How to Buy a Computer Monitor

Q: What kind of monitor should I buy? There are so many different kinds, and I don't know what to look for.

A: We feel your pain. The computer monitor marketplace is confusing because, unlike TVs, computer monitors are used in a variety of applications and settings. Some are specialized for photo editing (these have a wider range of color), others for gaming (they tend to have high screen refresh rates), and some for even more niche applications like multi-touch or graphic design work. Given that those who need a specialized monitor most likely already have the background needed to make the decision, this writeup will focus on what to consider for the day-to-day computer user.

In the end, no amount of nerdery or specialized vocabulary can help you choose a panel. We'll discuss some of it here, but that's more so that you can impress your friends after you buy a monitor. We like the Asus VH242H for standard users who don't want to pay a bunch of money, and the Dell Ultrasharp U2410 for high-end users who want better color management. But we can admit that people's taste in monitors (as in cars) can differ. Remember that you can always go to your local Best Buy or computer store and just trust your eyes. Do make sure to bring a notebook to jot down any specifications, model numbers and observations or you risk forgetting it all in a flood of incomprehensible numbers and letters.

First things first: HD. Marketers today like to slap HD on anything and everything they can get their hands on. In today's lingo HD (1080p) means anything with a resolution equal to or greater than 1920x1080. Don't be swayed by monitors claiming to be HD-enabled as most larger monitors on the market today will have a resolution that qualifies. Outside of resolution, the next feature to consider is ratio of height and width. The most common aspect ratio in panels today is 16:9, which, while great for watching movies, but not necessarily optimal for day-to-day computer use. Instead, be sure to look for panels that are 16:10 (or 1920x1200). While 120 vertical pixels doesn't seem significant, the added height is critical for better browsing.

Since most panels today are HD-enabled, the next important feature to consider is the type of panel. The two most common types of panels today are the older Twisted Nematic (TN), and newer In Plane Switching (IPS). These two technologies are separated by price and use. TN panels tend to be cheaper, and lower quality, while the IPS products tend to be better, more expensive panels with good color-management. For most intents and purposes, a TN should suffice. They used to have a bad reputation for poor black depth, which means black really looks gray, and for slow refresh rates. But they've mostly overcome those problems. However, if you plan on doing photo-editing or anything else that might be color-sensitive you should definitely consider looking into an IPS panel.

When buying a TN monitor, two important things to consider are connectivity and refresh rate. Most panels today come with a bewildering array of inputs ranging from HDMI (a newer HD standard) to DVI and VGA (older, but still commonly used video inputs). If you plan on using your monitor as a multi-use computer/media center, make sure to find a monitor with an HDMI input. You'll want it to use it to hook up your Blu-ray player and/or videogame console. If you intend to use your monitor as a station for watching movies or playing video games, than you should also make sure to find a screen with an adequate refresh rate (anything below 10-15 ms) or else run the risk of ghosting/shadowing and choppy looking video and games.

When you finally make a decision, make sure that when your panel arrives that you check it for any dead pixels or color shifting. This is best done by opening an application that can fill the screen with black or white (Word is an easy one), and then shifting the brightness and contrast from high to low, while keeping an eye out for any distortions in color or dead pixels. Most manufacturers have a standard whereby they expect a certain number of dead pixels on arrival, however, a quick call to customer service will more than likely get your panel replaced.

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Oliver Hulland is the editor of Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, a review site for tools that really work. He currently lives in Baltimore where he eats inordinate amounts of blue crab while writing about science and technology.

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