How to Buy a Monitor

The Specs Explained

Like most PC peripherals, monitors introduce you to a ton of unfamiliar specs. While price or specifications alone shouldn't determine what you buy--what you'll use it for is important as well, and image quality is the most important thing to most users--here are some things to look for to narrow your search.

Important: Native resolution. Images look best when displayed at an LCD's native resolution. You can go lower (and in some cases higher), but the image may appear blurry. The vector graphics of Windows Vista may lessen this, but native resolution will always look sharpest. Some models are better than others at handling non-native resolutions. (Remember that with LCDs the native resolution is the maximum resolution you can display.)

Important: Panel size. LCD panel size indicates viewable size as well. As with CRTs, the measurement is made diagonally from one corner of the screen to the opposite corner. Too small a panel, and you'll have trouble cramming everything you need to see on your screen; too large, and you may have to crane your neck.

Important: Physical adjustments. Height adjustment lets you adjust your monitor to a comfortable physical level. Swivel is useful for sharing your work, and pivot is handy for viewing applications that are taller than they are wide.

Somewhat important: Contrast ratio. Contrast ratio can help you determine how rich the color will be in on-screen images. A higher ratio is better, but vendor specifications are not always accurate.

Somewhat important: Viewing angle. Indicates how far you can move to the side of (or above and below) the center of the screen and still see what's displayed. This is important when you use the LCD to make presentations, or when you work with another person. Vendors use different methods to measure viewing angles.

Somewhat important: Brightness. All LCDs generally provide more than enough brightness. In fact, most users find they have to turn the monitor's brightness down after purchasing.

Minor: Response time. Rise-and-fall response time Iindicates the time required for a pixel to change from black to white (rise) and back to black (fall). A low figure in milliseconds should indicate a screen that will display only minimal motion artifacts in moving images during games or video. Gray-to-gray response time does not have a standard definition, and is a less reliable indicator.

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