Apple monitors are renown for their color quality, wide viewing angles, and beautiful design. They are indeed the holy grail of monitors, especially for designers and printers who need accurate color reproduction under a variety of lighting conditions.
But of course, many designers can’t afford to spend $800+ on a new monitor, as beautiful as it may be. So most head down to their local Future Shop or London Drugs to choose from the myriad of home-grade monitors made by major brands like Samsung, LG, Viewsonic and Acer.
Looking at consumer monitor choices, one tends to think of the toothpaste aisle. Here is a wall of shiny new monitors that all pretty much look the same and work the same. They have different sizes, their specifications are for the most part very close (not to mention blown out of proportion), and they’re all adjusted differently so it’s hard to tell what will be a great monitor for design work on a PC.
What makes an Apple monitor… or any high-end monitor special?
The key difference between a consumer-grade home monitor and a professional monitor is the technology used in the LCD display panel. There are several major technologies used in LCD display panels on the market today:
A TN Panel, which stands for Twisted Nematic, is the most common panel sold and is the type of panel you will find in 95% of consumer-grade monitors. These panels are cheap and good all around monitors for home and casual computer use. They are also great for gaming because they tend to have fast response times, which means that fast motion won’t look blurry. If you are a graphic designer however, they have several properties you certainly don’t want—narrow viewing angles and inconsistent color quality.
A VA Panel, which stands for Vertical Alignment, is the next technology up from the TN panel. Often labelled as S-PVA or MVA, they were designed to improve the problems TN panels had with shallow viewing angles and color quality. They offer a significant improvement over the TN panel in terms of viewing angle and color accuracy, but they suffer with slow response times. While this makes them a better choice for 2D design than a TN panel, they are certainly not as good for applications such as gaming, animation or video production.
The IPS Panel, which stands for Inline Plane Switching, is considered the best panel technology on the market today. Two common variations of this technology you will see are S-IPS and H-IPS, and these panels provide the best viewing angles (up to 178°) and color accuracy for graphic design and color sensitive applications. They also benefit from having better response times than VA panels, which makes them a better choice for all-around design use. This is the technology that is used in the famed Apple monitors, and you’ll be happy to learn that other manufacturers offer the same technology for a lot less!
Finding an IPS Panel Monitor
Update June 2014: Things have changed since I published this article in 2011. IPS panels are now becoming commonplace in box stores, and are clearly labelled on merchandise tags and the monitors themselves. Further, newer technologies like PLS have also been introduced. Prices are also quickly dropping, so you can easily find a 23-25″ IPS for under $300 now. I’ve left the original content of the article below, but you should have no trouble finding a decent quality IPS panel in your local box store anymore.
Once you know that you need to look for an IPS monitor, you’ll have trouble trying to find one at the local box store. Most box stores don’t carry IPS models on the shelves (due to the cost and the fact that the average home user doesn’t care about the benefits it provides.) Furthermore, many monitor manufacturers do not publish the panel type in their specifications.
So the best place to acquire an IPS panel monitor is to find one online. Major online retailers like NCIX.com and TigerDirect carry these monitors. They will range in price greatly, but you can find quality IPS panel monitors for under $300. Here are a couple of tips on how to locate an IPS monitor:
- Include the term “IPS” in your search keywords on retailer sites – for example, NCIX.com will often list “IPS” as a keyword in the title of the product making it easier to find.
- PC Hardware Help maintains a list of monitors which implement IPS technology. Some of the models may be older and out of stock, but you will likely find some great prices on a slightly older model.
I recently ordered two ASUS ML239H monitors after finding them on the PC Hardware Help list above, and they are absolutely fantastic. The viewing angle is just as good as an Apple monitor, and the color quality is far better than any TN panel I’ve worked on. Plus they look really stylish, and being LED-lit, they are very thin and light. For $230 bucks each, you can’t really beat that.
Apple monitors are still the holy grail of design views. They not only perform well, but they are so darn beautiful too. And if I had the budget for them, I would still get them. But if you are working on a budget, like most freelancers and small businesses are, you can find alternatives for much less which will drastically improve your experience with designing graphics.
Disclosure: I have no affiliation with NCIX.com, Tiger Direct, Apple, PC Hardware Help or ASUS. I simply provided these links/names for convenience.