Staring down at a laptop screen for any amount of time is virtually guaranteed to cause you back pain; it’s a terrible posture and can literally cause you musculoskeletal damage. (Yes, musculoskeletal is a word, we checked). You could buy a laptop riser such as the one pictured here, (beside a real monitor), which will lift the laptop up off the desk to a more ergonomically suitable position. One example of such a stand is the Kensington Easy Riser Portable Ergonomic Laptop Cooling Stand, available on Amazon for £14.99 with free delivery for Amazon Prime members. These do help, but a far better option is a proper, discrete monitor. You don’t need a desktop PC to use a monitor; most laptops will have a DisplayPort or HDMI output, or at least a USB-C output, which can in most cases be used to connect to an external monitor.
When choosing a new monitor, you will need to decide what exactly you will be using it for. Will you only be using it for word processing or spreadsheets? Or will you be using video or music editing software? Or do you plan on playing games on your computer?
These days monitors can be very reasonably priced; you can easily get hold of a 27-inch monitor for less than £200, although we would strongly advise you to spend more if you choose to go with a monitor with a size larger than 24 inches, as at that price it will almost certainly have a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, known as 1080p or FHD (full high-definition), which will lead to a relatively poor quality of image at that size due to the density of pixels on screen combined with the fact that you will be sitting close to the monitor, far closer than you would be to a television. Bear in mind that many smartphones have resolutions of 1080p and higher, while at the same time being considerably smaller, and as such their pixel density is much higher. To get an experience akin to what Apple refer to as a “retina display”, a marketing term that basically seems to mean that the pixel density is high enough to ensure that you can’t see any evidence that the picture is actually structured from individual pixels, either due to the sight of the pixels themselves, or of jagged edges as a result of the insufficient pixel density necessary to provide the illusion of a seamless, natural image.
Size-wise, a 24 inch monitor should be more than large enough though, unless you plan on doing complex tasks with many windows open, like video editing or music production, in which case often the best solution is to have two or more monitors, or alternatively an ultra-wide monitor with a resolution of at least 1440p (or 2,560 x 1,440 – around 3.5 million pixels). This resolution is sometimes referred to as QHD or WQHD (quad high-def or wide quad high-def). We’ve included a section on ultra-wide monitors towards the end of the article.
If you’re not interested in the particulars and technicalities of monitors, you can skip a few pages to where we’ve listed a few highly recommended monitors for various use-case scenarios, but if you like to know exactly what you’ll be paying for then we’ve provided some general information on which specifications and types of monitor to look for.
Size and resolution
For general work like using Word or Excel, a 21 to 24-inch monitor with a 1080p / FHD resolution should be ample, although you can get 24-inch monitors with a 1440p resolution if you want extra clarity. You can even get monitors with a 4K resolution, or 2160p (3840 by 2160). If you were wondering, the p in the resolution (1080p, 2160p etc) refers to the fact that the image is displayed progressively – the monitor scans each line of pixels one after the other, as opposed to the defunct interlaced format that old CRT televisions used, which scanned every other line alternately to save bandwidth, enabling analogue television to be broadcast at both an acceptable resolution to present the viewer with a clear image (for the time at least), and an acceptable refresh rate to avoid flickering.
In the days when televisions were invented, there were no computers around, and certainly no frame-buffers. So, if you wanted a television to display at a refresh rate of 50 or 60Hz, television signals would have to be broadcast at the full 50 or 60Hz. Even if it was content like a sitcom or a TV drama shot on film at 30 frames per second, the telecine machine used for the transfer to television would hold each frame to be picked up by the camera twice to provide a 60Hz refresh-rate, whereas today digital compression allows far higher bandwidth signals to be broadcast, allowing incredibly high resolutions at high frame-rates.
Most YouTube videos in fact are rendered at 30 frames per second, with your TV or monitor, with its integrated scaler and frame-buffer able to double each frame to create a 60Hz image, avoiding flicker, although modern LCD and OLED panels display images in a “sample and hold” manner and as such flicker is much less of an issue than it was on old CRT TVs, in which only a proportion of the screen would be lit at any one time, with your persistence of vision doing the rest and filling in the blanks to create the image you (thought you) saw.
Annoyingly, to this day standard definition television channels and some so-called high-def (1080i – the i being for interlaced) channels are still broadcast in the interlaced format despite technology negating all need for it about 30 years ago, meaning your modern display has to de-interlace the image in order to show it… it’s a bit long to explain, but modern TVs are designed to display progressive images and are limited in brightness compared to CRT TVs, so if they were to attempt to display the image as is, by showing alternating black lines in between the alternating lines of actual content, the brightness would drop by 50% which would be very noticeable. The de-interlacing process is far from perfect and introduces imperfections into the image, but is still better than the alternative. Pictured below is a diagram showing the relative differences between different common resolutions, although bear in mind that a modern monitor will have at the very least a Full HD / 1080p resolution, and this depiction doesn’t include any ultra-wide formats.
Your monitor’s refresh-rate is another important specification that may be of importance to you. Most general-purpose monitors have a fixed 60Hz refresh rate which means that the image is updated exactly 60 times a second, or roughly every 16 milliseconds. In other words, it displays 60 frames a second. This is plenty for most purposes but if you plan on using the monitor for gaming you may want a higher refresh rate such as 72Hz, 144Hz or even higher, combined with technology such as Freesync or Nvidia G-Sync which enables the monitor to vary refresh rate on the fly to display frames as and when the graphics processor renders them, as newer games can suffer drops in frame-rate during more demanding sequences which can cause distortions or ‘artefacts’ such as stuttering or frame tearing, where the monitor, out of sync with the graphics processor, draws two or more frames on screen at the same time resulting in an obvious split on screen between the frames during motion. Even if you’re not a gamer, a high refresh-rate display will provide a silky-smooth quality to motion; once you’ve experienced a high refresh-rate display you may not want to go back to a 60Hz display.
Types of LCD panels
Modern PC monitors are, with the exception of one or two extremely expensive OLED gaming monitors, all LCD panels. However, LCDs themselves come in a few different forms. The three main types are described here.
- TN (Twisted Nematic)
These are the most common types of LCD and have a wide-range of use case scenarios. They’ve found a loyal following among gamers because they’re generally very inexpensive and have quicker response times than most other types of panel. They fall short on contrast ratios, colour reproduction and viewing angles. For most users though, they are more than sufficient.
- IPS (In Plane Switching)
These are some of the best LCD panels available, boasting superior viewing angles, great image quality, and better colour accuracy and contrast ratios than TN panels. These are often used by graphic designers, video and photo editors and anyone who requires the best possible image quality and colour reproduction.
- VA (Vertical Alignment)
This technology is often considered as a kind of happy medium between TN and IPS type panels. Their colour reproduction is far better than TN panels, as are their viewing angles, whilst their response times, while still nowhere near as fast as a TN panel, are generally still superior to IPS panels in this one regard. They are also far more affordable than IPS panels.
A few good monitors – prices and availability correct at the time of writing
We’ve listed a few monitors that provide both excellent performance and value for money (or at least excellent performance). There’s a huge selection of monitors out there, and we can’t list them all, but a few good brands to look out for are Dell, Benq, Viewsonic, Samsung, HP, LG, Asus, AOC (the monitor brand, not the insufferable US congresswoman) and Iiyama, to name but a few. Avoid the cheap no-name stuff that has increasingly appeared on Amazon recently; if you wanted to shop at AliExpress you’d go to AliExpress, not Amazon.
Dell P2419H 24 Inch 1080p 60Hz IPS monitor – £129.99 on Amazon
This excellent and reasonably priced display from American multinational Dell is an IPS type panel, considered superior for colour and contrast as mentioned above, and features a 1080p resolution and 60Hz refresh-rate – completely adequate for office work. It is also described as having anti-glare technology and a 3H hard coating to prevent scratches, and comes with a full array of ports; DisplayPort, HDMI, USB and even the archaic VGA input.
The 60Hz refresh-rate and lack of variable refresh-rate technology will put off gamers, but this is a great display for office work, and £129.99 for an IPS panel is a steal.
HP 24x 144Hz Full HD Gaming Monitor – £188.99 on Amazon
If you plan on gaming, or just enjoy the effortless and smooth cursor-action that a high-refresh-rate display provides, the HP 24x is another 24-inch 1080p resolution from a big-name American manufacturer, HP. This model is a TN panel, so you lose out on some colour accuracy and viewing angles will be slimmer, but the upshot of this is that you get a 144Hz refresh-rate, and compatibility with both AMD’s FreeSync and Nvidia’s G-Sync variable refresh-rate technology. The model has a claimed response time of 1 millisecond; ultra-fast response times reduce the input-lag that can plague gamers, especially when playing fast-action first person shooters; again, thanks to the TN type of panel this monitor uses. Bear in mind though that if you plan on gaming, you will need a PC with a decent graphics card to be able to run modern PC games at the highest presets.
Asus VP28UQG gaming monitor – £248.99 on Amazon
This 28-inch model offers a 4K / 2160p (ultra-high-definition / UHD) resolution for under £250, but
is lacking when it comes to refresh-rate, being a 60Hz panel; although it does have AMD’s Freesync technology to help with stutter and frame tearing caused by an inconsistent frame rate causing a non-variable refresh rate monitor to become out of sync with the frame-rate being output by the computer; however this technology is limited by the extent to which a monitor can vary its refresh rate – in this case only between around 40 and 60Hz. However, even the best current generation of graphics cards will only manage to render the latest AAA games in 4K at a frame-rate not much higher than 60 frames per second anyway, and 60 fps is generally considered an acceptable frame-rate by all but the most competitive gamers, so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, and again, a 28-inch, 4K monitor for under £250 is a steal. Generally, you can buy a 4K monitor for a few hundred pounds, or you can buy a high refresh rate (144Hz and above) monitor for a similar price, but if you want a monitor that has both a 4K resolution and a high refresh rate, you are looking at spending upwards of £700. A compromise is a 1440p / QHD monitor that can be bought with a high refresh rate for around £400, such as the excellent value example by respected monitor brand AOC below
AOC 31.5-inch CQ32G1 QHD FreeSync 144Hz Gaming Monitor – £324.99 on Amazon
This model, pictured right with the blazing motorcyclist racing across the screen, makes for an attractive compromise between resolution, refresh-rate and price, although its curved nature may put off some buyers, but nonetheless, at £324.99 it’s priced very competitively. Featuring a VA panel; which is itself something of a compromise between the lightning-fast response times of TN panels and the quality of colour reproduction and contrast levels of IPS panels; and both a QHD (2560 by 1440p) resolution and a 144Hz refresh-rate, with AMD’s FreeSync technology for a smoother gaming experience. If, however, you’re the type of person who’s not willing to compromise, and demands both 4K resolution and a high refresh-rate, then check out the Asus option below.
ASUS ROG Strix XG27UQ 4K 144Hz IPS Gaming Monitor – £799.99 on Amazon
If you demand the absolute best and are willing to shell out for it, the ASUS ROG Strix XG27UQ DSC; pictured here with the sword-wielding lunatic onscreen, and costing under £800 on Amazon; is a 27-inch 4K resolution (3840 by 2160), IPS, 144Hz, G-Sync compatible monster of a gaming display, with HDR (high dynamic range) to boot. HDR is a technology that allows for far greater levels of contrast, delivering eye popping colours, and is fairly commonplace on consumer televisions these days, but fairly rare on computer monitors, partly because with HDR enabled, looking at your Windows desktop can be a bit too bright, although there’s no need to worry too much about that as HDR can easily be turned off in both the monitor’s settings and on Windows, should you wish to do so. For gaming though, HDR adds hugely to the immersive experience, serving up absolutely stunning visuals when combined with the 4K resolution. Being an IPS panel – with the exceptional colour accuracy that they offer – only adds to the desirability of this top-tier display.
It should be reiterated though, running a modern AAA game at 4K in HDR requires a powerful graphics card to attain an acceptable frame rate without all manner of stuttering and slowdown.
You can upgrade a desktop tower-style Windows machine by installing a graphics card fairly easily, and we’ll discuss this further in our forthcoming articles on desktop systems, but if you have a Mac or a laptop then things will be more difficult, although you do still have options; companies such as gaming peripheral maker Razer produce casings that house a discrete graphics card externally, such as the Razer Core X Chroma, pictured here and available at computer specialists Scan.co.uk for the price of £438.98, which is somewhat extortionate when you consider the fact that you have to buy the actual graphics card separately. The Razer Core X Chroma is somewhat unashamedly aimed at gamers, although its more garish design elements and RGB lighting effects are moderated by the overall understated design of the case, and it could also find itself put to good use in video editing or other professional work, depending on the graphics card it’s paired with.
If you are a Mac user you also have the Blackmagic eGPU as an option, pictured below, which does have inbuilt graphics in the form of AMD’s Radeon Vega architecture, and will provide your MacBook Pro, or any other recent Mac, with a much needed graphics boost if you plan on running more visually demanding applications. The Blackmagic option, available on the Apple store for £599, is primarily aimed at people working in the creative industries, with Blackmagic’s website claiming that “the Blackmagic eGPU Pro has been specifically designed to address the needs of professional video editors, Hollywood colorists (sic) and visual effects artists who need to remain mobile, but want the power of a desktop class GPU added to their MacBook Pro.”
Colour accurate professional displays
For professional video editors and colourists for whom colour accuracy is of the highest importance, a professional monitor designed with such occupations in mind, and with an IPS type panelis a necessary expense, although there are cheaper options too, though inevitably compromises have to be made.
Eizo CS2740-BK 27-inch professional monitor – £1358.48 on Scan
This is exactly the kind of high-end professional monitor that a professional video or photo editor would require, with a high-grade IPS panel for exceptional colour reproduction and contrast. Available to buy from computer specialists Scan for £1358.48.
ASUS ProArt Display PA248QV 24″ Professional Monitor – £267.68 from PhotoSpecialist.co.uk
This monitor from Asus’s new ProArt range attempts to provide a high-degree of colour accuracy for professionals working in the creative industries; video / photo editing etc. whilst not costing the earth, although that itself comes at the cost of it being a TN rather than an IPS panel, meaning that despite Asus’s best efforts at calibration, it will never reach the kind of quality that a monitor such as the Eizo model above can offer.
If your workloads often involve having multiple windows open at once, or you regularly use video editing software and need a large amount of information on screen at once, an ultrawide monitor will provide you with that much needed extra “real estate”.
Samsung LS34J550WQUXEN 34″ Ultra-wide Monitor – £348.18 from Amazon
This VA type panel from South Korean behemoth Samsung, pictured above, features a 3440×1440 resolution, FreeSync with variable refresh-rate of up to 75Hz, two HDMI ports and a DisplayPort, and is available for the reasonably modest price of £348.18 from Amazon.
The Samsung is far from being the only option; the ultra-wide monitor is becoming a more and more common sight on the desks of video and photo editors, CAD designers and gamers the world over. While the above example features a flat screen, many ultra-wide displays feature curved displays to allow for a better viewing angle, and are designed to follow the curvature of the human eye, such as the Acer model below.
Acer Nitro EI491CRPbmiiipx 49-inch Ultrawide Gaming Monitor – £699.99 at Amazon
This 49-inch Ultra-wide curved gaming monitor pictured below, also a VA type panel, with a 3840 x 1080 resolution, (up to) 144Hz refresh-rate and HDR 400 capabilities is, considering the size and features, great value for money at £699.99. It also comes with AMD’s enhanced FreeSync 2 variable refresh-rate standard, a 4-millisecond claimed response-time and both DisplayPort and HDMI inputs.
monitors, these will lack the colour accuracy that a Hollywood colourist or
professional photo editor may demand, although there are options that would
suit such exacting needs.
LG 34WN80C-B Ultrawide Monitor – £581.02 from Photospecialist.co.uk
This 34-inch ultra-wide display from that other South-Korean mega-corporation LG features an IPS panel for that much needed colour accuracy, claiming to cover 99% of the sRGB colour-space used by most photo-editing software, and has a 3440 by 1440 resolution with HDR 10 capabilities. There’s not a whole lot of information on the PhotoSpecialist site so here’s the link to the model details on LG’s website.
Another way of increasing your screen “real estate” is by implementing a two or more-monitor setup. All of the current graphics cards support multiple monitor setups, with multiple outputs, and the DisplayPort interface even allows for ‘daisy-chaining’ monitors together, from a single output. An advantage to this type of setup is that you can pick two different monitors for different uses; for example, a 1080p TN panel with a high (and variable) refresh-rate for gaming, and a 4K 60Hz IPS monitor for more general needs. This option can often be less expensive than buying a single IPS monitor with both a 4K resolution and high refresh-rate – just look at the price of the ASUS ROG Strix XG27UQ DSC above, £800.77, compared with the 4K ASUS VP28UQG gaming monitor we mentioned earlier, costing £248.99, which could be combined with the Iiyama G-Master GB2760HSU-B1 144Hz 27 inch gaming monitor, costing £222.98 from Amazon, for a total cost of £471.97, not a great deal more than half the price of the ASUS ROG Strix model.
A dual-monitor setup in use
An extreme example of a multiple monitor setup; Elon Musk’s SpaceX team hard at work, presumably.
Scientists so far haven’t ruled out the possibility of the transmission of Covid-19 through laptop screens.
At the moment, while the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown has resulted in some monitors being out of stock for prolonged periods, we are still spoilt for choice, with an immense selection of monitors available on sites like Amazon, and with prices at record-lows, there has never been a better time to cough up the money for a new display.
If you plan on buying a graphics card, we will be talking about them in our next few articles in this remote-working series, where we’ll also be talking about your best options should you decide to buy a new computer entirely; laptop or desktop (yes they do still exist), Mac or Windows… the options are endless, but we’ll try and help you make sense of it all.