Solutions: The Monitor Debate

LED vs. LCD, connectivity and more—which screen is right for you?

Apple Thunderbolt Display

If you edit digital images, you interact with your computer monitor more than with any other device, even more than with your camera. The seemingly humble monitor—which might be mistaken by the unenlightened for a piece of office furniture—is in reality your window on the digital world. So it makes sense that you should be meticulous about the monitor you use, and make an informed choice when it’s time to upgrade. Here, we’re not looking at specific models as much as the key technology you should be aware of when you’re considering any model.

There has never been a better time to buy a monitor. The performance-per-dollar quotient is the highest it has been in recent memory. There are a few things to keep in mind, and we’ll begin with the most obvious: Size.

Unless your workspace is so small that you can touch all four walls at the same time, buy the largest monitor you can afford. Not only will you be able to see details in your images from a comfortable distance, you’ll also be able to keep several Photoshop menus open at the same time without cramping. Most monitors, even large ones, have a relatively small footprint, so odds are, virtually any size will fit on your desk.

Go with full HD 1920×1080 resolution, assuming you have a late-model video card that supports it. That combination delivers a 16×9 aspect ratio, ideal for video editing and perfect for still images. To avoid potential neck and back strain, look for a monitor that has a stand that adjusts for both height and angle. If your favorite comes with only a fixed stand, consider buying a desk mount with an articulating arm. Some monitors feature USB ports or speakers as an added bonus. These may be nice to have, but shouldn’t be the basis for your buying decision.

EIZO ColorEdge CS240

LED or LCD? Many misunderstand the difference. What we call an LCD monitor is a liquid crystal display that uses a cold cathode fluorescent (CCFL) backlight behind an LCD shutter. An LED monitor is an LCD display that uses an LED (light emitting diode) backlight. Therefore, all LED monitors are LCD, but not the converse.

The interface on your new monitor must match the interface on your video card. VGA (D-Sub 15-pin) is still the most common; HDMI is the latest. DVI, which is essentially HDMI without the audio signal, is still quite popular. If you drive a Mac, you may encounter a Display Port or Thunderbolt video interface. Many graphic cards and adapters offer more than a single interface type; find out what your card prefers and buy a monitor with a port to match.

Major Performance Differentiators
The Pixel Response Rate, sometimes referred to as latency, is a measurement of how long it takes for an individual pixel to cycle from full black to pure white and back to full black. Be careful, as some manufacturers use a different standard: gray-to-white-to-gray. Shorter times are better. Expect to see specs in the 2ms to 7ms range; however, your eyes probably won’t see much difference except, perhaps, when watching video.

For the best performance out of any monitor, color calibration is necessary. Actually having all of your devices—DSLR, smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop monitor and printer—calibrated is the best way to be sure the scene you see in the field ultimately will print the way you envision. The X-Rite i1 Pro system was built for photographers who need the best possible calibrated workflow. It’s available in several configurations. X-Rite also makes the ColorMunki color management solution, which the company bills as their ultimate simplicity system. ColorMunki is also available in a number of bundles. Contact:

Panel Type
The LCD panel is composed of several layers, including a layer of liquid crystal cells. The panel type is determined by how the cells naturally align. Placing an electrical charge on the cells causes them to shift their orientation, allowing the backlight to shine through. Think of the liquid crystal array as a set of window blinds that opens and closes in response to an electrical charge.

Panels are identified by the original orientation of the cells and how they change when stimulated. Each configuration has its pluses and minuses. Twisted Nematic panels are okay for office work, but poor for photographers because color reproduction isn’t very accurate. Also, the viewing angle is quite narrow. Vertical Alignment panels offer better color (some say the best blacks), but they’re slow.

The better overall choice is the IPS, or In-Plane Switching panel. The liquid crystal cells are arranged in a horizontal pattern that creates an opaque mask that blocks the backlight and renders the screen black. When current is applied, the cells rotate through 90º to make the backlight visible. This panel type offers the best combination of superlative image quality, consistent color, desirable contrast ratio and wide (nearly 180º) viewing angle.