Guide to monitor technology: resolutions, panel types, refresh rates

Samsung 4k Teaser

Picking a monitor may feel more like art than science, but the technology behind the screen isn't hard to understand. Learning about those technologies is key to navigating the minefield of marketing buzzwords separating you from your next monitor. For example, numbers like contrast ratio and grey-to-grey response time are important, but they don’t tell the whole story—other specifications like input delay and color bit-depth are just as important. No matter how hard you look, you won’t find a monitor that can do it at all, at least not yet. There are displays suited to gaming, design work, and ultra-high resolution detail, but mixing priorities results in compromise. Fast, colorful, or high-DPI—pick any two, because there's still no monitor that quite hits every bullet point.

Our guide to the best monitors for PC gaming explains why those monitors are ideal for playing games at high resolutions and high framerates, but it doesn’t dig deep into the details of monitor technology. That’s what this guide is for: it breaks down what you need to know about modern displays: resolutions, aspect ratios, refresh rates, and the differences between panel types like IPS, VA, and TN.

Resolutions and ratios: more isn't always better

While most shoppers immediately opt for the highest pixel count they can find or afford, this isn't always the best strategy for finding an optimal display. Higher resolutions offer greater detail but as pixel counts climb, single-GPU computers begin to stumble. A low to midrange graphics card or high end integrated GPU may technically support 1440p or higher, but actually using that resolution to do anything other than office work or low-end gaming is an exercise in frustration. LCD displays have a native resolution, and running games (or the desktop) below that resolution degrades image quality due to the scaling process of enlarging the image. Using lower resolution modes isn't really a substitute for picking the right number of pixels in the first place. Don't bite off more than your graphics card can chew. What this means, practically speaking, is that each resolution currently has a specific best use.

Picking the perfect pixel count: from 720p to 4K

At the bottom of the resolution ladder sits 720p, or 1280x720, which isn't suitable for much these days besides occasional gaming past your GPU's ability. Games that run poorly at higher resolutions have a reasonable chance of running in a visually degraded state at this size. That's not much of a feature, but it's something.

The next step up, 1080p, runs at 1920x1080 and is the resolution most people are familiar with. These displays are the workhorses of the PC world and do fairly well at most tasks. The higher pixel count results in a reasonably sharp display at 24 inches and smaller sizes while offering excellent performance with most graphics cards and high-end integrated GPUs. Screen sizes over 24 inches aren’t great for 1080p, as the lowered pixel density on those larger screens makes for a not-so-sharp image.

Multi-monitor setups are well suited to this resolution, as a trio of higher density displays can embarrass even a pair of top-shelf graphics cards. For many, a 1080p multi-monitor arrangement is a better pick than a single expensive high-resolution display due to the flexibility and productivity advantages it affords. Surround-screen gaming is pretty awesome too, especially when bezels are small enough to place panels edge-to-edge without distraction. There's also 1920x1200, which offers a bit more vertical screen space and is a great resolution, but fewer and fewer monitors are being made in this 16:10 aspect ratio as 16:9 has become the standard.

Mordor monitor Screen 2

Cinemascope computing

Ultra Widescreen displays, with a native size of 2560x1080, are often overlooked but may represent the best combination of resolution and size for gamers today. Running in a movie-like 21:9 cinemascope aspect ratio at 29 inches to 32 inches, these screens offer a reasonable 30 percent more pixels than 1080p, which matches the increased performance from newer GPUs almost exactly (although LG's 34UM95 offers a GPU-busting 3440x1440 for 21:9 users seeking more pixel real estate). This means newer graphics cards will drive these displays just as swiftly as the previous generation pushed 1080p, and multi-GPU setups aren't required for excellent performance. Moreover, the wider shape provides a more immersive experience in 3D games, mimicking a full field of vision closely without the bezel interruptions of multi-monitor setups. Not even 4K screens can offer this, due to the standard 16:9 widescreen implementations they use.

Ultra Widescreen has a few drawbacks. For productivity, more vertical resolution is advised, and due to the uncommon nature of 2560x1080 panels, they tend to be more expensive than their 16:9 counterparts. Also, older games often need help running at this resolution. Fortunately utilities like Flawless Widescreen help bridge that gap.

High DPI dreams

For productivity mavens, nothing beats 2560x1440. 1440p monitors are almost exclusively 27 inches, which offers a very sharp image and pixel density. Running four times the resolution of 720p and requiring muscular GPU support to deliver good 3D performance, these screens excel in office tasks, web development, coding, design and other areas where working space is paramount. They aren't bad for gaming either, but be prepared to shell out the bucks for a high-end graphics card or two when top-flight 3D is desired. Beyond this resolution, gaming gets dicey and expensive multi-GPU setups are required for serious performance.

4K displays are where most PCs top out and represent the bleeding edge of monitor design. Realizing any serious performance aspirations at 3840x2160 requires at least two high-quality graphics cards and a pricey power supply to drive them. This translates into a cool $1400 just for the display subsystem, and that's a low-ball estimate. The latest display connectors are also required to drive refresh rates past a miserable 30Hz, so older video cards need not apply. While this situation will change as technology and standards develop, it's safe to say at this time that the only people ready for 4K are the ones selling the screens. Still, if you want bragging rights and the ultimate rig, there's nothing equal to a 4K display.

On the next page: learn about the different types of panels, refresh rates, motion blur, and strobed backlights