A decade into the 21st century, LCDs are no longer luxury items, but now a de facto part of every desktop PC. Increased competition and production by manufacturers are to thank for the affordability of LCDs today, but the flooding of the market with seemingly infinite choices have made choosing the right LCD more and more difficult. With that said, this guide is meant to help the average user quickly sort through the choices, and find the LCD that’s right for them.
The Short Version
1. Pick the right size (my recommendation is a 24″ for all-around use). LCDs don’t tend to break. You’re going to have to live with your choice for a long time, so err on the slightly larger size if you’re not sure.
2. Don’t be fooled by insanely high dynamic contrast ratios (this will be explained later). Instead, just choose the monitor that looks best to you.
3. If you’re into gaming, a TN-panel LCD is the way to go, make sure response times are below 5ms. More details about panel types can be found towards the bottom of this article.
The Detailed Version
Get ready to do some reading. This part is meant for those who want to understand every specification of their LCD.
Contrast Ratio – The difference between the darkest black and the brightest white. The higher the difference, the larger the color space, the more vibrant the colors will appear. Static contrast ratio measures the difference between colors within a single image. However, thanks to marketers, companies have abused this simple measurement by listing dynamic contrast ratio, or DCR, which compares the difference between multiple images. DCR is misleading because it hides inferior LCDs behind a big shiny number. For example, it’s hard for an LCD to display a bright red and a faint grey on the screen at the same time. The static contrast ratio might only be 500:1, a pretty abysmal number in 2010. However, DCR compares a completely red image first, with a completely grey image next. It’s much easier to display one color at a time for any LCD, thus the DCR number can be ridiculously high, regardless of the quality of the LCD. In short, always try to find the static contrast ratio, through reviews, or detailed specs on the manufacturer website. Failing that, put a familiar picture (one that you know what is supposed to look like) on a flash drive and take it with you to your local store. I know Fry’s usually lets you play around with their models, so you can find a monitor that your eyes like. Seeing is believing!
Brightness – How bright the monitor can be. Brightness used to be a problem with 1st generation LCDs. With low brightness, LCDs have trouble “outshining” ambient light (think laptop under direct sunlight). In that case, colors would be muted and washed out. Monitors these days have settled around 300 -400 cd/m2 (nits) of brightness. It’s sufficient for the average home or office use. You won’t find much variability on this specification these days. Finally, just because a monitor can be brighter, does not mean it displays better colors.
Response Time – Measures how fast the LCD can refresh the screen in response to a new image. The faster the better, but not much of an issue these days unless you are a gamer. For example, averages these days are usually in the single digits (<10ms). For reference, my “gaming LCD” in 2004 had a response time of 16ms. Unless you’re a dedicated gamer, most people won’t be able to tell the difference.
Dot Pitch – Measures the distance between pixels. This used to be a focal point of measure for CRTs, but not much of an issue with LCDs. The only time dot pitch becomes important is you’re up in the 27″+ size but still stuck at a 1920×1200 or lower native resolution. As usual, look for the smallest ones, as these will give you less blotchy text. But more than likely, the dot pitch will be similar between most monitors.
Color Gamut – “Color Space”, or a defined set of colors amongst the 16.7 million possible colors. There are a few standard color spaces, (Adobe RGB and NTSC for example). Color Gamut is only important for media designers that need to know how accurate their displays are in displaying industry standards, and what % of the color space the monitor can display. Standard is usually around 78%. Any higher, and you’re probably dealing with a quality monitor.
With these terms defined, let’s get into the most important aspects of purchasing an LCD these days: size, color accuracy, and response time.
Size – I would say size must be the first consideration, since LCDs generally are well built and most people stick with their purchase for years. If your current size is too small you’ll know it. When I started doing media work, I was still using my 17″ gaming LCD from 2004. What was more than adequate for gaming and web browsing was terrible for Photoshop and Premiere. Alt-tabbing every 5 seconds made life hell. So you’ll know when you need a bigger monitor. With that said, you don’t want to go too big either.
My boss got a nice bonus one year and decided to spend it on a shiny new dell 30″ LCD. He put it on his desk and had to turn his head constantly to see everything. Imagine watching a movie from the front row. Now imagine having to do that from 9-5 each day. That’s why you don’t want to go too big.
With prices what they are today, I would say the sweet spot is a 24″ monitor for all-around desktop use. Word documents displayed in full screen are actual size, which is real helpful if you do any type of design work like I do. Desktop space is plentiful for having multiple windows open without it feeling like you’re being cramped or wasting space. Games are immersive, and you don’t have to turn your head back and forth like my boss to follow the action. If you split the time between desktop use and multimedia usage (watching movies, etc) then you can go bigger. There’s not much need to go smaller than 24″ unless you’re on a tight budget.
Color Reproduction and Response Times – Before differentiating color types of LCDs, I will say the average user sitting in front of their LCD will not really notice a huge difference between the panel types. It only becomes important based on your specific needs and usage. These characteristics are dependent upon Panel Type.
TN – Cheapest, most prevalent type of panel. This has the worst color accuracy, for two reasons. One, it displays the 16.7m colors not using the full 8-bits per color but by dithering 6+2 bits. What that means is instead of showing true periwinkle blue, it will show one blue pixel next to a yellow pixel and let your eyes fool you. This is why TN panels have the lowest color gamut in comparison to PVA/MVA and IPS panels. Also, the viewing angles on TN panels are the worst in comparison to other types. The further you move away from the direct center of view (up, down, left, right), the worse the colors get until the screen becomes unviewable. However, the one redeeming quality of TN panels are that they have the fastest response times (4 or 2ms Grey-to-Grey). If gaming is what you do, then a TN is for you.
S-PVA, S-MVA – More expensive than TNs but less so than S-IPS panels. These display much better color accuracy and have a higher color gamut due to using true 8 bit color to display 16.7 m colors. If you want to get nitpicky, S-MVA is better than S-PVA, although it is less common and slightly more expensive. These types of monitors also have great viewing angles, so are perfect for collaborative design work, or just having friends over to watch a movie.
The reason why S-PVA/MVA panels haven’t pushed TN panels off the market is because they have slower response times (16ms-8ms), and some people even report noticeable input lag (like in Samsung’s 215TW). Thus, enthusiast gamers tend to stay away from S-PVA/MVA panels. On the other hand, if you’re not a hardcore gamer, watch a lot of movies or do graphics work, these types of LCDs are perfect.
S-IPS – The absolute best and absolute most expensive LCD panel type of the three. It combines the fast response of TN panels with the color accuracy and viewing angles of PVA panels. Of course, these can cost you an arm and a leg. These types of panels are really for the money-is-no-object crowd and for professionals. For example, if two doctors are looking at a digital slide for colon cancer, you sure as hell want them to see the same color and display the accurate color regardless of where they’re standing. Other than that, not much need for an IPS panel for the everyday user.
Congratulations! Upon reading this, you are now all experts on LCDs . With all the knowledge you have now, how do you know what type of panel you’re looking at? The easiest way is to visit www.tftcentral.co.uk and search for the panel type based on the model. They have a large database and got good reviews of popular monitors as well. If the database doesn’t have it listed, you can use this cheat sheet to help you out:
- If it’s cheap, has a <5ms response time, and the vertical viewing angle is less than178°, it’s most likely a TN.
- If it’s relatively expensive, and has 178° viewing angles for both vertical and horizontal, it is most likely a S-PVA.
- If it’s very expensive, has 178° viewing angles for horizontal and vertical and has a low response time, you’re either getting scammed or getting an IPS panel.