Improve Your View: The Right LCD Monitor
The monitor you’re using right now might have come bundled with your desktop PC, or maybe you bought it back when 1,024 by 768 was considered “high resolution.” Since you spend a huge part of every day looking at your screen, it pays to be picky when buying a new one—this is tech you buy that you’ll stay with for years to come. And nowadays, you get a lot for your monitor money. Even many low-end panels utterly blow away models from a decade ago.
Gaming screens, business monitors, pro-content displays: The prices for panels even of the same size vary widely, as does the quality of the screen itself. Let’s take a walk through the latest trends in display technology, as well as the specific features to look for when shopping for your next desktop monitor. We’ll top off the discussion with our 10 current tested favorites.
The Basics: Pricing, Panel Types, and More
Regardless of the type of monitor you’re in the market for, some general factors are worth considering. Here’s a rundown of the key areas to keep in mind.
Monitor prices depend on the target audience, size, and features of the display. For around $100 to $150, you can pick up a no-frills 22-inch or 23-inch model, but don’t expect niceties such as a wide variety of ports and a height-adjustable stand at this price. But these panels do use LED backlighting, require little power, and are often bright. Performance is adequate for most entertainment or basic business and productivity purposes, but not well suited to tasks where color and grayscale accuracy are key.
At the other end of the spectrum are your high-end models that are geared toward graphic design professionals and photographers. Most of these are 27-inch to 38-inch high-end panels that support 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels), capable of displaying four times the resolution of a typical full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel, or “1080p”) monitor. Moreover, they offer such features as a highly adjustable stand, a range of ports including HDMI, DisplayPort, and USB (often including USB-C), and a wealth of advanced image settings, including calibration hardware and software. Expect to pay $1,000 and up for a fully loaded, high-performance 4K or Ultra-High-Definition (UHD) monitor like this.
Bottom line: Be prepared to pay for extras, but don’t overspend on features you will never use.
Desktop monitors generally fall between 14 and 38 inches, although for those with wide desks, the past year has brought the first 49-inch displays. (The smallest ones will be USB-connected panels meant for mobile use.) The size of the panel is measured diagonally.
While it’s always nice to have as big a viewing area as possible, it may not be practical, given your desktop space constraints. Plus, the bigger the screen, the more you can expect to pay. A 24-inch monitor is a good choice if you wish to view multipage documents or watch movies but have limited desk space. But there’s nothing like watching a movie or playing a game on a large screen, so if you have room on your desktop, a 27-inch or larger display delivers a big-screen experience for a reasonable price. If space is not an issue, consider a massive, curved-screen model to bring a true movie-theater experience to your desktop. If you’re looking to replace a dual-monitor setup with a single display, check out one of the ultra-wide, big-screen models. They are available in sizes ranging from 29 to 49 inches with curved and non-curved panels, have a 21:9 (or wider) aspect ratio, and come in a variety of resolutions, including Wide Quad High-Definition (WQHD) and UHD.
Pixel Response Rate
Measured in milliseconds (ms), this is the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white (black-to-white) or to transition from one shade of gray to another (gray-to-gray). The faster the pixel response rate, the better the monitor is at displaying video without also displaying artifacts, such as ghosting or blurring of moving images. Monitors with a fast 1ms (gray-to-gray) pixel response are very good for gaming, but even monitors with a higher 6ms (gray-to-gray) pixel response can display games without much blurring or ghosting.
Most users won’t notice input lag, which is the time it takes for the display to react to a command, but hard-core gamers consider this a key factor when choosing a monitor and typically seek out the fastest models available. The fastest monitor we’ve seen has a lag time of less than a millisecond, but for everyday use, you can get by with up to around 25ms before lag becomes a problem.
This is the maximum number of pixels a monitor can display, both horizontally and vertically. For example, a monitor with a 1,920-by-1,080 native resolution can display 1,920 pixels across the width of the screen, and 1,080 pixels from top to bottom. The higher the resolution, the more information can be displayed on the screen.
These days, most monitors in the 22-to-27-inch range have a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 and are referred to as full HD or 1080p monitors. You’ll also see plenty of displays from 24 to 32 inches that offer a WQHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) native resolution. Stepping up to a UHD or 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) monitor usually means a 27-inch or larger screen, although we have seen a few 24-inch UHD models. UHD monitors are ideal for viewing highly detailed images or looking at multiple pages in a tiled or side-by-side format.
If you have to share a monitor with a co-worker or family members, consider a model with an ergonomic stand that lets you position the screen for your most comfortable viewing angle. A fully adjustable stand offers tilt, swivel, and height adjustments, and you can rotate the panel for portrait-mode viewing. If you tend to attach and detach USB devices often, look for a monitor with built-in USB ports. Ideally, at least two of these ports will be mounted on the side of the cabinet, making it easy to plug in thumb drives and other USB peripherals.
Most monitors come with built-in speakers that are adequate for everyday use but lack the volume and bass response that music aficionados and gamers crave. If audio output is important, look for speakers with a minimum rating of 2 watts per speaker. As a general rule, the higher the power rating, the more volume you can expect, so if you want a monitor with a little extra audio pop, check the specs. Some monitors lack speakers altogether, but you can add external speakers that may give you better sound than typical monitor speakers. A display with a built-in card reader makes it easy to view photos and play music without having to reach under your desk to plug in a media card.
Finally, glossy-surfaced screens can provide very bright, crisp colors, but they may also be too reflective for some users. If possible, compare a glossy screen to a matte screen before you buy to decide which works best for you.
The key panel types used in desktop displays are twisted nematic (TN), in-plane switching (IPS), vertical alignment (VA), patterned vertical alignment (PVA), Super PVA (S-PVA), and multi-domain vertical alignment (MVA).
Up until the last few years, most desktop displays used TN technology. It is the least-expensive panel type to manufacture, and it offers superior motion-handling performance. But affordable IPS monitors are out in force; plenty of 27-inch IPS models cost well under $250 and offer very good color quality and wide viewing angles. VA monitors also offer robust colors, but viewing-angle performance, while better than on a typical TN panel, is not quite as sharp as what you get from an IPS panel.
Here in 2019, you’d be hard-pressed to find a desktop monitor that does not deliver a full HD image, at the minimum. To achieve this minimal mark, the panel must have a native resolution of at least 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, in a 16:9 aspect ratio to do it without stretching or cropping the picture. Graphic-design professionals who require a high degree of image detail should be looking further up the resolution stack, for a WQHD or UHD monitor.
In the not-too-distant past, most LCD monitors used cold-cathode florescent lamp (CCFL) technology for backlighting, but nowadays LED-backlit monitors are ubiquitous, and with good reason. LED backlight arrangements offer a brighter image than CCFLs do, are smaller and require less power, and allow for extremely thin cabinet designs. CCFL displays are generally less expensive than their LED counterparts, but they are few and far between these days.
Beyond that, we’re now seeing monitors that make use of quantum dot technology to offer superior color accuracy, an increased color gamut, and a higher peak brightness than what you get with current panel technologies. Another new wave of monitors features organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology, which promises ultra-high contrast ratios, true blacks, and a super-fast pixel response. OLEDs have been slow to take hold in the market, largely due to their hefty price.
For laptop users who require dual-screen capabilities, a portable USB monitor might be a better fit than a full-size desktop panel. These lightweight devices use your PC’s USB port as their source for power and to receive video, usually with the help of DisplayLink software. They are ideal for small office presentations and for extending your laptop’s screen real estate, and their slim profile makes them easy to travel with. For around $200, you can get a 15-inch model that will let you double your viewing area while on the road.
Types of Monitors
You can classify most monitors in one of five categories, all of which target different audiences: Budget, Business/Professional, Touch-Screen, General-Use/Multimedia, and Gaming. Prices vary within each category, depending on the panel technology used, the size of the display, and features.
If you’re looking for a basic monitor for viewing emails, surfing the web, and displaying office applications, there’s no reason to overspend on one with features you’ll never use. Budget displays are usually no-frills models that lack niceties such as USB ports, card readers, and built-in webcams. Some cheaper models use TN panel technology and are not known for their performance attributes, particularly when it comes to motion handling and grayscale accuracy. That said, more and more, IPS panels have been infiltrating the budget zone at each screen size.
Don’t expect much in the way of flexibility. Most budget displays are supported by a rigid stand that may provide tilt adjustability but probably won’t offer height and pivot adjustments. As with nearly all displays, costs will rise along with panel size. You can buy a simple 24-inch TN panel for between $130 and $150, while budget 27-inch TN screens are available for well under $200.
This category includes a wide variety of monitor types, from small-screen, energy-conscious “green” models for everyday office use to high-end, high-priced, 32-inch-and-up professional-grade displays that use indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) or advanced high-performance in-plane switching (AH-IPS) panel technology and cater to graphics professionals who require a high degree of color and grayscale accuracy. Business monitors usually offer ergonomic stands that can be adjusted for maximum comfort. Very often, they will offer pivot adjustability, which lets you rotate the screen 90 degrees for viewing in portrait mode. Look for a monitor with an auto-rotate feature that flips the image for you when you change the orientation. Other business-centric features include a generous (three-year) warranty with an overnight exchange service, built-in USB ports, and an aggressive recycling program.
A fully loaded model with a high-end panel is going to cost plenty, but for photographers and other graphics pros, it is money well spent. At the other end of the price spectrum are the no-frills, energy-efficient monitors; they don’t offer much in the way of features, but their low-power characteristics can help businesses save money through reduced energy costs.
For more, check out the Best Business Monitors.
These are still uncommon, but with the advent of Windows 10, touch-screen desktop displays have gained some traction in vertical markets. You’ll pay a bit more for touch-screen technology, but it’s worth it if you care about the Windows touch experience. Look for a model equipped with a stand that lets you position the panel so that it is almost parallel with your desktop, if you need that kind of interaction. (Some touch models are designed without a stand, meant to be integrated into a specific environment with a custom stand or arm.)
Multimedia displays typically offer a nice selection of features to help you create and view home photo and video projects. A good panel of this kind will usually provide a variety of connectivity options, primary among them HDMI, DisplayPort, and DVI; robust entertainment-class models will also include audio connections. At least two USB ports should be available, preferably mounted on the side of the cabinet for easy access; a USB Type-C port that lets you charge, say, a laptop from your monitor while permitting two-way data transfer is another big plus.
The monitor may also have built-in speakers. On a good multimedia panel, they should be a cut above the typical low-powered versions found on most monitors. If audio output is a deciding factor, look for displays with speakers rated at 2 watts or better. Other multimedia bells and whistles include a built-in card reader, which makes it easy to view photos and video directly from your camera’s media, and a webcam for video chats and for taking quick stills and videos that are easy to email. (If you’re a serious photographer, check out our picks for photography-friendly displays.)
Displays for gaming require fast response times in order to display moving images without producing motion errors or artifacts. Panels with slower response times may produce blurring of fast-moving images, which can be distracting during gameplay. On smaller displays, the flaw may not be so noticeable, but when you’re gaming on a screen that’s 27 inches or larger, you’ll want to keep blurring to a minimum. Look for a panel with a response time of 5ms (black-to-white) or 2ms (gray-to-gray) or less. Recent gaming monitors offer G-Sync (Nvidia) or FreeSync/FreeSync 2 (AMD) display technologies that reduce screen-tearing artifacts and provide an ultra-smooth gaming experience, but your computer will need a compatible dedicated graphics card to take advantage of that functionality.
A fast-emerging subcategory of gaming displays is the so-called “high-refresh” panel. Some gaming-monitor makers offer displays that feature refresh rates above the 60Hz norm. They are geared toward esports aficionados or serious competitive gamers, who will use the panels in games that run above 60 frames per second for enhanced smoothness. (Depending on the games you play, you may need a high-end video card to see the benefits of a high-refresh display; see our guide to the best graphics cards.) These high-refresh monitors are offered in various refresh intervals ranging from 75Hz to 240Hz, with 144Hz being the most common flavor. These monitors often support FreeSync or G-Sync, as well. The ultimate gaming monitors are the 65-inch BFGD (“Big-Format Gaming Displays”) whose development Nvidia has helped spearhead. These 4K giants are HDR-capable, have a peak brightness of 1,000 nits, support frame rates of 120Hz or more, and support G-Sync adaptive sync technology. The first BFGD to market is the HP Omen X Emperium 65 Big Format Gaming Display (BFGD).
Because audio is a big part of the immersive gaming experience, if you don’t have a desktop speaker set already, consider a model with a decent speaker system. (Most in-monitor speakers are middling at best, though.) Alternately, a jack mounted on the side or the front of the cabinet for plugging in a gaming headset is practical if you tend to go the contained-sound route. A monitor with a USB hub to plug in several controllers is also desirable. For more, check out the Best Gaming Monitors.
How to Find the Best 4K Monitor
4K or UHD monitors aren’t just for gamers. In fact, many prospective owners of 4K monitors are video editors or users who like to have multiple windows open side-by-side without adding a second monitor. If that’s you, you don’t need to look for a panel with lightning-quick response times, but you should pay attention to color gamut, contrast ratios, and size.
A 27-inch 4K monitor (these start around $350) will generally allow you to fit three full-size browser windows side by side. Go any smaller than that, and the monitor won’t be as useful for multitasking. Gamers, on the other hand, will want to look for a larger-screen 4K display compatible with fast response times and FreeSync or G-Sync compliance if their PC uses a video card that supports one or the other, since a higher resolution makes tearing even more distracting. 4K gaming displays also start around $350, but they can range well north of $1,000 for 32-inch models with GPU syncing and IPS.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
Whatever your needs or budget, there’s a monitor out there that’s right for you. Below, check out the current best displays we’ve tested across the various usage cases we’ve discussed, at various price levels. We update this story constantly, but for the very latest monitor reviews we’ve posted, also see our monitor product guide.
Pros: Great color reproduction. Low input lag. Good price for the features you get. Gaming-friendly design.
Cons: Limited number of ports. Black levels could be better. Moderate light bleed.
Bottom Line: The Acer Predator XB3 is a nearly perfect compromise between the lowest and highest ends of the 4K 144Hz monitor market.
Pros: Nicely curved screen. Support for Adaptive Sync (FreeSync). 144Hz refresh rate. Joystick control for OSD menus. Gaming modes and features galore. Smooth performance and good contrast.
Cons: VA panel’s pixel response can’t match that of TN monitors. No built-in speakers.
Bottom Line: The Asus ROG Strix XG32VQ gaming monitor combines a 32-inch curved screen, a zippy 144Hz refresh rate, FreeSync compatibility, and a raft of gaming features to nab our Editors’ Choice.
Pros: Solid color and grayscale performance. Plenty of I/O ports. USB-C connectivity. Docking station base. Stylish design.
Cons: Lacks advanced color settings. No swivel adjustment.
Bottom Line: The BenQ PD2710QC is a stylish, versatile 27-inch monitor that delivers accurate colors and solid grayscale performance. It’s a top pick for big-screen displays.
Pros: USB-C port can charge devices, including laptops. QHD (ultra-high-definition) resolution. Good color accuracy and wide color gamut. Very bright HDR image. AMD FreeSync support. Smooth gameplay.
Cons: Stand only supports tilt adjustment. Tiny, awkward control buttons.
Bottom Line: The Dell 27 USB-C Ultrathin Monitor (S2719DC) is a good entertainment panel for video-watching or gaming, with a bright HDR image, accurate color, and a USB-C port that can charge a laptop and/or stream video or data from a computer.
Pros: Crisp, clear images. HDR color profiles fit well to their tasks. Solid color results in most tests. Exceeded brightness specs. Low input lag.
Cons: Low DCI-P3 color accuracy.
Bottom Line: Dell’s UltraSharp 32 U3219Q is a big, beautiful 4K display aimed squarely at the business set, but it could still find a home on any gamer’s desk with, we suspect, no complaints.
Pros: Spacious 49-inch screen. USB-C port can charge devices, including laptops. Good color accuracy. Can handle HDR content. Powerful speakers.
Cons: Skimpy one-year warranty. On the pricey side.
Bottom Line: The LG 49WL95C-W, a business-centered 49-inch monitor, is a multitasker’s dream panel, letting you manage and view several full-size windows on your screen at once.
Pros: Good HDR performance in videos and games alike. Blistering refresh rate. Support for AMD FreeSync 2. Sturdy and ergonomic mount. Good color quality and image sharpness. Strong value for money.
Cons: Viewing-angle range could be better.
Bottom Line: Gamers and video hounds alike will thrill to the Samsung CHG70 27-Inch Curved Monitor’s winning combination: its fine standard-definition and HDR image quality, wide color gamut, high refresh rate, and superior stand.
Pros: 4K UHD resolution. Good selection of ports, including USB-C. Covers 99 percent of the Adobe RGB color palette and 95 percent of DCI-P3. Highly adjustable stand.
Cons: No built-in speakers. HDR effect is relatively modest. No adaptive sync support.
Bottom Line: ViewSonic’s VP2785-4K is a prime-pick monitor for video editors, photographers, and other graphics pros, packing great color accuracy and factory calibration for a host of color spaces.
Pros: Slim, compact, and light. One-cable setup. OSD is easy to learn. Clean design that matches up well with thin laptop bezels.
Cons: Stand affords only one angle. Can’t rotate screen to vertical orientation. OSD buttons are tricky to reach. Cover doesn’t protect the back of the monitor.
Bottom Line: HP’s lightweight EliteDisplay S14 delivers surprising specs and sleek lines for a business-minded travel monitor. It’s a nifty second-screen complement for a midsize laptop that has USB Type-C.
Pros: Astounding image quality. Size and refresh rate combo is unique for a 4K gaming monitor. Nvidia Shield streaming built in. Matching, bundled soundbar. Nifty proximity lighting on ports.
Cons: Wildly expensive. Shield UI can be obtuse in places. Soundbar audio is ho-hum considering display cost. Meager default warranty.
Bottom Line: The HP Omen X Emperium 65, the first Nvidia Big Format Gaming Display (BFGD), is an epic, extravagant high-refresh mega-monitor. It’s impossibly pricey and far from flawless, but play on it is unmatched, if you have the monster PC to support it.