Choosing the best monitors, displays and projectors: Buyer’s Guide review

Widescreen, PC and 3D displays and home entertainment projectors explained
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IT Reviews has recently updated its Buyer’s Guides. If you’re looking for information on business and home movie projectors, check out our dedicated guide to projectors here.

Your monitor is, by and large, one of the most important parts of a PC. While a processor gets used for heavy number crunching, and a powerful graphics card is a necessity when you’re gaming, the monitor is the thing you’ll be using all the time – along with the keyboard and mouse, of course. Make the wrong choice, and your suffer from sore eyes and painful wallet. But don’t worry: ITReviews is here to talk you through the potential pitfalls involved. We’ll also take a look at even bigger-screen entertainment with a digital projector.

It’s important to make sure that you buy the right monitor. While there are plenty of bargains to be had, make sure you get one that’s right for your needs: at the lower end of the market, a difference of just £10 can separate a truly terrible monitor from a high-quality bargain.

Screen size
When shopping for a monitor, the first thing to bear in mind is size. As with TVs, the size of a monitor is measured in diagonal inches – although if you’re shopping from bargains within continental Europe, you might find diagonal centimetres used instead. Unless you’re strapped for space, don’t consider anything less than a 17in model – and, ideally, look for a 19in version instead.

Aspect ratio
The next thing to consider is aspect ratio. While the now mostly defunct CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) type of display tended to mirror a TV’s traditional aspect ration of 4:3, modern flat-panel monitors opt for a more cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio. If you’re buying around the 19in mark, you’ll likely have a choice of 16:9, 16:10, or 5:4. If you mainly use your monitor for watching films and gaming, the 16:9 widescreen option is perfect. For more business-like use, a 5:4 monitor allows you to see more of a webpage or document without scrolling vertically.

Finally, look at the resolution – usually expressed as the number of pixels available both horizontally and vertically. The higher the figures, the greater the number of dots that are squeezed onto a single screen – and the greater the detail the display is capable of showing. Higher resolutions are good for gamers, as they make the graphics appear that much more realistic, but you’ll need to make sure you’ve got a powerful enough graphics card to drive the display. For film buffs, a 1920×1080 – sometimes called 1080p – display is perfect, as it matches exactly the resolution used in Full HD TV broadcasts and high-definition video content such as Blu-ray discs.

Once you’ve narrowed your choice of monitor down to one that matches what you need in size, aspect ratio, and resolution, check its connectivity. Those buying a monitor for an older PC will likely need a VGA connector, also known as a D-Sub or HD15, but this old analogue connection is becoming increasingly uncommon at anythign but the budget end of the market. If you’re planning to watch films, look for a monitor with an HDMI or HDCP-compliant DVI port – you’ll need it for Blu-ray playback. For those with newer Macs or AMD graphics cards, monitors with DisplayPort connectors – while rare – are a good investment.

As with any purchasing decision, the market splits into three definite categories: budget, mainstream, and premium. Each bracket has clearly defined differences in terms of features and quality, so pick to your spending power and see what is out there.

As a budget buyer, you haven’t much much to spend – but the good news is that the cost of a high-quality flat-panel display has dropped in recent years, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a decent screen that you can easily watch films and play games on.

If you’re on a budget, the chances are you’re looking at the 17in to 19in end of the market – and it’s here that the aspect ratio question is most important. Despite having the same diagonal measurements, a 19in 16:9 widescreen display has significantly less viewable area than a 19in 5:4 display – so you may find that if you want a decent widescreen monitor, you’re better off picking a size above that which you had intended.

The majority of displays available at the budget end of the market feature ‘thin film transistor’, or TFT, technology. TFT is a technology which greatly improves the performance of liquid crystal displays, helping to minimise motion blur – vitally important for gamers. Most use a cold cathode backlight, which provides a bright picture but typically poor levels of contrast – in particular, black levels aren’t the best.

You won’t find any DisplayPort monitors at the budget end of the spectrum. Instead, expect to have to choose between a single VGA connector or a single DVI connector – although if you shop around, you may find some models that include one of each.

Budget monitors lack the features of their more expensive brethren, such as dynamic contrast, energy-efficient LED back-lighting, and swivel stands that allow the monitor to be operated in portrait or landscape modes – but they do often come with built-in speakers. Sadly, these are usually tinny, and distort at high volumes. For anything other than office work, you’ll want to invest in a separate set of speakers.

For a 19in display with reasonably fast response times and a good contrast ration, you can expect to pay less than £70.

As a mainstream buyer, you’re willing to pay extra for quality. Perhaps you want a higher resolution, a faster response time, or a higher contrast ratio. Perhaps you’re a film buff, or a gamer. Either way, there’s plenty of choice.

Oddly, however, when you start spending more your options in terms of aspect ratio drop considerably. Many manufacturers choose to use the same panels in their PC monitors as in their smaller TV sets – meaning that the overwhelming majority of displays in the mainstream market are 16:9 aspect ratio, and typically a 1920×1080 resolution.

Samsung - SyncMaster BX2231 monitor

Mainstream users should look for a 22in 1920×1080 display like Samsung’s SyncMaster BX223.

For a film buff, this is great news: matching the output of a Blu-ray disc means that films can be shown on the monitor at their intended resolution with no up- or down-scaling required – which means the maximum possible image quality. Business users might find a 16:9 ratio restrictive, however – but it does allow two documents to be viewed side-by-side, and certain higher-end models can be rotated into a 9:16 portrait view that means an entire A4 sheet can be viewed on screen at once.

When you’ve got a bit more to spend, you can start being choosy about response time. Measured in milliseconds, the response time is the amount of time it takes for a pixel to go from grey to fully white and back to grey. It’s an important measurement: the longer it takes, the more likely it is that you’ll perceive ‘motion blur,’ where fast-moving objects on screen leave a trail behind them. It’s not too important for business users, but gamers and film buffs should aim for a response time of less than 5ms. Monitors as quick as 2ms and even 1ms are available, if you’re willing to pay the extra.

You may also find that you have the option of an LED-based backlighting system, rather than the traditional cathode-based backlight. This improves colour reproduction, typically enhances contrast ratios, and draws less power – so if you’ve got the option of an LED-based display, seriously consider the extra it would cost.

Monitors at the mainstream level tend not to waste time with fripperies such as in-built speakers, as you’re expected to provide your own. While this is awkward for the business user, it saves the rest of the market from the disappointment of trying the in-built speakers only to find a complete lack of bass response and muddy treble.

For a 22in 16:9 display with 1920×1080 resolution, you can expect to pay around £150. Beware of cheaper models – while they often get listed in the ’22in’ category, those selling for less are often 21.5in diagonally – a minor difference, but one that robs you of precious display area.

The premium buyer wants top quality. If you’re a graphic artist, a photographer, a video editor, or just serious about your games or movies, this is the category to look at. Size and quality both rise with price, but be warned that it’s a major jump from the mainstream market.

For the premium buyer, there is a technology above TFT: IPS. Standing for ‘in-plane switching,’ it’s yet another technological improvement to liquid-crystal displays that allows for significantly better colour reproduction – avoiding the ‘banding’ that cheaper monitors can show.

Sadly, there’s a catch: while an IPS display offers significantly higher quality than an equivalently sized TFT, it’s also significantly more expensive. If you’re after the best, though, there’s really nowhere else to look.

While the truly high-end, professional ‘reference’ displays are usually 4:3 or 5:4 aspect ratio, the majority of premium displays at the 25 to 30in mark are again widescreen – but you can expect to see resolutions far beyond the 1920×1080 that pervades the mainstream market. Many manufacturers opt for a 16:10 aspect ratio and a boost to 1920×1200, but if you’re willing to spend the money, resolutions as high as 2560×1600 are available.

At this price range, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to connectivity. HDMI, DVI, and DisplayPort are a given – although the higher resolution models may drop the old analogue VGA connector, as it can’t support a high enough resolution to drive the display. You may also find pass-through USB ports that enable you to plug in other devices and use the monitor as a hub. Some even include multi-formatmemory card readers – handy for the digital photography crowd.

As mentioned, however, you’ll be paying for the premium. A top-end 30in display with IPS technology and a resolution of 2560×1600 will set you back more than £1,000 – but if you’ve got the money, you’ll be amazed at the quality.