Why you should buy a 3D PC monitor - and it's not for 3D

What started out as a small whine - a barely audible fizzing whisper in the background - has now become an unmistakable rushing noise. Soon it will be a deafening roar.

I speak of the air rapidly escaping from the 3D bubble, and by that I'm referring to stereoscopic 3D, not 3D graphics rendering.

Of course, you wouldn't know it from the relentless onslaught of 3D-enabled products. Whether it's tablets with 3D cameras or smartphones with lenticular screens, the sheer momentum of 3D freight train will keep pushing new gadgets and devices down the product-release track for a while yet.

But never mind bursting bubbles and runaway rail vehicles, the point is that the 3D revolution is over before it's really begun.

On the whole, 3D movies have tanked. Even when they do score, reports suggest movie-goers prefer the 2D version of 3D movies at a rate of two to one.

Still, there's at least one unanticipated benefit for the PC platform in the form of improved LCD monitor image quality. All the 3D hype and hoopla might just have been worth it after all.

Lack of progress

The problem with PC monitors, you see, is a lack of technical progress and choice. Yes, really. The huge array of panels at your local PC store, all plastered with stickers proclaiming unimaginable feats of image rendering, is an illusion. Take a closer look and you'll soon discover that the LCD monitor market has largely concentrated around a very narrow set of specifications and technologies.

Put simply, almost every remotely affordable monitor has a TN panel with a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. TN panels are the cheapest, but also offer the poorest results by every image quality metric save pixel response. Meanwhile, that 1080p native resolution may be plenty for £100 worth of 22-inch screen, but it's a lot less satisfactory extended to 24-inch and beyond.

As it happens, the latest 3D-capable monitors don't address any of that. They too are almost exclusively 1080p TN screens in various sizes, but what they do deliver is 120Hz refresh rates - double that of a standard PC monitor. It makes an enormous difference.

Find that hard to believe? I'm right with you. Bigging up high-Hz refresh rates is one of the more odious marketing strategies used to flog HDTVs, and the benefits of 200Hz over 100Hz are pretty marginal.

Moreover, if you do the maths based on the pixel response of a modern PC monitor, increasing the refresh rate beyond the standard 60Hz seems futile. After all, if the full white-to-black response rate of most LCDs is roughly in the 15ms region, anything above 60Hz ought to be fairly redundant. The LCD panel simply won't be able to respond quickly enough.

Then there's the debate over how many frames per second the human eye can truly perceive. Modern cinema remains at just 24 frames per second. It's true that projectors with triple-shutter blades are commonly used, resulting in 72 images per second, but the number of different images displayed per second remains 24, which is enough for fluid motion.

A lovely thing

It's all fascinating stuff, but what I can tell you with absolute certainty is that a 120Hz monitor is a lovely, lovely thing. Suddenly, everything you touch or tweak with the mouse pointer moves more smoothly. Your whole PC feels more responsive. It's an absolutely unmistakable effect, and once you've experienced it for the first time you won't want to go back.

Let me be clear about this - I'm not talking about dancing around the virtual battlefield of a popular online game and appreciating the benefits in terms of improved hair-trigger responses. I'm talking about juggling windows on the desktop and scrolling web and document pages - routine stuff we all do every day.

That's all very well, you might be thinking, but slightly smoother computing is no big deal. To which my response would be: try it before you knock it.

I personally didn't expect the increase in desktop refresh from 60Hz to 120Hz to be perceptible, much less beneficial. In fact, if it wasn't necessary to run the desktop at 120Hz (rather than merely running certain applications at increased Hz) in order to test some of the latest 3D gubbins on the PC, I likely would not have noticed the difference.

But it is, and I duly did. Now I need a new monitor.