I need a new monitor, partly for video editing, but also for image editing in Photoshop and lots (and lots) of writing. The more I look, the more overwhelmed I get with all the options. Which criteria are important and which can we ignore?
There are countless web posts rating “The Best Computer Monitors.” Most are written from a Windows perspective, and, more problematic, for gamers. Gamers are wonderful people, but they don’t have the same monitor needs as video editors.
After time spent reviewing, buying and using a variety of computer and video monitors, here are my personal criteria along with explanations of what these terms mean. At the end, I share my monitor search recommendations. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.
NOTE: B&H Photo lists 1,111 computer monitors. That is an overwhelming number! While the photos below are to add visual interest, they are not specific recommendations; though most meet my general criteria.
KEY CRITERIA FOR AN EXTERNAL VIDEO MONITOR
A computer monitor attaches to your computer via USB-C or HDMI and shows the desktop, files, applications and media. A video monitor generally displays only the video of the project you are editing as accurately as possible.
Video monitors are not cheap. High image quality and, generally, support for HDR display are the main reasons for spending the money. Here are my ranked criteria for a video monitor:
NOTE: I’ll define these terms in a minute.
Quality manufacturers include: Flanders Scientific, Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Apple, and others.
KEY CRITERIA FOR AN EXTERNAL COMPUTER MONITOR
Here are my ranked criteria for an external computer monitor:
Quality manufacturers include: Apple, LG, Samsung, Dell, ViewSonic, HP, Lenovo, BenQ, and others.
Features that I don’t pay attention to that may be important to you:
Let me explain what these terms mean so you can use them effectively in your own search.
Video editing interfaces – and images – require lots of room. I prefer a 27″ display. Remember, video images are not scalable. Once you scale the image larger than 100%, it looks blurry.
This determines how accurately the monitor displays the colors of your media. There are, not surprisingly, several standards:
Most monitor manufacturers list a percentage of how close they can get to each of these standards. At a minimum, a video editing monitor should achieve 98% or better for Rec. 709 and sRGB, and 95% for DCI-P3.
This defines the number of pixels displayed by a monitor. Generally, the more pixels in the display, the more detail you will see in the image. Typical sizes are:
However, there are many, many times where we want to decrease the resolution in an image. Skin softening and diffusion for actor’s faces and skin are typical examples. Depth of field is another. Edge contrast and detail are a third. Softer is often better, so don’t obsess about finding the absolutely highest resolution… except for Mac users.
NOTE: Pixel resolution seems to be a big determiner of cost. 5K monitors are essentially double the price of 4K.
RETINA DISPLAY (Windows users may know this as “Hi-DPI”)
When all we want to see is the image, for example in a video monitor, the pixel resolution should match, as closely as possible, the image size of the media you want to view. However, with computer monitors – especially those attached to Macs – the clarity of text and menus is also important. In order to provide the best image AND the smoothest text, Apple created Retina display technology. This converts a block of 4 pixels into acting as a single pixel. This makes menus, icons and interface elements much easier to read by cutting the display resolution in half.
So, a 4K monitor when attached to a Mac, displays images and the interface as 1920 x 1080. A 5K monitor would display at 2560 x 1440.
I didn’t think this would be a big deal until I reviewed the ViewSonic VP2776 monitor. Gorgeous color, but its lack of Retina display support made it difficult to read text or clearly see interface icons.
If reading text on the screen is important to you, a monitor that offers a Retina display is essential. In general, that means a 4K monitor or larger.
NOTE: Here’s a tutorial on what makes a monitor a “Retina display.”
Virtually all monitors today display pixels using liquid crystals (LCD). Better LCD monitors use LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes). The difference is the backlight. LCD monitors use fluorescent backlights. LEDs emit light directly, which is then supplemented by a backlight, either behind the LEDs or along the edge.
“LEDs aren’t very good at emitting bright light. The brightest color is white. But an LED doesn’t emit white light – it emits blue light. Each LED is given a yellow phosphor coating to make it appear less blue and more white, but it’s still not true white. The “blueness” of LEDs negatively impacts the red, blue, and green colors on LED displays. LED monitors have automatic features that adjust the RGB colors to compensate for the blue light, but it can’t compensate for the weaker light intensity.
“That’s where the quantum (QLED) dots come in. The pixels are overlayed by a sheet of red and green quantum dots (there is no blue because blue light is already being emitted by the LED). When the light shines through the liquid crystals, the quantum dots glow, and you’re given a bright, vivid, and lovely spectrum of RGB colors.
“QLED monitors are capable of creating pictures that are both dynamic and bright, and which have stellar contrast ratios.” (HP support page)
All computer monitors are bright enough for HD (SDR) media, because SDR media only requires 100 nits of brightness. On the other hand, HDR PQ media supports up to 10,000 nits!!! Most HDR-capable monitors support between 350 – 1,000 nits. (Larger nit levels are brighter.) No monitor available today supports the full range of Rec. 2020 brightness levels.
NOTE: Nits are often labeled as “cd/m2” (candela per square meter).
There are several different HDR video formats: PQ, HLG, HDR10, DolbyVision. PQ and HLG are editing formats. HDR10 and DolbyVision are distribution formats. Since no computer monitor can achieve full HDR display, I don’t worry about it. I edit my video using DCI-P3 spec monitors and, for critical projects, use a separate HDR-capable monitor for the final color grade. I don’t try to view HDR images on a computer monitor in HDR mode. I view them in DCI-P3.
Apple seems to feel that monitor stands are optional. Perhaps they are for Apple, but not for me. Low-end monitors, like the lower-cost LG monitors, have cheap stands that don’t pivot, swivel or lift. I have one sitting on a box, which just looks stupid.
VESA mounts allow you to attach the monitor to a wall, or a more flexible desk mount. I’m saving my pennies to switch to using these.
HOW IT CONNECTS
All current Macs support USB-C. Some also support Thunderbolt 3/4. Others provide HDMI. Several docks support DisplayPort. Pick a monitor that supports the interface offered by your computer. The display quality is identical, regardless of how the monitor is connected.
NOTE: While USB-C, Thunderbolt, HDMI and DisplayPort all provide the same image quality, how you connected the monitor will affect the speed of any attached USB-A ports on the monitor. Read the manufacture’s website for details if this speed is important to you.
LARRY’S SEARCH RECOMMENDATIONS
Here are the criteria I’m using to select my next computer monitor.
ONE LAST THOUGHT
Sigh… I was hoping, after writing this article and determining my preferences, that I could find the right monitor for my work more easily. But, no.
I went on the B&H Photo website – or Amazon – or pick-your-vendor. I searched for 27″ 4K IPS monitors. A number of different monitors with identical specs appeared. The specs were identical but the prices – even from the same manufacturer – were not. Indistinguishable monitors differed by hundreds of dollars.
This makes no sense. If the specs are the same, WHAT makes for the price difference? Why are monitor manufacturers avoiding discussing the value of spending more money? It is impossible to know, even after reading the complete product description.
My criteria for picking a monitor may not match yours, but at least you now have a place to start to look for a monitor that will fit your style of work and still look good on the job.
12 Responses to How to Pick the “Best” External Computer or Video Monitor
Thanks Larry for these thoughts, I also have had som help from this text, especially how pixels are displayed:
This article is great, and there’s one missing word that could make it better: “calibration”. Even a monitor that was calibrated in factory can wander out of spec over time. To keep my monitors as close to a Rec.709 image as possible, I use a SpyderX Pro to calibrate them every ~2 months. I do not use datacolor’s calibration software and highly recommend using displaycal instead (https://displaycal.net/), which works with many different spectrometers, a plethora of which can be found used on eBay, etc.
And for those on a budget, take Stu Maschwitz’s advice: buy a new Mac and do all your color correction on its screen. Across the board, Apple’s displays are accurately calibrated and gorgeous, for both SDR and HDR color grading. In his words, “Apple’s displays are calibrated, profiled, accurate, and consistent, at a commodity level.” (https://prolost.com/blog/m1max)
You might also want to look at native playback at 24p or true 29.97 vs 30p and check the pulse modulation frequencies for the dark tones.
Smile… We might want to do that, provided you can describe what pulse modulation does and how we would check it?
there’s not much talk about PWM dimming, but I see the difference so clearly that I changed my monitor for one with DC dimming. This is even more important as you use a PWM Background light behind your monitor to match gamma and studiolighting in your suite.
In fact I choose to go for a two monitor setup: one for the apps and a dedicated one as the video viewer. The first is optimized for “Texting” and eyestrain, when writing the book, the second for color, when editing and grading.
These are two excellent articles. I encourage everyone to read them. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you Larry, yet another very helpful article. It sounds like you are going through what I just went through looking for an external monitor for my new MacBook Pro. I was also weary of seeing a monitor that could “fill in the spec”, but only if you could also stand on your head and rub your belly at the same time. I ended up just getting a 43″ QLED TV so I could at least see all the little-bitty icons in FCP. I figure at some point a monitor will be released that will have all the specs I need (and as you stated) at a price point and with technical specs I could understand and trust without having to hire a studio engineer to wade through all the info to figure out what was really going to happen when I plugged it in. Great, as always Larry!
Thanks for your kind words. I think the key for me is the pixel dimensions of the monitor and how the LEDs are configured.
SDI monitor connection is hard to find also, and expensive. Monitors for broadcast streaming switchers today are designed for SDI connectivity. Quality monitors for streaming studios are a challenge to find.
Keep in mind that SDI is a video standard, which is appropriate for a video monitor. Don’t confuse a video monitor with a computer monitor. They each have different functions. VoIP and NDI are two emerging video standards.
And, yes, video monitors are more expensive than computer monitors. First, because the market is smaller. Second, because image quality standards are higher. And, third, because of the interface.
This post, How to Pick the “Best” External Computer or Video Monitor – Combined with, What Makes a Monitor a Retina Display? make this the best resource for this subject I’ve ever read.
I hope as the market evolves with technology that he will continue to update this.
Very important information and very well done!
Thanks for your kind words. I love learning, and writing about this stuff.