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HolidayBuyer's Guide
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Specialty displays include a new generation of touchscreen monitors that support pressure-sensitive styluses, like the Dell Canvas 27.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The short story: If you're just looking for a generic display for work, school or surfing, and don't want to hurt your brain thinking about it too much, I recommend a 27-inch flat-screen display with 4K resolution, that uses an IPS panel (aka PLS); that should run about $500 or so. If you need to go cheaper, drop to a 24-inch model with 1,920x1,080 (FHD) resolution, which you can get for less than $150.

If you want to put a little more thought into it, here are some rules of thumb to follow:

  • Within the constraints of your budget and desk space, get the largest monitor you can. You'll rarely regret buying a monitor that's too big, but you'll always regret buying one that's too small. There are also super-widescreen monitors with 21:9 aspect ratio (2.35:1). Many of these models are curved, and most of them are 34-inch displays with lower-than-4K resolution.
  • If you can afford it, go 4K; if not, choose one with a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is most commonly 1,920x1,080 (FHD, or "full HD"). You can find the aspect ratio by dividing the horizontal resolution by the vertical resolution, and the the result for 16:9 should be 1.77:1.
  • If you run Windows 10 and sit arms-length or closer to your display, get a touchscreen. If you sit farther back, it's too awkward to use on a regular basis.
  • Make sure the stand can adjust to the appropriate height for you to use comfortably as well as tilt to a usable angle.
  • Go with one that you find attractive, which for many people is synonymous with "thin bezels." You'll be staring at it a lot.
  • If you're a gamer, you're going to want a monitor that uses the image-enhancement platform that matches your graphics card -- G-Sync for Nvidia or FreeSync for AMD -- and that has a latency (also referred to as response time) of 5 milliseconds or less.
  • If you need accurate color, it needs to have a color gamut larger than sRGB, the ability to set color temperature either in the onscreen menu or in software. Optimally, you also want to be able to store color profiles in the display as well, but this is an expensive feature.
  • Make sure that the input connections on the display match the output connections on your computer. Or remember to buy an adapter if they don't.
  • You'll have to pay around $150 or more for anything other than a "dumb" display -- just a connected screen and nothing else. Even built-in speakers are a step-up feature that you'll need to seek out.

Need more detailed guidance? Here we go!

What everyone needs to think about before buying a monitor

How to shop for one: If possible, you really have to see them in person; I've headed out to buy a specific display based on the specs and ended up changing my mind when I got up-close and personal with it. For example, displays with similar screen sizes can look or feel smaller or bigger than you thought, be more reflective or dull than you like, or it could be impossible to reach the connectors. However, as with TVs, keep in mind that there are a few things that you can't judge in a store. The biggest is, sadly, image quality, which includes color rendering, brightness and black level. But you can tell if you find the screen readable and if you think it's ugly.

Size: Everything being equal, and if you've got the space and budget, bigger is better. Screen size labeling is based on the length of its diagonal. If you remember your geometry and algebra, you can calculate the width and height of the display if you also know the aspect ratio. (Because width/height = aspect ratio and width² + height² = diagonal²!) The closer to 1:1 the aspect ratio is, the more of the display is directly in your line of vision; the further away it is, the wider the screen and more of it will be out to the sides.

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Curved displays are all the rage now. The larger ones are very wide but not very tall and the 21:9 aspect ratio (at least on the bulk of the 34-inch models) means video gets pillarboxed.

Josh Miller/CNET

Curved vs. flat: Oy. So much hype. To me, curved monitors are the best way to make a single display wider without forcing you to sit too far back. Optimally, you should be able to see the entire screen without moving your head too much, and once you get beyond roughly 27 inches, that requires a curve. At 27 inches and below, not so much. The big "but" here is that curved displays can look so much more attractive. The 34-inch models tend to have a 21:9 aspect ratio, which means they're wider and shorter than other displays and full-screen video will pillarboxed. But larger monitors without a curve at a more common 16:9 aspect ratio would require you to be bobbleheaded because they'd be quite tall.) The amount of curve is expressed in "R", the radius of its arc in millimeters. For a given display size, bigger numbers are tighter arcs, so 1800R (the radius of many 27-inch curve displays) is shallower than 2000R. Too much of a curve can be distracting, while too little may as well be flat. However, ignore all the talk of how "immersive" they are. They really aren't yet. On the other hand, unlike curved TVs, you'll always be sitting in the sweet spot, so glare shouldn't be an issue.

Price: Other things being equal, a display tends to get more expensive as resolution, screen size and the number and type of features increases. A smaller pixel pitch (the distance between the pixels), broader color spectrum and higher contrast, as well as niche capabilities for gaming or graphics will also boost the price.

What you get for about...

Under $150 $150-$250 $250-$500 $500-$1,000 Over $1,000
Size (inches) Up to 24 Up to 32 Up to 32 Up to 34 Big
Resolution Up to 1,920 x 1,080 Up to 1,920 x 1,080 Up to UHD 4K (3,840 x 2,160) Up to Cinema 4K (4,096 x 2,160) Up to UHD 4K (3,840 x 2,160)
Panel technology TN IPS, VA, curved; touchscreen IPS/PLS, curved IPS/PLS, curved IPS/PLS, curved
Color gamut Smaller than sRGB Smaller than sRGB 99-100 percent sRGB 99-100 percent sRGB 100 percent Adobe RGB/90 percent DCI-P3
Connections 1 x DVI, VGA, HDMI, DisplayPort 1 x DVI, VGA, DisplayPort; 2x HDMI 1 x DVI, VGA, DisplayPort, DVI; 2x HDMI 1 x Thunderbolt 2, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort; 2x HDMI; additional output ports 1 x Thunderbolt 2, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort; 2x HDMI; additional output ports
Additional features (the previous price class plus the new ones) Nvidia G-sync or AMD FreeSync support, adjustable stand USB Hub, Picture-in-picture Speakers, heaphone jack, simultaneous dual inputs, SD card slot, wireless charging platform, color space presets, fast refresh rates for gaming Pixel pitch below 0.2

Future proofing: At the moment we're in a lull before products incorporating new standards are ready, such as HDMI 2.1 and DisplayPort 1.4, so if you're OK being behind the curve until you can afford something new, then don't worry. If you're going to beat yourself up in 2018 because you didn't wait for HDMI 2.1 compatibility or affordable 5K or 8K, then either wait or buy the cheapest model that will meet your needs to tide you over.

Marketing, marketing: Contrast ratio, the range between white and black that the display can produce, is important. But the contrast-ratio specs provided by manufacturers are meaningless; if you care about it, look for contrast test results from independent sites. Plus, contrast is only one aspect of a display's quality, and manufacturers hawking monitors with one of the cheaper, lower-quality panel technologies (TN, or twisted nematic) scream some really high contrast ratios -- 12 million to 1!. You'll also see manufacturers boast about their amazing branded display-optimization technology, flicker reduction, eye-saving modes and so on. The display-optimization technology claims are meaningless -- every display uses some and none has been proven better than another -- flicker isn't even an issue anymore and eye-saving modes (usually a blue-light mode) will soon be baked into both Mac and Windows operating systems. And don't get me started on the "immersive experiences," of curved screens, because unless that display wraps all the way around me, it's not immersive. A slight curve on a small monitor doesn't even rate. And finally, every consumer display is both Mac and Windows compatible; it's the connectors that make it so.

Connectors: Naturally the outputs from your computer need to match the inputs of the display so that you connect them. If you have multiple displays, you may also have to connect each to a different input type -- such as one HDMI and one Thunderbolt-- and that may affect the capabilities on each display.

Viewing angle: This refers to how readable the screen is when you look at it from the side and how consistent the colors remain. Almost all monitors have a 178-degree VA; the cheapest ones tend to be lower. But if you're the only one looking at it, it may not matter.

Panel technologies: You don't really need to know anything about these for buying a general-purpose display except TN (twisted nematic) is the cheapest and not great, VA (vertical alignment) is somewhat better and IPS/PLS (in-plane switching and plane-line switching) are the same thing and currently the best options. They do differ when it comes to specific needs, such as gaming or color-critical work. Almost all of them use LCD technology; you'll frequently see backlit LCDs referred to as LED-lit. These are not related to OLED displays, which haven't really materialized for the desktop due to various technical issues.

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Dell announced its UP3017Q OLED monitor at CES 2016 -- and cancelled it at CES 2017 because it couldn't bring the display to market for a reasonable price.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Resolution: "Resolution" refers to the number of pixels the screen has, horizontal x vertical. On its own, resolution doesn't really mean anything, except that it determines the aspect ratio (how much the screen deviates from square, which is a 1:1 aspect). It only matters when you combine it with the physical display size, because the more pixels you pack in to a given screen size, usually the sharper it looks. The number of horizontal pixels divided by the horizontal dimension of the screen gives you the number of pixels per inch (PPI), which is related to the distance between pixels, called pixel pitch. In general, higher PPI is better, as is smaller pixel pitch. But the tradeoff is that everything on the screen gets smaller, and changing the scaling in Windows doesn't always do the job, so if you have vision issues you need to take resolution relative to screen size into consideration. Some standard resolutions you'll hear about are:

Common resolutions

Standard Resolution Aspect ratio
Full HD (FHD) 1,920x1,080 16:9
Wide quad HD (WQHD) 2,560x1440 16:9
Wide quad XGA 2,560x1,600 16:10
Ultra wide quad HD 3,440x1,440 21:9
Ultra HD 4K (UHD) 3,840x2,160 16:9
Digital Cinema Initiatives 4K (DCI 4K) 4,096x2,160 Between 16:8 and 16:9
5K 5,120x2,880 16:9
8K UHD 7,680x4,320 16:9

Color: There are two aspects of color to consider: how many colors the screen can display and how accurately it can display those colors. The spectrum of colors a screen can display is called its gamut, colors within the boundaries of a gamut is called a color space, and for monitors the gamut is frequently expressed as a percentage of a particular color space. These typically range from 72 percent of NTSC (the old US TV standard) to the suddenly popular and much larger DCI-P3 space. But watch out for math tricks. For instance, sRGB is the most common and the smallest of the color spaces, while the NTSC space (from standard-definition video days) is much larger. But manufacturers frequently specify "72 percent of NTSC" for cheap monitors, which is actually smaller than 100 percent of the sRGB space -- sRGB is about 90 percent of NTSC. You'll also see the color gamut specified as 16.7 million or 1 billion colors; those are just another shorthand for sRGB and Adobe RGB (a larger color space commonly important for image editing) or DCI P3 (which is about the same size as Adobe RGB, but comes from digital cinema). Unless you're doing color-critical work or want to watch HDR movies, a display that can cover 99 to 100 percent of sRGB is sufficient. If you do have those needs, it gets way more complicated.

Features: Run-of-the-mill monitors may include speakers, USB hubs, slots for memory cards and more, as well as support features like picture-in-picture when hooked up to two systems. If you're short on desk space, you might want to consider a display with these types of integrated features. There are also whole classes of important features for gaming or color-critical work.

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The trendy new monitor feature du jour is incorporating Qi wireless charging pads in the base.

Josh Miller/CNET

TVs vs. computer displays: You can certainly drive a TV from your computer, but TVs are meant to be viewed from a distance, while computer displays are designed for closer work. As TVs get smarter and higher-resolution, though, the gap between the two is narrowing. Plus, for gamers, having a primary computer display for working and a TV hooked up for gaming may make sense. Want to do that? Here's how.

Warranty and support: I admit, I'm a bit of a fatalist when it comes to support. Sadly, the probability of having a good support experience from a manufacturer tomorrow seems to be completely independent of the experience you had with them today, and even good support from one division doesn't necessarily mean good support from another. All I can suggest is make sure you vet the company's dead-pixel policy, who pays for return shipping and the return policies for displays of the place you buy from (such as restocking fees or no-monitor-return policies).