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LCD Monitor Buying Tips

Part 1: The Glossary

Before I get into specific buying tips for LCD monitors, there is a fair amount of terminology unique to the world of monitors. The following are terms that will be coming up in the next two exciting installments of this “LCD Monitor Buying Tips” mini-series. If you keep this glossary handy, it will help explain some of the jargon I will be using next week in Part 2, “The Basics,” and in Part 3, when we take a look at the various types of LCD monitors available to you. And now, onward to the glossary!

Aspect ratio: The ratio of height to width. Early LCD monitors and CRTs had a 4:3 aspect ratio. Some wide-screen monitors have a 16:10 aspect ratio, but most of today's models offer a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is the format used for high definition movies and television broadcasts.

CCFL (Cold Cathode Florescent Lamp): The most common form of monitor backlighting used today. Not as bright as LED backlighting, but less expensive to manufacture.

Contrast Ratio: The difference between the screen's ability to display the darkest blacks and the brightest whites.

CRT (Cathode Ray Tube): Older TV and monitor technology that uses a vacuum tube and electron gun to display images; predecessor to today's flat screens.

DisplayLink: The technology used to send video via a USB port.

DisplayPort: Similar to HDMI, DisplayPort provides a digital interface between the monitor and a video source (PC or other external device) to transmit high definition video and audio via a single cable.

DVI (Digital Visual Interface): An industry standard interface used to accept digital signals from a video source.

Film-type Patterned Retarder (FPR): A technology promoted by LG that is used in its line of 3D screens based on what is called circular polarization. It displays left and right images through different patterns in a circular polarizer. Clear as borscht, right? Left/right polarized glasses allow the left and right images to be seen by the left and right eyes separately. Both images are combined in what's left of one's brain which then generates the 3D effect. FPR 3D technology is capable of delivering a brighter screen image with less distortion, less ghosting, and no flickering.

Grayscale: Shades of gray varying in intensity from the darkest black to the whitest white. Grayscale accuracy determines the screen's ability to display all gradations of the color spectrum.

HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface): A widely used digital interface that sends high-definition video and audio via a single cable.

IPS (In Plane Switching): One of three major LCD panel technologies (TN+ and PVA being the other two) known for its excellent color and viewing angle characteristics. IPS panels used to be the most expensive to manufacture of the three but newer e-IPS panels are significantly less expensive to produce and deliver very good color and viewing angle performance.

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display): Used in everything from laptops and TV sets to digital watches, LCD panels utilize multiple sheets of glass, a liquid crystal material and various amounts of voltage to create an on-screen image.

LED (Light Emitting Diode): A low-power semiconductor that lights up when voltage is applied. A newer technology, LED screens are more expensive than LCD, but provide clearer, crisper images.

Note:A frequent question asked by monitor shoppers is, “What’s the difference between LED vs LCD screens?” To be super technical (or nit-picky, as the case may be), LED screens are also LCD screens, but that's being needlessly super-technical, and who need that?

The main difference is in the type of backlighting used to display an image on the LCD display. First generation LCD screens used fluorescent backlighting; modern LCDs utilize LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) to illuminate the LCD display. Some newer LCDs even use LEDs around the perimeter of the LCD display. These are called Edge-Lit LED-LCDs. You will primarily find LEDs in displays that serve a dual purpose such as a TV and/or computer monitor.

Passive 3D: 3D imagery created by wearing lightweight, polarized glasses -- the goofy kind we used to wear to watch old 3D movies.

Pixel Response: The amount of time needed for a pixel to transition from black to white or to transition from one shade of gray to another shade of gray. Also referred to as response time, it is measured in milliseconds.

PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment): Screen technology known for high contrast ratios, very good black levels and wide viewing angles. Less expensive than IPS but more costly than TN+ panels.

TN+ (Twisted Nematic +): The most common screen technology used in desktop monitors, which is relatively inexpensive to manufacture. Known for fast pixel response but less than stellar viewing angles and mediocre color and grayscale accuracy.

Now that the boring terminology portion is out of the way, next week I will dive into the really exciting stuff in Part 2 of this sweeping epic: “LCD Monitor Buying Tips: The Basics.” (The anticipation is killing me, too!)

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Part 2: The Basics

The monitor you are using to read these precious words probably arrived with your desktop PC, or perhaps you bought it back when 1240 by 1024 was considered high resolution. Since most computer users spend a lot of time staring at a monitor, it pays to be fussy when choosing an LCD (flat-screen) monitor. Prices vary widely, as does screen quality.

So how can you make an informed decision? Stick with me, and I will share a few pointers that I've learned through many years of my beady eyes staring at computer screens. Regardless of the type of monitor you're looking for, the following are a few items worthy of your consideration:

Price: Monitor prices vary widely, depending on the type, size and features of the display. For example, a no-frills, 22-inch model that lacks such civilized niceties as USB ports and a height-adjustable stand can cost $100 to $150. This type of monitor will use LED backlighting and require very little power. Performance is generally adequate for most entertainment purposes or for viewing business and productivity apps, but it is not well suited for tasks where color and grayscale accuracy are particularly important.

At the other end of the spectrum are high-end models that are geared towards graphics professionals and photographers. These monitors might have super-sized 30-inch screens, with IPS panel technology, and offer features such as a highly adjustable stand, USB ports galore, a built in KVM (Keyboard, Video & Mouse) switch, and a wealth of advanced image settings. Expect to pay $1500 to $2000 for a fully loaded, high performance monitor. When monitor shopping, be prepared to pay for extra goodies, but don't overspend on features you are unlikely to ever use.

Size: LCD monitors generally run anywhere from 15 inches up to 30 inches. The size of the panel is measured diagonally, like a television screen. While it's always nice to have a big viewing area, it may not be practical given desktop space limitations. Plus, the bigger the screen, the more you can expect to pay. Monitors in the 22- to 24-inch range are the most popular as they offer enough screen real estate to view multi-page documents or watch movies, but without taking up too much room. I can also share with you from my own first-hand experience that they are a blessing for aging eyes. If you have room on your desktop or work station, a 27-inch monitor will offer a big-screen experience at a reasonable price.

Pixel Response Rate (PRR): Measured in milliseconds, PRR is the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white or to transition from one shade of gray to another shade of gray. The faster the pixel response rate, the better the monitor is at displaying video without displaying artifacts such as ghosting or blurring of moving images. Monitors with a fast pixel response, say two milliseconds (black to white) or five milliseconds (gray to gray) are great for gaming, but even those monitors with a higher pixel response (7 to 12 milliseconds) can display games without much blurring or ghosting. The reality is that most users won't notice things like lag, which is the time it takes for a display to react to a command, but hard-core gamers consider this a key factor when selecting a monitor and typically seek out the fastest PRR monitors available. (Since my computer gaming primarily consists of Scrabble, I can't say that I'm at all concerned about Pixel Response Rate.)

Resolution: Resolution refers to the number of pixels a monitor can display, both horizontally and vertically. For example, a monitor with a 1920 by 1080 resolution can display 1920 pixels across the width of the screen and 1080 pixels from top to bottom, or a total of 2,073,600 pixels. The higher the resolution, the more information can be displayed on the screen, but the smaller the images will be. Today, most monitors in the 22- to 27-inch range have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and are referred to as full HD (high-definition) monitors. Larger displays, (30-inches and up) can display at a resolution of 2560 x 1600 (4,096,000 pixels), making them ideal for viewing highly detailed images or viewing multiple pages in a tiled or side-by-side format.

Extra Goodies: If you share a monitor (even begrudgingly) with a co-worker or family member, consider a model with an ergonomic stand that lets you position the screen for your most comfortable viewing angle. Most stands offer tilt adjustability, but swivel and height adjustments provide greater flexibility.

If you transfer lots of data back and forth between USB devices, look for a monitor with built-in USB ports because it is much easier to plug one into your display than to have to constantly reach around the back of your PC or crawl under your desk while holding a flashlight in your teeth. By the same token, a monitor with a built-in card reader makes it easy to view photos and play music without having to reach under your desk to plug in a media card.

Embedded Web cameras (Webcams) are fun for video chats and emailing photos, but don't expect stellar image quality as these types of cameras, bundled with a PC, are generally very low resolution.

Most monitors come with built-in speakers that are adequate for everyday use, but usually lack the volume and bass that music aficionados and gamers want. If audio output is important, look for speakers with a minimum rating of two watts per speaker. As a general rule, the higher the power rating, the more volume you can expect.

Lastly, glossy screens can deliver very bright, crisp colors, but may also be too reflective for some users. If possible, compare a glossy screen to a matte screen before purchasing so you can decide which works best for your peepers.

I spend far too much time in front of monitors, but for my primary monitor I am currently using a 32” Samsung LED with a matte surface. With fluorescent lighting in my office, and lots of sunlight from windows less than a foot away from the monitor, I find the matte surface of the screen helps reduce screen glare. I also reduce the brightness of my monitors so the whites are not as harsh on my baby blues. Adjusting the brightness is a process of trial and error until you find a level that is bright enough to provide easy-to-view images, but not so bright that it sears your eyeballs.

Still enjoying this article? If so, be sure to subscribe to Mr. Modem's Weekly Newsletter ( today! Computer tips, tricks, virus alerts, hoax information, plus prompt, personal responses to your computer questions! Who could ask for anything more?

Part 3: Types of LCD Monitors

For purposes of this article, I'm going to segregate LCD monitors into four categories: Budget, Business/Professional, Multimedia, and Gaming displays, all of which target different audiences. Prices vary within each category depending on the technology used, the size of the panel, and number and type of features.

Budget Displays: If you're looking for a basic monitor for viewing email, surfing the Web, and displaying office applications such as documents and spreadsheets, there is no reason to spend a fortune on a model with features that you will never use. Budget displays are usually no-frills models that sacrifice such niceties as USB ports, card readers, and built-in webcams. They typically use TN+ panel technology and are not known for their performance attributes, particularly when it comes to motion handling and grayscale accuracy, but they do perform well for basic computer and Internet functions. Don't expect much in the way of flexibility, as most budget displays are supported by a rigid stand that may provide tilt adjustability, but very rarely offer height and pivot adjustments. As with nearly all displays, costs will rise along with panel size. You can expect to pay between $150 and $200 for a basic 23-inch model. A 27-inch model nets you a lot more screen real estate for approximately $350.

Note: I have purchased a number of monitors from Costco and have been very satisfied with them. Pricing is always competitive, plus their “No-questions-asked” return policy has come in handy on a couple of occasions when products purchased didn't work properly. Be sure to also check out Costco Verified Discount Codes.

I also frequently purchase hardware online from Newegg.

Business Professional Displays: This category includes a wide variety of monitor types, from energy-efficient "green" models for everyday office use, to high-end, high-priced models that use In-Plane Switching (IPS) and Patterned Vertical Alignment technology intended for graphics professionals who require a high degree of color and grayscale accuracy.

Business monitors will usually offer ergonomic stands that can be adjusted for maximum comfort. Many will offer pivot adjustability, which lets you rotate the screen 90 degrees for viewing in Portrait or Landscape mode. If rotation is important, look for a model that has an auto-rotate feature that flips the image automatically when you change the orientation.

Other business-centric features to look for include a generous three-year warranty with an overnight exchange service, and integrated USB ports. A fully loaded, all-bells-and-whistles model is going to cost a pretty penny, but for photographers and other graphics professionals, it is money well spent. At the other end of the price spectrum are the no-frills, energy-efficient monitors. They may be short on features, but their low power usage can help businesses save money through reduced energy costs.

Multimedia Displays: Multimedia displays are popular because they typically offer a nice selection of features to help you with home photo and video projects, provide decent performance, and in some cases include digital TV tuners. A good multimedia display will usually provide a variety of connectivity options, such as HDMI, DVI, VGA and LMNOP inputs, while higher-end, entertainment-class models will also include component audio/video connections, and a DisplayPort connection.

At least two USB ports should be available, preferably mounted on the side or front of the screen for easy access, and the speakers should be a cut above the typical low-powered speakers found on most monitors. If audio output is an important factor, look for speakers rated at two watts or better. Other multimedia gizmos include a built-in multi-card reader, which makes it easy to view photos and video directly from your camera's media, and a Webcam for video chats and for taking fast photos and videos that are easy to email.

Hybrid displays are multifunction devices that pull double-duty as a desktop monitor and a TV set. You'll pay a bit more for the TV tuner but these displays are ideal for dorm rooms, studio apartments, RVs, jail cells and other locations where space is at a premium. Again, expect to pay some extra buckeroos for a 3D-capable multimedia model.

Gaming Displays: Gaming monitors require super-fast response times in order to display moving images without producing motion errors, or artifacts (ghosts). Panels with slower response times may produce blurring of fast-moving images, which can be distracting during game play.

On smaller panels, this type of deficiency may not be so noticeable but when you're gaming on a 25-inch or larger display, you will want to keep blurring to a minimum, particularly as you attempt to rescue Princess Zirgork from the invading Voygyns. Look for a panel with a response time of 5 milliseconds (black to white) or two milliseconds (gray to gray) or less. Gaming monitors should also offer a variety of video inputs to accommodate multiple sources, including consoles such as the Sony PS3, Xbox or multiple PCs.

Since ear-splitting audio is a big part of the gaming experience (not so much for other people in the room), look for a model with a powerful speaker system, ideally one with a sub-woofer. A headphone jack mounted on the side or the front of the cabinet is also preferable.

If 3D gaming is your primary interest, you will need a monitor with a 120Hz frame rate (most monitors are 60Hz) to utilize Nvidia's 3DVision Kit, which uses dual 60Hz images and a dual-link DVI connection to display games in 3D, with the use of special stereoscopic glasses. (It gives me a headache just thinking about it.)

In the alternative, check out one of the many FPR -- you did save Part 1 (the Glossary), didn't you? -- models that operate at 60Hz and use passive glasses. A monitor with a USB hub to plug in several controllers is also desirable.

If you have any questions about purchasing a new monitor, I'm always just an email away for subscribers of my weekly newsletter, so if you haven't yet subscribed, what are you waiting for?

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