The Definitive Monitor Buying Guide

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What do you need to know before buying a monitor, and where can you find all that information in one convenient place? This guide walks you through all the core monitor-buying jargon that you need to know, as well as a few of current top recommendations on the market. Let’s dive in together.

Part 1: Understanding Key Monitor Specifications

When it comes to PC monitor specifications, it’s easy to get bogged down by marketing buzzwords and whatever hyper-specific specification the manufacturer decides to emphasize. Learning about it will show you how to break all of it down.

Resolution, Screen Size, and PPI

Resolution refers to the full, native resolution of a given display, which is measured by its pixels. An array of 1920 x 1080 pixels is considered “True HD” resolution, while 3840 x 2160 is considered “Ultra HD” resolution (AKA 4K).

Screen size in PC monitors is measured by the diagonal length of the screen, as with TVs and other displays.

But how do you choose the right resolution and right screen size for your needs?

First, it’s important to recognize that resolution and screen size are intertwined specifications. Working from the two, you get a measurement called PPI, or Pixels Per Inch, which serves as an effective measure of perceived fidelity.

For desktop monitors at an average viewing distance, a PPI of 80 or higher is needed for providing a clear image.

To get 80+ PPI at 1080p resolution, you’ll want to stay at or below a 27-inch screen size. A 24-inch 1080p monitor will offer a pixel density of roughly 91 PPI, which makes for a quite clear and sharp image.

When you move onto 1440p and 4K, PPI becomes so high that most monitor sizes are viable while maintaining clarity.

To get ~109 PPI at 1440p resolution, you only need a 27-inch monitor. This is a significant improvement in fidelity compared to a 1080p panel of similar size and will allow you to benefit from increased screen real estate, too.

Even once you break into 32 inches, which is entering TV territory, 1440p maintains the same crisp 91 PPI that a 24-inch 1080p monitor would.

The uber-high PPI of 4K at almost any screen size allows you to do anything you want with 4K monitors. However, I recommend targeting that 27-inch sweet spot with 4K as well or even moving up to 32-inch or Ultrawide if you’re determined to make the most of those extra pixels.

Refresh Rate

If you’re in the market for a gaming monitor, this is one of your most important specifications. There are still benefits to high refresh rates outside of gaming, but you’ll see the biggest benefits from a high refresh monitor when gaming.

To look further at refresh rate, it refers to the number of screen “refreshes” per second and is measured in Hertz. The baseline refresh rate for the majority of displays is 60 Hz, but high-refresh-rate displays can push as high as 360 Hz.

The higher the refresh rate, the smoother the perceived motion. This is especially valuable for gamers, who enjoy high refresh rate displays as both a luxury and competitive advantage.

If you don’t care about playing video games that much, just get a 60 Hz monitor and be done with it. But if you’re gaming or doing extremely latency-sensitive work, getting a high refresh monitor with a low pixel response time can have an immensely positive impact on your experience.

Use TestUFO.com to test the visual difference between refresh rates supported by your display. You can’t test refresh rates above your display’s capabilities, but you will see a clear difference between your native refresh rate and lower refresh rates.

Pixel Response Time

Pixel response time, also called response time, is one of the most widely misunderstood monitor specifications. It doesn’t help that manufacturers like choosing different ways to measure it, resulting in “1 ms” panels that are actually closer to 5 ms or more.

This is important because of clarity of motion. People think pixel response time is tied to input lag, but it’s actually more tied to refresh rate than anything else due to how it works.

A “good” pixel response time is basically any response time that doesn’t cause noticeable ghosting or smearing when in motion. TN panels are great in this regard and can push 1 ms or less response times for the clearest reproduction of high-fidelity motion.

IPS and VA panels have good pixel response times on the higher end, especially IPS, but TN ultimately leads this field, especially in lower price ranges.

Pixel response time is measured in milliseconds and usually G2G (Gray To Gray), which measures the amount of time it takes for pixels to switch colors (hence being tied to motion). A good range to aim for is 5 ms or lower, as this will minimize ghosting and enable higher refresh rates.

Sometimes monitor manufacturers use another response time measurement, like MPRT (Moving Picture Response Time). The exact performance of these can be harder to verify, but in general, the same rule of lower is better applies. Be sure to double-check reviews for mentions of ghosting, though!

Panel Type: TN vs. IPS vs. VA

Monitor panel type isn’t always advertised, but it’s actually one of the most impactful monitor specs. This is because the underlying panel type impacts pricing, performance, viewing angles, color reproduction, and more. But what actually sets these various panel types apart?

Twisted Nematic (TN) panels are the most common and cheapest. Besides these traits, they can be manufactured to excel at refresh rate and pixel response time, offering some of the best low-latency displays available.

TN panels do suffer from poor viewing angles and color reproduction compared to other panels, though. This makes them less ideal for off-center viewing or professional color work.

Vertical Alignment (VA) panels are another common panel type, more expensive than TN panels but cheaper than IPS panels. Compared to TN panels, VA panels have improved color reproduction and viewing angles but still not quite the best. I

A unique strength of VA panels compared to all other panel types is the ability of VA panels to display dark scenes with more clarity. Local dimming and HDR work best on VA panels, allowing for less noticeable backlight bleed in scenes with little to no lighting. This makes them ideal for media on the high-end.

VA panels in general do tend to have poor pixel response time, though. This isn’t really an issue in most scenarios, but it can result in smearing at refresh rates higher than 75 Hz.

An LG-manufactured IPS panel

In-Plane Switching (IPS) panels offer the best viewing angles and color reproduction but come at the highest prices. In addition to the higher price point of IPS monitors compared to others, IPS panels are notorious for having backlight bleed, making them generally less ideal for displaying dark scenes.

IPS panels used to fall short compared to TN panels in overall pixel response times and refresh rates, but high-end IPS panels pushing 360 Hz do exist and run well. While a gap still exists on older IPS panels, this gap is often minimal when running at 144 Hz or a lower resolution.

For professionals and gamers, an IPS panel will most likely provide the best experience.

For those on a slimmer budget, a VA or TN panel can also be a fine choice, depending on your priorities. If you mainly consume media, you should feel right at home on a VA panel, since many TVs use them.

It’s recommended that gamers use TN if they aren’t using IPS, but a VA panel is acceptable as long as it has good pixel response times.

Contrast Ratio

Contrast ratio is a monitor specification used to indicate the level of contrast offered by the monitor… in theory. Since there is no standard contrast ratio metric or testing methodology, manufacturers can basically place whatever specification they want here, and it could mean something different from monitor to monitor.

If you’re looking for a monitor with deep blacks and great contrast, start by looking for a monitor based on a VA panel. These will provide the best experience with that kind of content, and on the high-end, you can get VA’s superb contrast with great color and viewing angles.

Color Gamut and Color Accuracy

Color Gamut and Color Accuracy are the two specs most directly tied to color reproduction, and they are especially important to anyone looking to do professional video, graphics, or photography work.

Color Gamut is fairly important since it determines the maximum range of colors that the display can handle. Most displays will aim for around 99 to 100 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which is roughly 72 to 75 percent of the NTSC color gamut. This is a standard range of colors, but calibration and color accuracy will impact how it looks across different monitors.

If you’re looking to do professional image work, you’ll want a WCG (Wide Color Gamut) IPS monitor. In this case, you’ll want a 95+ percent gamut coverage in NTSC or DCI-P3 color spaces.

But Color Gamut isn’t the whole story – Color Accuracy is, too. Fortunately, Color Accuracy isn’t as strictly tied to the hardware as Gamut is, and professionals can use aftermarket calibrators to get maximum accuracy for their display.

G-Sync, FreeSync, and other Adaptive Sync Technologies

G-Sync, FreeSync, and other -Sync technologies are all operating toward the same goal: synchronizing screen refresh rate to in-game framerate. Doing this serves several purposes, but most importantly, it eliminates visual screen tearing and increases the overall fluidity of an image.

Compared to a software-based solution like V-Sync, G-Sync and FreeSync are built into your monitor and should work with nearly any full screen game right out of the box so long as your GPU is also compatible. Unlike V-Sync, these Adaptive Sync technologies don’t increase input lag or the likelihood of major frame drops, so these are must-have features in modern gaming monitors.

In case the monitor you’re eyeing doesn’t have the feature, or your GPU doesn’t support it, you aren’t totally out of luck. Using an FPS Cap or Scanline Sync in RivaTuner can provide most of the same benefits without resorting to V-Sync or requiring built-in G-Sync/FreeSync support.

Part 2: Understanding Display Standards

Before buying a monitor, it’s important to understand a thing or two about the display standards that they use. Below, we’ve listed common display standards you may find on both new and used markets and break down when and where each is used.

HDMI

A standard connector used by modern HDTVs and monitors, carrying both audio and video. While the generation of HDMI supported by your GPU and your display may differ, the connection will always be the same and will default to whatever version of HDMI both devices are compatible with.

Where HDMI falters compared to other display standards is with support of non-standard resolutions and support of refresh rates above 60.

Devices (displays, GPUs, consoles) supporting HDMI 2.1 are capable of pushing up to 10K and 120 Hz with wide color gamut support. It can also support much higher resolutions, but if you want the best support for your high-resolution or high-refresh-rate display while still using HDMI, opt for 2.1-based devices.

DisplayPort

DisplayPort is a unified audio/video connector nearly always used by PC displays and graphics cards. Unlike HDMI, it has support for an incredibly wide range of resolutions and refresh rates and usually stays ahead of the current HDMI generation in this regard. This is the recommended display standard for modern PC users using monitors. Like with HDMI, the connector is backwards and forwards-compatible, so don’t worry about exact-matching display standards.

DisplayPort 2.0 devices allow for displays with resolutions of up to 16K, higher than HDMI 2.1’s theoretical maximum. It can also support 144 Hz to two 8K displays at the same time, but it’s currently unknown if it can push that refresh rate higher than 8K. Even so, DisplayPort 2.0 is generally going to be the better decision for people buying monitors rather than TVs, especially if high color depth is important.

USB-C

USB-C is a multi-purpose connector that can be used for charging, USB data transfer, and even Thunderbolt 3 data transfer. Another thing that USB-C can do under the right circumstances is transfer video! Using USB-C’s “Alt Mode,” USB-C cables can be used to transfer HDMI, DisplayPort, and other video signals. USB-C by itself does not come with any display standards of its own – it only carries others.

However, devices that actually support USB-C Alt Mode are rare, especially in the desktop graphics space. (Normally, if a desktop GPU has a USB-C port, it’s for VR rather than Alt Mode.) Most displays that support a USB-C connection will support other connections as well, and device support is generally limited to laptops and other on-the-go devices.

DVI

DVI is the digital video display standard that dominated the PC space after VGA and before DisplayPort. While DVI can’t carry audio, DVI and the later DVI-D (DVI Dual-Link) were able to push up to 1600p at 60 Hz, and 1080p at 120 Hz. This made DVI one of the best choices for enthusiast displays at the time, but these days you’ll likely only be seeing it in adapters or your own older PC.

VGA

VGA is the analog video display standard that predates DVI, DisplayPort, and HDMI. This was the de facto display standard for most users for many years, with many environments (like schools/businesses) continuing to use VGA well after the debut of better display standards. Over time, the prominence of VGA has faded, and you’re unlikely to see a VGA port on the majority of modern devices, but there are exceptions, especially in the budget range.

While you won’t be pushing high resolutions or high refresh rates with this connector, it is capable of supporting 1080p and 60 FPS. Like with DVI, this is also a video-only connector.

Component and Composite Video

Last but not least are component and composite video. Support for these connectors in modern displays is extremely rare, but fortunately, many adapters exist on the market for devices that only support these outputs, like retro consoles.

While the two may look similar, it’s important to note that composite (red-yellow-white) carries audio and only supports interlaced SD signals.

Component (red-green-blue) supports 1080p progressive scan signals, making it the much superior option between the two. If you’re using a device that relies on analog video, always choose component video when available and use a high-quality component-to-HDMI converter.

Part 3: The Best Monitors In 2021

I’ve run you through all you need to know to pick a good monitor for your needs. While going across every great option on the market is a bit out of the scale of this article, this list is narrowed down to three that should work for the most users.

1. Best Budget Editing and Productivity Monitor: BenQ GW2480

  • Diagonal Screen Size: 24 inches
  • Resolution: 1920 x 1080 (1080p True HD)
  • Panel Type: IPS
  • Refresh Rate: 60 Hz
  • Pixel Response Time: 5 ms
  • Display Standards: 1 VGA, 1 HDMI 1.4, 1 DisplayPort 1.2

The BenQ GW2480 is my pick for best budget editing and productivity monitor. While the refresh rate and response time are nothing to write home about, the IPS panel offers superb colors and viewing angles. Despite the monitor’s fairly low pricing, it has near-complete coverage of the sRGB color gamut out of the box and decent out-of-box color accuracy, too.

If you just want a great monitor for getting work done at a reasonable price, this is a great place to start.

2. Best Budget Gaming and Media Monitor: VIOTEK GFV22CB

  • Diagonal Screen Size: 22 inches
  • Resolution: 1920 x 1080 (1080p True HD)
  • Panel Type: VA
  • Refresh Rate: 144 Hz
  • Pixel Response Time: 5 ms
  • Display Standards: 1 DisplayPort 1.2, 1 HDMI 2.0

The Viotek GFV22CB is the best budget gaming and media monitor. Despite its relatively low pricing, it’s able to push 1080p and 144 Hz on a good-looking VA panel. While VA panels are inherently a bit smearier in action compared to other panel types, reviews around the web indicate that isn’t an issue for this monitor. (Since it’s only targeting 144 Hz and not something absurd like 240 Hz or 360 Hz, a well-made VA panel can operate well at 144 Hz – as long as the motion blur is kept in check.)

But don’t let some minor VA fuzziness deter you. The pricing for these features is superb, and VA panels offer their own benefits over IPS and TN: most namely, far improved handling of dark scenes. If you enjoy playing darker games or even just like watching movies or TV shows with dark scenes, this is an ideal monitor for that kind of experience.

For the price range, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a better-looking and more responsive gaming monitor.

3. Best Premium Gaming, Editing, and Productivity Monitor: Gigabyte M27Q

  • Diagonal Screen Size: 27 inches
  • Resolution: 2560 x 1440 (1440p QHD)
  • Panel Type: IPS
  • Refresh Rate: 170 Hz
  • Pixel Response Time: 1 ms
  • Display Standards: 1 DisplayPort 1.2, 2 HDMI 2.0, 2 USB 3.0 (1 Type-C)

The Gigabyte M27Q is a monitor that kind of does everything, even for its price range. Pushing 170 Hz on a 1 ms IPS panel for under $400 used to be unthinkable, but at the time of writing, this monitor is seeing sales dipping below even $300.

You’d think with the gaming-centric marketing and features that the monitor would be slacking elsewhere, but it actually provides the best color gamut and accuracy for its price range, with coverage of 92 percent DCI-P3 and 140 percent sRGB gamuts. It even supports HDR, but don’t expect HDR on a PC monitor to compare to a full-sized TV with HDR.

Whether you’re gaming or doing professional editing work, this monitor is going to be the best option for you in its sub-$400 price range. Once you start paying this much for a monitor, you don’t always have to choose between work and play.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What monitor size do I need?

It’s really a matter of personal preference. However, you’ll want to keep your monitors at or under 27 inches if you’re going to be using them at a standard desk distance. Larger displays will require you to sit back further in order to see the entire display at one time, which can be an issue with just about any workload.

If you want to better visualize the differences between various monitor screen sizes, I recommend checking out DisplayWars and their Screen Size comparison tool.

Using a tool like DisplayWars to visualize the difference between the display you have now and a display you’re considering can help you find the right screen size for your needs. If you still aren’t sure, I recommend 24 inches for a balanced media consumption, productivity, and gaming experience.

2. Are IPS monitors bad for gaming?

IPS monitors can be great for gaming. However, they do cost much more than TN monitors with the same specs, especially once you creep into 4K and 360 Hz monitors.

IPS monitors used to be much worse than TN monitors, though, which is why this is a common question. Compared to TN panels, IPS panels were not previously able to output high refresh rates without significant motion blur due to high response times. This issue has been alleviated over time, though, and shouldn’t be an issue with IPS gaming monitors of today.

3. Do I need an HDR monitor?

Most likely not, and for many good reasons.

The main reason not to bother with an HDR monitor is simply that support for it on PC isn’t quite there yet. Windows 11’s Auto HDR feature may improve things for users of that operating system, but people using Linux or other Windows OSes won’t enjoy Auto HDR. Even where HDR content exists, chances are high the same content can be displayed better in SDR on your monitor of choice.

Your HDR implementation may not have enough room for the extra necessary lights to be built into your display for the HDR. For a hulking 4K TV, this is fine, but for most monitors, the physical space just isn’t there to provide a great HDR experience.

4. What are good monitor brands?

Any monitor that you’re evaluating for purchase should be evaluated on its own merits, not just its brand name. A solid brand name is still important, though, especially when you’re making a purchase as big as this. Here are some recommendations for good monitor brands:

  • LG
  • BenQ
  • ASUS
  • Dell (Alienware)
  • Samsung
  • Acer
  • AOC
  • Pixio
  • Philips

Parting Words

This guide goes through everything you should consider before buying a monitor. Now, it’s up to you to find the best monitor for your needs! Now that you have a monitor figured out, learn how to connect an Xbox Series X/S controller and a PS4 controller to Windows.

Image Credit: Composite/Component, S-Video, VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, DisplayWars, USB Type-C, LG on Flickr, Ariakepeoples on WikiMedia Commons, TechGearRoid.com, Eondax on WikiMedia Commons

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Christopher Harper

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

2 comments

    1. Hi, I try to keep my recommendations to brands I’ve had positive experiences with. I have yet to use a display from either of those brands, so I can’t recommend them in good faith. You’re welcome to tell us about your experiences with them if you want, though.

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