Affordable PC monitors are miles better today than just a few years ago. As painful as it is to admit, we've mostly got Apple to thank for at least part of that. Yes, really.
In June 2010, Apple rolled out the iPhone 4 and made a huge noise about the new handset's IPS screen. Was it the first smartphone with an IPS screen? Google it if you care, because that detail doesn't matter.
The two things that do matter are that, first, IPS is a premium LCD panel technology that offers improved image quality over more commonly used TN tech. Second, Apple has massive traction with the mouth-breathing masses and dominates mindshare when it comes to consumer technology.
Suddenly, an IPS screen was something the average punter wasn't just aware of, but understood to be a good thing. After all, if the iPhone 4 had IPS, you want all your screens to be IPS. This effect can't be underestimated.
Just a few years ago, we spoke to a key monitor manufacturer, which told us that it would like to put better panels in its screens, but that customers weren't willing to pay for them. But now they are, and it's partly thanks to Apple.
Of course, that doesn't mean PC monitors have reached a state of perfection. We'd like to see more PVA panels (another type of premium LCD tech) on offer, and more choice in terms of resolution, too. It's not always easy to pick the good from the bad. Specs can be misleading and gimmicks, unfortunately, still abound. But we'll come to all that momentarily. In the meantime, suffice to say you can get more for your money than ever before. Shop on, people.
Here we go again, with another round-up of our favourite screens, and some things haven't changed since our last outing. That includes the general value proposition of a good PC monitor. It's the best long-term investment you can make. That's because a good monitor today will still be a good one for you two years down the road. You're not going to find yourself left gasping for a few extra frames by the latest shader-soaked gaming spectacular as you might do with a graphics card that's already got a few seasons of gaming under its belt.
For starters, screen technology develops at a slightly more leisurely pace. More than that, it's not performance critical in the same way as a graphics card, CPU or solid-state drive are to a system. But critical it most certainly is in terms of how much enjoyment you will get out of your PC. It's quite simply and literally your window into the computing experience so why skimp on it?
A lot of the time, it doesn't matter whether you're rocking a clappedout Celeron CPU or some crazy six-core monstrosity. That web page will look just the same. Not so for a monitor. If you're looking at it, it's making a difference.
With that little pep talk done and dusted, let's consider the current state of play in the PC monitor market. The biggest trend right now is the aforementioned renaissance in panel technology.
IPS (or In-Plane Switching) is nothing new, of course, but for a while it looked like it would disappear for good from PC screens. Apple's big push with IPS in the iPhone and iPad changed all that. Now IPS is de rigueur for phones and tablets.
Affordable IPS PC monitors then followed around a year ago, and prices have been slowly edging down every since. We're now at the point where it's possible to snag a 22-inch IPS panel for under £100. It's insane.
Some manufacturers offer alternative VA (Vertical Alignment) panel technology for similar prices. You can find out more about the various pros and cons of IPS, VA and TN (Twisted Nematic) tech on page 16, but it's worth bearing in mind that merely being IPS or VA is not a guarantee of great image quality. For starters, all these cheap IPS screens are 6-bit per channel in terms of colour fidelity, so they're not as accurate as premium IPS screens of old.
Panel type aside, what else should you be worrying about? When it comes to resolution, unfortunately, there's not always a lot of choice. Nearly all panels in the 22- to 24-inch space are 1080p. That means 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. That's hardly a pitiful number of pixels, but when you consider that the latest high-end smartphones can match it and some tablets now outstrip it with 2,560 x 1,600 grids, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that PC monitors are lagging behind a little.
With any luck, it'll be IPS all over again, with high-resolution smartphones and tablets encouraging similar technology adoption in PC monitors. That said, there is a clear downside to higher resolutions in gaming PCs: the more pixels you're pumping, the greater the load on your graphics card. Moreover, arguably, there's not a huge benefit in terms of image quality in games in going beyond 1080p with a 22-, 23- or 24-inch monitor.
If you do want to have more pixels though, there are options. Dell, for instance, still does the 24-inch Ultrasharp U2412M with an old-school 1,920 x 1,200 grid. The extra 120 vertical pixels give you that little bit of additional elbow room for web browsing. The U2412M is listed for about £300 on the Dell website, but can be had from Amazon, among other etailers, for just over £200.
The next step up is a 27-inch panel with a 2,560 x 1,440 grid. Prices start around the £350 mark from online retailers and currently models are all premium panel technology of some kind, you don't need to worry about the choice between IPS and TN.
Then there's the old-school 30-inch option and a 2,560 x 1,600 grid. Prices typically start at £700. It's at this stage that the subject of Korean-sourced 27-inch IPS monitors pops up. As we go to press, there are suppliers on eBay who'll do you a 2,560 x 1,440 27-inch panel for as little as £220 including the cost of postage.
The drill here is obviously caveat emptor. You're getting a screen with a very cheap chassis and stand, and the panels are those rejected by the major manufacturers. But lots of people have had great success buying these kinds of panels, and they are very tempting indeed.
A compromise is to go for a 27-inch IPS or VA panel with a conventional 1080p pixel grid. It's a pretty nice overall solution for work and games, and one you can have with the peace of mind of a UK supplier and a brand name you've heard of. It's also worth noting that the latest TN panels are better than ever in terms of colours and contrast and even viewing angles. There's no longer any shame in TN.
Another trend that overlaps with cheap Korean panels is 120Hz refresh. Panels with high refresh rate support (standard LCD screens refresh at 60Hz) began popping up when Nvidia rolled out its 3D Vision technology. We've never been big fans of the 3D tech itself, but the higher refresh required for an active shutter 3D solution like 3D Vision comes with its own benefits.
In games it makes for much more responsive action. Even just juggling windows and scrolling web pages on the desktop is nicer. The only snag is that you currently can't have your 120Hz cake and eat your IPS panel - it's one or the other, with the possible exception, again, of those Korean 27-inch panels, some of which claim to have been modded to support high refresh.
This is something we've never tested and we'd recommend proceeding with caution. As for other technologies, like dynamic contrast and fancy colour modes, we've yet to see much benefi t. There's simply no substitute for a proper panel.