Three Thoughts on Buying a New Monitor for Your PC

Back in the days of CRT (cathode ray tube) screens buying a new computer monitor was pretty easy. You basically picked the size you liked; and for most of us that was a decision between 14” and 15” because the price jump to 17” was huge (and they were too darn heavy to carry anyway). There were very few other important decisions to make because screen resolution was not a function of the screen; it was a function of your video card. If you bought a 17” CRT you could basically run it any any resolution you wanted as long as your video card supported it. In fact working out what video card to use was often probably a more important decision than what CRT monitor to buy.

Maybe the only other big decision was what brand to get because everyone had their favourite brand. After that it would be what colour with the main choices being: office beige/cream; grey; white; black; and that mock pewter dark grey sort of colour.

But that all changed when LCD flat panel screens started to take over. There are so many decisions you need to be aware of in buying a flat panel LCD computer screen you almost need to engage a technical consultant to help you work it out. Stuff like: contrast, gamma depth (8-bit or 10-bit), VGA (analogue) vs. DVI (digital) input, support for AdobeRGB (Abode Colour Gamut), pixel density, refresh rates, aspect ratio, etc, etc, etc.

Following are three buying decision inputs that I think everyone should consider when buying a new LCD screen for use with a PC (which, by definition, excludes any Apple computers as they are technically not PCs).

LCD Technology: Lets start with the LCD type. There are three basic LCD technologies. In order of goodness the options are: TN (which is twisted nematic); VA (which is vertical alignment); and then IPS (in-plane switching). TN panels are the cheapest but they also provide the least accurate colour reproduction and tend to have narrower viewing angles. VA (sometimes referred to as S-PVA) is the next best with better colour matching and better viewing angles. IPS technology LCD panels generally provide the best colour accuracy, the best definition, and the best viewing angles.

Native Resolution: Unlike CRT screens all LCD panels have a fixed made-at-the-factory native resolution. To get the optimum viewing experience you MUST drive the panel at its native resolution. If you drive a 1280x1024 LCD panel at a lower resolution, such as 1024x768, then text will look soft and fuzzy—as will pictures. Text and pictures will not appear sharp and crisp. This is because for each pixel of data sent to the screen by the video card it cannot map that pixel to one exact pixel on the screen (as it should be able to). So it has to do what is known as ‘pixel averaging’ and this averaging of pixel information across multiple output pixels causes this softness to occur.

Most (all that I have encountered) LCD panels will not allow you to drive them at a higher resolution than their native resolution, so you could not, for example, drive a 1650x1050 LCD at 1920x1200. But if this were possible this would also result in a soft fuzzy screen because pixel averaging is still going to occur only in reverse (one pixel of data from the computer is going to have to be averaged over more than one pixel).

TV Screen vs. a PC ‘monitor’: One of the trickiest parts of buying a new computer monitor is working out if you want to buy what is really a TV screen and use it for your computer monitor or get an actual purpose-built PC monitor.

About three years ago there were no 16:9 TV screens being remodelled as computer screens but now 95 percent of all computer screens on the shelf in your average electronics store are affectively TV screens. This is because TN-based 16:9 TV screens are significantly cheaper to manufacture and most consumers are content to use them on their PCs. The reality is, that for most computer users a budget-priced TN-based LCD TV screen is all they really need.

If you mainly use your PC for surfing the Web (which includes using Facebook), watching YouTube videos or other streamed video (e.g., Hulu or NetFlix), watching full-screen DVDs, doing some casual word processing and the occasional bit of spreadsheet work, some simple photo editing (maybe just cropping and resizing), and e-mail then a budget priced TV-cum-PC screen is probably all you need.

However if you play hi-res hi-frame rate games, do serious video editing, do serious photo editing (spend more than 15 minutes editing a photo to get it just how you want it), want the best experience watching Blu-rays or DVDs (especially if watched in a sized window while doing “other work”), do serious word processing or spreadsheet work requiring two or three panels on-screen, do any vector drawing or CAD type work, or do anything requiring a larger effective screen, then you need to consider buying an actual 16:10 PC monitor. Such monitors typically use VA technology and the higher-end ones will use IPS technology. These screens also provide much better colour accuracy, improved gamma (sometimes offering 10-bit gamma), more colour depth, and better effective contrast ratios (as opposed to quoted, practically useless, contrast ratios).

Because 16:10 PC screens are generally of higher specification than 16:9 TV screens they are more expensive and will typically be twice the price of a similar physically sized TV screen.

The other ‘trick’ with TV screens being sold and used as PC monitors is that they only have two resolutions: 1366x768 (a.k.a. 768y) and 1920x1080 (a.k.a. 1080y). So if you see a 19”, 22”, 23”, 24”, or 27” 16:9 TV screen used on a PC the amount of stuff on the screen is going to be exactly the same on each one as they will all be 1920x1080—stuff will just get bigger on the bigger screens. So if you had a 22” screen and upgraded to a 27” screen you will not get any additional information on the screen, everything will just be about 20 percent larger. Which is fine if you have trouble reading the screen, although there are other (better) ways of doing this.

However, if you saw 22”, 24”, and 27” 16:10 screens in use they would most likely be 1680x1050 (1050y) on the 22”, 1920x1200 (1200y) on the 24”, and 2560x1600 (1600y) on the 27”. Hence the 24” PC monitor will display about 20 percent more information than either the 24” or the 27” TV screens, and the 27” PC monitor will display about twice as much as the 27” TV screen.

That’s my three thoughts.

For more information on monitor resolutions you can check my posting “Upgrade Your Computer Monitor” here.