PC*Base #8 – Monitors

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Everyone knows what a computer monitor is at this point.  You’re probably looking at one right now as you read this.  If you have ever looked into buying a monitor you will have noticed a great difference in price between them all.  In this article I’m going to explore why some monitors are far more expensive than others, and if you are actually getting what you pay for.

RESOLUTION / SIZE / DIMENSIONS

Just like buying a TV, the most important thing you’re probably looking for when buying a monitor is the size and resolution.  While screen sizes vary greatly, the average size is between 22″ – 24″.  You can even use your TV as a monitor if your TV has an HDMI port.  Personally I have 2 different TV’s hooked up to 2 different PC’s.  One PC acts as a home theater PC running XBMC while the other is more for gaming.  I wouldn’t recommend connecting a PC up to a TV for actual productivity.

The other important aspect is the resolution.  Some of the cheaper monitors might be 22″ or 24″, but only support a resolution of 1680 x 1050.  While it’s not a bad resolution it isn’t 1920 x 1080 (1080p) which is the HD standard today.

What those numbers represent are the number of lines of pixels on your screen written in width x height.  So with 1080p you have 1920 lines going across your screen and 1080 lines going down your screen.  The more lines you fit into a smaller space, the tighter the pixel density will be which will create a better picture.  This is best illustrated with the difference between the iPad 2 and the iPad 3.  The iPad 2 has a resolution of 1024 x 768 while the iPad 3 has an insane resolution of 2048 x 1536 on the same screen size.

iPad-3-retina-display-close-up

There is a pretty dramatic difference in the 2 gmail icons.

At CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2013 4K was being shown off as the next big thing in entertainment.  The 4K standard is a little nebulous at the moment.  In theaters the resolution of 4K is defined at 4096 x 2150.  There is also 4K UHD (Ultra High Definition) which is 3840 x 2160.  There are a few other sizes and standards out there by different manufacturers.  This fight isn’t uncommon either.  Before 720p and 1080p became the HDTV standards they are today, there was something like 10 other resolutions in the same category.  It took a few years for it to get sorted out, but that all happened before it became main stream and affordable to consumers.  Chances are the 4K resolution will be the same.  Sharp is releasing the first 4K monitor in Japan next month for about $5500 so don’t expect to  see these things in a normal store any time soon.

CONNECTORS

Each monitor has at least one connector on it to connect up to your device.  Many of them today have 3 standard connectors, VGA, DVI, and HDMI, but there are more.  I’ll show you what each of them look like, and what the positives and negatives are below.

imagesVGA (Video Graphics Array) is the longest running monitor standard.  It’s been around since I was a kid in the 80’s, and it’s still going pretty strong, but HDMI has dethroned it as the defacto standard people want to see on a monitor.  VGA still supports resolutions most modern day monitors can’t handle, going all the way up to 2048×1536.
dual-dviDVI (Digital Visual Interface) took over for VGA.  It was introduced in the late 90’s, but didn’t start really taking off until the early 2000’s.  DVI itself is kind of complicated to discuss because there are different types of DVI.  For the most part you will only see DVI-D, and DVI-A, and DVI-I.  DVI-D and DVI-I are both DVI Dual Link connectors.  They push out a digital signal and support resolutions up to 3840×2400 at a slow refresh rate.  You wouldn’t want to push it past 2560×1600 really.  DVI-A is an analog signal instead of a digital signal. You would want to use a DVI-A cable if you are going from DVI to VGA.

hdmi-female-connector

HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is king because of its versatility and wide acceptance.  VGA and DVI only pass video along.  HDMI was the first cable that could pass audio and video (and newer implementations support Ethernet), making it a perfect cable to be used in the home entertainment world as well.  HDMI supports resolutions up to 4096 x 2160 which is necessary for the 4K standard that is coming.

DisplayPort1

DisplayPort is something that Apple was championing for a bit.  DisplayPort has a max resolution of 3840 x 2160.  DisplayPort has an advantage over HDMI for manufacturers because its royalty free.  When a company uses HDMI they have to pay a license to put it in their product, but they can use DisplayPort for free.  DisplayPort also has twice the bandwidth as HDMI, so it’s not slouch, but HDMI is just too popular in the entertainment industry for DisplayPort to catch on.  I personally have an HDMI cable running to my monitor, and a DisplayPort to HDMI cable running to my TV so that I can play PC games on my TV as well.

ThunderboltThunderbolt is the newest of the display connectors created by Intel.  It isn’t just for monitors.  Thunderbolt can be used for hard drives, or anything you would use a USB port for.  In theory you can have your computer connected up to a hard drive, that is connected up to a printer, which is connected up to a monitor, and they will all work together.  It’s only been around for about a year so it’s still pretty new.  Unfortunately I can’t find any accurate information on the maximum resolution of Thunderbolt.

SCREEN TECHNOLOGY

Different screen technologies are where things get kind of tricky because of buzzwords, and nicknames.  All monitors sold today are either LCD or Plasma.  We aren’t going to get into Plasma monitors because they are pretty rare outside of TV use.  Pretty much all LCD monitors sold are TFT (Thin Film Transistor) monitors but they will use different technologies which can go by the same name.  I’ll cover the 2 primary ones that you will often see.

TN (Twisted Nematic) – Usually when you see a monitor advertised as a TFT monitor they are usually referring to it being a TN monitor.  They are cheap, and work well, but they have poor viewing angles, and don’t reproduce colors as well as they should.  If you are the only person using your monitor, and you sit in the exact same spot all the time when using it, a TN display isn’t a bad option because you will be unaffected by the viewing angle issue.

IPS (In-Plane Switching) – IPS displays have been taking off the last few years.  They are superior to TN displays in pretty much every way, except price.  The viewing angles are great, and they have far better color reproduction.  If you are a doing video, or photo editing you should go with an IPS display for this fact alone.  IPS displays are also great for laptops because of the viewing angle issue.  If you are buying a laptop today you should try to get an IPS display.  Samsung also has a variation on IPS called PLS (Plane Switching) which is similar in most respects.

LIGHTING

Back lighting is another way that they kind of trick you with buzzwords.  Often you will see a monitor advertised as being LED (Light-Emitting Diodes) as opposed to LCD.  An LED monitor is still an LCD monitor.  The difference is how it is lit.  LED monitors use LED’s to back light the monitor, where monitors advertised as LCD will use CCFL (Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamp) to light it.  LED monitors offer better color, and last 2-5 times longer than CCFL monitors.  LED monitors also consume less power than CCFL monitors.  Now LED and CCFL will cost about the same so there isn’t a reason to pick CCFL.

LED’s aren’t always Back-lit.  There are some that are Edge-Lit as well, which means the lighting comes from the borders instead of from behind.  This allows them to make a thinner monitor or TV.  Back-lit might produce a better picture, but Edge-Lit has will be thinner.

RESPONSE TIME

Response Times are sort of a marketing trick and I’ll explain in a moment.  Response times measure how long it takes for a pixel to transition from black to white.  The lower the time the better.  When a monitor has high response times it can cause motion blur.  For intense gaming a lower response time is definitely recommended.  Here is why it’s a bit of a marketing trick.  There isn’t an absolute standard on how to measure response time.  Dell and Acer might perform their test in completely different ways which will give different results.  It’s completely possible that a monitor made by Samsung with a 5ms response time will perform better than an Acer monitor with a 4ms response time because it is cross company.  The only time numbers like Response Time or Contrast make a difference is when you are looking at the same manufacturer because the test will have been performed the same across the board.

Benq created a graphic to illustrate what slower response times look like.

REFRESH RATE

Earlier in the article you read about Resolution.  The Refresh Rate is how many times your monitor displays that image to you in a second. So if your monitor has a refresh rate of 120 Hz it is displaying that image 120 times in a second.  Having a faster refresh rate means less motion blur similar to response rate, but the refresh rate deals with the whole picture instead of certain pixels changing shades.  The average monitor supports around 85 Hz.

Sometimes people will use this synonymously with frames per second (fps) and this isn’t exactly accurate, but at the same time it kind of is.  Even if you read the difference you will probably walk away feeling like they are the exact same thing so I won’t try to explain it.   A movie runs at 24 fps, but the projector running it could show the same frame twice making it 48 Hz.

3D

For the most part 3D monitors are far pricier than regular monitors (and also harder to find).  One of the main reasons (aside from the fact that they can) is that they need to support a higher Refresh Rate than a standard monitor.  While most monitors are completely fine between 60 and 85 Hz, a 3D monitor needs to run at least 120 Hz to double the 60 Hz a monitor runs at because it has to display 2 separate images at the same time.

Currently all 3D monitors are Active Sync monitors that require you to wear 3D shutter glasses that will flicker at the right speed to create the 3D effect.  In the next 3-5 years we may move away from Active Sync to Passive 3D so you won’t need 3D glasses, but this won’t take off until 4K becomes a bigger standard.

SOUND

Some monitors have speakers built into them.  I don’t care who made them, they will probably suck.  They may be passable, but they will never be good.  I’m not saying that you shouldn’t buy a monitor with a built in speaker, and I’m not saying not to use it.  I’m just warning you that the sound will never be as good as the cheapest, crappiest pair of speakers you can buy.

CONCLUSION

I know this article was long, but I hope you found it informative.  Hopefully this will help stop you from making the mistake of just buying a monitor on price.  Check the resolution, and other specs first.  Make sure you check reviews and Google the model number before purchasing to see the issues people have had in the past.  Remember, research is always important before you purchase.

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