If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the monitor screen must be the window to the computer. So how do you choose a computer monitor among the hundreds of options? Stick around, and we'll help you make sense of the many available features. You should be able to find a monitor that will meet basic needs for $100 or so, although you can easily spend $500 or more on a larger and more sophisticated one.

Sleek flatness has replaced boxy fatness

Those big, boxy monitors are still available, but as the quality of flat-screen displays has gone up and price has gone down, only a dedicated minority of customers still favors them. Let's compare:

Big and boxy monitors

  • Display more precise colors (most users won't really be able to tell the difference, though)
  • Feature amazing fast motion in games and videos without streaking

Sleek and space-saving monitors (liquid crystal displays or LCDs)

  • Are visually lighter and less bulky
  • Take less power and generate less heat (which is good news for the environment, as well as for those of us who want a larger monitor without having it weigh 100 pounds and taking up our entire desk)
  • Are sleek at just few inches thick
  • Are available as advanced, high-quality, reasonably priced models

Digital versus analog: Quality and your pocketbook

Monitors can be either digital or analog; digital units are more expensive, but offer better quality. Computers are digital beasts and must convert the display output before piping it to an analog monitor. Something is always lost in the translation, and, in this case, it is a small amount of picture quality. So those of you with plenty of money and a wish for the very best should consider spending the extra dough on a digital monitor. For the rest of us, less expensive analog monitors will do the job.

Deciphering the features

When you start comparing displays, terminology can lead to confusion, despair, and eventually just buying whatever the salesperson tells you to. Don't be a statistic — read on:
  • Display size is what most people consider first. It's the diagonal measurement from one corner of the screen to the other, and it ranges from about 17 inches to 24 inches. Larger screens can show larger images, which is useful for fine graphics, photo or video work. They are also great for those of us with eyes that are "more mature." Ahem.
  • Wide-screen displays are, you guessed it, wider than standard displays, but the same height. And for those of you who tend to multitask or watch loads of movies on your computer, it makes sense, but in most cases, it's a nice to have, not a need to have.
  • Maximum resolution refers to how many tiny squares, called pixels, make up the display. The resolution is defined as the number of pixels from left to right across the screen by the number of pixels from top to bottom. Higher resolutions, with a larger number of pixels, produce sharper pictures. A decent monitor should be able to handle at least 1024 x 768 pixels, but if you like to have a lot of programs open and don't mind smaller graphics, you'll want a monitor with a much higher resolution.
  • Contrast ratio measures the difference in light intensity between pure white and pure black. Lower-quality displays have low contrast ratios, which can make everything on the screen look kind of muddy. Higher contrast ratios provide crisper images with more distinct colors. A contrast ratio of at least 500:1 is good; 700:1 is even better.
  • Brightness (or luminance) indicates how much light the screen generates. Especially in a room with a lot of ambient light, a bright screen can help to reduce eye strain. Here's a place where we tote out the bizarre units: brightness is measured in candelas per square meter (cd/m2), which is kind of like measuring speed in furlongs per fortnight, but I digress. Look for a value of at least 300 cd/m2.
  • Response time measures how fast a pixel on the screen can change color. Faster response times keep the display crisp even when things are moving fast, which prevents a "smear" or "ghosting" effect. For productivity applications, response time is beside the point; for games and media, it can be critical. Under 5 milliseconds (ms) is very fast, while over 15 ms is pretty slow. To put it into perspective, if you're a gamer, the difference in milliseconds can mean the difference between saving the universe from a race of angry human devouring aliens and imminent destruction.
Turning your TV into your monitor

Connecting your computer to your television screen can also be a fun way to go, especially for casual computing at home. Many computers have built-in S-Video (the "S" stands for "separate") outputs that enable direct connection. Or you can purchase an add-on video card with an S-Video output. Be aware that setting up your computer to display on your TV can be tricky.

Be your own judge

When it comes to monitor shopping, go check them out in person and see what you like. It's a good idea to try out the displays with the different kinds of content you'll use, from photo editing apps to gaming to streaming videos. Make sure you like the controls for adjusting things like brightness and contrast.
And keep the receipt. Occasionally, you'll get the monitor home, and it may not work well in your particular environment.