What to look for in a monitor

Most buying guides for monitors assume you’re buying a really expensive monitor for gaming. But there’s a lot more to look for than refresh rate and response time.

A good monitor can last 10 years and multiple computers, so it pays to make a good decision when buying one, even when you’re not spending $500. There can be a significant difference even between two $100 models, or between a $60 model and a $70 model, that will save you money in the long run.

Inputs

What to look for in a monitor
The perfect monitor can be elusive but with these tips you can find something you’ll be happier with.

Some cheap monitors have only analog VGA (sometimes also called D-Sub) inputs. I’ve walked away from low-priced monitors because they only had the single VGA input. This is rather limiting, as digital inputs give a better quality picture. As long as a monitor has one digital input (DVI, HDMI or Displayport/DP/Thunderbolt) I don’t care which one because I can get adapters, but I want at least one digital input.

Displayport/DP/Thunderbolt can be advantageous as you can chain two monitors together even if you only have one video output, which will save you the expense of a $70 splitter.

Remember, even if you anticipate replacing the monitor after a few years, a monitor with digital inputs can be connected to a tuner/DVR device and be repurposed as a television.

External power adapter

The two most common problems with monitors are related to the power supply or the backlight. There’s a really easy way to head off power supply issues.

If the monitor uses an external power brick, you can just buy a new one for around $25, plug it in, and keep on going. If it uses a regular three-prong power cord, you’re looking at a trip to the repair shop that’s going to cost $50-$75. I always try to buy monitors that use power bricks, and I don’t mind paying an extra $10.

Viewing angle

If the viewing angle is too narrow in any direction, you’ll have to be very careful about placement. A narrow viewing angle can be an advantage in an office if you process sensitive information, but it’s a liability at home. If you’re buying for your home, the wider the viewing angle, the better.

Matte or gloss finish

Glossy finishes were trendy for a while, but generally speaking, a matte finish is easier on the eyes when you’re using it for a computer display. Gloss finishes work well for TV, but most people prefer matte for the computer.

Refresh rate and response time

If your refresh rate is too low and response time is too high, the image will “ghost” a bit when you’re playing fast-paced games or watching action movies. But if you’re looking for a cost-effective monitor for word processing, e-mail, and web browsing, you can be perfectly happy with a 60 Hz refresh rate and a higher response time. Giving a little bit here may very well let you afford a nicer all-around monitor.

Brand

It’s best to avoid third-tier brands–brands you’ve never heard of before. Their reliability tends to be suspect.

I don’t worry much about brand otherwise. My two oldest displays both date to 2002. One of those is a Sony, which was a first-tier brand, and the other was a KDS, which was second-tier at best. I had another 2002-era monitor, a Dell, whose power supply gave out in 2012. Since the power supply was internal, I recycled the monitor and bought something more modern.

These aged monitors aren’t as useful as newer ones, but I still use them for system builds or as secondary displays. When they finally do give out I won’t repair them, but I’m interested to see how long they last.

Flat panels are far more reliable than CRTs. The only brand of CRT I could ever get more than three years out of consistently was NEC, and you paid dearly for the privilege. It’s nice to be able to buy a $100 flat-panel monitor, use it for 10 years, and it takes up a lot less space and uses a lot less energy than those old NEC tubes did.

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