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How to buy a monitor in 2020

It’s one of the trickiest components to get for your PC.

Steve Dent, @stevetdent
April 28, 2020
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    It’s a confusing time to buy a monitor. Folks take it for granted that their TV is going to come with features like 4K and HDR, but that’s not at all the case for monitors. Models vary widely by features and price, so you have to make some important decisions.

    For instance, are you using a monitor for content creation, entertainment or business? Do you need millions or billions of colors? Is HDR important, and if so, how bright a display do you need? How important is color accuracy? What range (gamut) of colors do you need for your projects?

    That’s already a lot to know, and I won’t even be delving into gaming monitors here. However, if you know what you’re using your monitor for and how much you want to spend, then you’re already well ahead of the curve. We’re here to help you sort out the rest of the nitty gritty and choose the best monitor for your budget and needs.

    The basics

    Resolution

    It’s great to have a 4K monitor (or 5K or even 8K), but you’ll need a reasonably powerful PC to go with it. Otherwise, you might be better off with a 1080p or 1440p display.

    Who needs a 4K monitor? If you’re a content creator, especially a video pro, a 4K monitor is a must these days. I’d get at least a 27-inch 4K display and preferably a 32-inch model. With anything smaller, you won’t notice much difference between a 1440p model. On the other hand, I wouldn’t get a model larger than 27 inches unless it’s 4K, as you’ll start to see pixelation and won’t benefit from the extra size.

    When it comes to gaming, FPS players should probably stick with 1080p or 1440p because frame rates can drop substantially at 4K unless you have a really powerful PC. However, if you play less demanding games that look beautiful, a 4K display might be more appropriate. For watching streaming movies, a 4K HDR display is preferable if you can afford one.

    Screen size and shape

    The majority of monitors come in a 16:9 aspect ratio, and if you work in video, that’s a good thing. However, there are some other options, most notably ultrawide 21:9, curved and 16:10. Size-wise, monitors keep getting bigger, with 32- to 34-inch sizes now relatively common. In general, bigger is better, so long as you’re scaling the resolution with the size.

    Aspect ratio is also important because it can confuse buyers as to the true size of a monitor. For instance, a 30-inch superwide 21:9 monitor is the same height as a 24-inch model, so you might end up with a smaller display than you expected. A good way to make sure you get the right size is to choose a 16:9 size you like and add 25 percent for a 21:9 monitor. So if you’re good with a 27-inch 16:9 screen, then you’ll probably want a 34-inch superwide display.  

    HDR

    We can broadly divide monitors into HDR and non-HDR models. On a basic level, HDR is a standard that improves monitor brightness, contrast and color range over regular models. It has the potential to punch up movies and graphics in a more noticeable way than the resolution boost offered by 4K.

    For TVs and projectors, consumers are mostly concerned with what kind of HDR their set supports, whether it’s HDR 10, HDR 10+ or Dolby Vision (that’s another discussion). Regardless of which type of HDR TV you choose, though, you can be sure it meets minimum standards for contrast, color gamut and bit depth (10 bits), while having reasonable brightness levels. 

    However, most PC monitors support HDR 10 only (though two recent models support Dolby Vision) and most can’t reach the required 1,000 nits of brightness, so other features and specifications are more important. Until late last year, there was no set baseline for HDR monitors, other than that they need to be bright, high contrast and color rich. 

    Luckily, that all changed when VESA unveiled the DisplayHDR standard in 2017. At the time, there were three certification levels, DisplayHDR 400, 600 and 1000, with the number referring to the maximum brightness level in nits. 

    In 2019, VESA updated the spec to DisplayHDR CTS 1.1, with multiple new performance tiers. Those now include DisplayHDR 400, 500, 600, 1000 and 1400, along with 400 True Black and 500 True Black. Again, the numbers refer to the maximum brightness level in nits on certain tests. The new standard also requires active dimming, with more demanding tests for luminance and color accuracy. 

    Refresh rate

    Even if you’re not into gaming, refresh rate is still an important feature. A bare minimum nowadays is 60Hz, and 80Hz refresh rates and up are much easier on the eyes. However, most 4K displays top out at 60Hz with some rare exceptions. Also, the HDMI 2.0 spec only supports 4K at 60Hz, so you’d need at least DisplayPort 1.4 (4K at 120Hz). HDMI 2.1 supports 4K at up to 120Hz, but no video cards exist to support it.

    Inputs

    There are essentially two types of modern input: DisplayPort and HDMI. Most monitors will come with both, matching the outputs on a desktop PC, while a select few (typically built for Macs) will use Thunderbolt. If you’re monitor shopping for a laptop with no HDMI or DisplayPort, USB-C and Thunderbolt support DisplayPort natively, a DisplayPort to USB-C cable or dongle is the way to go.

    Panel type

    The cheapest monitors are still TN, which are strictly for gaming or office use. VA-type monitors are also relatively cheap, while offering good brightness and high contrast ratios. However, content creators will probably want an IPS LCD display that delivers better color accuracy, image quality and viewing angles.

    If maximum brightness is important, a quantum dot LCD display is the way to go. OLED monitors are coming soon, too, though they’re not widely available yet. Those have the best blacks and color reproduction but lack the brightness of quantum dot displays — and cost a lot. 

    The new panel on the block is MiniLED. It’s similar to quantum dot tech, but as the name suggests, it uses smaller LED diodes that are just 0.2mm in diameter. As such, manufacturers can pack in up to three times more LEDs, delivering deeper blacks and better contrast. 

    Color bit depth

    Serious content content creators should consider a more costly 10-bit monitor that can display billions of colors. If budget is an issue, you can go for an 8-bit panel that can fake billions of colors via dithering (often spec’d as “8-bit + FRC”). For entertainment or business purposes, a regular 8-bit monitor that can display millions of colors will be fine.

    Color gamut

    The other aspect of color is the gamut. That expresses the range of colors that can be reproduced and not just the number of colors. Most good monitors these days can cover the sRGB and Rec.709 gamuts (designed for photos and video respectively). For more demanding work, though, you’ll want one that can reproduce more demanding modern gamuts like AdobeRGB, DCI-P3 and Rec.2020 gamuts, which encompass a wider range of colors. 

    Engadget picks

    Best monitor under $200

    AOC 24V2H

    AOC monitor
    AOC

    The AOC 24V2H 21.5-inch panel is more about quality and design than size. While relatively petite, it has a tasteful three-sided frameless design, along with a 1080p IPS panel with a punchy image and wide viewing angles. That’ll make it good for watching movies, but it’s also not a bad gaming display thanks to a five-millisecond response time and decent 75Hz refresh rate. Best of all is the price: just $105.

    Buy AOC 24V2H at B&H — $105


    Best monitor under $300

    BenQ PD2500Q

    BenQ monitor
    BenQ

    If you’re looking to break into design on the cheap, BenQ’s $299 PD2500Q is a top choice. It offers 2,560 x 1,440 resolution with a 25-inch true 8-bit IPS panel that covers 100 percent of the sRGB space. At the same time, you get factory calibrated Technicolor-certified color accuracy, slim bezels, an anti-glare finish and HDMI/DisplayPort inputs for compatibility with most PCs or Macs.

    Buy BenQ PD2500Q at B&H — $300


    Best monitor under $400

    ASUS PB287

    ASUS PB287
    ASUS

    This is a rich category with seemingly limitless choices, but I’m going to go with the ASUS PB287Q 28-inch 4K monitor here. For what it offers, including 4K (3,840 x 2,160) resolution, a one millisecond refresh time, 60Hz refresh rate and a billion colors (8-bit + FRC TN panel), it’s incredibly cheap at $370. It’s also reasonably bright at 300 nits and can even flip around 90 degrees to do casual print work. Overall, this would make a great entertainment and casual gaming display. 

    Buy ASUS PB287Q at B&H — $373


    Best monitors under $500

    HP Pavilion 32 QHD

    HP Pavilion 32 QHD
    HP

    If size is important, HP’s Pavilion 32 QHD 32-inch monitor might be a good fit. While it offers 1440p 60Hz rather than 4K resolution, you still get an 8-bit + FRC VA panel with decent color accuracy and a good 3,000:1 static contrast ratio. Most critically, it gives you tons of screen real estate, so it’s particularly well suited to watching movies or YouTube videos, and all for $399.

    Buy HP Pavilion 32 QHD at B&H — $400


    LG 27UK650-W

    LG 27UK650-W 
    LG

    For HDR on the cheap, take LG’s 27-inch 27UK650-W 4K HDR monitor. It offers specs usually found on much more expensive models, like 4K resolution, DisplayHDR 400 compatibility (350 nits average brightness), 8-bit + FRC color support and 99 percent sRGB color gamut coverage. At just $400, it would make a great monitor for entertainment and some casual content creation work.

    Buy LG 27UK650-W at B&H — $400


    Dell UltraSharp 27 UP2716D

    Dell UltraSharp 27 UP2716D
    Dell

    If you’re a content creator looking to eke the most out of a limited budget, take a look at Dell’s UP2716D. Sure, it’s nearly five years old, with resolution that tops out at just 2,560 x 1,440 (60Hz) and it doesn’t support HDR. But it delivers billions of colors thanks to an 8-bit + FRC display, offers great color accuracy with Delta E < 2 and covers 98 percent of the challenging DCI-P3 color gamut. You can also flip it 90 degrees for print work and, best of all, you can pick it up for just $499 — not bad, considering it was almost double that when it came out in 2015.

    Buy Dell UltraSharp 27 UP2716D at B&H — $500


    Best monitors under $700

    Dell UltraSharp 27 U2720Q

    Dell UltraSharp 27 U2720Q
    Dell

    Dell’s 27-inch, 4K U2720Q IPS monitor offers 4K HDR performance for a decent price. It conforms to the DisplayHDR 400 spec while offering 10-bits of color and 99 percent sRGB coverage, with a Delta E color accuracy of less than two out of the box. So this is a good monitor for HDR movies and doing some graphics chores, particularly HDR video work — all for under $600.

    Buy Dell UltraSharp 27 U2720Q at Dell — $580


    BenQ PD3200U

    BenQ PD3200U
    BenQ

    For under $700, there are a lot of good options for content creators. BenQ’s 4K PD3200U is a good example. For $700, you get a 10-bit IPS panel that covers 100 percent of the sRGB and Rec. 709 color spaces, with a factory Delta E calibration of less than three — meaning it’s ready for your video- or photo-editing chores right out of the box.

    Buy BenQ PD3200U at B&H — $700


    Best monitor for Mac users

    LG Ultrafine 4K and 5K

    LG Ultrafine 5K
    LG

    Apple’s $5,000 Pro Display XDR is much too rich for most of us, so the next most logical option is LG’s $1,300 Ultrafine 5K display, also sold on Apple’s Store. With a 27-inch 5K panel, you not only get very high resolution but also 500 nits of brightness (albeit, without HDR capability). It’s color-accurate out of the box, making it great for video- and photo-editing work on a Mac or MacBook. Finally, it supports Thunderbolt 3 with daisy chaining and power delivery, all of which is very useful for Mac users.

    If that model is too much, you can also consider LG’s 24-inch Ultrafine 4K. For nearly half the price ($700), it offers many of the same features (including the powered and daisy-chained Thunderbolt ports, color accuracy and more) in a smaller size and with just a bit less resolution.

    Buy LG Ultrafine 5K at Apple — $1300

    Buy LG Ultrafine 4K at Apple — $700


    Best ultrawide monitor

    ViewSonic VP3481

    ViewSonic VP3481
    ViewSonic

    Ultrawide 21:9 monitors, while not everyone’s jam, are a great option if you’re considering dual monitors for photo work, flight sims or financial work. The best all around model is Viewsonic’s VP3481, which can do all three jobs with aplomb for just $699. It’s HDR capable with up to 400 nits of brightness, covers up to 99 percent of the sRGB space and is factory calibrated for accurate colors. At the same time, it has a 100Hz refresh rate and AMD FreeSync support, making it a great display for game design.

    Buy ViewSonic VP3481 at B&H — $700


    Best luxury monitor for creators

    ASUS ProArt PA32UCX

    ASUS ProArt PA32UCX
    ASUS

    Remember when I said there were just two monitors that support Dolby Vision HDR? The ASUS ProArt PA32UCX mini-LED monitor is one of those (the ASUS ProArt PQ22UC OLED is the other), and it’s a game-changer for content creators. With Dolby Vision, colorists and other creative pros can do end-to-end HDR encoding in all major formats used by Netflix and other services. That can be done on DaVinci Resolve 16, for instance, provided you’re willing to pay Dolby a license fee.

    The PA32UCX has other top-notch specs for HDR editing, too. It meets VESA’s CTI 1.1 HDR1000 standard and can pump out an incredible 1,400 nits thanks to the quantum dot display with an 1,152-zone mini-LED backlight, arranged in a 48x24 array (that compares to just 384 zones on most high-end QLED displays). While it’s not quite on par with OLED in terms of deep blacks, it’s getting closer and is much brighter than any OLED display.

    It also offers 10-bit native color depth and 89 percent coverage of the difficult-to-reproduce Rec.2020 VESA standard. That means it’ll easily cover the DCI-P3 standard required for video editing nowadays, letting talented colorists get the most out of RAW and 10-bit video footage. Colors are supremely accurate straight out of the box, with a delta-E of less than one, better than any other display in this category, by far.

    The drawback here is the $3,999 price, but that’s actually a relative bargain compared to some professional displays. Should you need most of the features of the PA32UCX but can’t afford the price, a good alternative is the ASUS ProArt PA32UC. For $1,400, it also covers the DCI-P3 and Rec2020 color gamuts but does so at “just” 95 and 85 percent. The downside is less impressive brightness, but still peaks at 1,000 nits. Also, ASUS will soon sell a smaller 27-inch version of the PA32UCX, the PA27UCX.

    Buy ASUS ProArt PA32UCX at B&H — $4000

    Buy ASUS ProArt PA32UC at B&H — $1393


    Best 8K display

    Dell UltraSharp 32 UP3218K

    Dell UltraSharp 32 UP3218K
    Dell

    Faster than we think, 8K video will be upon us, so you might be pondering an 8K monitor to stay ahead of the curve. Dell’s UP3218K is part of its UltraSharp lineup for creators, so it not only delivers 8K (7,680 x 4,320) 60p resolution but other nice pro features, too. 

    The 10-bit native IPS panel delivers 400 nits of brightness, though the UP3218K isn’t an HDR monitor. It also delivers 1.07 billion colors and covers 98 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut, with a Delta E of less than two out of the box. It’s also one of the few monitors that flips around 90 degrees, making it good for portrait photo work. 

    This monitor isn’t cheap either at $3,500 (8K monitors are still very rare), but Dell’s UP3216Q 4K monitor has most of the features for less than half the price ($1,440 at Dell). It’s not quite as bright at 350 nits and covers just 87 percent of the DCI-P3 gamut, but it offers 1.07 billion colors and is just as precise for color correction out of the box.

    Buy Dell UltraSharp 32 UP3218K at B&H — $3500

    Buy Dell UtraSharp 32 UP3216Q at Dell — $1440

    All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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