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 looking at a game, photos, video or even text.
Monitor manufacturers are well aware of how PC experiences change with different monitors and have flooded the market with all sorts of options. But which features are most valuable for the ways you’ll be using your monitor? Do you need 5K, 4K, Quad HD, Full HD, or just plain HD – and what’s the difference anyway? How much should refresh rates and response times impact your buying 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, versus professional use, or general use?
- Determine the monitor’s main purpose first: gaming, professional, or general use. Generally, gamers should prioritize fast refresh rates and 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 numbers, the better the picture. A monitor’s resolution tells you how many pixels a monitor has in length x width format. 1920 x 1080, also known as 1080p or Full HD (FHD), is the minimum you need, but you'll get sharper images from a 2K or 4K display.
- Response times: shorter is better. But they’re not a large priority unless you’re a gamer. This tells you how long it takes your monitor to change individual pixels from black to white or from one shade of gray to another (GTG response time). Longer response times can result in motion blur when gaming or watching fast-paced videos. The highest response time you’ll likely see is 5 milliseconds (ms), while the fastest monitors can have a 1ms response time.
- Refresh rates: bigger numbers are 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, 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 minimum 60Hz refresh rate should do.
- Panel technologies: when it comes to display, 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 monitors, but VA monitors have better contrast than IPS displays.
- Curved or non-curved? This depends on preference. The logic behind curved monitors is that they more closely mimic the curved manner in which your eyeballs see, but some notice the difference more than others. Further, you may not like the appearance of a curved monitor if it’s against a wall (it’ll stick out more), or if you’re opposed to the widescreen ratios of most curved monitors. Many will tell you a curved monitor is worthless if it’s smaller than 30 inches, which also has pricing implications. If you’re unsure, try one out and see if you notice any difference. If not, don’t bother paying more.
The Basics: Display Tech 101
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 by width in pixels. The more pixels you can pack into each square-inch of a monitor, the more realistic and smooth the image.
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||5120 x 2880|
|4K||3840 x 2160 (typical monitor resolution)|
4096 x 2160 (official cinema resolution)
|Ultra HD (UHD)||3840 x 2160|
|Quad HD (QHD) aka Wide Quad HD (WQHD)||2560 x 1440|
|2K||2560 x 1440 (typical monitor resolution)|
2048 x 1080 (official cinema resolution)
|WUXGA||1920 x 1200|
|Full HD (FHD) aka 1080p aka HD||1920 x 1080|
|HD aka 720p||1280 x 720|
While more pixels is generally better, two things can make a high resolution monitor less suitable.
The first is graphics card performance. The more pixels you have, the more processing power your graphics card needs to alter those pixels in a timely fashion. 5K monitors display stunning images, but if your system isn’t up to the task of driving 14.7 million pixels, your overall user 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). At higher values, objects and text become 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 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), vertical alignment (VA) and in-plane switching (IPS). 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, review the chart below to see how each type of panel impacts image quality and the use cases for which we generally recommend 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|
Food for thought
While the above graph should be enough to make a quick decision on panel type, if you want to dive deeper, we offer the following food for thought:
- 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.
- Contrast is the most important factor in image quality and reliability (5000:1 is better than 1000:1). As such, we consider VA panels to offer the best image quality of the three.
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 breakdown the features that actually benefit gamers. Note that some factors depend on a player's skill level.
What resolution do I need for gaming?
For the best picture, more pixels are better. But if you’re a gamer, those pixels can also slow you down if you don’t have the appropriate level of graphics horsepower.
Most video interfaces don’t support refresh rates faster than 60Hz for UHD, 4K or 5K signals. Video interfaces are just beginning to support higher refresh rates at UHD resolution. Even if they did, you’d need a very expensive graphics card to actually drive (at least) 8.2 million pixels past 60 frames per second (fps). Our Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan X graphics card can barely manage it if we turn detail levels down.
The current sweet spot seems to be Quad HD (QHD, 2560 x 1440) 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 (1920 x 1080) will deliver the highest frame rates.
What should my gaming monitor’s refresh rate and response time be?
- You’ll want a monitor with a refresh rate of at least 75Hz, combined with the lowest response time you can find. As mentioned, refresh rate is particularly important for gamers, so most gaming monitors have a refresh rate of at least 144Hz, and you’ll want a maximum response time of 5ms.
- Lower resolution + good graphics card = faster refresh rates. Look at the on-screen display above from Acer’s Predator Z35 curved, ultra-wide. It’s resolution is low enough where a very fast graphics card can hit a 200Hz refresh rate if you adjust details. 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? Use sites like DisplayLag for an unbiased breakdown of many monitors’ results here.
Should I get G-Sync or FreeSync?
Monitors targeting gamers often have the option of Nvidia G-Sync or AMD FreeSync. While these will reducing tearing and stuttering, it’ll also add to the price tag. Nvidia’s adaptive refresh (the original) costs more than AMD’s take. If your budget only has room for a mid-to-low speed graphics card, choose a monitor with either G-Sync or FreeSync (depending on your preference) with a low minimum refresh rate.
So which one should you get? Here’s what to consider when making your decision:
- Which hardware do you already have? If you’ve already dropped $1,000 on a shiny new Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, for example, the choice is clear.
- G-Sync monitors always operate from a 30Hz refresh rate up to the monitor’s maximum. FreeSync displays are not as consistent and 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 40Hz and even as much as 55Hz. 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 100Hz, the minimum must be 40Hz for LFC to be advantageous).
- Team Nvidia, or Team AMD? The rivalry here is strong. We tried to figure out which is best through a blind test. You can read about that here, and pick a team.
Do I need overdrive or motion blur reduction?
Overdrive and motion blur reduction are available in many gaming monitors. To understand their value, you’ll first need to understand the problem of ghosting. Ghosting is that blurry trail you’ll notice a moving object create 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 on 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 FreeSync/G-Sync at the same time. This is true regardless of price or technology. Gamers should pick adaptive refresh every time. If you have a fast graphics card running at 60fps and higher with G-Sync or FreeSync, it will pretty much eliminate any need for motion blur reduction.
- Motion blur reduction reduces overall brightness. We’ve tested monitors that drop over 60 percent of their light output when using blur reduction.
General use monitors: Which features matter?
Both gaming and professional monitors are more than qualified to serve as general use displays. But if you’re trying to avoid spending extra money on a specialized monitor, you’ll 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. Look at our professional monitors section below for more information.
- Low blue light isn’t a buying point. Most operating systems, including Windows 10, have modes that are made to reduce blue light on the theory that blue light interferes with sleep. However, although many monitors offer this feature, it's not necessary or helpful. 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 tiring to view, but so can an accurate calibration. You shouldn’t 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 is for you. Here’s what you need 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.
- You want calibration options. There are two ways to accomplish this: the on-screen display (OSD) and software (see: Dell’s UP2715K 5K monitor). 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 temps 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 monitors sold today are flicker-free. They won’t flicker at any brightness level, and even users particularly sensitive to flickering will be pleased.
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.
- A professional’s best bet is using something based on a Nvidia Quadro or AMD FirePro graphics card.
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