Buyers guide to computer monitors
If you're in the market for a new monitor, you'll have probably noticed that the item descriptions are a minefield of abbreviations and numbers, each one seemingly more meaningless than the last.
The sheer weight of specs thrown at you can leave you feeling perplexed, not knowing how the monitors compare or which of the many computer monitors is right for you. To address this problem, and help you know your 3D from your CRT, Crowdstorm has this handy buyers’ guide to help you find the best deals.
DVI or VGA ports
When looking for a PC monitor, you will see that they usually advertise themselves as DVI, VGA or DVI and VGA. This refers to the ‘input’ of the monitor - basically, what type of cable is used to connect it to your computer.
The main difference between the two is that DVI carries a digital signal, whereas VGA carries an analogue signal. For the average user, this comparison means little as the practical result (how clearly the picture displays on the screen) is almost identical. However, if you're in a situation where your PC is a significant distance from the monitor (more than five meters,) or you want a monitor that offers a particularly high resolution, a DVI input is generally recommended.
Usually the best way to decide between VGA and DVI is to simply find out which outputs your computer has. If it only has VGA , get a VGA monitor; if it only supports DVI, go with a DVI monitor. If it supports both, in most cases you can feel free to base you purchasing decision on other factors.
Generally though it's only cheap monitors that offer ‘only VGA’ or ‘only DVI’; the rest offer a third option, which is…
A HDMI (which stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface) connection is quickly becoming the standard for computer monitors, as it has one big advantage over both DVI and VGA - it carries audio as well as video. For this reason, if you wish to buy a monitor with built in speakers, it's recommended that you use HDMI: using the alternatives means also having separate audio cables.
Monitors compatible with HDMI often come with more than one input port, as it is also the standard used by other electronic goods such as games consoles and HD camcorders. So, if you wish to plug these into your new monitor, you're best off going with one that has got two or more HDMI ports. Remember though, HDMI cables are rarely packaged with the monitor, so you will probably need to buy one separately. Generally, the cheapest UK prices on HDMI cables are to be found online.
Of course, it's important to check to make sure your PC has a HDMI output before you make your decision.
HD (high-definition) monitors generally come in two flavours - HD Ready and Full HD, often referred to numerically as 720p or 1080p respectively. Full HD offers a higher resolution, meaning that you get a crisper, sharper image. However, unless you have a screen larger than 32 inches, you're unlikely to be able to tell any difference at a normal viewing distance.
It's worth noting that at present most HD content comes as 720p, so it will be identical on both Full HD and a HD Ready displays. Blu-Ray movies are generally the only content that comes at 1080p as standard, although increasingly video games are adopting this higher resolution. So, if you're a keen gamer, you may wish to go Full HD. Also, as 1080p starts to become the standard, by buying a 1080p monitor now you’re future-proofing yourself to a certain degree too (hopefully you won’t need to buy a monitor too often!).
3D monitors: fad or must have?
Every few years the television and movie studios of this world decide the public is ready for a third dimension. The current resurgence in 3D started with the hugely popular Avatar, and today most big budget Hollywood flicks (especially action and family films) are released in both 2D and 3D varieties.
Ever quick to jump on a bandwagon, the monitor manufacturers have begun to release 3D compatible devices, so you can watch movies and play games in 3D from the comfort of your own computer chair.
Although special glasses are still required to get the 3D effect, gone are the terrible red and blue cardboard specs of the eighties, replaced primarily with ‘LCD shutter glasses’. These work by quickly switching each lens on and off, so the viewer is only ever seeing the screen with one eye at a time. The screen slightly changes the image it displays in time with the glasses, tricking the brain into seeing the image as three dimensional. Most 3D monitors come bundled with at least one pair of glasses, with spares costing upward of £60 each.
Before purchasing a 3D monitor, it's important to check that your PC graphics card is compatible, as you will not be able to use the 3D effect if it isn't. And don't worry, the 3D effect can be turned off for those instances when two dimensions is enough.
Car monitors differ from PC monitors in that they are generally free-standing, small screen devices (less than 10 inches) designed for use in the car - often coming with attachments that allow them to be fixed to the headrests or windscreen. They're typically used with portable DVD or media players, although in some instances they are connected to a specially fitted camera at the back of the vehicle, allowing the driver to more clearly see what's behind them.
Should you buy a TFT, LED or CRT monitor?
TFT and LED refer to two different methods for backlighting an LCD (liquid crystal display) screen - TFT uses fluorescent tubes as opposed to the light emitting diodes favoured by an LED monitor.
LED monitors tend to be more efficient and produce less flicker, although they often aren't as bright and don't produce as rich colours as their TFT counterparts, especially if you go for a cheaper model.
Due to the smaller size of their backlights, LED monitors are commonly thinner, although they tend to be more expensive when compared like-for-like with TFT monitors.
CRTs are the fat, 'old-style' monitors. These are mostly phased out now and rarely sold as new, although they do have some advantages over LCD screens, such as a wider viewing angle and a sub-millisecond response time.
Pixel response time
The pixel response time is effectively a gauge of how quickly the pixels on screen change colour. The time is measured in milliseconds (ms) and generally speaking, the lower the number, the better.
If you use a screen with a high response time, you may spot 'ghosting' in the image. Ghosting causes the image to go slightly blurry and is caused when the computer monitor is unable to refresh quick enough to keep up with the action. It's most noticeable when there is a lot of movement happening on screen (for instance, an action scene in a movie,) although you're unlikely to notice any difference when just doing everyday tasks, such as word-processing or web browsing.
Screen size is measured diagonally in inches, corner to corner, and includes just the size of the LCD, not the surrounding bezel. Space and personal preference will ultimately decide which screen size is best for you, but it's worth remembering that unlike with a TV, you'll usually only be sat a couple of feet away from your monitor, so bigger isn't necessarily better.
It's also the case that the larger the screen, the more beneficial high-definition becomes, with screens above 32 inches needing to be Full HD compatible to get the very best results.
The majority of computer monitors are advertised nowadays as Widescreen, meaning they have an aspect ratio of 16:9. This ratio has become popular as it’s the standard for HD TV programming, and has in recent years largely replaced the more old-fashioned, squarer 4:3 ratio found on old monitors and TVs.
Aspect ratio is important, as it can determine how things display on your screen. For instance, if you were to watch a TV show shot in 16:9 on a 4:3 screen, black bars would appear at the top and bottom, squeezing the video into the middle so it maintains its shape and doesn't distort.
It is still possible to get 4:3 monitors, and those with a specific task in mind may prefer them, but as most things (namely films and games) are now produced with a 16:9 aspect ratio, going for a widescreen is generally recommended.
When buying a monitor, it's important to decide whether you'll be using external or built-in speakers.
Built in speakers are usually set into the bezel at the bottom or the sides of the monitor, and will in most cases give you stereo sound. However, the sound quality isn’t always the best.
Computer monitors without speakers will often have a smaller bezel, meaning it has a lower overall size. Audiophiles may wish to go with external speakers, as they will usually be significantly larger, producing a louder, crisper sound.
What to do next
Having read this buyers guide, hopefully you will now feel confident enough in the terminology to take the plunge and purchase your dream monitor. It is worth remembering though to read some monitor reviews, as the specs often don't tell the whole story. A good monitor is the sum of its parts, not one impressive looking spec, so it's good to get feedback from people who have used one for themselves.
Feel free to use our handy search engine at the side of this page to help you find the ideal monitor for you.
By Tim Pilgrim