Best computer monitor for graphic design

About a month ago, I decided to purchase another external monitor so I could do my design work from home when needed. Since starting my new job in August, I’d taken my primary external monitor to the office, which made working from home on my tiny laptop screen undesirable. My monitor at the office is a BenQ PD2700Q and I really love it, but since it had been a couple years since I purchased it, I figured I’d see about upgrading to something newer. I tried to do some research online, but almost all the articles I could find reviewing monitors were focused on gaming, which made display speed and resolution the greatest factors.

Since 4K is all the rage these days, I decided to try the upgrade from my 2K monitor. I found a 4K Samsung monitor (model LU28E570DS/ZA) with positive reviews and my local BestBuy happened to have one in stock. (Did you know that BestBuy will price-match Amazon? Now you know! BestBuy knocked almost $50 off the cost of the monitor because I found the identical monitor on Amazon and showed the cashier the lower price.) Excited, I went home and immediately set it up. I hated it.

 

Why the Samsung LU28E570DS/ZA sucked

While I’m sure it would probably be a great monitor for general office use and maybe even gaming (I don’t know – I’m not a gamer), it was absolutely horrible for graphic design use when colors and contrast are incredibly important. Here’s what was wrong with it:

  • Horrible viewing angle: At any given viewing angle, only about 2″ of the screen displayed at optimal color, contrast and brightness. Like those old monitors from the 90s, below this 2″, the screen would be too dark while the top portion appeared far too bright and washed out.
  • No adjustable stand: Maybe I had been spoiled by my BenQ, which allows 4 different screen adjustments (which I’ll detail below), but the Samsung monitor offered no screen adjustments. There was a stationary T-shaped stand that only allowed for a slight tilt – and attempting to tilt it at all made me feel as if I was going to break it.
  • Calibrated too warm: The Samsung had a very warm, yellowish tone and no amount of calibrating it could bring it within a reasonable neutral level to allow for proper color viewing.
  • Lack of color clarity: Attempting to work with brightness and contrast was also a headache, due in part to the viewing angle. Colors were either washed out or muddy. There was no great middle ground.
  • Scale of everything on the screen was weird (too big or too small): This has to do with resolution, which was a very confusing thing for me to digest, but I’ll explain it below.

 

Everything (and I mean Everything) you need to know:

Knowing these specific problems, I dived in and started doing more research about monitor types. So if you’re a graphic designer looking for the perfect monitor, here’s everything you need to know. (You can skip to the conclusion if you don’t actually want to know everything, but just want a quick “here’s what to shop for.”)

1. Monitor Resolution (2K, 4K…)

Understanding screen resolutions can be difficult, especially if you’re a Mac-user. Mac generally advertises the resolution of their displays in pixels per inch. Their “retina display” varies from 220 – 227 pixels per inch, depending on the size of the display. This makes sense to designers as it’s quite similar to thinking about about dots per inch in printing (thanks, Apple, for speaking our language).

2K and 4K are different. Rather than a pixels per-inch measurement, these are measured by pixel dimensions. A 2K monitor (also referred to as 1440p or QHD/Quad HD) will always have an approximate resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels. A 4K monitor (also referred to as UHD/Ultra HD) will always have an approximate resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels. No matter whether the screen is 27″ or 86″, the number of pixels does not change; the size of the pixels is what will change.

Now, if we translate this into pixels per inch (the language that designers like myself understand), this means that a 27″ 2K monitor has approximately 109 pixels per inch (please thank me for not explaining all the calculations I did to arrive at this number) while a 27″ 4K monitor has approximately 163 pixels per inch. Either way, that’s around half the resolution of a MacBook Pro.

Now, when you’re using your MacBook, your eyes are probably ±18″ away from the screen. At this distance, it is actually impossible to see individual pixels. Once you have a larger screen (mine is 27″), the monitor will naturally sit a little further away from you. At this distance, you will hardly notice a difference between a 2K and 4K monitor. It’s up to your budget to decide whether the extra 50-some pixels crammed into an inch are worth it. And you’ll definitely want to take monitor size into consideration before you just let your budget decide…

2. Monitor size

Scale was a factor in the things I said I disliked about the Samsung monitor. The mathematics behind this are about as clear as mud, but I’ll do my best to explain. Again, I’ll compare to a 15” retina display MacBook, which has a resolution of 2880 x 1800 pixels (rendered at 2x: the width of a pixel is made up by two screen pixels – clear as mud, right?). Now, let’s say a desktop icon is 60 pixels wide. This means that, on the MacBook, the 60px desktop icon will show up at slightly larger than 1/2 inch. Now, imagine a 28″ 4K monitor running at its native resolution of 3840 x 1440 pixels. On a 28″ 4K monitor, this same 60px desktop icon will show up at slightly larger than 1/3 inch. Nearly 1/3 smaller. Granted, you can use display scaling to adjust for the difference, but it will always be a bit weird. The resolution of the 27″ 2k monitor lends itself to a much more natural scale.

For a 4K monitor to have a more natural resolution, you’ll want to get a much large screen size. 32″ is probably the smallest that I’d recommend. In addition, a 4K monitor will be far more taxing on your computer’s Graphics Processing Unit (GPU/Graphics Card). Overall, a 4K screen as a monitor offers far more cons than pros. In my experience, a 27″ monitor is just about perfect for desktop design work. This size allows for ample working space without being overwhelmingly huge.

Here’s an article that explains the size thing well: Channel Pro Network article.

3. Monitor type (LCD TN, VA and IPS or LED)

Before the bad experience with the Samsung, I didn’t even know these different types of monitors existed. There are three types of LCD monitors: TN, VA and IPS.

  • TN (nope, nope, nope): Think back to monitors in the 90s when someone would want to show you a picture on the screen and it looked all weird unless you were directly in front of the screen. A TN screen has this kind of effect (and the Samsung monitor I bought had a TN screen). I won’t go into all the details of how light is filtered and polarized and what not (it doesn’t make sense to me anyway). Just know that TN screens have a horrible viewing angle, bad color quality and poor brightness and contrast: all the things I hated about the Samsung monitor – imagine that! (However, these monitors have the fastest display times, which makes them popular for gamers.)
  • VA (pretty good): VA monitors have a much better viewing angle than TN monitors. Typically, they’ll also be more budget-friendly than IPS monitors (explained below). While the viewing angle of a VA monitor will be far better than that of a TN monitor, it still won’t be as seamless as on an IPS monitor. Typically however, VA monitors do offer the best contrast ratio (darkest darks, brightest brights).
  • IPS (oh, yah!): IPS monitors are most popular among creative professionals because they have the highest quality color reproduction. Additionally, problems with viewing angle are eliminated meaning, the vibrant colors and contrast ratio will not shift or change based on your viewing angle. Speaking from my own experience, IPS is the way to go. (Because there can be greater latency in display, IPS monitors are not recommended for gaming, but we’re designers, not gamers.)

These two articles explain the differences well: Gear Primer article and Techspot article.

There are also LED monitors. I’ve not done as much research in this area, but here are my takeaways. Ultimately, if your budget can swing it, a high quality (full-array) LED monitor will provide the optimal image in terms of color, contrast ratio and viewing angle. However, when it comes to LED monitors, it’s harder to sort out the good from the bad than it is with LCD monitors. Whatever you do, make sure you steer clear of cheaper edge-lit LED monitors as they will actually be significantly inferior to an LCD IPS monitor.

 

My Recommendation: BenQ PD2700Q 27″ monitor

After returning the Samsung monitor, I bought a second BenQ PD2700Q. It’s just that amazing. What I love about my BenQ:

  • It has an IPS display so, no matter how I’m facing it, the colors are sharp and accurate.
  • The 2K display is the perfect resolution for desktop computing
  • 27″ is pretty much the optimal desktop size: it’s big enough to provide a superior-sized workspace without being entirely too large to handle
  • The screen can be adjusted on 4 different planes:
    1. Height. I can raise and lower the screen height by a good 6 inches.
    2. Rotation. The screen rotates up to 90º so it can display in portrait mode as well as landscape.
    3. Tilt. There is a significant ability to tilt the angle of the screen up and down.
    4. Swivel. I can easily swivel the screen quite a bit if I need to show progress to my coworkers.
  • It comes with HDMI cables as well as a DisplayPort/Thunderbolt cable for optimal graphics with Mac (and no need for a stupid dongle if you have a newer MacBook).
  • Some people like the split-screen DualView mode, though I don’t use it personally.
  • If you like listening to music while you work, there’s a convenient hook on the back for storing your headphones.
  • BenQ makes this line of monitors specifically for designers and creative professionals, so it’s optimized for us!

 

Conclusion: What to look for in a monitor

1. 2K is probably better than 4K

With a 4K monitor, you’ll have to deal with funky scaling. A 2K monitor will be the better product in most situations.

2. Between 27″ – 32″

I personally like the 27″ monitor and think 32″ is a bit too large. But depending on your needs, you may prefer the larger size.

3. IPS Display (LCD) or full-array LED display

If you’ve read nothing else of this article, this is the most important feature to look for in a monitor for any creative profession. An IPS display provides optimal viewing angle as well as the highest quality color rendering. You could possibly settle for a VA display if your budget demands it, but IPS will provide the best color reproduction – important if you’re a creative professional.

Ultimately, a full-array LED display will provide the very best possible picture quality (best colors, viewing angle and contrast ratio). However, the price point will also go up considerably. Additionally, while a full-array LED display has better picture quality than an IPS display, stay away from edge-lit LED displays as the picture quality is significantly worse. If you opt for an LED display, do a lot of research prior to purchasing as it’s a lot harder to distinguish good from bad.

4. Buy a BenQ DesignVue Designer Monitor

My personal recommendation, these monitors are optimized for creative professionals. I own two and absolutely love them (obviously, loved it so much that I bought a second). I have the 27″ PD2700Q (a 2K display), but there are other sizes and resolutions to choose from depending on your specific creative needs.

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