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Q&A: Monitor Technology

How do I choose between LCD and LED monitors?

Actually, it's not an either/or question. Regardless of which type you choose, LCD technology forms the shapes that display on your monitor screen. What makes LED monitors different (and better) is the way they produce light and color.

LCD stands for "liquid crystal display." All flat-panel computer monitors — LCD and LED — incorporate a matrix of tiny liquid crystals spread across the face of the display. When voltages are selectively applied to these individual liquid crystals, the matrix acts like a dynamic screen, blocking a white fluorescent light source and allowing tiny portions of it (called pixels) to pass through to the viewer's eye. Red, green and blue color filters are used in various combinations to produce the different colors we see on the screen.

LED monitors use the same matrix of liquid crystals to render onscreen images. While most standard LCD displays use CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent) tubes to light the screen, LED displays use a matrix of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to produce light. Rather than filtering white light to create color, LED monitors use red, green and blue diodes to produce and blend these colors at the light source.

LED monitors offer a number of advantages over standard LCD technology:

  • Thinner profile and lighter weight
  • More accurate color reproduction and wider range of colors
  • Better contrast (thanks to darker blacks)
  • Lower power consumption
  • More environmentally friendly (LEDs, unlike CCFL tubes, contain no mercury)

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What special monitor features should I look for?

Aside from LED backlighting, there are several noteworthy features that can enhance your monitor viewing:

IPS (in-plane switching) is a relatively new LCD technology that offers wider viewing angles than the more common TN (twisted nematic) LCD panels, along with dramatically improved color reproduction from extreme viewing angles. Monitors using IPS technology typically deliver better contrast than standard LCD displays as well, but overall brightness can suffer.

3D-ready displays are capable of reproducing 3D video content (in combination with compatible 3D glasses). Serious gamers will want to pay close attention to this feature, since the gaming world is where you'll find the majority of 3D content (not to mention some of the most impressive uses of 3D technology to date). 3D capability is also useful if you like to watch 3D movies and streaming content via your PC.

Multi-function monitors are computer monitors that come with an integrated TV tuner and connectivity to accept a household cable feed. As the name implies, these displays are equally well-suited for both computing tasks and television viewing.

HD (high-definition) monitors allow you to enjoy the full effect of HD games and video content. Any widescreen monitor with a native resolution greater than 1280 pixels x 720 pixels is considered "high-definition," but many HD monitors boast pixel resolutions of up to 1920 x 1080 or higher.

Touchscreen monitors use sensors to detect and respond to the touch of your fingers, allowing you to interact directly with what's displayed on the screen. Some people find this method to be easier and more intuitive than using a mouse or other pointing device to click and drag objects on the screen.

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What about connections?

As video technology evolves, so does the selection of connections available on computer monitors. Newer monitors may have ports you're not familiar with in addition to — or instead of — the old standbys. It's critical to make sure the inputs available on the monitor you buy match the outputs of the devices you want to connect to it. Common connections include:

HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) offers the best non-proprietary connection available on most monitors. It's a high-bandwidth, single-connector standard that can carry both high-resolution digital video and digital audio signals simultaneously. An HDMI connection is essential if you plan to connect a cable or satellite TV box to your monitor.

DVI (Digital Visual Interface) offers a high-bandwidth video connection similar to that of HDMI, but unlike HDMI, it does not provide for the transmission of audio signals. DVI is typically used for efficient data transfer from high-resolution video devices like HD camcorders. HDMI-to-DVI video adapters are available (or may be included with some monitors) for interconnection between differently equipped devices.

DisplayPort is an emerging next-generation connection standard that supports high-bandwidth video transfer without the need for additional hardware and software within the monitor to process those signals. It is currently used proprietarily by Apple and Dell — sometimes in lieu of better-accepted high-bandwidth ports like HDMI and DVI. Adapters can be purchased to convert HDMI and DVI signals to DisplayPort and vice versa.

VGA (Video Graphics Array) is the granddaddy of computer video connections, introduced in 1987. It is still included on the majority of monitors, but since its resolution capabilities fall well short of today's high-resolution video standards, you're better off using an HDMI or DVI port, if available.

USB (Universal Serial Bus) connections may be found on some monitors, but they're usually low-powered and intended for convenient connections to accessory devices such as a mouse or keyboard. Some monitors may be able to accept image and/or audio data from portable devices (like digital cameras and digital audio players) via USB.

What are some specialty applications for monitors?

Dual monitors — If you're looking for a way to improve your productivity, a dual-monitor setup may be just the ticket. With the extra screen area afforded by a second monitor, you can:

  • Focus on critical tasks using your primary monitor while relegating background applications like e-mail and IM to a secondary screen for easier accessibility and less clutter
  • Reference older documents on one screen while compiling an updated version on the other, reducing the likelihood of "oops" moments
  • Arrange photos and edit video more easily by keeping images and clips handy on one screen while compiling the finished product on the other
  • Get more from your gaming by "tiling" two screens together to create one extra-wide, super-immersive view

3D gaming — Game developers have embraced 3D with a vengeance, and some of the best 3D viewing out there comes in the form of games developed with the format in mind. To enjoy the mind-blowing thrills of 3D gaming, you'll need a 3D-ready monitor. Avid gamers should also look for a monitor with the shortest possible "input lag" (the delay between receiving a signal and displaying the information on screen). This is particularly important if your gaming preferences lean toward first-person shooters and other action games where split-second reactions are critical.

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