Laptops

What to check before buying a computer monitor online

You don't have to be a screen geek to buy the right monitor

Credit: Reviewed / TJ Donegan

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While laptop computers have pretty much replaced tower PCs over the last decade, the humble computer monitor continues to be a staple of various trades, from graphic design and eSports to book editing and reception desks. Even the cheapest $200 laptops have video out ports.

But whether you're buying at home or for the office, for work or for play, buying a monitor online can be a daunting task. From people who have never even assumed they needed one, to buyers who have narrowed their choices down to two standout picks, the question is the same: What do you do when you can't see them in person?

You check the specs, of course! With a bit of knowledge, can make a lot of safe guesses about what you need in a computer monitor based on its specs, features, and price point. Here's some tips I've learned after a modest career of reviewing screens.

What size computer monitor do I need?

The first thing to determine is what size you need. This has a lot to do with the task you're doing, but it helps to also simply know the most common size ranges.

24 inches: You'll find 24-inch computer monitors most often. While there are 22-, 23-, and even less than 20-inch monitors available online, a 24-inch monitor is usually a better value. Because it's the most common size, it's widely manufactured, making it inherently cheaper to utilize regardless of manufacturer.

27 inches: If you've already got a really big laptop, are upgrading from a 24-inch monitor, or plan to use your new purchase for something that would particularly benefit from a big screen (like Powerpoint, photo or video editing, or watching Netflix or YouTube), a 27-inch monitor is the most common next step up.

32 inches: For most people, these huge, often curved monitors are in the "why not just buy a TV?" range (though we'll get into that in a bit), but if you want a very high-end way to do the same kinds of things you'd do with a 27-inch monitor. These are especially popular as gaming peripherals.

24-Inch-Monitor
Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

This is my desk at Reviewed. I have a dual setup between a 13-inch MacBook Pro and a 24-inch Asus gaming monitor.

Which size do you need? It just depends on what you want to do with it. This will also affect things like resolution, price, and quality. If you just want a step up from your smaller laptop screen, I would go with a simple 24-inch monitor.

You should also, if you can, track down your laptop's maximum output where resolution is concerned. If you have a $200 laptop, the image it can send to a 32-inch monitor with 4K resolution might not actually look very good.

What resolution do I need—1080p, 4K, or something else?

The size/resolution "debate" is not one that I will claim to have finished or solved, but it is a common discussion in the realm of both TVs and computer monitors. In any case, resolution refers to the amount of pixels in the screen. The key thing to understand about resolution is that screens of the same size can have different resolutions.

Let's assume you are considering a 27-inch computer monitor. I'm of the opinion that many resolutions aren't high enough to look good on a 27-inch monitor. I once had a 27-inch monitor with 1080p (full HD) resolution, which meant 1,920 x 1,080 pixels.

In my opinion, it wasn't enough for things like an Excel spreadsheet, or a list of Google search results, but the larger size was better for things like video games or TV shows, where big, more cohesive images didn't need such pinpoint detail.

What-size-monitor

The most common computer monitor sizes are 24 inches, 27 inches, and 32 inches.

However, by that same logic, you probably don't need 4K resolution on a 24-inch monitor if all you're doing is browsing the web or using it at work. If you take "24 inches at 1080p" as a kind of soft baseline for resolution to screen size that's good enough, it's easier to reason out the affects of sliding up or down in terms of resolution versus the same screen size.

Playing an RTS video game with lots of moving parts? Higher resolution (and a bigger screen) make a lot of sense. Likewise, if you're editing 5,000-pixel wide images, doing so on a screen with only 1,920 pixels across is going to potentially be a pain in the butt. It's all about picking the right tool for the job.

More pixels or less pixels don't inherently designate a better or worse image most of the time, where aspects like color and contrast are concerned. Here's the baseline info:

1,920x1,080: Known as 1080p, Full HD, full-HD, or "2K" sometimes, this is essentially the "default" resolution for many screens—TVs and monitors both. While there's no hard and fast rule for resolution requirements, generally there is a visual "sweet spot" across average sizes and tasks, and 1080p still hits it most of the time. In monitors 27 inches and up, you may start to feel like 1080p isn't quite enough.

4K: So called because it's 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, 4K resolution is the next major step up. Both 4K and 1080p describe a "16:9" aspect ratio, so the screens look the same (same as TVs), but 4K resolution gives you twice the horizontal and vertical pictures. For most general purposes, even gaming, you probably don't need to pair a 4K monitor with something like a laptop. While some gaming laptops and Apple Macbooks have the power to "drive" a 4K monitor, most don't.

The three LCD panel types: IPS, VA, and TN

Once you have an idea of what size and what resolution you want (or need), you can learn a lot about a monitor's general "vibe" by knowing a little about its panel type.

All computer monitors use LCD panels (unless they've secretly started making OLED monitors and I don't know about it). Typically, there are three main categories of LCD panel to know about.

LCD-panel-type

Knowing what IPS, VA, and TN mean can be tremendously helpful while shopping for a monitor.

IPS: This means "in-plane switching." The key things to know are that it's the priciest, brightest, and usually most colorful panel type, with the widest viewing angle.

VA: This means "vertical alignment." The key things to know are that it's more affordable than IPS and has better contrast, but worse viewing angles. It's a better choice than IPS for response time, which is a key factor for video games.

TN: This means "twisted nematic." These are the cheapest panels, and they tend to have the worst color and contrast but the fastest response time. These are often used in smaller, speed-focused eSports and competitive gaming monitors.

You'll see variants of the three above, such as "Super-IPS" or "MVA," which are often panel types that have developed to attempt to solve the inherent weaknesses in a particular LCD panel type, while capitulating its strengths.

If you're buying the monitor for everyday use, you probably don't need to spring for IPS. Also, if you want deep contrast for the occasional movie, you should go with VA instead. However, if you're using the monitor for graphic design purposes or want a flexible stand or articulating mount and need the best viewing angles, IPS is a better choice.

It's important to remember that the pros/cons of different panel types are more of a general guideline than anything. IPS panels tend to elicit the most "oohs" and "ahhs"—but you're paying for it. Likewise, I wouldn't go with a TN panel unless you really don't wanna spend a lot of money. You can usually find panel type listed in the specs section.

Okay, so how do I identify these things?

This part's simple enough. Let's say you're shopping on Amazon. Type in "computer monitor" and search. For me, the first thing that pops up—because it's "Amazon's Choice"—is the Acer SB220Q. This is the image I see:

Acer-monitor
Credit: Amazon / Acer

They don't all make it this easy, but a lot of them do.

What can we figure out from this? Tons! This monitor is only $90, which explains why hundreds of people have bought it. It's 21.5 inches, which is definitely on the small side as monitors go, but if you're working with laptops in the 11/13/15 inch screen size range, 21 inches is still a big step up.

Right in the image, it says it's an IPS panel. While I wouldn't use a monitor this small to watch TV/movie content or play video games (personally), plenty of people would. Even with the shallow contrast, the bigger size and higher brightness are going to be a big step up from your laptop.

Even a small monitor is a big step up from most laptops.

Also at this size, the 1,920 x 1,080 resolution is plenty. You wouldn't really be able to appreciate the effects of 4K (3,840 x 2,160) in a 21.5-inch screen, anyway. According to reviews, it tilts, has a matte screen, has a 75 Hz refresh rate (which is fine if you're not a pro gamer), and so on.

I have to be honest: I didn't know what was going to pop up when I searched Amazon, and now I kind of want to buy this monitor. It's small but not tiny; has enough resolution for its size without over- or under-serving on pixel count; tilts and is almost bezel-free; and most importantly, has an IPS panel, which will give you a bright, pleasing image most of the time.

If I needed a monitor right now, I'd probably buy this one. Like most people, I don't have $90 just sitting around, but getting a 22-inch Full HD IPS-equipped computer monitor for that price is an awesome value.

VGA vs DVI vs HDMI

Once you've got your size, resolution, and panel type figured out, the last thing to do is make sure you can connect to the darn thing. You're probably familiar with your laptop's AC (electrical) and USB ports, but do you know which video output ports it has?

The three main video outputs for most laptop to monitor situations are VGA, DVI, and HDMI. Here's the rear side of my Asus monitor.

monitor-ports
Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

The back side of my Asus monitor's ports, from left to right: AC (power), HDMI, DVI, VGA, and audio/headphones

VGA: The blue one. It will be blue on your laptop too. This is the worst choice: it only transfers video, and can only support resolutions up to 640x480. I would avoid VGA unless your laptop is just mega old.

DVI: The white one. This is video only, but it does support resolutions upwards of 1080p, so it will be fine for most general purposes. Some DVI cables support 4K, and some even transmit audio, but the one included with your monitor will be a basic one.

HDMI: This is the best choice for most purposes. Image/video resolution up to 4K, plus audio from the laptop is transferred to (pointless if you don't have speakers or a headphone jack, however).

If you find a monitor you think is a really good choice, make sure your laptop (or PC tower) has the right outputs to match at least one of its inputs.

Checklist

Okay, let's review:

Size: 24, 27, or 32 inches. 24 is enough for most basic purposes, while 32 means you are very serious about whatever the task is.

Resolution: Most of the time, 1080p (Full HD) is fine. You might want higher resolution if you're planning on doing serious image/video editing or heavy gaming. At 27 inches an up, 1080p starts to look bad for detailed content.

Panel: If you can afford it, go with IPS. If not, go with VA. Only choose TN if you want to really save money.

Ports: If your laptop has HDMI out, try to get a monitor with HDMI in. Otherwise, DVI is best. VGA should be a last resort.

While there's no way to protect yourself entirely from overpaying or missing out on a feature you end up needing, knowing a bit about how you'll use your new computer monitor can be enough to help determine what size, resolution, panel type, and so on you might want or need.

If you can really narrow it down to two or three contenders, that's where professional and user reviews can come in. Happy shopping, and good luck!