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2010 Guide to Buying LCDs

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aznkc730

Member
Joined
Feb 5, 2004
Location
los angeles, ca
A decade into the 21st century, LCDs are no longer luxury items, but now a defacto 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 seemly infinite choices have made choosing the right lcd more and more difficult. With that said, this guide is meant to help the average user sort through the choices, and find the lcd that's right for them.

The TL;DR 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.

*scroll to the bottom for a discussion on panel types*

The Detailed Version
Get ready to do some reading. This is part is meant for those who want to understand every specification/buzz word on their lcd. So let's start with the basic terms:

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, which compares the difference between multiple images.​

DCR is misleading because it hides inferior lcds behind a nice and shiny big 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 completey 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 a 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 all 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 colors better

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 a 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 1920x1200 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 the same with most monitors.

Gamut - "Color space", or a defined set of colors amongst the 16.7m possible colors. There are a few standard color spaces, (Adobe RGB and NTSC for example). 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 78% (seems low huh?) Any higher, and you're usually 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 you're 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 sucked 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 use desktop use. Word documents displayed in full screen are actual sized, 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 idiot 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 real tight budget.

Color Reproduction and Response Times
Before differentiating the color differences between 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.

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 gamut (color space) in comparison to PVA/MVA and IPS panels. Also, the viewing angles on TN panels are the worst in comparision to the 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 G-to-G). 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 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 will 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 :salute:. 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 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, got a <5ms response time, and the vertical viewing angle is less than178 degrees, it's most likely a TN
If it's relatively expensive, and has 178 degree viewing angles for both vertical and horizontal, it most likely is a S-PVA
If it's ridiculously expensive, has 178 degree viewing angles for horizontal and vertical and has a low response time, you're either getting scammed or getting an IPS panel
 

Firey_chasm

Member
Joined
Jan 3, 2005
Location
Guildford, England
nice work aznkc, informative but not toooo long winded.
Possibly worth a section to talk about '3D screens' and Refresh rates etc since that seems to be the way a lot of monitors are going this year

(i.e. the difference between 120hz input and 120hz output screen)
 
OP
A

aznkc730

Member
Joined
Feb 5, 2004
Location
los angeles, ca
thanks for the comments. Nightelph asked me to write this, so hopefully it'll get stickied soon. Now for your questions:

waynetrew: i definitely don't see anything wrong with that monitor from specs alone. you're clearly getting a TN monitor there, and make sure you know that all built in speakers on lcds are worthless.

fireychasm: thats a good point. I'll definitely add stuff about lcds/leds, 3d and refresh rates. you think that should be a separate thread since it deals more with TVs and HTPC setups, or should i just tack it to the end of this?

shiggity: some are already out. check out this dell:
http://accessories.us.dell.com/sna/...etail.aspx?c=us&l=en&s=dhs&cs=19&sku=320-7956
 

Firey_chasm

Member
Joined
Jan 3, 2005
Location
Guildford, England
personal preference where you put it, however with the growing 3d market it is becoming relevant for PCs as well, not only TVs (NVIDIA's 3D vision) and a common misunderstanding is if you have a 120hz screen then it will work, not realising that they need a monitor that will accept 120hz input signal
 

ratbuddy

Member
Joined
Aug 24, 2007
Also might be helpful to mention RTC errors as applied to a 60hz vs 120hz LCD situation.

Good guide.
 

reap3r

Member
Joined
Jun 18, 2009
Location
BC, Canada
Great guide here aznkc730, a lot of this information is very helpful.. I'm thinking of picking myself up a new Asus 25.5" LCD.. they look pretty good :attn:
 

DragoXT

Member
Joined
Jun 14, 2005
While that is a nice guide, you forgot a major area to discuss. Multiple monitors. The prices of LCD's are cheap especially for the 17-19" displays. You can spend enough money for 2 LCD's as you can nearly for 1 big widescreen monitor. Some people may want to do this as you say they hold onto their monitors for a long time. Maybe the have a 19" from 06 and they want another to go with it so that its the same aspect ratio.

The other nitpick i have is that you did not spend any time what so ever on LCD resolution. You have regular 4:3, widescreen 16:10 and then widescreen HD 16:9. I think it is important to explain these as you did write this guide for the average user. Pro's and cons of each along with what they can be used for. Really if i have a choice of a 16:10 lcd vs a 16:9 lcd ill go with the 16:10 since i dont sit at my computer to watch movies, and i can actually see more in games as well since there are more vertical pixels.

There are three more things that really need to be mentioned.
1. Proper LCD desk setup. Eyes need to paralell or just above the center of the screen for best viewing, unlike a CRT where your eyes are supposed to be paralell with the top of the screen.
2. LCD calibration. There are free sites like lagom that will help you properly calibrate your LCD as most default settings are way to bright and wash out the colors. No LCD is just plug and play, they all require a little tweaking especially for people coming from CRT's as LCDs are just to bright.
3. RTC (Response Time Compensation) really needs to be discussed for the gaming LCD's. To many companies quote the grey to grey response time not the actual response time, and dont really say on the box that they use RTC. RTC is great, but some panels suck bad at it and the RTC errors end up looking like your vid card is artifacting.
 

7keys

Member
Joined
Dec 12, 2001
Location
Montreal
Most of the newer S-PVA, MVA, P-MVA and A-MVA panels I've been looking at these days have response times of 6ms.