HDR hotness, uber-res 4K panels and the messiah of 27-inch IPS monitors are all very well. But what is a parsimonious PC gamer to do if she or he just wants a decent screen at a price mere mortals can afford? Take the advice I’m just about to give you, that’s what. In fact, you’ll probably be surprised what a limited budget now buys you. Beyond the jump you’ll find everything from sub-£100 screens from 40-inch 4K wonders to high-refresh honeys, and none of them breach the £300 barrier. What’s more, the ghastly spectacle of consumerism that is Black Friday is imminent. Which means now is undeniably a good a time to buy.
First a proviso. For the purposes of this contest for your cash, I’m going to deal with new monitors available from major retailers. Rolling the dice on something second hand or from South Korea via eBay can make a lot of sense. But it’s just too complicated to cover off all those options editorially.
Similarly, I’m going to major on UK pricing here. But what with the pound plunging to new depths seemingly by the day, the dollar figures for these screens are now very similar. At most, add about 10 per cent. As for the £300 cut-off figure, it is inevitably arbitrary. But most of the screen options covered here come in well under that number.
1. Frills-free 1080p TN
This is where the fun starts. And it starts for well under £100. The main attraction here will be for those of you soldiering on with something really ancient, say an old 20-inch 1,680 by 1,050 panel or, god forbid, a 17-inch 1,280 by 1,024 effort. If so, you owe it to yourself to grab an upgrade.
For about £80 you can bag a 22-inch 1,920 by 1,080 from a big brand like BenQ, Acer or Iiyama. In return, you’ll get a nice step up in detail and desktop space, along with decent pixel response. £90 buys you something similar, but 24 inches across. Just remember the resolution is the same, so there’s no more detail and indeed the net result is a fatter pixel pitch compared to a 22-inch model.
Either way, what you won’t get is particularly vivid colours or expansive viewing angles. Nor will you get much by way of frills. Minimal inputs and a tilt-only stand pretty much sum it up
I’d probably go for something like the £85 Iiyama Prolite E2283HS-B1. Iiyama generally doesn’t mess about and this model has both DVI and HDMI for improved connectivity options where many in this segment have only DVI.
The only caveat here is that if your old screen is actually a nice IPS effort, there could be a little trade off in terms of colours and viewing angles.
2. Super-cheap IPS and VA fare
For just a whisker more, believe it or not, you can opt for superior panel tech in the same 22-inch, 1,920 by 1,080 pixel format. Both IPS and VA panels are available for £90-95.
I say superior. All the really cheap IPS screens I have seen have been 6-bit affairs in terms of colours per channel and not all that impressive regards overall image quality. They tend to lack the punch and vibrancy you normally associate with IPS. That said, for under £100, there’s only so much you can expect and they are still marginally preferable to a cheap TN. Lag and pixel response are both typically acceptable, incidentally.
An alternative is BenQ’s 22-inch GW2270H which goes for just £90 is not only VA but also claims to do proper 8-bit per channel colour. Thanks to the VA panel, contrast and black levels should be good. That’s awfully impressive for the money.
A possible problem could be pixel response, typically a weak point for VA screens. But I haven’t seen this monitor in the flesh. If you can find one on display to try before you buy or source one from a vendor with a friendly returns policy, it could well be worth a look.
3. Cheap TN plus FreeSync
The next step up is 22-inch and TN again, but now with FreeSync. AOC’s G2260VWQ6 ticks those boxes for just £110 or £120 for a similar 24-inch model. As much as I like the idea of frame syncing tech, personally I wouldn’t bother. That’s because I’ve yet to see FreeSync implemented properly on any screen, let alone one at this price point. That said, both of those AOC models are gaming centric with 1ms response times which means you can probably treat the FreeSync feature as a frill. Just remember you’ll need an AMD graphics card.
In short, if frame syncing is a must-have, Nvidia’s G-Sync is the way to go. Problem is, it’s far more expensive. And of course you’ll need a recent Nvidia GPU, too.
4. 27-inch 1080p
The next category involves a big step up in panel size, but no additional pixels. So that’s 1,920 by 1,080 or 1080p Full HD on a 27-inch panel. For pure gaming, this makes a lot of sense. You get a big, bold screen for not a lot of money and it’ll be a good match for a modest graphics card.
The downside is a relative lack of sharpness. 1080p on a 27-inch panel really does make for very fat pixels. That’s primarily an issue for non-gaming applications. So it comes down to how you plan to use it. I’d steer clear of this option if it’s for your do-everything primary PC.
Still, £150 buys you both TN and VA options. The TN choices will typically be better for gaming with less chance of picking up a model with either piss poor pixel response or horrid input lag. Acer’s G276HL with a TN panel rocks in at 1ms for the aforementioned £150.
The VA alternative, including Acer’s own KA270H, can be had for the same cash and offers the tantalising prospect of better colours and contrast. But the risks are high with this type of panel regards poor pixel response and input lag. Take great care.
5. High-feature 24-inch
Bit of a complicated category this one. For around £230 to £260, you have a choice of 24-inch models that offer some intriguing gaming-relevant tech. I’m talking G-Sync, 1440p resolution, IPS panel tech and high refresh. The snag is that you can’t have all of them in a single screen.
If first person shooters are your thing, I’d pick the TN high-refresh option. The AOC G2460PF ticks that box in TN format with some added FreeSync action for £230.
For everything else, I’d lean 1440p – in other words, 2,560 by 1,440 pixels – with the proviso that it comes with a significant uptick in GPU load compared to a 1080p panel. In this category, I like the smell of the Acer Predator G247HYU. It combines 1440p with IPS and is expressly pitched as a gaming monitor, so you’d expect Acer to have made sure that input lag isn’t an issue. For £230, it could well be a winner.
Just remember that 1440p on a 24-inch panel will mean pretty small pixels. That’s great for sharpness. But if you have slightly dodgy eyesight, it could be an issue for desktop work.
6. 27-inch 1440p
Speaking of 1440p, for some time now the sane-money sweetspot has arguably been that resolution on a 27-inch panel. Pricing here can be quite variable, but the options are TN or IPS panel technology.
I’ve seen quite a few 27-inch 1440p TN panels, including the really expensive Asus Swift efforts, and none have impressed me with their basic image quality. But there’s definitely much more detail and sharpness than a 1080p panel at this size.
Anyway, if speed and response are major priorities, something like the TN Iiyama Prolite B2783QSU-B1 for about £250 makes sense. Otherwise, I’d pick an IPS version with its gorgeous colours and far superior viewing angles and settle in for several years of very enjoyable gaming and general computing for a whisker under £300. BenQ’s GW2765HT ticks all those boxes for £299.
7. 28-inch TN 4K
This is a problematical category but it does just slip under the £300 barrier. It’s problematical because you’re going to need one hell of a graphics card to drive a 4K panel properly in modern games. And if you can afford that GPU, are you going to cut corners on the screen?
That said, this species of panel represents by far the best TN tech currently available. It offers far, far better colours and contrast than any other TN category. So, it’s not just about those eight million pixels.
In truth, I see these screens more as the cheap option for accessing massive desktop space rather than really gaming centric. But they are very nice screens for the money and might make sense for some of you. If so, the action starts with the likes of the AOC U2879VF for £299.
8. Super-wide screens
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of 29-inch super-wide 21:9 aspect screens. The problem is that the modest 1,080 vertical resolution has always felt too restrictive on such a large screen. So, my £250-£300 would always go on a 1440p monitor, especially for a multi-purpose panel.
Unfortunately, super-wide 34-inch panels with 1,440 vertical pixels remain painfully pricey. Anyway, for pure gaming, super-wide can be serious fun so the 29 inchers have their niche. LG does the 29UM68-P, which packs 2,560 by 1,080 pixels in that 21:9 29-inch form factor. It’s IPS and supports FreeSync, too. Nice package for £260.
9. 4K HDTVs
Major caveat here: I’ve haven’t tried using a 4K TV as a monitor, so this category is somewhat theoretical. However, on paper it makes sense. Most cheap 4K TVs now include HDMI 2.0 connectivity, so you can drive them happily at 60Hz assuming your graphics card is similarly equipped.
My main fear involves possible input lag. But if you can try before you buy or snag one from a retailer happy to take returns. At this price point – ie around £300 – you’re looking at a lesser known brand and something like a 40-inch Hisense M3300. And of course you have the standard 4K problem, which is driving all those pixels smoothly in games.
But my daily screen is a 40-inch 4K panel that may technically be a monitor, but is based on TV tech and I’d struggle to go back to something with fewer pixels, that’s for sure.
10. Offbeat oddities
As if all the above weren’t enough to be getting on with, there are a number of weird and wonderful categories I haven’t covered. How about Samsung’s C27F591, for instance? It’s 27-inch, it’s got a VA panel, it’s 1080p, it’s got Free-Sync and it’s curved – in a 16:9 ratio. Yours for about £260. Weird, but who knows, maybe brilliant.
It’s just one example of a screen that doesn’t fit into a standard category. In practice, most of these odd-ball options probably won’t make sense. But if you have very specific requirements, it’s remarkable just how many options you now have below £300.
Where would your money go?
I’m pixel-count and panel-size glutton, so I would personally try to make a 4K 40-inch TV work and probably regret the effort.
But, actually, two categories stand out. The first is 27-inch 1440p IPS. It’s a great all-round compromise for detail, GPU load and basic image quality. It’s still the sweet spot in many regards.
The highly compromised and yet awfully appealing alternative is 28-inch TN 4K. Driving the pixels is a pain. But these screens prove TN panels can be pretty and the inherent future-proofing of the 4K resolution is awfully compelling.
Anywho, shout out your own personal panel peccadilloes below and remember to check our Black Friday 2016 Best PC Gaming Deals article for a regularly updated roundup when the real deals begin.