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, however, 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 those decade-old clunkers.
Price ranges vary widely, as do the quality of panels. Let’s take a walk through the latest trends in display technology, as well as the specific features to look for when buying your next desktop monitor.
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 type, size, and features of the display. For around $ 130 to $ 200, you can pick up a 22-inch, no-frills model, but don’t expect niceties such as USB ports and a height-adjustable stand at this price. But these panels do use LED backlighting, require little power, and are very 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. These are 30- to 34-inch high-end panels that can display 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, USB ports, 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.
Bottom line: Be prepared to pay for extras, but don’t overspend on features you will never use.
Desktop monitors generally fall between 15 and 38 inches. (Most of 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 a big viewing area, it may not be practical, given 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 display delivers a big-screen experience for a reasonable price. Or, if space is not an issue, consider a massive 34-inch, 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 38 inches with curved and non-curved panels, have a 21:9 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.
The fact is, most users won’t notice 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 9.5ms, but 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 27 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 coworker 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 transfer lots of data back and forth between USB devices, 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. Embedded webcams are ideal for web conferencing, but don’t expect stellar image quality, as they typically have low resolutions.
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. 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.
Popular panel types used in desktop displays are Twisted Nematic (TN), Vertical Alignment (VA), Patterned Vertical Alignment (PVA), Super PVA (S-PVA), Multi-Domain Vertical Alignment (MVA), and In-Plane Switching (IPS).
Up until recently, 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 around $ 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.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a desktop monitor that does not deliver full HD imagery. To do this, the panel must have a native resolution of at least 1,920 by 1,080, and it must have 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 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. LEDs offer a brighter image than CCFLs, they are smaller and require less power, and they 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. Now we’re seeing monitors that utilize quantum dot technology to offer superior color accuracy, increased color gamut, and a higher peak brightness than what you get with current panel technologies. The next wave of monitors will feature Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) technology that promises ultra-high contrast ratios, true blacks, and a super-fast pixel response. Expect these displays to carry a hefty price when they hit the market.
For laptop users who require dual-screen capabilities, a portable USB monitor fits the bill. These lightweight devices use your PC’s USB port 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.
We’ve broken this guide down into five categories, all of which target different audiences: Budget, Business/Professional, Multimedia, Touch-Screen, 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 spend a fortune on one with features you’ll never use. Budget displays are usually no-frills models that eschew such niceties as USB ports, card readers, and built-in webcams. They typically use TN panel technology and are not known for their performance attributes, particularly when it comes to motion handling and grayscale accuracy. Don’t expect much in the way of flexibility, either; 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 a budget 27-inch screen can be had for well under $ 300.
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 automatically 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.
These are still uncommon, but with the advent of Windows 10, touch-screen desktop displays have gained some traction. Most touch-screen models will work with the latest operating systems, but in order to become a certified Windows monitor, certain criteria must be met. For instance, the display must offer a bezel-free design that does not interfere with swiping in from the side, and it must have at least five-point touch capabilities. 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.
Multimedia displays typically offer a nice selection of features to help you create and consume home photo and video projects. A good multimedia panel will usually provide a variety of connectivity options, such as HDMI, DVI, and VGA inputs, while the more robust entertainment-class models will also include component video and audio connections and a DisplayPort connection. At least two USB ports should be available, preferably mounted on the side or front of the cabinet for easy access, and the speakers 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.)
“Hybrid displays” are multifunction devices that pull double duty as a desktop monitor and a TV set. You’ll pay a bit more for the TV tuner, but these displays are ideal for dorm rooms, studio apartments, RVs, and other environments where space is an issue. That said, these models are increasingly uncommon, as most modern flat-panel TVs can accept a computer signal over HDMI with aplomb.
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. Gaming monitors should also offer a variety of digital video inputs to accommodate multiple sources, including consoles such as the Sony PS4 Pro or the Microsoft Xbox One S, or multiple PCs. The latest crop of 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.
Another emerging category in 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.
Since 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 powerful speaker system. Alternately, a jack mounted on the side or the front of the cabinet for plugging in your 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 $ 300) 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 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 $ 300, but they can range well north of $ 1,000 for 32-inch models with GPU syncing and IPS.
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 for a variety of use cases and at various price levels. We update this story monthly, but for the very latest monitor reviews we’ve posted, also see our monitor product guide.
Best Computer Monitors Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: Loaded with features including multiple game modes and lighting effects. AMD FreeSync enabled. Solid performance. Three-year warranty.
Cons: Expensive. Some ports are difficult to access.
Bottom Line: The 38-inch Acer XR382CQK curved-screen monitor offers accurate colors and stellar gaming performance. It’s expensive, but its extensive feature set and humongous screen are worth the price.