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 one 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. See also: Group test: what's the best display?
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. Visit Group test: What's the best 19 to 24-inch LCD monitor?
Screen size and resolution
First, decide on the panel size you want, which will most likely depend on your budget. In general, 26in 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 (1920x100 pixels) resolution as larger 23in and 24in screens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
AOC i2352Vh - £139
BenQ RL2240H - £130
NEC MultiSync EX231Wp - £270
Samsung SyncMaster S23A550H - £210
ViewSonic VP2765-LED - £350
Although technology advances mean that it’s increasingly difficult to find a bad monitor, image quality is still a mixed bag and the price you pay for your panel doesn’t always reflect this.
Some manufacturers have recently launched no-frills displays with high-quality IPS panels, which is great news if you’re on a budget. Instead of having to pay for extras you don’t need, you can get great contrast, viewing angles and colour accuracy with a surprisingly small outlay.
AOC’s i2352Vh is a case in point: its 23in IPS panel is paired with a basic stand for only £139. It offers HDMI, DVI and VGA inputs. Relatively high power consumption is the trade-off.
If you have a slightly larger budget, Philips’ 241P4QPYES is a 24in display that uses the latest AMVA panel technology.
It offers stunning image quality, with dark blacks and dazzling whites. The colours are accurate, and viewing angles excellent. We like the height-adjustable stand, and found configuration software that’s more flexible than that built into Windows 7 especially welcome. It even sports four USB ports for plugging in extra storage and peripherals.
How we tested
We allowed each monitor to warm up for 30 minutes before we began our tests. We set the colour temperature to 6,500 Kelvins where possible; the red, green and blue sliders were otherwise pushed to their maximum values. Dynamic contrast and other enhancements were disabled.
Each monitor was connected to our PC via DVI or HDMI. We then ran Datacolor’s Spyder4Elite calibration software. Combined with the Spyder4 colorimeter, this accurately measures gamut, contrast, brightness and colour accuracy.
We ran each panel through a selection of tests comprising HD video clips and games to observe image quality and response time.
Where speakers are available, a YouTube video was used to help us assess how well they can cope with music and film soundtracks. The speakers built into monitors are usually fit only for an operating system’s audible notifications, however.
We examine each monitor’s stand for adjustability and cable-management systems. We also assess the usability of the menu system, and experiment with each option offered to judge its effectiveness.