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Everything you Need to Know about Choosing a MonitorUnless you're like me and have cursed yourself with a crappy laptop, you're probably reading this from a computer monitor. (I suppose, even if you're reading on a crappy laptop, it's still considered a monitor, just a stupid, crappy, stupid one.) They're everywhere, obviously, because you simply can't use a desktop computer without them. (Do blind people need computer monitors to use computers? Somebody should answer me that in the comments.) As with all computer parts, however, monitor purchasing can be a scary voyage through a dark forest of terms you've never heard before, like response time and pixel pitch. Let's go over the specs you'll want to understand when you're choosing a new monitor.
Most people hold to the axiom "bigger is better" when asked a question about screen size, and that seems like a pretty good answer to me. Screen size refers to the distance between one corner of a screen to the corner diagonally opposite from it. The screen I'm typing this on a 19" inch screen, so if I stick a ruler diagonally across the screen it measures exactly 19" across.
The size of your screen doesn't have all that much impact on your image quality, but it does have a pretty massive effect on the price. As of today (March 30, 2011), 19" monitors cost around $100, 21" monitors around $150, 23" monitors around $170, and 27" monitors around $300. If I were buying a single monitor, I'd personally go with a 23" since that provides a good amount of screen real estate without breaking my budget. Rather than just one screen, though, I'd prefer two 19" monitors-twice the screen for almost the same price as a 23"!
Aspect ratio is simple; it's just telling you whether your monitor is wide-screen, (like a movie theater screen) or if it's more on the square side (like an old-school CRT display). A wide-screen aspect ratio is 16:9 while a traditional aspect ratio is 4:3. This does not impact the quality of your images and is really just a matter of personal preference.
Native (Recommended) Resolution
Resolution refers to the number of pixels on your screen, measured by the number of pixels in a column by the number of columns the display supports. An LCD monitor's native, or recommended, resolution refers the actual arrangement of LCD transistors with which a screen was designed and cannot be changed. While it's true that smaller resolutions can be displayed on a monitor, they're really only smaller images that are stretched out to fill the screen's native resolution. To get the best picture from your LCD, you'll want to stick to the monitor's native resolution as much as possible. (Resolution is probably the most difficult display specs to fully grasp.)
If you open a blank word document on your screen and then start turning the monitor away from you, you'll notice that once you reach a certain point, the blank white document will stop looking white, but may appear a little bit grey or yellowed. A monitor's viewing angle refers to the size of the area from which you can view your display and still have that white page look white. Most screens on the market today have a 176o viewing angle.
Pixel pitch refers to the distance between the pixels on your screen and is measure in tenths of millimeters. The smaller this number, the sharper your image will be.
16.7 million Colors are the standard for LCD monitors today. If your monitor fluidly displayed the entire spectrum of colored light from red to purple (like a rainbow), display color would refer to the number of stops the screen would make on the way. Some high end monitors advertise 1.07 billion Colors, but they're very pricey and, frankly, I've never seen one so I have no idea if it's worth it.
Brightness is measured in "Candelas per meter2," candelas being the Latin word for candle which was chosen as the SI for brightness. Cheaper monitors start around 250 cd/m2 while the highest-end displays sit around 350 cd/m2. A screen's brightness will determine how easy it is to see when the sun's shining directly on it and how easy it will be to watch a movie while laying in bed several feet way.
Contrast Ratio (native vs. dynamic)
This spec has been the biggest source of contention between consumers and monitor companies for several years now. Basically, it refers to the difference in lightness/darkness between the blackest pixel on your screen and the whitest pixel on your screen. Going back to the blank Word document, this would define how white your monitor can make the page vs. how black it can make the text.
The confusion arises in the difference between native and dynamic contrast ratio. The spec that manufacturers love to advertise is dynamic contrast ratio, which refers to the light/dark difference between a completely black screen vs. a completely white screen. Native (sometimes called static) contrast ratio, on the other hand, refers to the light/dark difference between a black and a white which are displayed together on the screen at the same time. So an LCD company might advertise a 5,000,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio to impress consumers with a big number, while glossing over the fact that the more useful, native contrast ratio is only 600:1.
Conflicts aside, a monitor's contrast ratio directly influences your picture quality by measuring the light's and darks of which your screen will be capable. If you're watching a scene in a movie that takes place mostly at night, like the fight scene at the dock in Batman Begins, on a screen with a low native contrast ratio, it's going to be more difficult to tell what's going on, since all the blacks are going to blur together. A higher native contrast ratio will help distinguish the differences in shade. Look for a monitor that has a 1000:1 native contrast ratio, they're pretty common and will deliver good results.
This defines the length of time it takes for one pixel on your screen to change color, measured in milliseconds. Screens with slower response times will change sluggishly, something you probably won't notice when checking your email, but which will result in blurry images during a car chase in a movie or during an intense sequence in Call of Duty. Faster response times will deliver a much crisper image, shoot for 5ms or lower and you'll be a happy camper.
To check your monitor's response time and loads of other specs, check out this extremely useful website: Lagom.nl!
A monitor's refresh rate defines the number of times per second an LCD monitor re-draws the image on the screen. The minimum on most monitors these days is 60khz, but more is better, mid-ranged monitors will typically offer around 72khz refresh rate which is plenty.
Have you ever wished you monitor was smaller? Me neither. Visual display is a field where bigger is always better. Larger displays provide plenty of benefits; they're easier to read, they offer more all around real-estate for multiple windows and tasks, they make movie watching SO much better, and they just plumb look good! The downside of the display issue is that as monitors grow in size so do their price tags. A large, 27" display will run you a minimum of $260.00.
A bit more economical, and a lot more fun, is the dual display route. Your current monitor is likely a 19" or 21", the cost of which is much more reasonable (~$100.00.) Pick up a second monitor to match your first and you can run them both, side-by-side, with your desktop stretched across both screens. Studies have shown that by using two displays you'll improve your productivity by 10-50% depending on the type of work you're doing. As I'm writing this I've got Microsoft Word open on one screen and a web browser open on my second. Adding a second monitor is cheap, easy, and awesome! Once you try it you'll never go back.