A larger screen for your PC doesn't just make it more fun for watching DVDs, it can give you more workspace too. PC Advisor assesses seven new models, and offers flat-panel buying advice.

Monitors have gone from being the poor relations of a desktop PC setup - typically, manufacturers would provide a good computer specification but throw in a cheap screen to cut costs - to being a critical element. The popularity of YouTube, BBC iPlayer, DVD playback, photo slideshows, image editing and HD video support, as well as being able to enjoy the latest 3D games, all make a good display essential.

This means you can now expect a reasonable flat-panel display when buying a complete new PC. These days it's possible to get hold of an entry-level desktop system, complete with a 17in or 19in display, for around £300 or £400. At the same time, upgraders can get some good deals on high-quality screens if they know where to look.

Switching displays isn't just about getting a larger screen area; many of us upgrade in order to get a new aspect ratio. Widescreen is the setup of choice for filming Hollywood movies. And if you're pairing a widescreen display with a computer that supports Blu-ray playback, opt for a 16:9 model. This is the closest you'll get to the original aspect ratio of the HD films. A 16:10 flat-panel offers a good approximation, however, and there are more such screens around. They're also generally less expensive.

Size matters

Even office monitors these days are often widescreen rather than the long-established 4:3 format. This can have implications for screen pivoting, so consider this if you're likely to want to be able to swivel your display through 90 degrees for page-layout purposes or because you want to be able to view complex spreadsheets more easily.

In the main, though, wider is better; you can fit two or three panes of information on the screen at once: your email inbox, a Word document you're working on and an instant-messaging conversation, stock market update or web browser.

The resolution and response time of your display are also important to consider. The lower the response time, the better. Gamers demand screen update intervals of less than 6ms, with 4ms and 2ms response times ensuring the smoothest gameplay because onscreen information is updated so frequently. Screens such as the BenQ M2200HD we review here have specific games options that boost the onscreen updates to ensure you get the best gaming experience.

You don't need such a fast screen for watching DVDs, however - 6ms will be more than adequate - and, unless your desktop PC has a suitable graphics card to be able to push pixels in line with the demands of the latest games, you can save a few pounds by opting for a marginally less cutting-edge screen.

NEXT PAGE: screen resolutions, and a better build

  1. Buying advice, and why size matters
  2. Screen resolutions, and a better build
  3. Price isn't everything, and how we test
  4. Flat-panel monitor reviews

A larger screen for your PC doesn't just make it more fun for watching DVDs, it can give you more workspace too. PC Advisor assesses seven new models, and offers flat-panel buying advice.

Screen resolutions

The ideal native screen resolution for HD viewing is 1,920x1,080 pixels. Most flat-panels support at least 1,680x1,080 and, for viewing text on a 22in or smaller screen, you won't want to set the resolution higher than this, as characters will be too small to read. On 24in and 26in displays, this won't be such an issue; the pixels are distributed over a larger area and are therefore slightly bigger.

Good contrast and brightness will aid legibility. Contrast ratios are usually in the region of several hundred to one, with higher figures implying a superior display. Some flat-panel displays, however, boast contrast ratios in the thousands. As you'll see from our reviews, this extra brightness isn't uniformly successful.

You'd arguably do better to opt for a more standard contrast ratio of, say, 800:1 or 1,000:1 and a screen that has a high brightness rating - measured in candelas per metre squared (cdm2). Between 300 and 600cdm2 will suffice. Support for an RGB colour palette consisting of 16.7 million shades should be a given (only designers are likely to need a wider colour gamut).

A better build

The physical design of the flat-panel you choose shouldn't be ignored, either. While a larger screen may seem better value, its display may not be as impressive, its ports fewer and resolution support poorer.

It may also be too large for the space you have available. Some also use an alarming amount of electricity, so check the environmental credentials and the energy-saving standby options.

Irrespective of its size, you screen should come with all the connection types you need. VGA plugs have now largely been superseded by DVI ports that offer a digital hook-up to your PC, but it's common to find both types offered. Check what your computer has and, if possible, connect your new screen to an available DVI or HDMI port on the graphics card, rather than to the standard VGA port that's integrated into the PC's case.

HDMI ports aren't universal on PCs, but having such a connection on your monitor is handy - it means you'll be able to use it for playing HD content from your PlayStation 3 console or a standalone Blu-ray drives. Needless to say, this is a good option if you aren't yet ready to fork out for an HDTV.

Many screens also have RGB component video and USB ports. You can plug in speakers, headphones or a webcam to the latter, although many flat-panels have embedded speakers for audio playback.

NEXT PAGE: price isn't everything, and how we test

  1. Buying advice, and why size matters
  2. Screen resolutions, and a better build
  3. Price isn't everything, and how we test
  4. Flat-panel monitor reviews

A larger screen for your PC doesn't just make it more fun for watching DVDs, it can give you more workspace too. PC Advisor assesses seven new models, and offers flat-panel buying advice.

Price isn't everything

There's a lot of variation in the price manufacturers demand for their flat-panel screens. Remember that there's no hard-and-fast rule that says a £300 model is automatically better than a £200 screen with the same dimensions. Nor is it necessarily the case that spending, say, £350 on a 22in screen will get you a better display than shelling out the same amount for a 24in display.

Although the technical specifications of monitors can be explained with words, choosing a flat-panel monitor is best done by visiting a shop and comparing screen quality for yourself. That's because the colour palette and brightness settings, the level of contrast and the design are largely a subjective matter.

You may agree with our choice of design and onscreen display, but personal preference is an important factor when selecting the screen you'll be spending a lot of time staring at. Try before you buy.

How we test

For the purposes of testing, two identical PC setups were used, with two flat-panels assessed simultaneously. Only one screen was replaced at a time, giving us a reference model for comparison.

Each flat-panel was tested in two different modes. One of these involved adjusting the screen to find its optimal settings. We used Datacolor's Spyder3 Pro calibrator (datacolor.com) to calibrate the display and get the most faithful colour reproduction. Graphics pros will always use a calibrator to get the most accurate image.

However, since most readers wouldn't expect to pay an extra £100 for a tool used to calibrate the screen - particularly when that flat-panel had cost only £200 or so in the first place - we also assessed screens as they would be viewed in a typical office or home environment.

This involved making appropriate adjustments using the screen's control panel, and loading up special software where bundled. Control panels were judged on ease of use, comfort, convenience and speed.

Displaymate was used to assess each screen's capabilities. We loaded up a number of images and tried each screen with Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. Blu-ray and DVD movies were played on each display, and we also ran some Crysis and Fear demos to highlight the smoothness with which screens could handle fast-moving images. Native resolutions were used for most tests, although we experimented with lower resolutions as well.

NEXT PAGE: flat-panel monitor reviews

  1. Buying advice, and why size matters
  2. Screen resolutions, and a better build
  3. Price isn't everything, and how we test
  4. Flat-panel monitor reviews

A larger screen for your PC doesn't just make it more fun for watching DVDs, it can give you more workspace too. PC Advisor assesses seven new models, and offers flat-panel buying advice.

Flat-panel monitor reviews

Quick links:

  1. Buying advice, and why size matters
  2. Screen resolutions, and a better build
  3. Price isn't everything, and how we test
  4. Flat-panel monitor reviews