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Buying a monitor: Ten key questions to ask

How do you decide between the plethora of monitors available? By asking a few pertinent questions – and setting a budget that can’t be broken

You have to try hard to buy a bad screen these days. If you pick a reputable name and look for IPS as the panel technology, then it’s a safe bet that you’ll buy something pleasing to the eye.

It still helps to know, however, exactly what you’re looking for; what specs matter, what specs don’t, and whether you’ll really benefit from spending another £100 on the monitor one up in the range.

What size and resolution do you need?

We don’t think anyone needs a 32in widescreen monitor, but there are many occasions when it helps. It’s particularly true if you frequently view two windows side by side, or your work (or fun) involves spreadsheets or games where a wide vista comes in handy. In truth, only you will know if a 24in screen will be plenty; after all, you can always buy a second screen later and view them side by side.

Once you’ve picked a screen size, you need to think about sharpness rather than resolution. We recommend a pixel density of above 90ppi if you can afford it, although human eyes are surprisingly adaptable. Of all the screens we’ve tested, we only cursed the lack of resolution when using a 27in panel with a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) resolution.

Is USB-C docking worth paying for?

The HP Spectre x360 13in USB-C port

Keumars Afifi-Sabet/IT Pro

We love USB-C docking: with one fell swoop, you can cut two, three or possibly even four cables from your desk. And when it’s time to get up and take your laptop with you, you only need to disconnect one cable, with USB-A ports built into the monitor if you need them. Some monitors even include RJ-45 ports for wired networking, KVM switches so you can hook up more than one PC and share the keyboard and mouse, and daisy chaining support.

There are caveats, though. If you have a powerful laptop for tasks like programming or video editing, then it may need more than the 65W power delivery we often see with USB-C docking monitors, so if in doubt do some research to find out exactly what it needs (it could be that 65W is fine as it will just charge your laptop more slowly).

Curved or not?

If you want a screen that stretches wider than 30 inches, you should give serious consideration to a curved monitor. It’s particularly true for playing games, where curvature makes fast gameplay feel more immersive. It’s no coincidence that so many modern gaming displays are curved. Note, that the number in the curvature figure refers to the radius of the circle that would be created, so 1500R equals 1,500mm or 1.5m.

How important is colour accuracy?

A gaming monitor on a desk with speakers and a PC

Shutterstock

Few people need the last word in colour accuracy. However, we do think you should expect an average Delta E, the measure of colour accuracy, from a modern monitor, and ideally it should cover close to 90% of the sRGB gamut. 

We also talk a lot about “pure whites”, as that can make working on a monitor much more pleasant. Typically, 6500K is closest to what our eyes see as white, and if you will primarily be working in a word processor or spreadsheet then you will appreciate this. If on the other hand, you lean towards dark backgrounds then it won’t affect you.

How important is contrast and brightness uniformity?

To an extent, brightness uniformity goes hand-in-hand with colour accuracy. In general use, we doubt most people would notice a 15% drop-off in brightness at the corners; you’re more likely to notice a panel with poor viewing angles, as the perceived drop-off is more visible to the human eye. 

We also recommend you don’t base buying your decision on contrast ratings. For example, by their nature VA panels have much greater contrast than IPS panels but as a rule of thumb and certainly not all the time – an IPS panel looks nicer to the eye.

Could daisy chaining work for you?

Software developer working on code

Shutterstock

A surprising number of monitors include support for “daisy chaining”, which simply means having a video output from one monitor to a second one. Most monitors do this using a DisplayPort output, but it can work via a second USB-C port too. For obvious reasons, daisy chaining greatly simplifies cable management so is an excellent choice for dual monitor setups. 

What level of support do you need?

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Monitors tend to be one of the most reliable products around. Still, failures do happen, and if you’re buying for a business in particular then it makes sense to carefully check what is and isn’t covered in the warranty. It’s also worth looking out for whether it’s advanced replacement – where you will be sent a new or refurbished screen promptly on the basis that you will send the broken one back – or a slower policy where you need to send the monitors back before they’re replaced.

Many years ago, we would also advise people to check out for guarantees against bright sub-pixels, but this is no longer the big problem it used to be. It’s still worth having the cover, just not a reason to reject a monitor.

Are you a gamer? 

Most business monitors aren’t necessarily targeted at gamers – where high refresh rates, 1ms response times and support for adaptive sync technologies are the order of the day – although several options on offer will do the job quite happily. If you have dual interests, it’s worth exploring whether buying a monitor that suits both gaming and work is right for you.

Anyone for extras?

We’re used to the idea of speakers being integrated into monitors – and we should emphasise that the quality varies from okay to absolutely awful – but some manufacturers are now integrating webcams into their screens as well. These, generally, tend to be a fraction better than all but the best laptop webcams.

We don’t think you should make this a key part of your buying decision. If your monitor includes a USB-C connector then it will also include a USB-A port where you can plug in a far superior webcam, and if you tuck the cables tidily away then you get all the convenience and can pick a webcam of your choice.

Some monitor manufacturers also make much of picture-by-picture (PBP) or picture-in-picture (PIP) support. This can be useful for super-widescreen displays, but unless you have a particular use case, we think it’s a checkbox you can ignore. Likewise features such as “flicker free” and “low blue light” are almost ubiquitous. 

Where should you buy from?

If buying for a small business, and you like the cut of Dell or HP’s jib, then there are good reasons to buy straight from the company. Not only might it make dealing with replacements easier, but they also sell useful extended warranties (both in terms of time and what’s covered). For individuals, we suggest steering clear of Amazon simply due to the way it bundles monitors onto one page and it’s not always clear what you’re buying.

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