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1 October 2020

How to choose a computer monitor

Need a new PC monitor, or a second computer screen to complement your laptop? We run through the key things to consider, and how to avoid paying over the odds.
How-to-buy-a-monitor-advice
MP
Michael Passingham

If you’ve decided to make your home office a bit more functional, a new computer monitor could be high on your list of must-have equipment. 

For those who usually work on a laptop, connecting it to a full-sized monitor could be more comfortable and easier on the eyes in the long run. Even if you already have a desktop computer with a separate monitor, a second display could improve your productivity, and make it easier to multitask. 

Monitors can be affordable, if you have modest requirements. We run you through the top six considerations when buying a new screen.

Thinking of upgrading an old and creaky office computer? Get one that will power through the tasks you set it – check our expert pick of the best desktop PCs

Six questions to ask yourself when choosing a new computer monitor

1. How much do I need to pay for a good computer monitor?

Monitor prices vary depending on the size and specifications you go for. As a general guide, here's what it would be sensible to pay for three different screen sizes:

  • 21-22-inch monitor: £100
  • 24-inch monitor: £120
  • 27-inch monitor: £150

These guide prices reflect how much you'll need to pay to get most (and in some cases all) of the recommended specifications we highlight in this article. 

There are cheaper monitors available. However, while paying less will get you a screen that's easier on the wallet, it will probably lack the image quality you need to make the monitor comfortable to use for long periods. 

2. What computer screen size do I need?

The appropriate screen size will differ depending on the available space and what you'll be using it for.

  • Generally speaking, to reap the most benefit from a separate screen, most people should be aiming for at least 22 inches – you can get monitors of this size for around £100.
  • If you have a desk all to yourself, have plenty of room on it, and have a slightly higher budget, consider a 24-inch screen. This is the size you’ll typically find in most modern offices.
  • If you don’t have a dedicated workspace, you might want to opt for a very small screen that you can pack away at the end of the working day, such as a 15-inch portable one.

You can also get ultra-wide screens. These range from being around a third wider than a standard monitor, to twice as wide. They can be good if you want to have several tasks open on the same screen at once, but you often pay a huge amount for the privilege. If you have space, an equally effective – and likely cheaper – alternative is simply having two monitors side by side.

Carefully measure your workspace to establish how much space you realistically have, considering height as well as width (if your workspace is in an alcove, for example). Take into account how much room a stand might take up, too. 

When you’ve shortlisted a few monitors, check the specifications online or download the manual, as this should contain information about dimensions and other features.

3. What's the best screen technology?

Once you know what size you want, you'll need to decide on the type of screen. There are a few different technologies around, with techy-sounding names such as IPS (in-plane switching), TN (twisted nematic) and VA (vertical alignment). 

Look for monitors that use IPS or VA panels, especially if you're going to be using your computer monitor for extended periods, such as for work. These two screen technologies give you better clarity and colours than TN  screens. It's particularly important if your budget is less than £100; cheap TN panels are usually very poor, with washed-out colours and narrow viewing angles, making them uncomfortable to use. 

The screen technology will be clearly stated on the retailer and/or manufacturer websites. 

4. What screen resolution do I need?

Resolution means the number of dots – known as pixels – that produce the image on your screen. The more dots, the sharper and clearer the image. 

As a minimum, opt for a monitor with Full HD resolution (1,920p x 1,080p), otherwise known as 1080p. Anything less than this (usually 1,600 x 900 or 'HD' 1,366 x 768) not only risks a fuzzy or pixelated screen, but may be a sign of generally poor display quality. Manufacturers typically don't prioritise great colours and viewing angles if they've skimped on the resolution.

As screen size increases, resolution becomes even more important. If you want a larger screen (27 inches or more), you should seriously consider upgrading the resolution from the Full HD minimum. There are two options:

  • QHD (2,560p x 1,440p), also known as 1440p. QHD screens are a middle ground between Full HD and the 4K resolutions more commonly associated with TVs. Opting for this resolution on larger screens will mean everything looks smoother and more defined.
  • UHD (3840p x 2160p), also known as 4K, or 2160p. This takes things up another notch, although most people won't really need it. It's often popular with gamers; you'll need some powerful hardware to make best use of it, as pushing this many pixels around can put a strain on your graphics card.

5. What do I need to connect?

If you buy a monitor that doesn't have the right ports to connect to your PC or laptop, you'll face the frustration of having to either return it or buy an adaptor (although these don't tend to cost much). 

Fortunately, there are now a few standard ports you'll find on most models; the most common types on cheaper monitors are HDMI, DVI and VGA.

Make sure your computer or laptop has at least one compatible port, so you can easily connect the monitor. If you connect using HDMI, bear in mind that most HDMI monitors won't come with an HDMI cable, so you'll need to buy one separately if you don't have a spare. 

Most laptops have HDMI or VGA ports, so should be straightforward to connect. However, if your laptop is very new and very thin, it may only have small USB-C ports, similar to those on a phone charger. To connect these to a monitor, you'll need a USB-C to VGA or HDMI adaptor.

6. What extra features would be useful?

These handy features will add to the overall cost, but are worth looking out for:

  • Adjustable stand: This can help you set up your monitor at the perfect height without having to stack it on top of a pile of recipe books to get comfy.
  • USB hub: Useful if you have lots of desk accessories, such as a mouse, keyboard and USB phone charging cable, and your laptop doesn't have enough USB ports for them all. A monitor with a built-in USB hub means you can connect them all to the monitor instead. Doing this also means you can take your laptop to the sofa, or out and about, and only have to unplug a couple of cables instead of four or five.
  • Portrait mode: If you work with computer code, you might find a screen in vertical orientation is better for your needs. Some monitors allow you to turn them 90 degrees to get the perfect angle.
  • Portablility: If you're short on space and don't have a dedicated desk, opt for a small monitor that has a built-in stand and a case. This means you can work at the dining table, but swiftly transition it back to family use by picking up the monitor and putting it away. These devices are usually powered over USB via a cable connecting the monitor to your laptop, so there's no need to plug the monitor into the mains.

Are you on the hunt for a laptop that works as well on the go as when you're at home? Discover the ones that won't need plugging in annoyingly frequently in our guide to the best laptops for battery life

Choosing a gaming monitor

If you’re buying a monitor that will also – or primarily – be used for gaming, your choices will be slightly different. 

Essentially, what turns a general monitor into a gaming monitor is the refresh rate, which is number of times per second that the image on screen updates, measured in Hertz (Hz). 

A standard office monitor updates 60 times per second (60Hz), which is fine for working on documents, spreadsheets and the like. However, gamers playing fast-paced games often feel the need for a faster refresh rate, as it allows them to see new details – such as an opponent sneaking up on you or ducking out from behind a crate – that crucial split-second more quickly.

A typical gaming monitor will refresh at 144Hz, with others going as high as 240Hz. You generally pay more when you pick a monitor with a faster refresh rate, but if the games you play benefit from lightning-quick reactions, you might think it’s worth it.

Beyond that, it’s important to pick a monitor with a resolution that your computer's graphics card can handle. If you buy an Ultra HD monitor but only have a modest graphics card, your games will run slowly and stutter if you try to play them at the full Ultra HD resolution. The bigger the image your computer has to generate when gaming, the better your graphics card needs to be. 

You can read more about graphics cards in our guide to Nvidia, AMD and Intel graphics.

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