Buying a Monitor: What to Look For

Buying A Monitor 2021 Featured Image

Everyone knows you need the latest and greatest gaming consoles or graphics cards to get the best graphics, but what about overall image quality? Buying a monitor is what is going to determine your overall viewing experience more than anything else – it doesn’t matter if you have an RTX 3000 series-powered PC if you’re stuck on a sub-HD monitor from the 2000s.

So let’s dive into it: how do you pick the best monitor for your needs?

The Basics: Common Video Ports and What They’re Used With

Before buying a monitor, you’ll want to make sure that it has a compatible video port with your current hardware. If it doesn’t, you’ll need an adapter. Here are the common video ports you’ll see when shopping for modern monitors, in order of prevalence:

Buying A Monitor 2021 Video Ports
Top: DVI Single Link; Bottom, From Left To Right: DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI Dual Link
  • DisplayPort – The current standard for PC video, boasting the best support for high resolutions and refresh rates. Supports Audio Passthrough with modern hardware. Slim L-shaped port.
  • HDMI – The current standard for TV video. It supported Audio Passthrough before DisplayPort, so it’s more likely to work with older devices. Older HDMI hardware may struggle to hit refresh rates above 60, especially at high resolutions. Wide, wedge-shaped port.
  • DVI Dual Link (rarer in newer displays) – The old PC video standard. Support for high resolutions but not high refresh rates or audio passthrough. Distinct white connector and port. (Black DVI may be Single-Link, which is limited to 1920 x 1200.)
  • VGA (extremely rare in new displays) – The even older PC video standard – analog, no less. No high refresh rates or audio passthrough, and pushing past 1080p is outright impossible. Distinct blue connector and port.

Panel Type: TN, IPS, or VA?

One of the most important specs when shopping for a monitor is panel type, as this determines the underlying manufacturing process and capabilities of your display. Before choosing a monitor, it’s important to know the difference.

Buying A Monitor 2021 Panel Type
An IPS panel being carried at an LG manufacturing plant.

TN panels excel at high refresh rates and snappy response times at a lower price than the competition, making them ideal for gamers and budget users. However, they also suffer from poor viewing angles and color reproduction, making them poor for professional work or media viewing.

IPS panels excel at viewing angles and color reproduction but come at a higher price than the competition. Cheap IPS panels may also have limited refresh rates and response times, but high-end IPS panels excel at these for a price premium over TN. Most IPS panels suffer from some degree of backlight bleed as well, making them slightly worse overall at viewing darker scenes in games or cinema.

VA panels excel at displaying dark scenes and have generally good color reproduction and viewing angles at a balanced price. However, overall viewing angles and color reproduction don’t match IPS, and response time is usually especially bad on VA panels, making them less ideal for competitively-oriented gamers.

Resolution and Size or Pixels Per Inch (PPI)

If you were to compare otherwise-identical displays but different resolution side by side, the one with the higher resolution will look sharper and clearer. This is because there is a higher PPI (pixels per inch) on the higher-resolution display, allowing more detail to be shown.

Buying A Monitor 2021 Resolutions
A chart displaying common resolutions and their size relative to one another. Up to Ultra HD, all of these are common display resolutions at the time of writing.

For PC monitors at a regular viewing distance, 1080p (1920×1080) looks pretty great at 24 inches and under because this meets and exceeds 90 PPI, which is about the baseline where monitors look sharp. Here are some other sizes and PPI/resolution targets, for your reference:

  • 24 Inches – 1080p (1920×1080) resolution or higher to achieve 90 PPI
  • 27 Inches – 1440p (2560 × 1440) resolution or higher to achieve about 108 PPI
  • 32 Inches – 1440p for 90 PPI, 4K (3840 × 2160) for about 137 PPI

Refresh Rate, Response Time, and Adaptive Sync

Adaptive Sync (called G-Sync by Nvidia or FreeSync by AMD), is a monitor technology used to synchronize monitor refresh rate with in-game framerate without the need for something like V-Sync or a RivaTuner Scanline Sync. This eliminates screen tearing without introducing extra latency, making it a must-have feature for gamers.

Refresh rate refers to the number of screen refreshes per second. 60 Hz is the baseline refresh rate, but pushing to 144 Hz and higher will result in greatly improved gaming performance.

Response time is a somewhat related spec that, if kept low (better), will reduce ghosting and motion smearing. TN panels have the best response time.

The Small Things Count Too

Also pay close attention to things like adjustable monitor stands, VESA wall mounts, and even integrated webcams and microphones. Features like those typically don’t add as much to the price but can make a great difference in user experience for those looking for it.


Parting Words

Following the guide above, you should now know what to look out for when buying a monitor. You can also learn what to look for when buying a motherboard or CPU.

Image Credit: EvolvedWiki on WikiMedia Commons For Video Ports Image; LG on Flickr For Monitor Panel Image; PantheraLeo1359531 on WikiMedia Commons For Resolution Image Edit


Christopher Harper Christopher Harper

I'm a longtime gamer, computer nerd, and general tech enthusiast.

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