The golden age of computer monitors

Your display is probably the most important aspect of your ergonomic interaction with your computer. Recent advances are nothing short of amazing.

Last summer I traded in my trusty but aging Dell XPS all-in-one desktop for a new HP Envy workstation. I was excited about taking advantage of the speedier processor and terabyte of solid-state storage. But what has really been transformative about the experience is the display. The 3840 × 2160 resolution (4K in industry lingo) effectively quadrupled the amount of screen space, making it possible to pack my desktop with more open windows than ever. The crisp graphics even make working with a full-screen Word document a joy.

When it comes to choosing a work computer, the monitor is usually the last thing people think of, but when you consider how many hours each year most of us spend staring at screens, the display is one of the most critical parts of the experience. Now that many of us are choosing our own devices for work, it’s worth looking at what’s coming down the line.

Monitors were one of the biggest stories at the recently concluded CES trade show in Las Vegas. Buyers now have a dizzying variety of options to choose from, but it’s also easy to overpay for functionality that’s only useful to gamers. Here are four trends in display technology for the office that I think bear, um, monitoring.

Resolutions only get better

My 4K display is already out of date. Numerous 5K (5,120 × 2,880 pixels) monitors are now available, and Dell recently introduced the first 8K edition (7,680 × 4,320 pixels) for the consumer market. I don’t know how many consumers are ready to pony up $4,000 for a monitor, but with the price of 5K versions hovering at around $1,500, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be within reach.

Refresh rates rise

The refresh rate refers to the number of times per second an image is drawn on the screen. Standard PC monitors have operated at a rate of about 60 Hz for years, which is fine for most office applications. Display makers have recently been busy bumping up those speeds, though. At CES, Nvidia showed off a 360 Hz display with 2560 × 1440 resolution, and Acer recently raised the speed bar to 390 Hz.

While that’s overkill for nearly everyone but hard-core gamers, faster refresh rates translate into less motion blur, smoother action, and a sharper picture. The cost of 120 Hz monitors is edging down toward $500, which means they’ll be standard issue in a couple of years. The downside is that faster refresh rates require heftier graphics cards which can cost more than an entire PC. It’s no wonder Nvidia is so hot on them.

How wide can you go?

Monitor makers are rapidly ditching the traditional 16:9 aspect ratio in favor of screens that are wider and curvier. The most extreme example currently available is Samsung’s $1,200 CRG9 at a mind-bending 49-inches wide with a 32:9 aspect ratio and 120 Hz refresh rate. While gamers are the primary target, ultra-wide monitors are also targeted at office workers who use multiple displays and professionals, in fields like architecture and computer-aided design, who need as much screen space they can get.

One of the curiosities of CES was the Samsung Odyssey Ark, a curved 55-inch 4K display with a 16:9 aspect ratio that can be rotated into either portrait or landscape mode. Samsung was mum on when and at what cost the product might be available—and some attendees speculated that the screen could induce vertigo or a neck injury in portrait mode—but it’s another example of how displays are making computing a more immerse experience.

OLED and new

OLED (organic light emitting diode) is a display technology that has been used in TVs and smartphones for a while and is now coming to the desktop. The technology delivers a brighter image with higher contrast, a wider color spectrum, and better viewing angles than traditional LEDs. It consumes less power and is much thinner than LCD panels. The contrast advantage is important. OLED TVs have a three-dimensional viewing quality that could have value in applications like design, digital twins, and marketing. The downside is that the monitors tend to suffer from burn-in over time. And with early commercial products priced at $2,500, this isn’t technology for the rest of us.

Mini-LED technology also bears watching. Its contrast approaches that of OLED, but the displays are considerably brighter and don’t have the burn-in problem. The downside: They’re really expensive with 32-inch models starting at around $2,500.

The golden age of displays

When you consider that 13-inch CRTs were a standard issue in offices for years, it’s incredible how far monitors have come in a short time. Which software company will be the first to re-envision office applications to take advantage of the massive screen real estate and vivid colors that are becoming common on the business desktop? It could be the next Microsoft.

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