Best cheap monitor for back-to-school, distance learning? Here's my answer

My relative asked for buying advice on a monitor for distance learning. Here's what I recommended and why.

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Ever since the pandemic lockdown, I’ve been fielding questions from friends and family about technology buys. Recently, it was a relative asking what monitor she should buy for her daughters who are going back to school—but doing distance learning at home.

“It’s the first day of school and we’re now realizing we should get monitors and keyboards for the girls,” she said. “It’s too hard to be on a tiny laptop or Chromebook all day. What do you think of these?” All three monitors, sold by Office Depot, ranged from $70 to $80, and to the casual shopper would look the same:

  • ViewSonic VA1903H
  • Acer V196HQL
  • ViewSonic VA2055SA

Spoiler: None of these would be my top picks. Instead I'd go with an Aopen model. But let’s delve into my relative's queries nonetheless, and learn a bit about monitor specs.

Most consumers tend to look at panel size first, and then price. As a nerd, though, I dive straight into the specs. My first stop is always the manufacturer’s website, as you can’t rely on a store’s retail website to properly publish all of the specs without hiccups. Here’s what I dug up:

  • ViewSonic VA1903H: 18.5-inch, $69, 1366x768, 200 nits, TN, VGA and HDMI port
  • Acer V196HQL: 18.5-inch, $70, 1366x768, 200 nits, TN, VGA port
  • ViewSonic VA2055SA: 19.5-inch, $80, 1920x1080, 250 nits, VA, VGA

So now let’s compare features

Size: It’s a wash between these three monitors as far as viewable screen real estate.

Brightness: Although one is 50 nits brighter, that’s not enough to really matter, so all three are pretty much a wash here. 

Resolution: Two of the panels are 1366x768 which is about the bare minimum resolution in a display these days. The winner, though, is the ViewSonic VA2055SA with its 1920x1080 resolution. Many people run external monitors to get more desktop space, and the higher resolution that 1920x1080 panel gets you is basically twice the pixels and density of a 1366x768 monitor. For those with poor vision, too many pixels can make content too small, but these monitors are going to used by teenage girls. That made the ViewSonic VA2055SA the winner in my book.

Panel Type: The ViewSonic VA1903H and the Acer 196HQL are both TN panels which is fairly archaic today, and is generally considered pretty meh even by yesterday’s standards due to lackluster colors and poor off-angle viewing. Some TN panels are OK, but you shouldn’t buy one unless you can see it in person. The better bet is the ViewSonic VA2055SA with its VA panel. The VA stands for vertical alignment and can yield decent colors and off-angle viewing. There’s no guarantee it’s better than the TN models, but the odds are a budget VA panel is better than a budget TN panel. 

Inputs: All three monitors feature VGA or D-SUB panels—with two of them being VGA only. That’s basically an analog interface that was used with CRTs and first came into service in 1987. That’s 33 years ago when people still used fax machines, and three years before the first browser was created. It’s so old, I assumed it was a typo but a view of the monitor ports on Amazon confirmed that companies still sell VGA-only monitors in the year 2020.

VGA inputs aren’t as janky as they were when flat panel displays were first introduced, but they can still yield visible noise on the screen when in use. Beyond that, VGA ports haven’t been in laptops for years, so buying the VGA displays would mean paying for an additional dongle. This made the ViewSonic VA1903H the winner for input with its HDMI port.  

My conclusion: Typically, I don’t invest a couple of hours lining up specs for people who ask for buying advice because they usually already have a fixed criteria, but clearly this was a no-win scenario. A TN panel with HDMI and low resolution didn’t sit well.

I visited Amazon, searched for HDMI monitors, and then sorted the results by the lowest price. That gave me two candidates to recommend to my relative: 

The ViewSonic is a TN panel, which isn’t my preference, but it’s higher resolution and at least offers an HDMI port. At $67 for a refurb monitor, that’s not bad. The Aopen 22CV1Q, however, is the panel I recommended. It gets her kids a slightly larger screen than the 19.5 viewable panels she had picked out; a higher resolution screen for more real estate; and a technically higher-quality VA-based panel plus a modern HDMI port.

It comes with the cable you want, too

The Aopen comes with an HDMI cable in the box, and the ViewSonic does not. Assuming my relative spends about $6 for a basic HDMI cable to use cheaper ViewSonic VA2246MH-LED, that basically makes about $7 difference between a refurb TN panel and a new VA panel. My vote is for the Aopen 22CV1Q.

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