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How to choose a flat-panel display

Expert advice for buying computer monitors

The screen is one of the most important elements of a PC. You’ll be spending most of your working day staring at it, so it makes sense to choose a flat-panel display that’s comfortable to view. It’s also likely to be with you a long time – the average monitor is replaced less frequently than the PC that powers it. So it’s crucial that you buy the correct type of panel for your needs.

Choosing a monitor isn’t as simple as comparing the specifications of one against another, then plumping for the display that sounds superior. Indeed, some specifications are far more important than others.

 Screen size and resolution

First, decide on the panel size you want, which will most likely depend on your budget. In general, 25in and larger screens will cost upwards of £250. Unless you have a limited amount of desk space, there’s really no reason to choose anything smaller than a 22in display. Most such displays will have the same full-HD (1920x1080 pixels) resolution as larger 23in and 24in screens.

If you want to go beyond full-HD, you'll need a dual-link DVI cable as a standard one (a single-link cable) supports up to 1920x1080. Similarly, HDMI supports resolutions up to 1080p so can't be used for displays with 2560x1536 pixels or even higher resolutions.

Make a connection

All bar the cheapest monitors have digital interfaces, such as DVI and HDMI. Those that cost less than £100 may have only VGA. Also known as D-Sub, VGA is an analogue interface and won't provide as clean a signal as DVI or HDMI. It also means the display has to adjust the image to ensure it fits perfectly on the screen.

Such auto adjustments are very effective on most modern displays, but it's sensible to use a digital connection where possible, as pixels are mapped one-to-one from the graphics card to the display, giving the best quality and sharpest image.

DisplayPort is the latest standard, although it isn't very common. It should become more popular in the future thanks to its support for higher resolutions than HDMI and DVI and also multiple monitors.

 Panel type

It’s rare to find a monitor that offers poor image quality these days, but that doesn’t mean all modern displays are identical. Even if you already know and understand the differences between twisted-nematic (TN), multi-vertical alignment (MVA), patterned vertical alignment (PVA) and in-plane switching (IPS) screens, it’s unwise to base your purchasing decision purely on the panel technology a monitor uses.

Twisted-nematic

TN panels are generally used in budget monitors and tend to have limited viewing angles. This means colours will shift as you increase the angle at which you view the screen relative to the perpendicular. However, TN monitors also offer fast response times and acceptable colours, making them a good buy for most users.

Multi-vertical alignment

MVA and PVA screens offer better viewing angles and contrast ratios than TN panels, but their often slow response times can lead to blurred frames in video and games. If fast response times are important, look to an advanced MVA (AMVA) monitor.

In-plane switching

IPS is widely regarded as the best monitor technology. It offers excellent viewing angles, contrast and colour accuracy. It also tends to be the most expensive, but there are exceptions and bargains can now be had.

Matt or gloss?

A screen’s finish is worth considering. The vast majority of monitors have a matt coating, which all but eliminates reflections. Glossy screens, which are more commonly found on laptops these days, can be overly reflective but offer more vibrant colours.

Extra features

Most monitors costing less than £200 have basic stands that allow only tilt adjustment. Spend more and you may be able to find a height-adjustable stand, which can prevent you craning your neck. The top of your monitor should be roughly at eye level. With height adjustment often comes pivot, which lets you rotate the screen to a tall portrait orientation.

Speakers are built into some models, but are generally of a poor quality and suitable only for email notifications and the like. A headphone output can be handy, but not if it’s hidden at the rear of a display where you can’t get to it. USB ports may come in useful for plugging in peripherals and hard drives.

Don’t overlook the warranty. Monitors tend to come with two- or three-year guarantees, but some companies ask you to send the screen to them at your expense (return to base), while others will send you a replacement and collect the faulty unit at the same time (onsite). Buy a monitor for its image quality, not its extra features. These should be viewed only as a bonus.

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