts, so check our reviews to learn how good a monitor’s overdrive feature is. You can test your own monitor’s overdrive by using the BlurBusters UFO test. Watch the UFO while switching between your monitor’s different overdrive options. When you see a white trail behind the saucer, you’ve gone too far.
- You can’t use motion blur reduction and G-Sync / FreeSync at the same time. Gamers should opt for adaptive refresh every time. A fast graphics card running at 60 fps and higher with G-Sync or FreeSync will pretty much eliminate any need for motion blur reduction.
- Motion blur reduction reduces overall brightness. We’ve tested monitors that cut brightness by over 60% if blur reduction is on.
What’s a good gaming monitor deal?
Gaming monitors often go on sale, but it’s hard to tell if you’re getting a good deal. The first way to find out is to check reviews to make sure it’s the right monitor for you.
You can tell if you’re getting a good discount with the following guidelines:
- 144 Hz at 1080p (27 inches or more): $200 or less
- 60 Hz at 4K: $250 or less
General use monitors: Which features matter?
Both gaming and professional monitors are more than qualified to serve as general use displays. But if you want to avoid spending extra money on a specialized monitor, you need something that works well for every kind of computing, entertainment and productivity. Here’s how to decide what’s best for you:
- Contrast is king, so VA panels are too. We consider contrast the first measure of image quality, with color saturation, accuracy and resolution coming after. When a display has a large dynamic range, the picture is more realistic and 3D-like. VA panels offer three to five times the contrast of IPS or TN screens. If you place a VA and IPS monitor next to each other with matched brightness levels and calibration standards, the VA screen will easily win in terms of image quality.
- Consider flicker-free if you’re going to be staring at the screen for over eight hours. They won’t flicker at any brightness level, so even those particularly sensitive to flickering will be pleased.
- Low blue light isn’t a buying point. Most operating systems, including Windows 10, have modes for reducing blue light, based on the theory that blue light interferes with sleep. But although many monitors offer this feature, it's not necessary. Since reducing blue brightness also affects all other colors, you may experience an unnatural look in graphics and photos. This is especially distracting in games and videos. Low blue light can make a computer image less straining on your eyes but so can accurate calibration. There's no need to prioritize low blue light, but it’s becoming harder to find monitors without it.
Professional monitors: Which features matter?
Professional users have special needs. If you’re a photographer, print proofer, web designer, special effects artist, game designer or someone that needs precise color control, this section’s for you. Here’s what to know:
- Monitors vendor-certified as color accurate cost more but are worth it. If you want a monitor that’s accurate out of the box, this is the best way to ensure quality. It’s especially important for monitors without calibration capabilities. Professional monitors should come ready for work with no adjustment required. A Delta E (dE) value of 2 or lower is also a good sign.
- You want calibration options. There are two ways to accomplish this: the on-screen display (OSD) and software. Check our reviews for monitor-specific calibration recommendations.
- Calibration options should include choices for different color gamuts, color temperatures and gamma curves. At minimum there should be sRGB and Adobe RGB standards, color temperatures ranging from 5,000 to 7,500K and gamma presets from 1.8 to 2.4. Monitors used for TV or movie production should also support the BT.1886 gamma standard.
- Flicker-free goes a long way if you’re spending eight hours or more in front of a computer screen. Many pro monitors today offer this.
What bit-depth do I need?
- Higher is better, and professionals need at least 10-bits. An 8-bit panel won’t cut it for most professional graphics work. If possible, opt for 12-bit. You can learn more about the difference between 10 and 12-bit here.
- A deep color monitor won’t do you any good if your graphics card can’t output a 10- or 12-bit signal. Yes, the monitor will fill in the extra information, but only by interpolation. Just as with pixel scaling, a display can’t add information that isn’t there in the first place; it can only approximate. Many consumer-grade graphics cards are limited to 8-bit output.
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