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What are the differences between monitor panel types?

After many hours, you’ve finally finished selecting the parts for you perfect gaming PC build. Now, you just need a monitor. But, why are there so many choices? Depending on your use case, it’s wise to consider what type of panel you should select. Each has their pros and cons, and some are more well suited to specific tasks than others. Plus, there's a good chance you'll be using that monitor for many years, through multiple PC upgrades, so getting something that looks right is important.

TN (Twisted Nematic) panels

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Need a new monitor? Check out our guide to the best gaming monitors.

One of the most common monitors you'll encounter are those that feature a TN panel. TN panels have been around the longest and are easy to produce, which means they can provide a budget-friendly option for the aspiring gamer. Compared to other panel types, they also offer the fastest response times, which can be as low as 1ms.

Low response times lend themselves well to competitive action games, and mean these monitors are a mainstay for esports. It provides a rapid and clear indication of what’s going on in game, and can give a player an advantage over those using monitors with a higher response-time.

TN panels also feature the highest refresh rates of all panels types, and currently reach as high as 240Hz. This means that if your PC push can 240 frames per second, you’ll be in for some incredibly smooth gameplay. Animations will be crisp, and there will be reduced motion blur for objects in game. Again, this makes them perfect for competitive gaming and twitch shooters like CS:GO and Overwatch. 

As a general rule though, TN panels have the worst color accuracy and viewing angles of any available panel. This means that colors won't be 100 percent true to life, and that the picture will degrade if you’re not looking straight at the monitor. (Take a look at the photo up top for an example.) If you’re someone who uses their PC to also do photo editing or graphic design, you might want to look elsewhere. 

IPS (In-Plane Switching) panels

IPS panels are the most common high-end option for consumers. They feature great color reproduction, great viewing angles, and offer fairly good response times and refresh rates.

While TN panels offer response times as low as 1ms, IPS panels can go as low as 4ms. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who can tell the difference though, so this may not matter. IPS panels can also reach refresh rates as high as 165Hz. The law of diminishing returns quickly kicks in after about 120Hz, so unless you absolutely need a 240Hz panel for competitive esports, you’re likely not to notice.

IPS panels are more expensive to produce, which means they’re not budget friendly. This means you’ll find TN panels with lower response times and higher refresh rates for a lot cheaper than their IPS counterparts. But if visual quality is your priority, an IPS panel is your best choice, especially if you're shopping for one of the best 4K monitors for gaming.

Note that there are variations of IPS developed by other panel manufacturers, including Samsung's PLS (Plane-to-Line Switching) and AUO's AHVA (Advanced Hyper-Viewing Angle). There are also cheaper IPS variants (eg, E-IPS) that use 6-bit color plus FRC (Frame Rate Control) that don't offer the same quality as better IPS panels. In other words, do some research on the specific display if image quality is your first priority.

VA (Vertical Alignment) panels

Vertical alignment panels offer a good middle ground for most people. They’re manufactured in a manner similar to TN panels, but have some improvements in visual quality. The primary strength of VA panels is that they’re designed to block excess light from their blacklight, which results in rich blacks due to a high contrast level. This means they look great in a dark environment, and are often the go-to for movie enthusiasts. However, they still can’t match the color reproduction of an IPS panel.

VA panels also offer better viewing angles than a TN panel, but aren’t quite as good as IPS. However, modern VA panels offer refresh rates near TN-level speed (200Hz) with IPS-level response times (4ms). In other words, they’re somewhat of a step between a TN panel and an IPS panel, often falling closer to IPS, and their pricing often reflects that. High-end VA monitors can look better than low-end IPS displays, and may cost as much as IPS as well.

TN vs IPS vs VA: which panel type should I choose?

Choosing a monitor comes down to what you intend to do. If you’re on a budget, a TN panel will likely be your first choice. They’re also a great option if you're heavily invested into esports or twitch-based shooters. Keep in mind that lower response times and higher refresh rates drive the price of these monitors up, meaning high-end TN displays are often more expensive than budget IPS monitors.

If you’re doing some professional photo or video work, you’ll want to consider an IPS monitor. They’ll be more expensive than their TN counterparts, but they’ll generally look much better with their improved viewing angles and color reproduction.

Like any product, some terms can be used as a simple marketing trick. Often, response times aren’t as good as advertised, and are based on best-case "internal results." Dynamic contrast ratios can also be used to artificially inflate those metrics. Thankfully, human eyes are good at adapting, and most won't notice displays will look fine. Choose a budget, do research and read some reviews, and when you're done, be comfortable in your choice.