Choosing a new (laptop) monitor – what do we need to know? (Part 1)
Buying something new always brings pleasure, but it’s not always what we would expect. Choosing a new monitor (or a laptop) has many important aspects to consider. For many it is a window to the world and also essential tool and workplace, sometimes stretching over 12 (and even more) hours a day. Even with the advancement of technology the principle of forming an image on a monitor remains unnatural to the human eye, which is used to “work” with reflected rather than directly emitted light. In addition, the methods and technology of forming colors that do not exist in its own matrix, for lowering the brightness, leaving the light strength unchanged are deceiving the eyes and brain without most people even realizing it, so it is important to make a good assessment before buying a new monitor.
We would also like to share our point of view about the decision a customer has to make when assessing the monitors that are available on the market. We will share our advices in two articles – first we will help you to set your goals and make the most important choice – which panel is more useful to you. In the second part we will show you how to sift out the chosen models by introducing you to the rest of the specifications that you have to pay attention to and also the pitfalls that marketing specialists place.
Defining the goals
Probably the first two things we consider before buying something is the budget and the size of the display. We could help you with the second one. The size is defined by the diagonal of the screen and the amount of pixels on the panel in horizontal and vertical position, relative to the intended use of the monitor.
Another important thing is the ratio of the sides. Monitors with resolution of 1366×768 pixels might not be justified even when there is limited space or budget. The 1920×1080 ones (with a good graphics card) are a great choice for gamers and also watching movies in Full HD resolution. The monitors with 4K resolution are slowly replacing those with Full HD, bringing quality to the next level. If the graphics card is not high-end, though, it might struggle with the rendering of 8 294 400 pixels in more demanding games and applications. This is a lot tougher job than the 1920×1080 resolution that has only 2 million pixels (1920*1080).
The vertical space of 1080 pixels are considered not enough for comfortable work with software for design, engineering or image processing, as it doesn’t leave enough space for the menus and toolbars. The base resolution for a low-budget work monitor of this class is currently 1920×1200 pixels with optimal screen diagonal of 24 inches.
Choosing a panel
The next step is choosing the panel. This is an essential decision because the panel types define a lot of the specifications that can be surprisingly important or not so much, depending on the usage of the display. We are only looking at the LCD (Liquid-crystal display) screens and the three main technical directions – TN, IPS, and VA (you can see precise microscope photographs of the subpixels of the displays in almost all of our reviews). The time of the CRT (Cathode-Ray Tube) has passed and the organic diode (OLED) displays, that have undoubted advantages like bigger color gamut coverage, exceptional contrast and the possibility of making flexible displays, are currently used in smartphones (but that will soon change).
The spatial structure and control of the liquid crystals define the panel type and its specific qualities like viewing angles, contrast, and the number of colors it can reproduce.
TN + Film (Twisted Nematic + Film)
The most widely used screens at the moment have the TN + Film (Twisted Nematic + Film) panel. They are cheap, reliable, and inexpensive. Along the typical drawbacks (which we will look at later) TN screens have another advantage – the low response time of the pixels – perfect for a gaming monitor. Some work at double the usual refresh rate – 120 Hz and when combined with a good graphics card and special active glasses can provide 3D gaming pleasure. There are a lot of TN matrix displays so naturally they are being constantly improved.
Two main drawbacks of TN monitors still stand – poor viewing angles and a low number of actually reproduced colors. The first disadvantage is the dramatic change in colors if the monitor is not looked at perpendicular axis to the surface (especially in the vertical plane). Even more, at a certain angle the image might get inverted colors. The second drawback is connected to the number of shades that the crystals can achieve with every subpixel, by controlling the amount of electricity (also called Color Depth). The standard TN panel has 64 nuances (6 bits per channel), adding up to 262 144 real colors – far less than the 16.7 million real colors (256 nuances or 8 bits per channel) in high-end panels (there are also 10-bit ones, that need special graphics card and software to make use of them).
Monitors with TN panels can also have many business applications. However, if you are a designer, photographer, artist, architect or an engineer with serious projects, you might want to skip the TN section, but with keep in mind – this type of panels can still be used. There are already TN panels for notebooks that need only 3W power and some notebook models offering price to quality ratio. By buying such laptop you can spare more money for a high-end second monitor.
IPS (In-Plane Switching) + PLS
The next technology that is getting increasing attention is IPS (In-Plane Switching). It is created to eliminate the narrow viewing angles and offer richer colors. Because of its obvious advantages there is an increasing market for budget solutions for fast response gaming panels with 6-bit colors per channel or again only 262 144 real colors. One of the ways this problem is solved, similar to the TN panel, is with subframe color change, also called FRC – Frame Rate Control (there is another technology called Dithering – it changes the color of neighboring pixels). In FRC the missing color is replaced by the closest matches, one with darker and another with brighter shade that vibrate consequently and successfully deceiving the eye that it “provides” 16.2 million colors (the real 8-bit colors are 16.78 million and are slower – useful information to sift through advertised specifications from the manufacturer, but not always).
The FRC + Dithering algorithms are becoming more complex and combining the two methods lead to eyes seeing 16.7 million colors with only 262 thousand real colors. The improved technology is hard to be distinguished by the naked eye. These budget IPS monitors are perfect for gamers and big movie fans, because they are fast with wide viewing angles and impressive colors.
We won’t get into detail on the many varieties of this technology because there are a lot. We will mention that “e-IPS” is the budget variant and “H-IPS” and “P-IPS” are quality panels for professional use. We can also add the competing PLS (Plane to Line Switching) panel that is working with similar technology.
In short, if you shift your choice from TN to IPS (without including the 3D images) it will be a positive change. This is also true for professional users who should look out fora 24-bit panels (8 bits per channel – “R”+”G”+”B”).
MVA (Multi-domain Vertical Alignment ) and PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment)
MVA and the alternative PVA have the positive qualities of the IPS panels like wide viewing angles (a bit narrower than IPS), 8-bit colors and a really high real contrast (we recommend you don’t pay much attention to the dynamic contrast if your goal is to choose a monitor and not just to look at ads). It’s worth mentioning that 6-bit variants are also gaining popularity (like c-PVA) as a successful alternative to TN. Similar to e-IPS they are not very good for design and engineering work. The 8-bit VA panels with their excellent contrast are perfect for drawings and text but if colors are of more importance, IPS is the better solution.
Just like with IPS, when you are buying a professional VA panel monitor beware of 6-bit ones, offered as 8-bit with an addition in brackets (6-bit + FRC). Same goes for the 10-bit (8-bit + FRC).
In the next part…
In the next part we will cover more useful information, answering questions you might have never asked yourself – What backlighting should we choose? What is “Pulse-width modulation” and how to protect our eyes? What finish should we choose – matte or glossy? These are only some of the topics we will talk about in the next part, so don’t miss it.