How do you choose the best LCD monitor for your computer? Do you know that there are three distinct types of LCD technology — of widely different quality? Do you have any idea which one is in your current monitor — the one you’re looking at right now? Probably not.
I’m a photographer and my most critical use of a monitor is with Photoshop. Other users with different needs may have requirements quite unlike mine. I’ll try to make clear the advantages and disadvantages of each type and how they might affect different users but be aware that this article is directed mainly at photographers and other visual artists.
Viewing angle is the characteristic that really drove me into this research: With my old monitor, moving my head up or down a slight amount drastically affected the brightness of the on-screen image. Thus I could never be confident of what a print was going to look like. I got tired of having to hold my head “just so” in order to be (almost) certain of what was going to come out of the printer. If you make prints, a good monitor will pay for itself with the money you save on inkjet paper and ink.
The Big Three
There are three general types of LCD technology used in monitors:
- TN (Twisted Nematic)
- IPS (In-Plane Switching)
- VA (Vertical Alignment)
If you’re thinking you’ve never heard of any of them, you’re not alone. Manufacturers and retailers don’t go out of their way to tell you which technology they’re using. You have to do some digging to learn which one any given monitor uses.
The Short Version
The really short version of this article is as follows:
TN monitors are the cheapest, most common and lowest quality, particularly for photographers: Fairly limited color gamut (range) and limited viewing angles. (They do have faster response time than the other two options, so they’re good for playing computer games.)
IPS monitors offer the broadest color gamut and widest viewing angles, but also the slowest response times.
VA monitors fall in between TN and IPS in most, but not all, regards: Their color gamut, viewing angles and pixel response times are better than TN but not quite as good as IPS. Fortunately, they tend to be very close to IPS and… they offer better contrast ratios than either TN or IPS. Most VA monitors you’ll find are either MVA (Multidomain Vertical Alignment) or PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment) so you’ll see these acronyms a lot.
The monitors that are included with general-use computers are almost all TN technology. That’s probably the kind of monitor you’re using now. Yes, in general the rule of “the more you pay the better you get” applies, but a high quality 19-inch MVA monitor might cost the same as a mediocre 24-inch TN. I’d choose quality over size, but it’s your call in the end. And don’t get hung up about specifications too much. Take viewing angle — what you want for photography isn’t so much a wide viewing angle as really consistent appearance over a fairly limited viewing angle. TN monitors won’t do this but even the cheapest IPS and VA monitors have wide and consistent enough viewing angles.
Dos and Don’ts
How Do You Know What Technology is Inside?
As I mentioned earlier, manufacturers and retailers don’t go out of their way to tell you what technology is inside their monitors. Fortunately, the people at TFT Central keep track for you. This link will let you find out:
Just enter the make and model of a monitor and this database will show you what’s inside. To get a great monitor on a budget, click on the Geeks.com logo in the left hand panel of this page and look at their monitor specials, then plug each model number you like into the TFT Central database to find out what kind of LCD panel it’s built on. You’ll find there are some great bargains to be had (and some unpleasant surprises to be avoided).
You’ll also find that each type of technology, besides having its own acronym, has spawned a small tribe of “offspring” acronyms (PVA, MVA, S-PVA, S-IPS), each of which represents a variation that offers — or claims to offer — improvements over earlier versions: The words “Advanced”, “Improved”, “Premium” and “Super” figure prominently in these new acronyms. But is “advanced” better than “improved”, or “super” better than “premium”? Only the marketing people know for certain (actually, they don’t, but that’s another story….)
Look for the basic initials (TN, IPS, MVA or PVA) within the extended acronym and you’ll usually know which technology you’re dealing with.
The Photographer’s Choice: IPS or MVA/PVA
My choice came down to the slightly wider color gamut of IPS versus the slightly better contrast ratio of VA. (The pixel response rate is mainly of interest to gamers and the difference between the viewing angles of VA and IPS isn’t big enough to worry about.) I decided VA suited my needs and bought a widescreen Samsung S-PVA monitor, which I’m thrilled with. Your mileage may vary.
There are three approaches you can use to narrow down your selection: Go out and look at monitors (if you can find a place that actually has multiple high-end monitors on display – good luck!); Ask for recommendations from people you know and trust (and have a look at what they’re using if they’re local); Seek out and read on-line reviews. If you look for reviews be sure to read only professional reviews, not the “reviews” from consumer rating sites: Most buyers don’t know enough or have the testing equipment to properly evaluate monitors. You get a lot of comments like “Looks great!” with no real information. Be suspicious of reviews, even on mainstream commercial sites, that don’t identify the monitor technology (TN, MVA, PVA, IPS). As mentioned previously, TFT Central has the most thorough reviews I’ve found — their comprehensive reports make even the professional reviews of Macworld and PC World look quite inadequate — but they’re a relatively small operation and can’t cover as many models as one would like. Consumer Reports’ guide to monitors is useless.
From a purely theoretical standpoint, I leaned toward contrast ratio rather than color because I shoot mostly nature photography, which often has huge contrast ratios and a significant range of acceptable color in this genre: Who can say what exact color that fall foliage, for example, really was? The area in which color accuracy is most critical (except possibly for some scientific work) is skin tones. The human visual system very sensitive to variations in skin tone and people find inaccuracies in this area particularly annoying. If I were a portrait shooter who used controlled studio lighting (which tames contrast ratios) I might favor IPS.
And before you start agonizing too much over your decision, know that if you’re upgrading from a TN monitor virtually any IPS or VA monitor will knock your socks off!
A good source for information on LCD monitors is the previously-mentioned web site, TFT Central. Using their TFT Selector and entering your size, price and other requirements, you may find the decision is made for you ;-)
Details for Geeks
Stop here! Most people don’t need to read below this point! But if you really want details on the variations of each technology and its advantages (or disadvantages), the next section will give you the low-down. If the monitor you’re considering uses an acronym you haven’t seen so far in this article, you may find it here…
TN – Twisted Nematic
Twisted Nematic uses a substance called a nematic liquid crystal confined between two plates of polarized glass. What makes a TN display work is the way these liquid crystals can be affected (actually twisted) by electrical current and the way this twist in the crystals affects polarized light.
Low manufacturing costs, cheap retail prices
Fast pixel response times
Limited viewing angles (especially in the vertical direction)
Lower contrast levels means blacks are not as dark as VA based panels
Smaller color gamut
VARIATIONS (and I’m not going to detail each one!)
STN (Super Twist Nematic), CSTN (Color STN), DSTN (Double layer STN or Dual-scan STN), FRSTN (Fast Response STN), FSTN (Film-compensated STN, Formulated STN or Filtered STN), FFSTN (double Film STN), MSTN (Monochrome STN), CTN (Compensated Twisted Nematic)
IPS – In-Plane Switching
IPS was developed to improve on the narrow viewing angles and limited color reproduction of TN technology, with the trade-off of slower response time. Color reproduction is almost as good as CRTs (the old, bulky, picture-tube style monitors), but the dynamic range (contrast) is lower.
S-IPS (Super-IPS) — Improved pixel refresh speed.
H-IPS (High aperture ratio IPS) — A further development of IPS technology, with claimed reduction in backlight bleed (good) but slightly narrower viewing angle (bad).
AS-IPS (Advanced Super IPS) — Improved contrast ratio over S-IPS: second only to some S-PVA screens.
A-TW-IPS (Advanced True White IPS) — A custom S-IPS panel with a “True White” color filter intended to make white look more natural. Developed specifically for displays targeted toward photographers and graphic artists.
VA – Vertical Alignment
There are basically two flavors of Vertical Alignment displays, MVA (Multi-domain Vertical Alignment), developed by Fujitsu, and PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment), developed by Samsung. Each one has a variety of sub-categories (that may well have grown by the time you read this!) and each subsequent variety claims to offer improvements over earlier versions. PVA is supposed to have the best contrast levels.
MVA (Multi-domain Vertical Alignment)
P-MVA (Premium MVA) — Improved pixel response time, allegedly poorer color
A-MVA (Advanced MVA) — Unknown “improvement” over standard MVA
S-MVA (Super MVA) — Unknown “improvement” over standard MVA
PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment) Improved viewing angle and contrast over basic VA.
S-PVA (Super PVA) — Improved pixel response speed and viewing angle. Best contrast ratios currently available.