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Buying guide: The best computer display

James Galbraith | Aug. 6, 2014
There's a lot to consider when purchasing a new display: size, resolution, performance, and of course, price. If you're in the market to buy a new display for your computer, we're here to help you decipher the specifications and let you know what features to look for and what you can ignore.

4K today: A resolution revolution is taking place in the desktop monitor market. Ultra high definition displays, also known as 4K displays, have come down in price and are now within the budgetary reach of many consumers. These UHD displays boast 3840 by 2160 pixels — 4 times as many pixels as a 1080 HD monitor.

A lot of horsepower is needed to drive these UHD displays and Apple's 4K support extends only to recent MacBook Pros and the new Mac Pros. OS X 10.9.3 dramatically improves the look of UHD monitors running in both native and scaled resolution modes, but many applications are still not optimized. At full resolution mode, icons and menu text are tiny. You can increase text size and icon size easily enough, but many times I found my aging eyes squinting at itty-bitty text. 4K support on PC graphics cards is more common and Windows 8.1 does a good job of displaying its icons, menus and other screen elements at reasonable sizes, regardless of the resolution setting.

Unfortunately, many of the affordable 4K displays that use cheaper components to keep the price down suffer from narrow viewing angles and muted colors.

Connection types: While many monitors still include an analog VGA connection, digital is the best way to connect your display. All LCD displays are digital and using a VGA connection requires a digital to analog conversion to transmit the signal over the cable and then a second conversion in the display. These conversions can cause noise and give an overall soft appearance.

Your best bet is to use a digital connection like DVI, HDMI or DisplayPort. For high resolution displays, you need to use dual link DVI. HDMI has become ubiquitous, used for TVs, gaming consoles, and desktop monitors. HDMI 1.4 only supports 4K resolutions at low refresh rates; the newer HDMI 2.0 is required to reach 60Hz. DisplayPort supports 4K, but this connection is not as common as HDMI.

Anti-glare or glossy: Many companies, Apple included, like the look of images on a glossy screens. They give photographic images more depth and help make darks areas of photos look darker. The downside of a glossy screen, is of course, reflection and glare.

Take a look at your working environment. If you work with your back to a window or bright light source, you can either try and move your desk, or skip the glossy screen. Manufacturers have made progress towards making glossy screens with less glare, but they still reflect more than a matte, anti-glare screen. I prefer matte screens in my many-windowed workspace.

IPS: In-Plane Switching (IPS) changes how the liquid crystal molecules in an LCD display line up in the panel. Compared to twisted nematic (TN) LCDs, IPS panels have much wider viewing angles and offer better color reproduction. IPS-based monitors are also more expensive than TN-based monitors, so you'll need to balance price with quality.


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