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Displays buying advice

Displays buying advice

Here's how to select the correct display for your needs.

If you’re looking for a flatscreen monitor, you may well have an ideal screen size in mind. You’ll probably be after the largest screen you can afford. While you may end up with just that, you also need to consider the screen’s brightness and how well it distinguishes between different colours and how quickly onscreen information is updated. This last factor determines how smooth action appears, though the graphics card in the PC or laptop also has its part to play here.

Here, we’ll cover the criteria you need to consider when choosing a new flatpanel display. Where possible, we suggest you go and take a look at your shortlisted screens set up in store. Specifications don’t tell the whole story and looks and design are important factors.

Displays buying advice: One size doesn’t fit all

Size is important, but some screen sizes are better value than others. Most notably, you’ll find it cheaper to choose a widescreen display with an aspect ratio of 16:9 or 16:10 than a more traditional 4:3 screen. Monitor glass is cut from enormous sheets and the market at the moment is for widescreen displays that emulate the dimensions of a movie screen. Other shaped screens are therefore seen as special cases and lack of demand means they tend to be more expensive.

For general entertainment purposes, a widescreen or ‘letterbox’ display for watching high-definition films and playing games is likely to be just what you’re after. Another point in the widescreen monitor’s favour is that it lends itself to having more than one window on show at once, so you could have your web browser or email inbox open in one area of the screen and a document you’re working on active in another part of the screen. This saves you having to flit between active windows all the time.

A 22in monitor is the current sweet spot for widescreen monitors attached to PCs. They offer a generous-sized screen but aren’t so large they completely dominate the desk. Not all 22in flatscreen monitors offer the same viewable area, however. Some manufacturers include the bezel or ‘cabinet’ in which the screen is housed in their description of the screen size. More importantly, the resolutions supported by apparently same-size screens varies.

See all: 19 - 24-inch LCDs reviews

See all: 25-inch and bigger LCDs reviews

Displays buying advice: All about pixels

For true high-definition viewing, you should look for a display that offers a ‘native’ resolution of 1920x1080 pixels. This figure describes the amount of detail packed into the display and actually refers to the density of pixels (picture elements) in a fixed-size grid. Many different screen resolutions are possible, but the most common widescreen ones are 1920x1080 (also known as ‘full HD’), 1920x1080 and 1366x768 pixels. Some screens are described as being HD, but actually support a lower 1920x720 pixel resolution.

The resolution available on a given monitor is partly dependent on its overall size. A 19in screen is likely to have a resolution of 1366x768. Packing in more than two million pixels (1920x1080 pixels) into this size screen is possible, but each individual pixel would be very small indeed, as would the overall image. Pixel pitch, meanwhile, describes how tightly-packed the pixels are together, and consequently affects how sharp everything looks. A pixel pitch of 0.25mm or 0.26mm is ideal.

The term ‘native’ refers to the setting for which the screen has been designed. You can alter the screen settings for more or less detail, but this can lead to a distorted image or a portion of the screen being unused and what’s onscreen being shown smaller than it ought to be. Note too that not all programs support the highest screen settings, while very complex games will lag if you don’t have a superior combination of screen, graphics card and fast processor.

 Displays buying advice: Brighter future

Screens are getting brighter and brighter as the technology behind them improves. Walk into your local high street electronics store, however, and you’ll see some screens twinkling away far more distinctly than others. This will partly be down to variations in the contrast ratio each screen supports. However, it may also be because some of the screens are ‘standard’ TFT or LCD types while the brighter ones are LED backlit.

Around 50 percent of the flatpanel screens currently marketed for use with PCs are LED-backlit. As you’ll surmise, these offer a more vibrant display. Consider whether this is something you want – they look more impressive but you may find a very bright screen harder to stare at for prolonged periods.

Contrast ratios can also be rather over the top. Some flatpanel monitor makers advertise contrast ratios in excess of a million. Behind this headline figure, however, is usually a more standard contrast figure of 1000:1. This sort of level of contrast is just right for everyday use. Unless you really need incredibly high contrast levels (it’s generally a special mode you switch to on the screen’s controls), look instead for this lower figure.

Arguably more important, in any case, is the brightness level the screen can achieve in the first place. Described in terms of the number of candles’-worth of brightness it can produce, the candela (or cdm2) rating needs to be at least 300 or 400 to be worth consideration.

Displays buying advice: Screen speed and type

Flatscreen displays use two distinct technology types: TN (twisted nematic) and IPS (in-plane switching). TN screens have been found in almost every LCD flatpanel and laptop screen for the past eight years. The liquid crystals are heated and twist round in response to current from a transistor. This mechanism polarises light in order to create colours and the illusion of movement. However, TN screens look best viewed straight on since that’s where all the crystals are deliberately aligned.

You don’t get such a good view if you look at whatever’s onscreen from the side. If you have only a shallow view of the screen, you’ll hardly be able to see any of the detail and lose almost all the colour. You will instead see mostly screen sheen.

IPS technology was developed to combat these two issues. The display is still fitted in an LCD panel, but the liquid crystals that make up the display do not twist away, so the way light is polarised through them is more consistent. It’s considerably more expensive to produce an IPS panel, since two transistors are required for each crystal. However, you may find the difference in screen quality worth paying for.

An onscreen image is created by turning on and off individual pixels to simulate nuances of colour. This is done very quickly in order to simulate fast-flowing action. It’s therefore important you consider how reactive the flatpanel display is. This is known as the response rate. If you want to play fast-paced games, a response rate of less than 5 milliseconds is desirable. The fastest screens we’ve seen have response rates of 2ms (two milliseconds). However, for watching videos and for general business and entertainment use, a screen with a response rate in single figures is fine.

Displays buying advice: All about the connections

Another important determining factor here is the connection between your PC or laptop and the screen. If both the content and the connector are digital (DVI) or HDMI, you’ll have the best combination of original image or video quality and communication between the source and the display. Most PCs these days have both a DVI (digital visual interface) and a VGA (video graphics array) port. The VGA port is analog and is a legacy port used by some projectors and older monitor types. Given the choice, you should connect your screen to your PC via DVI. However, if you wish to connect two screens at once, one of them may need to use the VGA port. Your graphics card may have an additional DVI connection you can use, however.

If you want to connect your new flatpanel screen to your laptop and enjoy the larger display, you should find a DVI port. You may be lucky enough to have an HDMI connection too. In this case you’ll probably be able to play whatever’s on your laptop to the HD TV in your lounge too.

There’s one additional connection type to consider. In three or four years’ time DisplayPort will replace DVI and is already offered by a range of manufacturers including Apple, HP, Dell, Lenovo and Samsung. Note that you may need an adapter to connect a screen to a laptop that uses Mini DisplayPort.

DisplayPort should not be confused with DisplayLink - a type of connector that allows multiple displays to be connected to laptops, projectors and PCs that support the technology. Both physical connections and wireless ones (Wireless USB) are possible here.
Finally, some monitors have built-in speakers. These are rarely any good, so you shouldn’t really choose your flatpanel screen based on it having its own audio setup. Instead, pay £30 or £40 for a good set of desktop speakers that plugs in to the PC or laptop you’re using, or directly into the monitor.

Displays buying advice: Weight and power consumption

Flatpanel monitors are nowhere near as heavy as the bulging cathode ray tube screens of the 1980s and 1990s. Even the heaviest 24in screens weigh no more than about 7kg. As well as being more practical to move about, if needs be, they take up far less desk space than older CRTs. Better yet, they require much less energy to power. Monitors used to be one of the biggest electricity-hungry items in the average office.

EnergyStar compliance is mandatory and means no flatpanel screen is allowed to draw more than 3 Watts of power in standby mode. Even in active use the screen should require around 20 to 30 Watts at most. The figure varies depending on what you’re using the screen for, so screen manufacturers usually provide a range describing how much the display will require in ‘average’ use.

Displays buying advice: Where to place your monitor

It’s important to factor in the placement of your new monitor and how well it will fit into your office or home office setup. There’s no point buying a vast display that has to be placed at a skewed angle in order to fit in the available space. You won’t get the full benefit of its visual effects, making it a waste of money.

Let’s consider the physical attributes. A very large screen takes up a commensurately large amount of space. A 24in widescreen display will be housed in a casing of perhaps 26in or 27in. Screen sizes are measured across the diagonal, rather than along their width, so your 24in flatpanel screen will be approximately 20in wide. Ideally, it will come with a height-adjustable stand, but you need to check you’ve a sufficiently wide desk to place it on (and still have room for a phone, keyboard and mouse and any paperwork you need to hand). If you’re buying a screen that swivels from landscape to portrait, you need to factor in the space for it to perform this ‘sweep’ too.

To minimise the risk of neck strain, you should position the screen straight on so you are look directly at it. The top of the screen should be in line with your eyes. This way you don’t need to look down at whatever’s onscreen, and you can hold your head in a more natural position, avoiding neck strain and staving off headaches.

Some screens are wall-mountable, so this could be another way of ensuring the screen is positioned at the right height for you. Another alternative is a stand that raises up the screen from the desk.

Displays buying advice: Monitor buying guide checklist

The resolution, viewable screen size and response rate will be of most importance for entertainment and gaming duties. Choose a screen with no more than an 8ms (preferably 5ms) response time. A 22in screen with a 1920x1080-pixel native resolution is likely to be better value than a 24in model with the same resolution. A pixel pitch of 0.25mm or 0.26mm is ideal. On a 19in to 21in display, a 1366x768 pixel resolution will suffice.

If more than one person is going to be looking at this screen on a regular basis – perhaps the screen is an information display, for example – the viewing angles are very important. You want at least a 170-degree viewing angle vertically and horizontally. The horizontal figure is more critical.

Brightness and contrast govern how distinct things look onscreen. Choose a 1000:1 true contrast ratio and a brightness rating of at least 300 candelas per square metre.

HDMI and either DVI or DisplayPort connectors are the best for home entertainment and gaming. You may need a VGA connection if you’re connecting two screens to your computer. DVI is a must.

Height adjustment is desirable but VESA wall mounts and monitor stands could be a good alternative.

All modern displays should have a label proving their EnergyStar-compliance. A three-year warranty is standard for displays.

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