What to Look for in a Computer Monitor

Vector illustration of a video call on a monitor
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Buying a PC monitor may seem like a simple purchase, but there’s actually a lot to consider. What do you want to use it for? Why does refresh rate matter? Do you want an ultrawide? Is color accuracy an important factor? These (and more) are all things to consider when shopping for a new display.

If the monitor buying process suddenly seems a lot more daunting, don’t worry. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about how to shop for a computer monitor, so you’ll be able to pin down your exact needs.

Screen Size

Obviously, the bigger your screen is the more room you have to do stuff, but that doesn’t mean bigger is immediately better. Because when you pick up a large monitor you suddenly have a lot more to accommodate for on your desk—and that’s not to mention the higher prices.

Most monitors tend to range from 23 to 32 inches, but you can find options both under and over that range. 27-inch monitors are a sweet spot for a lot of people, as they offer decent-sized screens and tick the midrange price tag in most cases. However, 32-inch monitors are great if you need more screen real estate, and 23-inch monitors are great budget options that can also fit in small spaces.

Ultrawide monitors change the size equation drastically, using a 21:9 aspect ratio compared to the 16:9 ratio of standard screens. As the name suggests, these displays take up way more horizontal space and can easily conquer a desk on their own, so make sure to take some measurements before purchasing. They’re also not cheap, and when it comes to specs you definitely get less bang for the buck out of an ultrawide. Still, they have their advantages—being able to manipulate such a large screen to your needs is great. And if you’re doing specific things like gaming, video editing, or watching movies, that’s where they really shine. If you know that you need more horizontal real estate from your display, an ultrawide is the way to go.

Resolution

Different resolutions against multi-colored backdrop

At the moment, there are three resolutions you’ll want to give serious consideration to: 1080p, 1440p, and 4K. These three are all well supported nowadays, and which you should go with just depends on how much you’re willing to pay. It’s also important to keep in mind your monitor’s size, as smaller displays can get away with using lower resolutions while keeping a sharp image.

4K is the best looking, ideal for larger monitors, and usually comes with other benefits like HDR. 1080p looks good (especially on smaller screens), is the most supported by media and software, and is more affordable. 1440p offers an interesting middle ground—while not as sharp as 4K, is less expensive and still looks better than 1080p.

Regardless, 1080p is usually sufficient for most things. There’s a limited amount of content that takes advantage of 1440p and 4K, but it’s definitely out there, especially when it comes to movies and games. And if you’re doing creative work like video editing, having a high-resolution monitor also allows you to create higher-quality content.

Panel Type

Person using a game development program on a monitor
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The panel your monitor uses will determine how the image comes across. Most monitors use LCD panels nowadays, but there are different types of LCDs out there.

  • TN: This is an older standard but it’s still kicking around because of its low cost. TN (Twisted Nematic) displays are affordable and have extremely low response times. On the downside, color reproduction is poor and viewing angles (how a monitor looks when you’re not looking at it straight on) are also subpar. This leads to an underwhelming image. Affordable as they are, TN monitors are a rare sight and probably won’t be worth the effort it takes to hunt one down.
  • IPS: When it comes to modern monitors, IPS (In-Plane Switching) tends to be the favored panel among most users. While it’s generally the most expensive, it makes up for that with a high pixel density—meaning much more accurate color and better viewing angles. This leads to a higher response time, but that’s a fairly minute difference and the better image quality definitely makes up for it.
  • VA: Then we have VA (Vertically Aligned), which serves as a middle ground between TN and IPS. The color accuracy and viewing angles are better than TN but not as good as IPS, with response times that also strike in between the two. The price tends to reflect this in-between state as well. The notable thing about VAs is that their color contrast is superior to other LCD panels. Because of this, VA displays are still a good option in certain situations but can’t compete with IPS as a general option.

Refresh Rate

Gaming monitor on desk with PC
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The refresh rate is how many times a second your monitor updates with new images—this is measured in “Hertz” (Hz). In practical use, this affects how smooth movement looks on your screen, whether that’s a video or scrolling through a web page. The refresh rate also represents the maximum frame rate—a measure used to represent how many images per second are used in a video or game—a monitor can display.

For example, 60 Hz represents 60 frames per second (FPS) while 144 Hz represents 144 FPS. Most monitors you find will at least support 60 Hz, which frankly is all you need for most things. Movies and TV shows rarely exceed 30 FPS, most online content is produced with either 30 or 60 FPS in mind.

Higher refresh rates mainly matter if you’re working in video or playing games, as being able to view high frame rates are extremely important in both activities. If you’re not doing either of those things though, a 60 or 75 Hz monitor should be more than fine.

Ports

HDMI cable going into port on back of monitor
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When it comes to ports, the more the merrier—whether it’s DisplayPort, HDMI, or USB. Having the choice between HDMI and DisplayPort is a nice option to have, as each has its strengths worth considering. HDMI is available in a couple of different forms right now (HDMI 2.0 and HDMI 2.1 specifically, with 2.1 able to support higher resolutions and refresh rates), but it’s an overall competent connector that’s widely supported and affordable. DisplayPort is a bit rarer, but it can transfer higher quality audio and video signals while using longer cables without losing quality.

If you want a high-end monitor with some insane specs, DisplayPort is what you’ll want to prioritize. Otherwise, HDMI 2.0 is more than fine, and HDMI 2.1 does a good job at competing with DisplayPort in quality (although, a new version of DisplayPort, DisplayPort 2.0, is coming that promises even higher quality).

USB ports are a great bonus feature on a monitor, allowing you to plug devices into the monitor to connect to the PC. This basically turns your monitor into a USB hub and is a great way to simplify your cable management situation. You can also occasionally find monitors with USB-C PD ports. This connector can transfer data and power, which is especially great for laptop users as you can charge your device while using a monitor for more screen real estate.

Stand

While the tech inside the monitor is the most important thing, that doesn’t hurt to have a good stand supporting it. Some monitors come with simple unadjustable stands, while others go all out by allowing you to change the height, angle, and orientation between landscape and portrait. You can always pick up a third-party stand to get these features, but keep in mind that requires your monitor to be VESA compatible. VESA is the standard mounting method used by most monitor stands, and many monitors will be outfitted with a VESA mount of the box.

You can tell if a monitor has a VESA mount by looking at the back of it; VESA mounts are identifiable by four screw holes in a large square formation.

Specifics

Now that we’ve covered the general stuff, let’s talk about some specific features and use cases of monitors.

Touch Screens

There aren’t many touch screen monitors out there, but they can be very useful. A touch screen allows your computer to be used in different ways and lets you have more choice in how you interact with programs. Modern operating systems have features built-in specifically for touchscreen users (in large part due to the increasing popularity of touchscreen laptops), so using it for day-to-day navigation shouldn’t be an issue. Just remember that touchscreen monitors are generally more expensive so they should only be considered if you know you need it.

Gaming

While we’ve already mentioned that higher refresh rate monitors are great for gamers, there are a couple of other features monitors can include to enhance the gaming experience—namely lower response times and support for tools like NVIDIA G-Sync and AMD FreeSync. Monitors as a whole run laps around TVs when it comes to response times, but many gaming monitors boast even quicker responses to your input. Both G-Sync and FreeSync are tools to improve the visuals of games by reducing stuttering and screen tears (although, your computer needs a graphics card from either NVIDIA or AMD to make use of them). Quick response times and gaming-oriented tools like G-Sync, alongside a high refresh rate, are the recipe for a great gaming monitor.

Resolution is also an important thing to note because running games in 4K (or even 1440p) is no simple task. These higher resolutions take a toll on your computer’s graphics card, so if you want to play games using these resolutions, you’ll need a beast of a machine. Of course, you can always choose to run games at a lower resolution than your monitor is capable of to increase performance.

Color Accuracy

Person photo editing on a monitor
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If you’re working in the field of photo editing or graphic design, knowing exactly what color you’re using is extremely important—this is where color accuracy comes into play. The name is fairly self-explanatory, but the issue is that many monitors won’t list their color accuracy outside of marketing terms.

Keep an eye out for monitors marketed towards “creatives” is a good place to start, as these typically focus more on color accuracy than your standard monitors. For specs, IPS panels tend to be preferred for their higher pixel density, but VA can do alright as well.

Color gamuts are important, which is the range of colors a monitor can display; sRGB is the standard that’s been used for years, but Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 are both designed for things like photography and editing. Delta-E value is also something you’ll see commonly listed, usually in the form of something like “E < 1” or “E < 3.” This represents the difference between how a monitor displays color and how the human eye perceives color—1 is the lowest and most accurate, but 2 also works well.

Those specs won’t always be available, which is where you’ll have to rely on reviewers giving you information on the monitors. It can be tricky to find a good monitor for color accuracy, but if you keep a keen eye on the specs page and do a little research before purchasing, you shouldn’t walk away disappointed.

Eric Schoon Eric Schoon
Eric Schoon is a writer for Review Geek and has spent most of his life thinking about and analyzing products of all shapes and sizes. From the latest games to the hottest smartphones, he enjoys finding the greatest strengths and weaknesses of everything he gets his hands on and then passing that information on to you. Read Full Bio »

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