Monitor buying guide

Adam Turner
20 June, 2013
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Thanks to the mobile revolution, these days you probably spend more time staring at smartphones, tablets and notebooks than you spend gazing at desktop monitors. These portable gadgets might always be within arm’s reach, but there’s still a lot to be said for a proper workspace. As ADAM TURNER explains, there’s a lot more to a good monitor than just acres of screen real estate.

 

Whether you’re sitting down to get some serious work done, or just kicking back to relax, staring at a desktop monitor is generally better for your eyes and your neck then looking down and squinting at a tiny screen. When it’s time to lean back at the end of a busy day, your desktop monitor might double as the hub of your home entertainment centre for watching movies and playing games.

A great monitor can sit at the heart of a dedicated workspace in your study or office, or perhaps sit in an all-purpose multimedia corner in your living area – offering more flexibility than an all-in-one iMac. You might hook up a tiny Mac mini to your desktop monitor, keyboard and mouse or trackpad. Alternatively, you might create the perfect docking station for your MacBook, connecting up your monitor and desktop peripherals with just a few cables.

Of course with a notebook you’re not chained to your desk and it’s easy to disconnect from your monitor and slip in your travel bag as you walk out the door. With a great desktop monitor, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

As far as the eye can see

In terms of value for money, 22 to 24 inches is the sweet spot when buying a new monitor. That’s more than large enough to view two full-sized A4 documents side-by-side, making it handy for work and play. Any larger and you’re starting to pay a serious premium for those extra inches. You also have to question whether anything larger is simply too big to be practical, unless you want it to double as a home entertainment centre.

Along with screen size, you also need to consider a monitor’s resolution. The more pixels it crams into the display the sharper the picture. At the 24in mark you should look for 1920 x 1080 or 1920 x 1200 pixels – which is sharp enough to do justice to a high-definition Blu-ray movie. Larger screens often support 2560 x 1440, though you’ll need the right cable or adaptor to get those kinds of resolutions from your Mac. Even if you end up with a 27in giant, you still might decide to scale the display resolution down to 1920×1200 pixels to make text on the screen easier to read. Test them on it the store to see how your eyes cope and if it’s worth spending the extra money on 2560 x 1440 resolution.

Quick response. BenQ's GW2760HS offers VA LED panel with a 4ms grey-to-grey response time and 300cd/m2 brightness.

Picture perfect

There’s a lot more to picture quality than the pixel count. When it comes to flat screen LCD monitors there are three types of screens: Twisted Nematic, Vertical Alignment and In-Plane Switching.

Twisted Nematic displays offer low ‘response times’, which measure how quickly an individual pixel can change colour. Response times are measured in milliseconds, the lower the number the better. High response times can lead to motion blur during fast-moving action, which is why gamers sometimes favour Twisted Nematic displays for first-person shooters. The trade-off is that Twisted Nematic displays generally aren’t as bright as other monitors and can be hampered by poor viewing angles and colour accuracy.

You don’t see many Twisted Nematic displays these days, as monitor makers have moved toward Vertical Alignment displays which offer better brightness and contrast, as well as In-Plane Switching (IPS) displays which also offer improved colour accuracy and wider viewing angles. Response times have also improved to reduce motion blur. Choosing a good monitor is more than a numbers game and you’ll find the best-looking monitors don’t always have the lowest response times.

Backlighting technology also varies between monitors, with LED-backlit LCD monitors offering lower running costs compared to traditional CCFL backlighting, thanks to improved power efficiency. The use of LED backlights also makes it easier to dim different areas of the screen, which helps with contrast and picture quality. If you’re watching a horror movie with a bright full moon in the sky, the monitor can still dim the backlight in the rest of screen so you can see the monsters lurking in the shadows. Budget monitors are more likely to lose all that detail in the shadows and leave you staring into a black abyss.

LED-backlit IPS monitors offer the best picture quality of the options currently on the shelves, although the top-of-the-line models now offer AH-IPS (Advanced High Performance IPS) which tend to offer higher resolutions, improved colour accuracy and higher brightness. AH-IPS monitors are generally aimed at multimedia professions and are perhaps overkill for your average user. Meanwhile some vendors use PLS (Plane to Line Switching) panels, which are also a step up from standard IPS.

Some monitors feature high-gloss displays which produce vivid colours but are hampered by screen glare. This can cause problems if you have bright light sources behind you while you’re working. Even if the light is in front of you, you might see your face reflected in the screen.

Other monitors feature anti-glare or matte displays, which don’t look quite as vivid but do a much better job of combating glare. A high-gloss display might look great if you’re primarily using it for home entertainment, but if you’re looking to get some work done you’ll probably appreciate the benefits of a matte display.

Shades of grey

A monitor’s brightness determines how white the whites are. It’s generally measured in candela per square metre and you should look for at least 300 cd/m². Any less and you’ll find that supposedly white backgrounds in Office documents start to look a little grey.

Meanwhile the contrast determines how black the blacks are, and has more of an impact than brightness on overall picture quality. Contrast is measured as a ratio, such as 1,000,000:1, which measures the difference between the brightest white and the darkest black on the screen. The greater the ratio the better the picture, especially in dark scenes like our horror movie.

Unfortunately contrast ratio figures have become all but meaningless as panel makers fudge the numbers. The ‘static’ contrast ratio reveals the brightest and darkest shades a screen can display at any one time, while the ‘dynamic’ contrast ratio is the difference between the brightest shades in the bright scenes and the darkness shades in the dark scenes. Most vendors quote the dynamic contrast ratio, because it’s much greater than the static ratio, but dynamic contrast is a meaningless figure because you’ll never actually see those brightest and darkest shades on the screen at the same time. The ‘static’ contrast ratio is a lot more telling.

Static. Samsung’s 27in S27B970D offers a static contrast ratio of 1000:1.

Seeing double

If you’re connecting your MacBook to your monitor, dip into the Displays pane in System Preferences to manage your multiple monitor setup.

One option is to mirror your desktop on both the MacBook and the monitor, so you see the same picture on both. Alternatively you can untick ‘Mirror displays’ to extend your desktop across both, giving you twice the space – handy when you’re trying to do a few things at once. To change the primary monitor, which displays the dock, go to the Displays pane, click the Arrangement tab and drag the white menu bar from one monitor to another. The Arrangement tab also lets you change the configuration of your monitors, running them side-by-side or one above the other.

If you’re also connecting your MacBook to a desktop keyboard and mouse, it’s possible to close the lid on your MacBook and use it in ‘clamshell’ mode. You need to connect your MacBook to a power supply, hook up a USB keyboard and mouse and then connect the external display. Once your display is mirrored on both screens, close the lid on the MacBook.

Prepare to dock

Rather than fight with a tangle of cords, a desktop docking station makes it easy to connect your notebook to all your desktop devices using just a few cables.

Apple’s monitors feature built-in MagSafe power connectors, designed to power a MacBook without the need for a separate power point and adaptor. If your Mac features a high-speed Thunderbolt connector then you might consider Apple’s new 27in Thunderbolt monitor, which lets your Mac access all of the monitor’s features via a single Thunderbolt cable. The Thunderbolt monitor features a FaceTime HD webcam, which certainly goes in Apple’s favour as built-in webcams are rare in non-Apple monitors.

Perfect storm. Apple’s 27in Thunderbolt monitor features a FaceTime HD webcam and a LED-backlit IPS panel.

 

The Thunderbolt monitor also features three powered USB 2.0 ports, Firewire 800 port and Gigabit Ethernet port. You can connect all your desktop peripherals to the monitor and then simply hook up the monitor’s MagSafe power and Thunderbolt cables to your Mac.

Apple’s older 27in LED Cinema display features an old Mini DisplayPort video connector, which was standard on MacBooks before Apple started the transition to Thunderbolt. This monitor features an iSight webcam and three powered USB 2.0 ports, but you miss out on Firewire 800 port and Gigabit Ethernet.

Thunderbolt and Mini DisplayPort cables use the same connector, so you can connect an old Mini DisplayPort Mac to a new Thunderbolt monitor or vice-versa – but the connection might not support all of the monitor’s advanced features.

You’re not forced to use an Apple monitor to take advantage of docking station features. You’ll find Mac-compatible USB 3.0 docking stations from Kensington and Thunderbolt-enabled docking stations from Belkin. Some docking stations feature a range of video outputs for connecting to non-Apple monitors.

Hook me up

If you’re investing good money in a high-quality monitor, you might want to connect it to more devices than just your Mac. Your ultimate multimedia corner might also include a standalone Personal Video Recorder, DVD/Blu-ray player, Pay TV box, games console and streaming media player.

It’s true that your Mac can handle some of these tasks, but it’s unlikely to meet all the entertainment needs of a busy household. If you are building the one Mac to rule them all, you’ll find the Mac mini makes for a small but powerful media centre. Unfortunately Apple killed off the lounge room-friendly Front Row interface, which made it easy to drive your Mac from the couch. You’ll find Mac-friendly media centre software such as Plex and XBMC, which add advanced features such as the ability to stream music and movies via DLNA or Samba. Meanwhile Elgato’s EyeTV lets you turn your Mac into a Personal Video Recorder. If you want to stream content from your Mac to your iPad, your options include Plex, EyeTV and Air Video.

If you want to go beyond your Mac and hook up a range of Audio Visual gear then you’ll naturally want to look for a monitor with a range of video connectors. Unfortunately this is where Apple will leave you in the lurch. Apple’s monitors only feature a single video input, either Thunderbolt or Mini DisplayPort, for connecting up your Mac. It’s not surprising when you consider that Cupertino wants you to source all your entertainment from within the Apple ecosystem.

Media connected. The Viewsonic VX2770Smh-LED’s HDMI input is compatible with Blu-ray players, game consoles and set-top boxes.

 

If Apple’s single-input monitors won’t meet all your needs, you’ll find that other monitor manufacturers offer a range of inputs including Mini DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI, VGA, component and composite video. Most HDMI-enabled monitors should be HDCP-compatible, letting you hook up to a Blu-ray player or PlayStation 3, but you’ll want to check the fine print on budget monitors.

If you opt for a monitor with an HDMI input then you can also hook up an Apple TV, offering couch-friendly easy access to your multimedia library and online video. It’s also possible to hack some Apple TVs (wiki.awkwardtv.org) to add the XBMC media centre interface and extra features such as DLNA and Samba streaming. Of course you can also stream content directly to an Apple TV from an iGadget or from a recent Mac using AirPlay Mirroring.

Opting for a non-Apple monitor almost certainly means forgoing a Thunderbolt connector, but you’ve still got a few options to choose from. Thunderbolt is backwards compatible with Mini DisplayPort connectors, which are found on a range of high-end monitors. Alternatively you can use a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI, DVI or VGA adapter to connect to a monitor from the Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt socket on your Mac. Large 27in monitors often support 2560 x 1440 resolution, although you might need a Thunderbolt cable, DisplayPort cable or Apple’s Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter to get those kinds of resolutions from your Mac.

Listen to this

Many monitors feature built-in speakers, but don’t set your expectations too high. The thinner the monitor, the more underwhelming the sound is likely to be – especially the bass. You might be pleasantly surprised, especially with Apple’s monitors, but to be on the safe side you should budget to spend some extra money on desktop speakers to sit alongside your new monitor.

A pair of stereo speakers should be enough to handle day-to-day audio, but if you care about sound quality you should consider a 2.1-channel system – the .1 being a separate subwoofer to handle the low end. You might tuck it out of the way behind the monitor or even under the desk, as the placement of the subwoofer isn’t as important as the two main speakers. They should sit either side of your monitor, or maybe even a little further apart to offer greater stereo separation and create a wall of sound.

Sound boost. Logitech’s Z506 boasts multiple inputs to connect your computer, game console, DVD player and more, to 5.1 sound.

 

If you’re connecting your monitor to a range of AV gear, and relying on external speakers, you’ll want to be sure that the monitor features audio outputs – analogue stereo plugs and/or a digital socket – for passing the sound from your AV gear through to your speakers. High-end speakers might even feature multiple audio inputs, for connecting directly to AV gear such as DVD/Blu-ray players and set-top boxes. Alternatively, you might opt for a home theatre amplifier with video switching, connecting all your AV devices to the amplifier and then the amplifier to your monitor and speakers.

If you’ll be watching movies or playing high-end games you might consider upgrading to a 5.1-speaker system such as the Logitech Z506 or Z906. They offer one centre speaker along with left and right front, left and right rear and a subwoofer – designed to do the surround sound on movies justice. Some high-end games also support 5.1 sound. Once again you might consider a home theatre amplifier at this point.

Take a stand

A flexible monitor stand is extremely handy, especially if you’ll be using it for a range of different kinds of tasks.

When you’re working on documents, the top of the monitor should be roughly at eye level. Otherwise you’re constantly looking down at the screen and putting strain on your back and your neck. If you can’t adjust the height of your monitor, you might end up sitting on it on an old phonebook.

The ability to tilt the screen back and forward is handy if you have trouble with glare from overhead lights behind you – something you might have noticed when using a notebook computer. Meanwhile the ability to swivel the screen from side-to-side is handy if you need to show others what you’re doing, or re-angle the screen when you stop work and sit back to watch a movie.

Finally you’ll find some monitors also let you rotate the screen on its side, turning from landscape to portrait to mode. This might be handy if you’re working on large documents, but it can also help you get at the monitor’s various video inputs if they face downwards rather than to the back.

Give me the options

These days Apple has abandoned 24in monitors and only sells 27in giants – the new $1199 Thunderbolt display along with the older $1199 LED Cinema display. Both are LED-backlit IPS panels offering exquisite picture quality and super-sharp 2560 x 1440 resolution, although the Thunderbolt display bumps up the brightness from 330 cd/m2 to 375 cd/m2.

The biggest difference between them is that the LED Cinema display features an old Mini DisplayPort video connector. They’re both expensive monitors, but keep in mind they can act as a docking station for connecting your MacBook to your desktop peripherals. Both monitors also feature a MagSafe connector for powering your notebook.

The downside of Apple’s monitors is that they only feature a single video input. This might be fine if your Mac meets all your entertainment needs, but it will frustrate you if you’re looking to hook up a Personal Video Recorder, Blu-ray player, games console or streaming media player to turn your monitor into an all-in-one entertainment centre. Apple’s high-gloss display helps movies look fantastic but all that glare is annoying when it’s time to get some work done.

Flexible. Dell’s 27in U2713HM sports 2560 x 1440 resolution and rivals the picture quality of Apple's monitors.

 

If you’re looking for greater flexibility without sacrificing picture quality, it’s hard to go past Dell’s top-of-the-line LED-backlit IPS panels. Dell’s $799 27in U2713HM sports 2560 x 1440 resolution and rivals the picture quality of Apple’s monitors but features an anti-glare display and a range of extra video connectors. If you’re looking for professional-grade colour accuracy you might look to the $949 27in U2713H which features an AH-IPS anti-glare display. If you’re less concerned about resolution you might consider Dell’s 27in S2740L which sports a 1920 x 1080 IPS gloss display with excellent picture quality.

There are plenty of other contenders depending on your budget and how many inches you’re chasing. If you care about image quality it really is worth spending that bit extra on an LED-backlit IPS or PLS display. In the 27in division you’ll find the $1299 Samsung S27B970D PLS-LED and $699 Asus PB278Q PLS-LED which both support 2560 x 1440 resolution. If you’re after quality on a budget the Asus is certainly worth a look.

Quality budget. The Asus PB278Q PLS-LED supports 2560 x 1440 resolution and is quality on a budget.

 

If you’re less concerned about pixel count you might consider 27in 1920 x 1080 options such as LG’s $699 E2711PY LED, HP’s $549 27xi IPS-LED, Viewsonic’s $549 VX2770Smh-LED, Acer’s $499 S273HL LED or BenQ’s $299 GW2760HS VA-LED.

Dropping down to the 24in division introduces a wider range of 1920 x 1200 and 1920 x 1080 contenders. Apple doesn’t play in the 24in space these days, but if you’re chasing excellent picture quality it’s worth looking at Dell’s $749 AH-IPS-LED, $399 IPS-LED and $299 VA-LED monitors. Dell’s IPS monitors really set the benchmark, but you’ll find plenty of competition from the likes of Samsung, Asus, HP, Acer, Viewsonic, LG, BenQ and others.

by Adam Turner

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