Ok, so I spent the last week - yes week - shopping for a monitor. I'm still not done yet, I have a new yet crappy monitor on my desk and a hopefully better monitor on its way through the UPS chain of demand. When it gets here I'll set them both in a pit with a chainsaw and a sledgehammer and whoever survives gets to be my digital eyesore for the next five or so years.
But that's all still in the future. For now the buying process is over and that's what I'm going to write about, mostly as notes to myself for the next time I have to do this. Next time will probably be 5 years into the future (I seem to chew through monitors at 5 year intervals) and everything will be different. We will probably be piping images directly into our heads through fiber optic cables patched into our craniums (actually, wasn't that supposed to happen 20 years ago? Shadowrun lies!), but just in case things remain relatively the same, here is what caused me to buy what I bought. First though.
How I fucked up.
Five or so years ago I had a beautiful 24 inch Samsung monitor with 1900 x 1200 resolution which I absolutely loved until it died. It also happened to die at a time when I was short on cash so instead of following my philosophy of always buying better when it comes to replacing parts of my computer, I played it cheap and bought a 23 inch ASUS LED/LCD with a 1900 x 1080 resolution. It was actually a pretty good monitor, except that it was smaller (never did a missing 120 vertical pixels seem like so much) and it had uneven saturation from top to bottom. Because of the LED backlighting the top of the screen tended to be oversaturated while the bottom was washed out. This is not a problem for most, but I enjoy fooling about with the graphic arts and it has annoyed me ever since.
So one thing leads to another, I get my hands on a high end graphic card and decide to splurge on a dual monitor system (ok, it's a bit more complex than that, but the details are pointless). I go to newegg.com (still the best place to buy electronics on the internet, btw) and buy what seems to be an updated version of the monitor I used to love, the SAMSUNG S24C450BW. In many ways it is, and in some ways it is even better (excellent stand and frame). Unfortunately, the screen itself is supersaturated in suckiness and toggling its controls only makes the image worse. The colors are off and they shift up and down the spectrum as you lean from side to side. Text is grainy. And there is nothing actually "wrong" with the monitor. This is just the way it was made. Thankfully Newegg has a 30 day return policy, so I hit the internet with a vengeance and learned as much as I could to find a decent monitor for under $300. Here's what I learned....
Panels Are Important
Everything about the Samsung monitor points towards a good to pretty good monitor except for a small detail only mentioned in the owners manual, it's a TN panel. TN stands for "twisted nematic" and it is a technology which back in the 90's made LCD's available for the common consumer. Since then a heaping handful of technologies have come along to supersede it and with good reason. TN panels are terrible. They are the worst LCD's, and yet they are still quite common because they are so cheap to manufacture and people keep buying them because the price is right.
As a general rule of thumb, if the monitor description does not tell you what kind of panel it is using then it is using a TN panel and best avoided.
MVA stands for Multi-domain Verticle Alignment. This was TN's first big replacement. It had better color depth and a crisper picture but it also had color shifting problems and slow refresh rate (which causes ghosting when graphics move about too quickly). There are a whole bunch of these ending with MVA (P-MVA, A-MVA, S-MVA, etc), but since they are on the way out I skipped them
IPS is the current reigning champ and that stands for In Plane Switching. Like MVA it comes in many flavors starting with your basic IPS, then moving up to S-IPS, then AH-IPS, AS-IPS, IPS-PRO, and PLS. PLS being an IPS panel made by Samsung, who just decided to be different.
Basically, the more letters sandwiched into the acronym the better it is supposed to perform. This of course, might just be more of the hype which monitors are slathered in. I have yet to see honest proof than one IPS is significantly better than another. Most just seem to say that so long as the monitor is an IPS and not a TN or MVA then you should be good.
Contrast Ratios are a Crock
The Samsung monitor had a 1,000:1 contrast ratio. The Asus monitor I finally bought has a 80,000,000:1 contrast ratio. Stunning difference right? Well, apparently no one can agree on the baseline of blackness to measure contrast ratios against so manufacturers are free to throw in any old over the top number. Personally, I wouldn't go less than 1000:1, but I wouldn't go out of my way for a high contrast ratio either.
16.7 Million Colors Makes an Awesome Crayola Box
Here you can get into some crazy math surrounding bit depth and pixel density, but I won't torture you with that. Colors tend to come in three different groupings:
256 Thousand - okay to good colors.
16.7 Million - good to pretty good.
1.07 Billion - fantastic colors.
16.7 Million has since become the standard. 1.07 Billion is used by graphics professionals but will also cost you and arm an a leg. 256 Thousand or less? Life is too short for such ugliness.
All Stands Suck
Every review board I wandered across was riddled with people complaining about flimsy monitor stands, so much so that I think this is just the norm. Ironically enough, the stand on the Samsumg monitor is one of the best I've ever encountered.
All Controls Suck
Same goes for the set controls. No one ever seems to get these things right. Once again the Samsung gets points for including software which lets you set them from inside your computer (too bad adjusting the controls only make it go from bad to worse).
Bigger is not always Better
This goes against the American way, but it's totally true. The greater the resolution and the smaller the screen size the better the picture will be. The reason for this is Pixel Pitch, and as a general rule of thumb you do not want a pixel pitch larger than 0.28mm. Not without good reason.
For a while I was thinking about getting a 27 inch monitor, one of the cheap ones with a 1900x1080 resolution. Then I went over to Worst Buy to look at them in person and there I noticed the problem with their .31mm pixel pitch standard. The view is nice if your sitting across the room playing games on the couch. It's terribly chunky and scuzzy if you're sitting across from it at a desk.
Think of looking at a photo in a newspaper (remember those?) If you press your nose to the page and look at a picture you'll see that its made of tiny dots, pull back and it becomes a picture, increase the size of the dots on the page and it appears to be a bunch of dots again. This is what a large pixel pitch does. It increases the size of the pixel, ruining the picture for close up viewing.
If you truly have your heart set on a 27 inch monitor for your desk. Make sure it has a 2560 x 1440 resolution and that your video card can support it (most run of the mill cards cannot).
You Get What You Pay For
Also, be careful around cheap, high resolution 27 inch monitors from Korean companies you've never heard of (Crossfire, Qnix, Yamakasi, etc...) It's believed that most of these are recyclers who resell large panel monitors made for Apple that did not make the grade. They tend to sell a normal monitor and then a "pixel perfect" version which is guaranteed to not have any malfunctioning pixels. It's definitely buyer beware with these.
And it's not just the recyclers. There are deals and bargains everywhere which seem too good to be true and usually are (hint hint - TN panels). If it comes with a drastic price reduction, a promo code, and a manufacturers rebate? There's probably a reason for that and it's not one you want to step in.
Once you know you New Egg
I simply love that store. Oh yeah, and the monitor I finally did decide to buy? It's the ASUS VS24AH-P. It has a 24" monitor with 1900x1200 resolution, ISP panel, .27mm pixel pitch, 16.7 million colors, and a 5ms response time, for $240. Let's hope it rocks, and that I don't have to do this again for a very long time.