The monitor you're using right now might have come bundled with your desktop PC, or maybe you bought it back when 1,024 by 768 was considered "high resolution." Since you spend a huge part of every day looking at your screen, it pays to be picky when buying a new one—this is technology you buy that you'll stay with for years to come. And nowadays, you get a lot for your monitor money. Even many low-end panels utterly blow away models from a decade ago.
The Basics: Pricing, Panel Types, and More
Regardless of the type of monitor you're in the market for, some general factors are worth considering. Here's a rundown of the key areas to keep in mind.
What Are the Price Ranges for Different Monitor Types?
Monitor prices depend on the target audience, size, and features of the display. For $100 or less, you can pick up a no-frills 22-inch or 23-inch model, but don't expect niceties such as a wide variety of ports and a height-adjustable stand at this price. But these panels do use LED backlighting, require little power, and are often bright. Performance is adequate for most entertainment or basic business and productivity purposes, but not well suited to tasks where color and grayscale accuracy are key.
At the other end of the spectrum are your high-end models that are geared toward graphic design professionals and photographers. Most of these are 27-inch to 38-inch panels that support 4K resolution (3,840 by 2,160 pixels), capable of displaying four times the resolution of a typical full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel, or "1080p") monitor. Moreover, they offer such features as a highly adjustable stand, a range of ports including HDMI, DisplayPort, and USB (often including USB-C), and a wealth of advanced image settings, including in some cases calibration hardware and software. Expect to pay $1,000 and up for a fully loaded, high-performance 4K or Ultra-High-Definition (UHD) monitor like this. Top-of-the-line professional monitors, some packing up to 6K resolution (around 6,000 horizontal pixels), generally cost between $2,000 and $6,000.
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Bottom line: Be prepared to pay for extras, but don't overspend on features you will never use.
What Size Monitor Do I Need?
Desktop computer monitors generally fall between 19 and 38 inches, although for those with extra-large desks, ultrawide displays in sizes up to 49 inches are also available. (The smallest monitors, apart from some specialty displays such as ones intended for use with a Raspberry Pi, are USB-connected portable displays meant primarily for mobile use.) The size of the panel is measured diagonally.
While it's always nice to have as big a viewing area as possible, it may not be practical, given your desktop-space constraints. Plus, the bigger the screen, the more you can expect to pay. A 24-inch monitor is a good choice if you wish to view multi-page documents or watch movies but have limited desk space and a tight budget. But there's nothing like watching a movie or playing a game on a large screen, so if you have room on your desktop, a 27-inch or larger display delivers a big-screen experience for a reasonable price. If space is not an issue, consider a massive, curved-screen model to bring a true movie-theater experience to your desktop.
If you're looking to replace a dual-monitor setup with a single display, check out one of the ultra-wide, big-screen models. They are available in panel sizes ranging from 29 to 49 inches with curved and non-curved panels, have a 21:9 or 32:9 aspect ratio, and come in a variety of resolutions, including Wide Quad High-Definition (WQHD, or 2,560 by 1,440 pixels) and UHD. Some of these are productivity-focused, while others are decidedly gaming panels. (More on the latter later.)
Do I Need a Low Pixel Response Rate?
Measured in milliseconds (ms), pixel response rate is the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white (black-to-white response time) or to transition from one shade of gray to another (gray-to-gray response time). The faster the pixel response rate, the better the monitor is at displaying video without also displaying artifacts, such as ghosting or blurring of moving images. Monitors with a fast 1ms (gray-to-gray) pixel response are very good for gaming, but even monitors with a slower 6ms (gray-to-gray) pixel response can display games without much blurring or ghosting.
Most users won't notice input lag, which is the time it takes for the display to react to a command, but hard-core gamers consider this a key factor when choosing a monitor and typically seek out the fastest models available. The fastest monitor we've seen has a lag time of less than a millisecond, but for everyday use, you can get by with up to around 25ms before lag becomes a problem.
Which Monitor Resolution Is Best for What I Do?
The native resolution is the maximum number of pixels a monitor can display, both horizontally and vertically. For example, a monitor with a 1,920-by-1,080-pixel native resolution can display 1,920 pixels across the width of the screen, and 1,080 pixels from top to bottom. The higher the resolution, the more information can be displayed on the screen.
These days, many monitors in the 22-to-27-inch range have a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels and are referred to as full HD or 1080p monitors. You'll also see plenty of displays from 24 to 32 inches that offer a WQHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) native resolution. Stepping up to a UHD or 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) monitor usually means a 27-inch or larger screen, although we have seen a few 24-inch UHD models. UHD monitors are ideal for viewing highly detailed images or looking at multiple pages in a tiled or side-by-side format.
Which Major Features Should I Look for in a Monitor?
If you have to share a monitor with a co-worker or family members, consider a model with an ergonomic stand that lets you position the screen for your most comfortable viewing angle. A fully adjustable stand offers tilt, swivel, and height adjustments, and you can rotate the panel for portrait-mode viewing. If you tend to attach and detach USB devices often, look for a monitor with built-in USB ports. Ideally, at least two of these ports will be mounted on the side of the cabinet, making it easy to plug in thumb drives and other USB peripherals.
Most monitors come with built-in speakers that are adequate for everyday use but lack the volume and bass response that music aficionados and gamers crave. If audio output is important, look for speakers with a minimum rating of 2 watts per speaker. As a general rule, the higher the power rating, the more volume you can expect, so if you want a monitor with a little extra audio pop, check the specs. Some monitors lack speakers altogether, but you can add external speakers that may give you better sound than typical monitor speakers.
Finally, glossy-surfaced screens can provide very bright, crisp colors, but they may also be too reflective for some users. If possible, compare a glossy screen to a matte screen before you buy to decide which works best for you.
What Are the Different Kinds of Monitor Panels?
The key panel types used in desktop displays are twisted nematic (TN), in-plane switching (IPS), vertical alignment (VA), patterned vertical alignment (PVA), Super PVA (S-PVA), and multi-domain vertical alignment (MVA).
Up until the last few years, most desktop displays used TN technology. It is the least-expensive panel type to manufacture, and it offers superior motion-handling performance. But affordable IPS monitors are out in force; 27-inch IPS models start at under $150 and offer very good color quality and wide viewing angles. VA monitors also offer robust colors, but viewing-angle performance, while better than on a typical TN panel, is not quite as sharp as what you get from an IPS panel.
Here in 2020, you'd be hard-pressed to find a desktop monitor that does not deliver at least a full HD image. To achieve this minimal mark, the panel must have a native resolution of at least 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, in a 16:9 aspect ratio to do it without stretching or cropping the picture. Graphic-design professionals who require a high degree of image detail should be looking further up the resolution stack, for a WQHD or UHD monitor.
We're now seeing monitors that make use of quantum dot technology to offer superior color accuracy, an increased color gamut, and a higher peak brightness than what you get with current panel technologies. Mini-LED is a technology in which thousands of tiny LEDs are arranged in a matrix, and are brightened and dimmed in small groups as the signal changes. Another new wave of monitors features organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology, which promises ultra-high contrast ratios, true blacks, and a super-fast pixel response. OLEDs have been slow to take hold in the market, largely due to their hefty price.
For laptop users who require dual-screen capabilities, a portable monitor might be a better fit than a full-size desktop panel. These lightweight devices use your PC's USB port (most recent models employ USB-C) as their source for power and to receive video. They are ideal for small office presentations and for extending your laptop's screen real estate, and their slim profile makes them easy to travel with. For less than $200, you can get a 15-inch model that will let you double your viewing area while on the road. (See how we test monitors.)
What Are the Main Categories of Monitor?
You can classify most monitors in one of five categories, all of which target different audiences: Budget, Business/Professional, Touch-Screen, General-Use/Multimedia, and Gaming. Prices vary within each category, depending on the panel technology used, the size of the display, and features.
If you're looking for a basic monitor for viewing emails, surfing the web, and displaying office applications, there's no reason to overspend on one with features you'll never use. Budget displays are usually no-frills models that lack niceties such as USB ports, card readers, and built-in webcams. Some cheaper models use TN panel technology and are not known for their performance attributes, particularly when it comes to motion handling and grayscale accuracy. That said, IPS panels have become commonplace in the budget zone at each screen size.
Don't expect much in the way of flexibility. Most budget displays are supported by a rigid stand that may provide tilt adjustment but probably won't offer height and pivot adjustments. As with nearly all displays, costs will rise along with panel size. You can buy a simple 24-inch panel starting at around $100, while budget 27-inch screens can be had for less than $150.
This category includes a wide variety of monitor types, from small-screen, energy-conscious "green" models for everyday office use to high-end, high-priced, 32-inch-and-up professional-grade displays that use indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) or advanced high-performance in-plane switching (AH-IPS) panel technology and cater to graphics professionals who require a high degree of color and grayscale accuracy. Business monitors usually offer ergonomic stands that can be adjusted for maximum comfort. Very often, they will offer pivot adjustability, which lets you rotate the screen 90 degrees for viewing in portrait mode. Look for a monitor with an auto-rotate feature that flips the image for you when you change the orientation. Other business-centric features include a generous (three-year) warranty with an overnight exchange service, built-in USB ports, and an aggressive recycling program.
A fully loaded model with a high-end panel is going to cost plenty, but for photographers and other graphics pros, it is money well spent. At the other end of the price spectrum are no-frills, energy-efficient monitors; they don't offer much in the way of features, but their low-power characteristics can help businesses save money through reduced energy costs. (For more, check out our guide to the best business monitors.)
Touch-screen desktop displays have gained some traction, but mostly in vertical markets. You'll pay a bit more for touch-screen technology, but it's worth it if you care about the Windows touch experience. Look for a model equipped with a stand that lets you position the panel so that it is almost parallel with your desktop, if you need that kind of interaction. (Some touch models are designed without a stand, meant to be integrated into a specific environment with a custom stand or arm.)
More common than true desktop touch screens, though, are portable touch-screen monitors, both for general-purpose use and for graphic artists, (See our guide to portable monitors.)
General Use/Multimedia Monitors
Multimedia displays typically offer a nice selection of features to help you create and view home photo and video projects. A good panel of this kind will usually provide a variety of connectivity options, primary among them HDMI, DisplayPort, and DVI; robust entertainment-class models will also include audio connections. At least two USB ports should be available, preferably mounted on the side of the cabinet for easy access; a USB Type-C port that lets you charge, say, a laptop from your monitor while permitting two-way data transfer is another big plus.
The monitor may also have built-in speakers. On a good multimedia panel, they should be a cut above the typical low-powered versions found on most monitors. As mentioned earlier, if audio output is a deciding factor, look for displays with speakers rated at 2 watts or better. Less common multimedia bells and whistles to look out for include a built-in card reader, which makes it easy to view photos and video directly from your camera's media, or a built-in webcam for video chats and for taking quick stills and videos that are easy to email. (If you're a serious photographer, check out our picks in the lists above and below this article for photography-friendly displays.)
Displays for gaming require fast response times in order to display moving images without producing motion errors or artifacts. Panels with slower response times may produce blurring of fast-moving images, which can be distracting during gameplay. On smaller displays, the flaw may not be so noticeable, but when you're gaming on a screen that's 27 inches or larger, you'll want to keep blurring to a minimum. Look for a panel with a response time of 5ms (black-to-white) or 2ms (gray-to-gray) or less.
High-end gaming monitors may offer support for G-Sync (Nvidia) or FreeSync/FreeSync 2 (AMD) display technologies that reduce screen-tearing artifacts and provide an ultra-smooth gaming experience, but your computer will need a compatible dedicated graphics card to take advantage of that functionality.
A fast-emerging subcategory of gaming displays is the so-called "high-refresh" panel. Some gaming-monitor makers offer displays that feature refresh rates above the 60Hz norm. They are geared toward esports aficionados or serious competitive gamers, who will use the panels in games that run above 60 frames per second for enhanced smoothness. (Depending on the games you play, you may need a high-end video card to see the benefits of a high-refresh display; see our guide to the best graphics cards.) These high-refresh monitors are offered in various refresh intervals ranging from 75Hz to 240Hz, with 144Hz being the most common flavor. These monitors often support FreeSync or G-Sync, as well.
The ultimate gaming monitors are the 65-inch BFGD ("Big-Format Gaming Displays") whose development Nvidia has helped spearhead. These 4K giants are HDR-capable, have a peak brightness of 1,000 nits, support frame rates of 120Hz or more, and support G-Sync adaptive sync technology. The first BFGD to market was the HP Omen X Emperium 65 Big Format Gaming Display (BFGD). Only two other BFGDs have joined the Omen since we reviewed it in 2019: the Asus ROG Swift PG65UQ, and the LG OLED65E92A. The latter sports an OLED screen and is as much a smart TV as it is a monitor. Although they have been slow to appear, BFGDs remain a force to be reckoned with for gamers who can afford them.
Because audio is a big part of the immersive gaming experience, if you don't have a desktop speaker set already, consider a model with a decent speaker system. (Most in-monitor speakers are middling at best, though.) Alternately, a jack mounted on the side or the front of the cabinet for plugging in a gaming headset is practical if you tend to go the contained-sound route. A monitor with a USB hub to plug in several controllers is also desirable. (For much more, check out our guide to the best gaming monitors.)
Should I Get a 4K Monitor?
4K or UHD monitors aren't just for gamers. In fact, many prospective owners of 4K monitors are video editors or users who like to have multiple windows open side-by-side without adding a second monitor. If that's you, you don't need to look for a panel with lightning-quick response times, but you should pay attention to color gamut, contrast ratios, and size.
A 27-inch 4K monitor (these start around $350) will generally allow you to fit three full-size browser windows side by side. Go any smaller than that, and the monitor won't be as useful for multitasking.
Gamers, on the other hand, will want to look for a larger-screen 4K display compatible with fast response times and FreeSync or G-Sync compliance if their PC uses a video card that supports one or the other, since a higher resolution makes tearing even more distracting. Gaming at 4K takes a very powerful video card, however. (See our guide to the best graphics cards for 4K gaming.) 4K gaming displays also start around $350, but they can range well north of $1,000 for 32-inch or larger models with GPU adaptive syncing and IPS. (See our sub-guide to the best 4K monitors.)
So, Which Monitor Should I Buy?
Whatever your needs or budget, there's a monitor out there that's right for you. Below, check out the current best displays we've tested across the usage cases we've discussed, at various price levels.
Where To Buy
The Best For Deep-Pocketed HDR-Loving Ultrawide GamersAsus ROG Swift PG35VQ$2,480.00 at Amazon
The Best For Hardcore Gamers, Esports CompetitorsRazer Raptor 27$699.99 at Walmart
The Best For Esports Players on a BudgetViewSonic Elite XG270$429.99 at Amazon
The Best For Mac-Bound Pro Content CreatorsApple Pro Display XDR$4,949.96 at Amazon
The Best For Watching Movies, Music Videos, ConcertsBenQ EW3280U$799.99 at Amazon
The Best For Graphic Artists, Photographers, Video EditorsDell UltraSharp 27 4K PremierColor (UP2720Q)$1,999.99 at Dell Technologies
The Best For Photo and Video EditingHP Pavilion 32 QHD 32-Inch Display$379.99 at HP
The Best For Business TravelersLenovo ThinkVision M14$249.00 at Lenovo
The Best For Graphic Designers, Photographers, EngineersLenovo ThinkVision P32u-10$944.00 at Newegg
The Best For Extreme MultitaskersLG 49WL95C-W$1,279.00 at Amazon