A few weeks ago, just before my keyboard died, my monitor momentarily flickered ever so subtly between displaying white as full white and white as soft pink. It happened so quickly, and the change was so faint, that at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Fortunately, a day or two later the same thing happened, allowing me to determine that the monitor itself was hinky.
While I have no qualms about opening up a keyboard to see if I can rectify a problem, or just about any other gadget you could name, I draw the line at messing around inside devices that contain potentially lethal capacitors. Combine that reticence with the flickering I had seen, and the low, staticky hum that had been building up in my monitor for the past year or two, and it suddenly seemed prudent to once again peruse the state-of-the-art display offerings available in the market before the very device I would need to rely on to do so failed completely.
(There are all kinds of things that can go wrong with a computer, and the most maddening aspect of all of them is that those issues immediately make it impossible to access the internet, which is where all the solutions are. If your operating system locks up you need to access another computer to research the problem. If your monitor dies you need to have another display on hand in order to order a replacement, which you would not need if you already had one on hand. Speaking of which, even if you use an add-on graphics card, the motherboard in your computer should always have its own graphics chip for exactly that reason. If your card dies — and graphics cards are always dying, or freaking out — you can still drive your monitor and access the web.)
As was the case with my venerable old keyboard, I was not at all surprised that my monitor might be at the end of its useful life. In fact — and you will no doubt find this amusing or absurd — I am still using a second-hand CRT that I bought in the mid-aughts for the lofty price of twenty-five dollars. While that in itself is comical, the real scream is that the monitor was manufactured in 2001, meaning it’s close to fifteen years old. Yet until a couple of weeks ago it had been working flawlessly all that time.
The monitor is a 19″ Viewsonic A90, and I can’t say I’ve ever had a single complaint about it. It replaced my beloved old Sony Trinitron G400, which borked one day without the slightest hint that something might be amiss. Scrambling to get myself back in freelance mode I scanned Craigslist and found a used monitor that would allow me to limp along until I found a better permanent solution. Eight or so years later here I am, still using the same A90. (In internet time, of course, those eight years are more like eight hundred. Not only were LCD’s, and later, LED’s, pricey back then, yet quite raw in terms of performance, but you could also reasonably expect to use Craigslist without being murdered.)
Between then and now I have kept track of changes in the price, size, functionality and technology of flat-panel monitors, and more than once researched display ratings with the thought that I might join the twenty-first century. Each time, however, three issues kept me from pulling the trigger.
First, while all that snazzy new technology was indeed snazzy and new, relative to CRT technology it was still immature, requiring compromises I was not willing to make in terms of display quality and potential effects on my eyes. Having always been sensitive to flickering monitors, I was not eager to throw money at a problem I did not have — or worse, buy myself a problem I did not want. (As a general rule, putting off any tech purchase as long as possible pays off twice, because what you end up with later is almost always better and cheaper than what you can purchase today.)
Second, at the time I was primarily freelancing in the interactive industry, which meant I was working with a lot of beta-version software that had not been fully tested with every conceivable display technology. Using lagging tech at both the graphics and display level meant I could be reasonably confident that whatever I was working on would draw to my screen, at least sufficiently to allow me to do my part.
Third — and this relates somewhat to the second point — one advantage CRT’s had and still have over LCD/LED displays is that they do not have a native resolution:
The native resolution of a LCD, LCoS or other flat panel display refers to its single fixed resolution. As an LCD display consists of a fixed raster, it cannot change resolution to match the signal being displayed as a CRT monitor can, meaning that optimal display quality can be reached only when the signal input matches the native resolution.
Whether you run a CRT at 1024×768 or 1600×1200 you’re going to get pretty much the same image quality, albeit at different scales. The fact that I could switch my A90 to any resolution was a boon while working in the games biz, because I could adjust my monitor to fit whatever was best for any game while still preserving the detail and clarity of whatever documents I was working on.
While imagery is and always has been the lusty focus of monitor reviews, there is almost nothing more difficult to clearly render using pixels of light than the sharply delineated, high-contrast symbols we call text. Because LCD/LED monitors have a native resolution, attempting to scale text (or anything else) introduces another problem:
While CRT monitors can usually display images at various resolutions, an LCD monitor has to rely on interpolation (scaling of the image), which causes a loss of image quality. An LCD has to scale up a smaller image to fit into the area of the native resolution. This is the same principle as taking a smaller image in an image editing program and enlarging it; the smaller image loses its sharpness when it is expanded.
The key word there is interpolation. If you run your LCD/LED at anything other than its native resolution what you see on your screen will almost inevitably be less sharp. While that may not matter when you’re watching a DVD or playing a game, interpolating text is one of the more difficult things to do well. Particularly in early flat panels the degradation from interpolation was considerable, making anything other than the native resolution ill-suited for word processing.
Answering the Native Resolution Question
As a first precept in buying an LCD/LED, then, I knew I would get the sharpest text by displaying images at any given monitor’s native resolution. Unfortunately, that insight told me nothing about what the ideal native resolution should be when working with text. In a just world that information would of course litter the internet, but as you’ve probably noticed by now there is no justice, and that’s particularly true on the web.
Ironically, while CRT’s have less problem displaying text at any resolution, back in the day most reviews of CRT’s included some commentary about the quality of displayed text. In the context of the CRT era, however, that made sense for two reasons. First, because the earliest CRT’s displayed text in visible pixels, and second because the heyday of the CRT overlapped the heyday of email as the killer app.
For a few years everyone was using text to communicate, and not just via pithy hot takes or taunts sent via text-messaging. People wrote whole sentences, using whole words, and even included punctuation, unfettered by restrictions about message length or functional limitations implicit in micro-sized thumb-powered keyboards. By the time the LCD/LED wave crashed ashore, wiping out CRT production in only a few short years, all that had changed. Today, email is essentially dead. (If you don’t believe me, send someone an email. You’ll hear back in weeks if you get a reply at all, because writing an entire email is now considered as arduous as penning a letter used to be.)
In concert with the wholesale move to mobile computing that is remaking the internet, the purpose and utility of large desktop displays has changed radically in the past decade. Where the desktop computer was primarily used for email, word processing and other productivity tasks, monitors today are primarily used for displaying imagery ranging from internet videos to games to television shows and movies. In effect, most of what people used to use a desktop for has migrated to the smartphone, leaving the desktop display to function like a television. (Which is of course why those two large-scale display technologies are rapidly merging into one.)
Unfortunately, the shift from productivity to clicking and staring has also had a marked effect on the way monitors are tested and reviewed. Where it used to be normal for tech sites to talk about text clarity because everyone was making use of that aspect of their display, today it’s almost impossible to gather information about which monitors are best for word processing. And that’s true even as the amount of information about which monitors display the prettiest pictures has exploded.
The Relationship Between Resolution and Scale
Learning that I would get the sharpest text by using any monitor at its native resolution was genuinely useful, but I knew other factors also came into play. For instance, there was my eyesight, my viewing distance from the display, and the way in which the software I was using (both OS and app) wrote information to the screen. In my research I also learned there was a nerdy tech debate about whether the correct term for screen resolution was pixels per inch (ppi) or dots per inch (dpi). While I’ll be using ppi going forward, whether you’re in the pixel camp or the dot camp the most important part of either term is the per inch part, because inches don’t vary.
An inch is an inch, or it’s not an inch. Take any type of monitor and you can use a ruler to measure how many inches it is across and vertically, and, if you’re a marketing weasel, diagonally, so you get an even more impressive number. Within any square inch of that display you can then count how many pixels there are, giving you the pixel density — which, coupled with the display’s height and width — will give you the monitor’s maximum (and also usually its native) resolution.
If you view that square inch up close, however, then view it while standing across the room, your impression of the clarity of whatever is being displayed in that square inch will change, even though nothing in that square inch has changed. It should be equally obvious that more pixels per inch provides more potential detail. If you imagine that a screen displays only 16 pixels per square inch, arranged in four rows of four pixels, any inch-high letters would be quite blocky, like numbers on an old LED alarm clock. By contrast, inch-high letters displayed on a screen with 100,000 pixels per inch, arranged in one hundred rows of one hundred pixels, could be quite detailed.
Unfortunately, there’s a less obvious problem that arises alongside the benefit of having more available pixels. If the software you’re using was written to show fancy inch-high letters using 100,000 pixels, and your display only has sixteen pixels per square inch, those fancy letters are going to look awful if they’re legible at all. The same problem occurs if your software guns sixteen-pixel letters to a screen that can show 100,000 pixels per square inch. Those letters will render so incredibly small — using only 16 of the 100,000 pixels available — that you will need a magnifying glass to find them.
That is the problem of scale. If you’re old enough to remember using a CRT you probably resolved that same problem — text or icons being too large or too small — simply by changing the resolution that your monitor displayed. With LCD’s and LED’s, however, we don’t have that luxury because of the need to stick with the native resolution as much as possible. That means, unlike with CRT’s, we need to consider both the pixels per inch of a monitor and the software we’ll be using in order to get the sharpest, most user-friendly text under real-world conditions.
The PPI Sweet Spot
After a lot of online reading, one little nugget of what I originally took to be hearsay kept popping up with regard to text. It was the idea of a pixels-per-inch sweet spot that would allow the operating system and applications to draw sharp letters to the native resolution of an LCD/LED, at viewing distances that most people considered normal or optimal. It was, in short, the exact number or range of numbers I was looking for, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
While variously reported, the ppi sweet spot for text on a Windows-based machine seems to be somewhere between 90 and 100 ppi, give or take a few ppi in either direction. Anything smaller and letters and icons get a little too big, while anything larger renders text that is too small to comfortably read. Unfortunately, while monitors today come with a dizzying array of performance statistics, most manufacturers don’t seem particularly concerned about ppi, probably because it’s only useful to the relatively small number of consumers who still use their desktop displays for word processing.
Fortunately, here the internet as a resource saved the day. It turns out that more than one enterprising individual has addressed that communal industry oversight with a calculator, by which commonly available display specs can be converted into a monitor’s true ppi. What surprised me most when I plugged in the numbers for different displays was that the wide range of monitor sizes in today’s market often produced ppi numbers well outside (and usually much higher) than the recommended sweet spot. Meaning if you bought such a display you would either be forced to put up with tiny text at the monitor’s native resolution, or forced to invoke interpolation, thus degradation the display quality.
After a lot of calculating and a lot of research I settled on a preferred ppi no higher than 96, which took into account my aging eyes and preferred monitor distance, which, at about thirty-two inches, tends to be a bit farther than most people use. Thankfully, that single ppi value in turn drastically cut down the number of monitors I needed to consider.
The next step was to consider any other relevant criteria and make a decision. Unfortunately, there’s something about computer technology that brings out the worst in marketing weasels. Whether it’s CPU’s or GPU’s or monitors, some number eventually comes to stand for performance supremacy above all other factors — including factors which are equally or even more important — and as a result the reporting of that number leaves reason behind. In the LCD/LED space that single spec is called response time.
If you’re care about text quality the last thing you need to be concerned about is the response time of your display. Even if you expect to play an occasional game or watch an occasional movie, you don’t need to worry about the response time of your panel, which will be rated in milliseconds. As it stands now, the gamer-centric tech universe is so fixated on response times that they are in some cases as low as 1ms, which is as low as you can go without stopping time. (I’m waiting for some manufacturer to get around that by reporting response times in nanoseconds.)
Much more important than pixel response time is the type of panel used in the display. For gamers who need fast response times the choice has been and still is to go with what’s called a TN panel. For word processing, however, a TN panel is less than optimal for a variety of reasons, making it easy to exclude them, including all TN variants. Much better is an IPS panel or one of the newer IPS variants, which used to be considerably more expensive but are now price competitive.
While refresh rates for CRT’s and newer flat-panel monitors aren’t equivalent in terms of their effect on the user, it’s still generally true that a faster refresh rate equals a more stable image. Because screen flicker has been a problem for me in the past, and because I don’t want it to be a problem in the future, I decided to look for an IPS panel that would allow me to increase the refresh rate above the industry norm of 60Hz. (Many newer TN panels have considerably higher refresh rates, often necessitated by their lightning fast response times, but the inherent drawbacks of a TN panel far outweigh that benefit.)
Speaking of flicker, you should also know about pulse width modulation (PWM), which is a hack solution to an obscure backlight problem. If you spend a lot of time staring at black text on a white background you do not want PWM. Instead, you want a backlight powered by direct current (DC), but you may have to dig into the monitor specs quite deeply — or even contact the manufacturer — to find out whether PWM is being used. (One of the few excellent monitor review sites includes an in-depth discussion about PWM, conducts testing to determine whether a monitor uses PWM, and keeps a database of the test results.)
The Eye Test
Whatever you think about the fact that I’m still using a CRT, by sticking with that tech I missed out on every configuration headache, color-balance headache, usability headache, backlight headache, and headache headache that early flat-panel adopters endured over that time frame. In choosing a new monitor I would have liked to base my final decision on a monitor I could see in person, but for a variety of reasons that wasn’t possible. Instead I had to go by specs, reviews, and consumer feedback. Because the cultural and market context of monitor usage has shifted so radically away from text, however, finding useful information about real-world monitor usage proved particularly difficult. One pleasant exception was a thread I found on another monitor review site, which addressed such issues directly.
If you’re interesting in buying a monitor that will abuse your eyes and mind as little as possible, I urge you to read or at least skim this discussion thread. If you have questions or have narrowed down your choices I think you will find that the forum moderator is also responsive to inquiries. (I can’t tell you how rare is it to find both a well-moderated forum and a responsive moderator.)
A related usability issue has to do with the amount and quality of light hitting the eyes. For people who spend hours working with text (writers and programmers, to name two groups), most of the screen displays as white with the text displaying as black. Depending on the display, that may mean your eyes are subjected to a great deal more light when compared with darker images at the same brightness settings, leading to fatigue and even brain-level effects related to the blue-dominant lighting that is a signature of LCD/LED technology.
Because black text on a white background is by definition high-contrast, it is often possible to greatly decrease the total amount of light coming from a panel without decreasing readability. Too, because most panels allow for changes in color balance, the white background can be shifted away from blue and toward a more pleasing yellow. In fact, some monitors actually come with presets that make such changes automatically — often called reading modes.
The 4K Question
You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz about 4K monitors lately. The short version is that 4K monitors pack four times as many pixels into a each square inch of screen real estate when compared with 1080p. (If you don’t know what 1080p is, don’t worry.)
For imagery that’s obviously a big plus because it means increased detail. As we’ve learned, however, for text and icons that massive increase in pixel density poses a serious problem. To see what I mean, here’s the response I got, early on, when I emailed NEC and asked which of their monitors would give me the sharpest text:
I would recommend the EA244UHD-BK. It’s a 4K monitor, 24″. It’s not terribly big but has a great resolution of 3840X2160.
Factually, that’s all true. The problem, as previously discussed, is that the ppi of a 3840×2160 monitor calculates out to a whopping 184, almost twice my ppi ceiling of 96, meaning any text or desktop icons would be incredibly small. Sure enough, when I read a few reviews of that NEC monitor, which were otherwise quite complimentary, I ran across this:
The EA244UHD is a stellar performer. My 4K test images were sharp and incredibly detailed but my Windows desktop icons and text looked ridiculously small on the 24-inch panel, a pitfall of packing so many pixels into such a small viewing space.
My mistake with NEC was asking for the sharpest text rather than the display most useful for word processing and general productivity. Still, in order to put the matter to rest I did some additional research, until this clip finally killed the idea of getting a 4K monitor:
The relevant commentary ends at 6:13, and once again emphasizes the critical relationship between hardware and software in terms of scaling and real-world utility.
Taken in sum my criteria quickly whittled the dizzying array of available offerings down to a few viable candidates. Capping ppi at 96 max, excluding TN panels and their variants, excluding any panel using pulse-width modulation, excluding 4K monitors, and placing real-world readability issues at the fore, I ended up with only a handful of 24″ monitors to consider, three of which were sold by Dell.
In order to determine which of their models would be best I contacted Dell and was at first surprised by their response. Where I thought I would want to get a ‘U’ model, which designates their ‘Ultrasharp’ line, when I specifically asked about the best monitor for word processing I was steered toward the ‘P’ model in their professional line. The more I continued to learn, however, the more I came to realize that the ‘U’ (and ‘M’) model did not meet my criteria for various reasons, which confirmed Dell’s recommendation. (Believe me, I have my issues with Dell, but nobody disputes the fact that they make, or at least sell, good displays.)
After considering monitors from several other manufacturers I finally settled on the Dell P2414H for all the reasons listed above. You can read comprehensive reviews of that monitor here and here. The site hosting the former review is one of the few that specifically discusses text, including showing native and interpolated screen caps. The latter review comes from the same site with the forum thread I linked to above. (In that thread — but not in the review — there was some uncertainty about whether PWM was used in the P2414H, but I confirmed with Dell that that was not the case. The P2414H uses DC power for the panel backlight.)
I ordered the monitor when I ordered my new keyboard, but the monitor arrived a full two days quicker. I unboxed it the old fashioned way, with neither ritual nor fetish, made sure it functioned with my machine and checked it for dead or bright pixels, then promptly packed it back up and set it aside until my ancient CRT finally gives up the ghost. Which, given that I haven’t seen any recurrence of pink flicker, it may not do anytime soon.
— Mark Barrett
Thank you for writing this Mark! As another person who stares at text on a screen for the whole day, every day, this a big deal for me.
Thanks for the note and glad it helped. 🙂
Carol Carmody says
Thank you very much for writing this article. I spend more than 13 hours a day on my computer for work, mostly dealing with text. I have been suffering from eye strain and researching better options. This was extremely helpful!!!
I’m really glad you found it useful. I kept looking for the same information for over a year (maybe more), at which point the lightbulb finally went on. Nobody was talking about text because everyone had moved on to graphics — either on snazzy new monitors/TV’s or handhelds.
And yet there are demonstrably as many worker bees using monitors/displays for text as there ever were, particularly in the software industry (coding). Long hours doing anything is bad enough, but when your tools are hurting you it’s awful.
I hope the eyestrain calms down. 🙂
(Follow-up tip: don’t be afraid to get a specific pair of glasses calibrated for the exact distance of the display you regularly use. Even if they never leave that location, they will pay for themselves in productivity and physical ease in a matter of weeks if not days.)
Carol Carmody says
Thanks, I will check out the glasses also! A couple of days off from work has definitely helped!
Paul Rolen says
Helpful article. did you research BenQ monitors which supposedly are designed to reduce eye strain? Did any fit your criteria?
While I was on the hunt I researched EVERYTHING in the marketplace. I don’t have specific memories of Benq models and why I discounted them, but my very dull memory is that they tended more toward TN panels, gaming displays, and a higher risk of flicker from Pulse-Width-Modulation.
At some point I think I just decided that Benq wasn’t the right manufacturer for me, but I know they make some good displays.
Awesome post, extremely helpful. What made you walk away from the Dell U series? I recently purchased a benq bl2410pt (24 inches 1900*1080 res) and I found it flickery and pixelated, even seem to be weird shadowing around letters in text. I’m giving it back but I’m afraid of buying another monitor with the same pixel density. I thought the tough extra resolution in the U series could make pixels a tad smaller and less of an eyesore.
I was originally attracted to the U series monitors because of their pixel density, but as noted in the post that’s a problem for text, because it requires interpolation, and for image files that come with the OS.
The U series are gorgeous monitors for imagery, but because graphics like desktop icons are pixel-specific, a very dense display renders those images very small. Not a huge problem for most, but if you’re trying to read the filenames on ten different text files you can see the problem.
At some point in the decision making process the math simply meant I had to exclude them from consideration.
Can you kindly tell me if Dell E2216H will be good for reading purposes? The 24inch model you mentioned is out of my budget. Also, what does the E series of Dell stand for?
I don’t think the Dell E2216H is what you want. If you go to this thread on the PCMonitors.info site and explain what you want out, and what your limits are in terms of budget or other needs, I think you will find them very helpful. (They know a lot more than I do.)
As for the ‘E’ series, I couldn’t find an explanation. In fact, the Dell site right now is a mess, with links to dead pages. (I had the same problem when I was buying my monitor, trying to understand the difference between the ‘P’, ‘M’, and ‘U’ series. They talk about them, but nowhere do they explain the differences.)
Good luck. 🙂
what about the Mac OS? Do you know if the same interpolation considerations are relevant there similar to Windows?
I am looking to buy an external monitor on top of Mac Air.
I know nothing about Mac as an OS, and only a little bit about their hardware, but as I understand it any LCD/LED display will necessarily look worse when interpolating text/images. It’s just the nature of the beast.
The only way I can think that Apple (or anyone) could get around the problem, would be to include different sets of images for desktop icons to be used at different resolutions.
For apps like word processing, you can of course zoom in-app (usually), so in that case the sharper the screen the better overall, but for any text which is a fixed size to begin with, I think you will always be better off going with the native resolution.
Peter O says
Thanks for a splendid explanation of how you went about making your choice.
Essentially my reading of text is during (generally extended) periods of internet research; something you seem to have overlooked.
I work quite a bit with email also and yes I even use punctuation.
Naturally I also watch downloaded video, often compressed movie files, so like mots folk in truth, my use varies quite a bit from day to day.
I am now at the point where my nearly 8 years old 17″ LCD monitor ( 12 msec response, 4:5 AR, 1280 x 1024 resolution, 60 Hz refresh). The spec sheet contains this note: “Self Image Function: This function provides the user with optimum display settings. When the user connects the monitor for the first time, this function automatically adjusts the display to optimum settings for individual input signals ……………………..
This sounds like a very useful function but I don’t know what the practical affects are.
Can you perhaps comment on why there seems no universal approach to text size when – seen when viewing various websites?
Again thanks for the info & effort.
I’m glad you found the post useful. It’s a visual world for the most part these days, but even something graphical like desktop icons can be severely affected in terms of usability if you don’t know how an OS will display on your hardware.
Regarding the “Self Image Function” in your current monitor, every hardware manufacturer faces the same nightmare. They can never know in advance what configuration of OS/motherboard/graphics you’re using, and how you may have tweaked or adjusted those components. My guess is that by ‘optimal’ they simply mean it’s likely to work best without a lot of fiddling, which they also don’t want you to do because then you’ll think the monitor’s bad when it’s actually some obscure setting that was changed. 🙂
There are many different ways you can check the calibration of your monitor, from the basics all the way up to standards used by graphics pros. I’ve never done that myself because I’m not worried about rendering anything exactly, but I know it can be pretty complex. (Search for ‘calibrate monitor’ or ‘calibrate display’, then filter by date, and you’ll find plenty of interesting posts on the subject.)
As for the text size on the web, it depends whether the text you’re looking at is an image or not. If it’s an image, you can have the same scaling problems that you have with desktop icons. If it’s text, you can zoom in using a browser (check under the ‘view’ settings), which will at least allow you to read as comfortably as possible.
Maybe the biggest change over the past few years is the move to mobile devices, where many web pages — and the text on them — is designed for small handheld screens. Because that text displays huge on a desktop it’s always clear and easy to read, but there can be problems going the other way — where text designed for a desktop simply displays too small on a handheld to be readable. (I switched this site over to a mobile-friendly design a year or two ago, and I’m glad I did.)
Surely you could just set a 4K monitor to act as a 2K monitor.
That is, instead of displaying 3840 x 2160 set it to 1920 x 1080. That way there’s no real interpolation it just uses a four hardware pixel square to display each logical pixel. The result should be a little better than what you would get from a native 1920 x 1080 monitor though at a premium price. When/if you want to look at pictures or watch video you could switch it back to its native resolution temporarily.
That’s a conceivable workaround, and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who gives it a try.
As you note, however, people who primarily work in text probably wouldn’t want to shell out a price premium for a 4K monitor, let alone for a GPU powerful enough to drive one in other applications.
Thank You. I buying on your recomendation alone. So glad I don’t have to do another “research project.” Now if only my eyesight lasts as long as my new monitor. Thanks again.
I think you’ll be happy — or at least I hope so.
Because any change has an obvious effect in the moment, give the new monitor a few weeks before you make any firm decisions. Things that bugged you at first will probably fade, particularly if your eyes are happy.
Alex Bujorianu says
This article is a bit inaccurate.
First off, there does exist a ’magic’ ppi, but it’s unlikely to be 96—unless you’re sitting three feet away from your screen. More likely, the number you’ll be looking at is 130ppi for desktop monitors and around 175ppi or so for laptop screens. This is the pixel density by which the human eye is no longer able to distinguish increases in pixel density, at typical viewing distances. (In Apple parlance, this is known as ‘Retina’.)
PPI is very important for text rendering because, if the PPI is below the Retina value, fonts will look fuzzy.
Also, while it’s true that higher pixel density equals physically smaller graphics on desktop OSs, these days modern operating systems are reasonably capable of scaling to whatever size you prefer.
Also, there are differences in how operating systems render fonts: Linux, for example, renders 12 pt font at 12pt, assuming you set the correct dpi in the settings. Font scaling in Linux is handled by Freetype and is independent of interface scaling. This is important, because other OSs like Windows scale fonts along with the interface (and since the interface only supports 25% increments, that means your fonts won’t render to their correct physical size unless your screen dpi is a multiple of 96, like 120, 144, 192, etc.)
Lastly, you don’t seem to have mentioned contrast. This is important, because low contrast screens have fonts that look closer to grey than black, and are therefore hard to read. The best technology in terms of contrast right now is OLED and SVA/AMVA, but I haven’t seen any high-PPI SVA screens and the only OLED desktop monitor I know of costs a few grand.
This article is incorrect. The author states that at higher resolution, the icons and words are smaller. You can simply increase the scaling. You just need to increase the scaling by 50% or 100%.
I have a 30” monitor at 2560 x 1600. I increased the scaling to 200%. And the texts look awesome. They look much crisper and better than 1920 x 1080. MUCH BETTER.
This comment is incorrect. Yes, I did say that icons/words are smaller if you increase the resolution, which is true. That is in fact why you then point out that you can scale those assets larger — which I also pointed out in the article. Did you read the whole article? No, of course not.
If you had read the whole article, you would know that one of the problems with increasing scaling is that not all monitors handle that well, because they use interpolation. That is in fact one of the main points of the article, which, if you had read the whole thing, you would have known.
Thank you for your research and article. I was wondering, however, if “interpolation” is such a problem, how Apple has accomplished the Retina mode. In my opinion, mac’s built-in 4K and 5K displays provide best text on the market. Those Retina macs do not use native resolution but by OSx’s default use Hi-DPI mode. In other words, they use scaling technology, displaying HD size images/texts on 4K/5K display. Basically, texts in mac’s Retina display are scaled by OS, and I don’t see any interpolation problem in their built-in displays. If third party 4K/5K displays (for 21.5″ and 27″ displays) are as much compatible with OSx as their choice of built-in monitors (their display panels are from Samsung and LG), we won’t see any “interpolation” problem. Or at least Apple engineers didn’t see much problem when they built Retina macs. Therefore, the interpolation problem seems insignificant, or OSx can effectually handle the problem. For the best text reading option, I believe Retina-level rendering of text (not simply considering the amount of pixels in display but also pixel density and angular pixel density with some scaling or Hi-DPI mode) is ideal for the readers of digital texts.
The great strength of Apple as a company is that it is a closed technological system. Where the PC world involves all sorts of kludging and finagling of hardware with software — all of it made by different providers — Apple profits (figuratively and literally) by being a closed system.
As such, when Apple puts together a new device, it can usually produce better overall results simply because it controls all of the key variables. Retina displays are in themselves quite impressive, but if you plug one into a system which is not also running an Apple OS and Apple API’s, you’ll find the same interpolation problems — albeit perhaps less noticeable because of the pixel density.
I did look at Apple/Retina displays when I was writing the post, but because I don’t run an Apple or Mac system there was simply no advantage and often considerable extra cost. If you’re already using an Apple machine I’m sure a Retina display would work great, because again Apple anticipates the ability to control all of the variables that make its output so impressive.
You might find the following article interesting:
Finally. THE informative article I’ve needed on monitors. And with a bonus. It’s a witty, entertaining, and fun read. No small accomplishment for such a technical treatise. I and my old eyes thank you.
Thanks, Fred — glad it was useful. 🙂
Hi – Need to read a lot of text and wanting to connect lap top to screen – your article was very helpful. Just because I get confused with the various product codings is the one listed below the updated version ( as at June 2016 ) of what you recommend – Many thanks in advance – Patrick :
Dell P2414H – LED monitor – 24″ – with 3-years Premium Panel Exchange service
24″ ( 23.8″ viewable )
1920 x 1080 Full HD
View more details
I wasn’t able to find the product code you posted on any of my docs or on the monitor itself. I went to the Dell site to check the info for that monitor, but on this page — http://www.dell.com/ed/p/monitors — the P2414H is no longer listed.
Dell has been through a lot of transition over the past couple of years, from taking itself private to trimming its product lines, so that specific monitor may no longer be for sale — at least from Dell. You may be able to still find it in a reseller’s pipeline, and if it says P2414H, I would think it would be the same monitor.
For anyone else coming to this post, your best bet is to use the criteria in the post to narrow your choices among monitors currently on the market. If you check other websites (linked in the post) for the latest recommendations, I’m sure you can come close to an equivalent.
Update: As of 08/16, The P2414H still seems to be available on Amazon, so maybe Dell did change their distribution system to third party resellers after the company was taken private.
Thanks very much for v helpful reply
I was researching to buy my monitor for about a week (i hate that all guides for monitors are focused on gaming, gaming and gaming)
After reading this guide and considering a lot of monitors, even 2k and 27 inch and productivity guides which recommended 24″ displays, i decided to follow your recommendation and I’m now sitting on my new Dell P2414H and loving it!
Previously had an old LG 19″ TFT.
I also connected my keyboard, mouse and external USB soundcard to the monitor hub and only have one usb being used on laptop which is connected to USB 3.0 (I notice more lag if i connect to the 2.0 instead).
Any recommendations on this monitor preset modes? Do you use Text or a custom one with different values, even more optimized for text editing?
When I first got the monitor I made myself leave it alone for a couple of weeks, just to avoid tweaking myself into insanity. As a result, all I’ve ever done is adjust the brightness for the room it’s in, which is usually dark.
I’m sure I could go calibration crazy given the right incentive, but I honestly never noticed the monitor unless something gets on the screen.
What do you recommend for a 30″ display with best text quality?
2560×1440 97 dpi
2560×1600 100 dpi
Currently my dpi is 82 on a 27″ monitor and I use no scaling. Some of the icons and text seem small to me, but I use computer glasses calibrated to about 30″
You raise two important points here, which I’m going to deal with in reverse order.
In a comment above, over a year ago, I added a note that using glasses calibrated for your screen distance was a smart move. I should have been much more emphatic about that point.
If you — meaning anyone — do a lot of work at a computer, then just as you would spend money on a good chair, you should spend money on a pair of glasses calibrated for your screen distance. (If you’re young and your eyes are still strong you may be able to get by without them, but I would recommend glasses before even worrying about which monitor to get.)
On the 30″ settings, if you’re looking at two different monitors, and all other things are equal, I would suggest trying to see them in person before you buy. My gut tells me the 2560×1440 / 97 dpi would probably be preferable for text, but I’m really guessing, and there are so many other variables.
Also, it’s possible that they might both be within your personal tolerances, meaning whichever one you got you would probably be happy with after three or four weeks. (Like a new pair of glasses, your brain — meaning, literally, your brain — will habituate to a new display. Things that seem a little distracting will disappear, and as long as you can read comfortably, you’ll be able to work without the monitor getting in the way.)
Thanks. What about this monster?
32″ but only at 1920×1080 so looking at a 68 DPI. I would expect real jagged pixels but the reviews do not suggest that is a big problem.
Turns out 30″ at 2560×1440 or x1600 are fairly pricey.
I looked at some of those huge (and at that time brand-new) monitors back when I wrote the post, and I looked at that one and a few others over the past week or two, but my reaction to them hasn’t changed. They’re really cool, but also complete overkill for anything I need.
I also have no experience working side-to-side on documents, but I think I would find that eye movement more distracting over time than looking up and down at two windows stacked vertically. (That’s obviously a guess.)
As for comments in reviews, that was really the genesis of the post. I read review after review of monitors that were analyzed from every possible perspective — except text. Most reviews didn’t even address the issue, and those that did offered a sentence at most, and then only if the appearance of the text was truly poor, either in size or resolution.
If you don’t see a negative word about how a monitor displays text, don’t assume that it passes your own requirements.
I have this 32″ monitor and am trying it out. Experiencing no problem moving my eyes around. Really things do not look much different but I can fit some more lines of text on the screen, but if you use the two page view of a PDF, for example, does not look a lot different versus the 27″. Split screen works a little better.
The screen is glossy and is like a mirror if you have a lot of light behind you, but that is not noticeable if you do not and once you get used to it. I’m going to keep trying it another week or two.
Hello Mark (and others in pursuit of finding the right monitor for text),
How about the new DELL Professional P2417H. This provides a nice upgrade over the existing P2414H. I hope this will be also PWM free like the earlier 2414H. However I could not find anyone confirming it online since no review done yet on pcmonitorsinfo? Please let me know if someone is using it and has tested for flicker free performance. Thanks
I looked at the specs —
— and didn’t see any red flags, but with new products I’m always in the lagging camp. I know it’s fun to be an early adopter, but those people also find all of the problems.
Keep your eye on the display-centric sites recommended in the post, and any others that have sprung up in the interim. They’ll flag the monitor if there’s a problem.
Hi Mark and SUD. As a software developer I am also want to have better monitor for text reading. Thanks for a great research – a big help for me to make a “right” choice he-he). At least I will have more believe in it.
Comparing p2417h vs p2414h I notice that old one has 6bit+FRC( Frame rate control), while p2417h has 8bit for the color depth:
Which means should have less flickering and hopefully less affect on eyes strain.
* FRC –
But still no signs whether it is pwm free or not (.
Mike Wallbridge says
Hi, Interesting article. Thank you. You make the comment: “For word processing, a TN panel is less than optimal for a variety of reasons,” without enlarging on it. Can you say why please? The monitors I’m checking out that have anti-flicker technology and low blue light settings, are either VA or TN. IPS screens with those facilities seem to be much more expensive.
As a general rule (and as you probably know), TN panels are built for graphical speed — game playing being one obvious application, but also video editing, watching movies, etc. Working with text, on the other hand, is probably the slowest thing you can imagine doing on a display next to staring at a fixed image, meaning all of the aspects of a TN panel which are designed to favor speed are effectively useless in that application. (It is not necessarily the case that text on a TN panel will look bad, but working with text on a TN panel is a bit like using a Ferrari to move little old ladies and their groceries around town.)
In my personal experience, I’ve had two problems working with text on TN panels, and they’re related. When you’re working straight-on at a TN panel, you may not notice much problem with text. But if you ever have someone lean in to look at something you’ve written, or you try to do that yourself (say, if you happen to be standing), the limited angle of view can be a problem. With VA or IPS you get a wider range, which means you also get a little bit more leeway in terms of where you sit from one moment to the next. Shift to the right or left a bit at a TN panel, and you may suddenly notice a change in color or clarity.
What I have also noticed, however, is that at times the simple sweep of my eyes seems to produce shimmering or other text effects, and I think that’s due to the change in the angle of my vision, even if I hold my head still. As you can probably tell from the post I’m pretty sensitive to things like that, and a VA or IPS panel just seems more stable somehow.
In the end, I guess I should have put more emphasis on my own bias, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to do that here. If TN panels don’t bother you — and they don’t produce any flicker — then in terms of resolution you might not have any issues. And I agree that TN panels are usually considerably cheaper. (I looked at some very pricey IPS screens, but they were overkill price-wise and feature-wise.)
Hi! Great post, thanks a lot, so nice you shared it.
I have a question for you, what do you think about Samsung S24D300H?
It’s a really fast TN panel, so it looks like it would be great for games/movies. I don’t know about long hours working on text, but the simplest solution would be to find one that you can see in a local store.
(I think one of the biggest problems with displays is that it’s just getting harder and harder to ‘try before you buy’ — and yet I don’t blame retailers for not wanting to carry products that people may look at, but then buy online at the cheapest price. I don’t think that matters much with motherboards and hard drives, but monitors are different.
seth ness says
regarding interpolation, with vector based fonts and zooming, can’t i adjust text in email, web browsers and word processors to any desired size without interpolation?
I love vector graphics for the reason you say — they’re endlessly scalable without a loss of detail — but they also have limitations, which is probably why they’re not universally used for computer graphics. If a font is vector-based, it will look good until the actual physical limits of the monitor come into play at the pixel/phosphor size. At that point, various graphical tricks are actually useful for tricking the eye, and yet I think vector graphics precludes such tricks. (It’s easier for the eye to be fooled by something a little blurry than by a clean line which is broken in places.)
I don’t know that anyone will ever solve the display problem in a university sense because there will always be physical limitations. Because most software is designed to work on all kinds of hardware — Apple being the obvious exception — I think there will always be situations where there is no perfect solution. Fortunately, the human eye is pretty forgiving, so it’s not so much a question of finding the perfect solution as it is one that isn’t fatiguing. Avoid the real problems — flickering screens, fuzzy fonts — and I think most people will be fine.
seth ness says
thanks. i will have a mac and i’m leaning towards the 4k version of the dell monitor you recommend. P2515Q. its IPS, no PWM and 4k. it seems you can set HiDPI mode and it will be just like a 1920 monitor in terms of size of text and interface except twice as sharp, if i understand correctly.
Sorry for the delay in responding…..
The 4K displays that I’ve seen testing on are all gorgeous, but they still seem to rely on scaling to handle OS icons and such. If those images don’t exist in larger versions, they may end up displaying as ultra-sharp but blocky versions of themselves when you increase their size — if that makes sense. (The one sure way around that is to use vector graphics, but vector graphics don’t allow for a lot shading.)
As always, the best advice I can give, after you’ve homed in on a display or two via specs, is to see that monitor in person. You’ll usually know almost immediately if it will work for you or not.
A superbly helpful post. I use my desktop for writing. Any thoughts on “flicker free”? Which BenQ are touting a lot. Is/was your recommended Dell a flicker free piece of equipment?
The Dell in the post is ‘flicker free’ to the degree that it does not use (or did not use at the time of the post), pulse-width modulation (PWM):
Beng are advertising ‘flicker free’ as a feature —
— and if you drill down into the ‘features’ for a given monitor you find this:
That sounds like maybe they have eliminated PWM from those displays, but I would ask around on some of the tech sites to be sure. (You can’t trust marketing weasels not to stretch the truth.)
Thank you for your detailed article. As a result, I purchased the newer model of the P2414H that you got, which is the P2417H. I called Dell to confirm that they use DC power for the panel backlight instead of PWM for that one, and indeed they do. Thumbs up.
Thank you for your guide about preventing eye strain and help us to get healthy eyes. These are really important for our eye health and I will definitely listen your advice. Check out these too:
Hi! Wonderful analysis, thanks for that. Do you have any suggestion regarding laptops’ displays? Taking into account the size, what would be a good option to spend a lot if time reading and writing?
I thought about this a while, but I’m not sure the calculus is any different. The biggest change between most desktop monitors and notebooks/laptops/tablets is that the former are usually farther away from the eye, and thus need to be larger to occupy the same area in the visual field.
Back in the day it was always better to be farther away from a CRT because your eye simply couldn’t resolve the pixels at greater distance, but as even a mid-level smartphone makes clear these days, individual pixels are difficult to detect at mere inches. And of course on a smartphone you can have much-smaller imagery and text simply because those devices are held closer to the eye.
So…I think the best advice I can give is to make sure you’re in the ‘sweet spot’ in terms of specs, then do what you can to get a real-world look at any laptop you’re considering. Between those two steps, I don’t think you can go wrong.
(I have never been one of those people who can work long hours on a laptop, but I think the closeness of the focusing distance — as opposed to the clarity of the display — is the main factor. for me. My desktop display is always between two to three feet from my eyes, depending on whether I’m leaning forward our leaning back.)
Unbelievably awesome post. My CRT finally made a strange click sound, emitted a noxious burning smell, and died. Like, DIED died. Then I found this post! Thank you!! I thought I was the only one suffering from blurry text issues. So many folks I’ve asked don’t even see the blurriness and it was suggested that maybe it is me?!!? But my 40-year old eyes are fantastic, thankyouverymuch. I just write all day and cannot STAND the text on this sad, sad, sad LCD flatscreen I’m borrowing while I hunt a new CRT monitor down on Craigslist. Now I have other options!! Thank you SO SO SO MUCH.
Craig Lore says
Mark, thanks for your review. I looked all over to find a review that specifically addressed the reading of text onscreen–I’m a college professor reading papers on the monitor. Yours was the best, though two years old. I settled on the upgrade version the P2417H. I hope they didn’t tweak it too much from the earlier one that you wrote about. It’s too bad, also, that you aren’t linked to Amazon so that we can click on the product from your blog and credit you with some extra cash. Thanks again, and BTW Dell is currently having a sale on the P2417H, knocking $60 off the price to $239, BUT Amazon has a sale $60 lower than that for $179. I also purchased the soundbar and still got under Dell’s sale price.
I appreciate the sentiments about linking to Amazon, but I made a decision a long time ago that I wouldn’t have any ads on this site, including affiliate links. I did that because I didn’t want anyone to wonder why I was writing whatever I was writing about, whether sane or loony.
(If anything, I’ve hardened in that view over the years, and as the recent ‘fake news’ debate has raged, I can’t help but think that almost everyone involved, including flagship news organizations, have crippled their own credibility by chasing money at every opportunity.)
I’m glad the post is holding up. I think you should be on pretty safe footing with the monitor you chose, and that your eye/mind/brain will settle in after a week or two. (Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.)
Bhupinder Singh says
Thank you for the excellent information. Most sites/posts that I read only talked about images and videos but yours was the first one which talked about text. I spend 8-10 hours a day looking at text (code/logs) and the issues you talked about affect me all the time. Thank you again for sharing your findings !
Hi Mark, Great site. As a text crispness ‘fanatic’ it is, as you say, impossible to find a retailer who displays their monitor in text mode….it is always video of some kind. We do live in an increasingly image-centric world.
My question is twofold: first, the display. There seems to be some satisfaction with the Dell P2417H display. That is an HD screen; max resolution is 1920×1080. Is the text produced at that resolution, and on a 24 inch screen, sufficiently sharp? That’s a big screen for that resolution.
As an idea, what do you think of a 2560 x 1440 monitor (a higher resolution)? Dell makes the P2416D.
Second question has to do with the chip and graphics card needed. How much is truly needed to produce a sharp image. Intel Gen 4-6 chips and integrated graphics cards can produce 4k. But as you say, 4k may not be the greatest solution for us folks who work with text all day.
Thanks for any ideas. Maybe older computers and HD screens are just fine and all the high priced stuff isn’t necessary to produce crisp text.
It seems paradoxical (or at least nonsensical) that there can be so much useful data about screen resolution, yet the most important factor in choosing a monitor is simple subjective experience. What does it look like to you?
The reason I think the subjective element is important is because we all have the capacity to think in utopian absolutes, but that doesn’t mean something lesser will interrupt our ability to work. In the abstract, we may feel like we deserve or should have better tools, but if we never really find ourselves disrupted while working with lesser specs, what’s the difference?
I mention that because — as you note — I have those same tendencies, but over time I’ve realized that’s all they are. Give me the choice and I prefer a gleaming chrome Snap-On wrench for all kinds of reasons, including the feel, but if all I need to do is turn a nut I can do that with a rusty spanner….
So the broad answer to your questions is that you should do whatever you can to see the resolutions you’re asking about on real-live monitors. It helps if you can check them on a monitor you’re interested in, but even if that’s not possible, you can look at 1920×1080 on just about any 24-inch monitor and determine whether that combination would work for you. (That used to be a little trickier with CRT’s because of the difference in pixels/masks, which made a big difference in how images and text actually displayed.)
As for numbers/specs, as I noted in the post, I found that 96 ppi was my ‘sweet spot’, and regardless of the size of a monitor or its max res, that seems to hold true across all displays. For the numbers you cited (or any others), you can plug them in here and get a quick calc:
So 1920×1080 at 24 inches would be 100.13 ppi (pretty close) , while 2560 x 1440 at 24 would be 122.38 ppi (too small for me).
As for the amount of processing power needed to produce clear text, my guess would be that it is almost negligible — particularly given the power of the latest hardware. I’ve seen perfectly clear text on computers that were ten (or probably twenty now) years old, so I don’t think that’s a concern even on a 4K monitor.
So yes, I agree with this:
I don’t think money is a factor in the quest for clear text on a desktop display. It’s mostly the ppi that works best for you, followed by all of the other truly subjective stuff. For gaming graphics, yes, more money will usually produces a better result, but not for text.