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Want to ditch your postage-stamp display? Here’s how to buy a new big-screen monitor

computer monitor buying guide acer s  hk k
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Whether your old monitor has died or you finally decided you need to upgrade for the latest movies or games, buying a new computer monitor is a big decision. You can get a great screen for several hundred dollars, pay out the nose for some incredible tech, or save a lot of money by focusing on the monitor features most important to you. Fortunately, we’re here to help with information on just what to look for.

Going big is a good idea

How big is big enough? When it comes to computer monitors, you want something that can fit comfortably on your desk while still getting the job done. Generally, the smallest monitors are between 17 and 18 inches, but only pick those if you are squeezed on space. It’s usually just as affordable to spring for a 24-inch screen, which is the new norm in monitors

Dell P2014HT monitor full up

If you work a lot in design, media, or your gaming guild, then you probably want a monitor between 24 and 30 inches for extra resolution and clarity. Screens this size can also fit a couple different web pages at the same time without needing to use two monitors, which is handy for many professionals.

Resolution and screen

Today all the best screens are LCD monitors that use LED technology for a slim product that saves energy while providing ideal backlighting. There’s really not much point in getting anything else – at the moment. Yes, other technologies are on the rise, namely OLED screens, which offer significant upgrades in color intensity. However, OLED hasn’t made its way to monitors (only televisions).

Dell UP2715K
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

But let’s talk about one of the most-mentioned monitor specs, the resolution. Resolution isn’t the end-all of monitor features. In fact, too much resolution on too small of a screen can often be annoying, because it shrinks all images down and forces you to enlarge everything to easily read it. However, if you’re still looking for the best of the best, watch for:

  • 1080p: If you want reasonable clarity, 1080P is where it’s at, as long as the monitor you’re buying isn’t extremely large. 1080p is ideal for 21-inch to 24-inch displays. These monitors offer great picture quality, and now that they are competing with 4K the prices are rock-bottom. If you want to go larger than 24 inches, though, you should consider 2,560 x 1,440 resolution at the least, and perhaps 4K.
  • 4K: The latest and greatest monitors sport 4K, which boasts 3,840 x 2,160 resolution. These are suitable for the best professional (think graphic designer) or gaming monitors. While prices have dropped dramatically in recent years and you can find a reasonable model for under $500, high-4K monitors can soar above $1,000 with ease.
  • 5K: This resolution made headlines when Apple debuted it on the latest iMac. There’s only one 5K monitor available for Windows, however – Dell’s UP2715K. It’s wqnderful, but costs about $2,000, and you’ll need powerful hardware to handle it.

Contrast, response time and more

Several other aspects of a monitor’s display contribute to just how awesome of an image it can produce. Here are some other commonly used stats to help you compare.

  • AR: AR means Aspect Ratio, or what aspect the screen shows images in (length compared to height). A common standard, and your best bet, is 16:9. This is a common aspect ratio, it works with plenty of content, and it’s great for movies or games. Some fancy monitors like to stretch things out a with ratios like 21:9, but this is more suitable for unusual work situations or hardcore gaming. Another common format, 16:10, provides slightly more vertical space for viewing multiple open documents or images,
  • Brightness: High-end monitors these days have brightness around 300 to 350 cd/m2. Extra brightness may be handy if you work in a well-lit room or next to large windows. However, too much brightness is a recipe for eye strain. As long as brightness options reach 250 cd/m2, your monitor is good to go.
  • Contrast ratio: Contrast ratios tell you the difference between how white and how black a monitor screen can get. Higher contrast ratios are a good sign, because that means colors will be more differentiated. However, multiple measurements for contrast ratios exist and stated specs aren’t very reliable, so take it all with a grain of salt.
  • Response time: Response time indicates how quickly the monitor shows image transitions. A low response time is good for fast-paced action video, twitchy gameplay, and similar activities. Response times are measured in milliseconds, with the best screens able to switch pixels at only a couple ms, but not everyone needs such fast reactions.
  • Viewing angle: Viewing angle isn’t as important for a monitor as it is for a TV screen, but if you like to watch shows on your computer with groups of friends, aim for a larger viewing angle so people at the sides can see easily. Anything above 170 degrees is good news here.

Ports

There are a few different ports you should look for on your monitor. These days at least one HDMI port is definitely required for a high-quality video/audio connection. You should also watch for DisplayPort, which is a sort of open-source version of HDMI that costs less for manufacturers to use.

Dell P2715Q jacks

Note that different HDMI standards have different resolutions. HDMI 1.2 can support up to 1080p but no further, while HDMI 1.3 can support 1600p. For 4K resolution, you will need HDMI 2.0. DisplayPort 1.2 and newer will support 4K as well.

Beyond video and audio, you will also want a collection of USB ports in the latest generation (currently USB 3.0) and anything other ports for your extra devices. You can do a lot with basic wireless Bluetooth these days, but still take a look at your accessories and see what you need before buying.

Touchscreens

The touchscreen feature deserves a brief section of its own, because it is such a unique computer monitor feature. If you’re not the sort of person who does not like touchscreens (or fingerprints), then you don’t need to worry about it. However, if you do like the idea of tapping the screen to save some time mouse-clicking, we really recommend finding a model in-store and testing it out first. It’s difficult to judge movement speed, reach, reaction, and even the feel of the glass without trying it out in person.

Nick Mokey contributed to this article.