Buying Guide: Displays
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Whether you're reading text, viewing photos and movies, or playing games, you likely spend hours each day staring at your computer monitor. With so much time spent interacting with your computer's display, your monitor-purchasing decision should be based on careful consideration of a number of factors, not just a price comparison. Here are a few tips for buying the display that's right for you.
When companies specify the size of a display, they are referring to the diagonal measurement of the screen. When LCD monitors first started replacing bulky CRT displays on people's desks, 14- and 15-inch monitors were the norm. As time marches on, typical display sizes get larger and prices continue to drop. These days, 24-, 27-, and even 30-inch desktop displays are within the budgetary reach of the average computer user.
When you're shopping for a display, opt for the biggest screen size your budget and space allow, as you'll be able to view more data without having to close or shuffle windows around. At the same time, carefully consider your work area, since many workspaces don't have the room to accommodate certain display sizes.
The resolution of a monitor refers to the number of pixels it has to display an image. The first number is the number of horizontal pixels, the second is the vertical pixel count. Most 27-inch monitors offer 2560-by-1440-pixel resolution. Some, however, have just 1920 by 1080 pixels—typically what a 24-inch model offers. At this resolution, the pixels are more spread out, so every icon, letter, and window appears larger on the screen. This may be desirable in some cases, such as on a TV, but most people buy a larger computer monitor to be able to display more information.
The aspect ratio is the ratio between the display's width and height. Most monitors these days have either a 16:9 or a 16:10 widescreen aspect ratio.
A typical 24-inch, 16:9 display has a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, while a 16:10 display of the same diagonal screen size has a 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution. The 16:9 displays are well suited to playing widescreen, high-definition content, and in this case the 1080 vertical resolution of the display matches the resolution and dimensions of 1080p HD content. The 16:10 displays have more vertical pixels, so while HD content fits just fine, you will see black letterboxing bars on the top and bottom. Those extra 120 pixels of vertical space can allow you to view a few extra rows on a large spreadsheet, however.
In the last few years, the trend in monitor backlights has been away from cold cathode fluorescent lamps and toward LED backlights. LED backlit displays are generally thinner, generate less heat, and warm up to a stable luminance faster that CCFLs. LEDs also use less power, and they are made without the mercury required to manufacture CCFLs.
TN or IPS?
There are different types of LCD panels. Twisted nematic (TN), is the most common and least expensive. In-plane switching (IPS) is a higher-quality, more expensive panel often found in professional-grade displays. IPS offers wider viewing angles and the ability to display a wider range of colors, attributes for which art directors and professional photographers are willing to pay a premium.
Most displays have at least two video inputs: one analog and one digital. The analog input (VGA) is helpful if you have a really old PC that you want to connect. Most modern computers use a digital connection like DVI, HDMI, or DisplayPort.
The current Mac lineup features the Thunderbolt port, which is used for connecting displays that have Mini DisplayPort connectors. If you buy Apple's Thunderbolt Display () or 27-inch LED Cinema Display () and your Mac has Thunderbolt, you can plug the display into the Thunderbolt port. If your display lacks a Mini DisplayPort, you'll need to get an adapter, like the Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter.
Displays with HDMI connectors are handy for connecting consumer electronics devices like TVs and game consoles. Some displays offer a Picture in Picture mode, which lets you use multiple inputs simultaneously.
What's the point of having a great-looking display if you have to place it on top of stack of books or risers in order to keep from getting a stiff neck? Many displays offer nothing more than the ability to tilt backward a few degrees, while others allow you to tilt, adjust the height, swivel left and right, and even pivot into portrait mode. Factor these considerations into your buying decision.
One screen or two?
Should you use multiple monitors with your computer? That comes down to personal preference and the way you work. Some people use each screen for dedicated purposes: a browser window, Twitter app, and chat window on one screen, for example, and spreadsheets on another.
When using two monitors side by side, it's a good idea to look for displays with a thin bezel (the physical piece that borders the screen), especially if you expect to have information spanning the two displays. Also, make sure that you have a graphics card that can support multiple monitors.
Dell Ultrasharp U2713HM () If you prefer an antiglare screen, this $700 high-resolution 27-inch display is a great choice. It has a flexible design, did well in our on-screen performance tests, and offers a wide variety of connection options.
HP ZR2440 () This 24-inch, 16:10 display excelled in our subjective tests. The $395 ZR2440 offers a full complement of ergonomic adjustments, including height, tilt, swivel, and pivot. Add in a few niceties—like a four-port USB hub and a variety of input types, including DisplayPort, DVI-D, and HDMI—and you've got a great-performing, well-appointed display.
Samsung S24A450bw () If you can do without a few nice-to-have features, the Samsung S24A450bw is a great bargain. Despite its moderate price of $300, it landed near the top of the heap in our screen-quality tests.