My Favorite Monitor Under Five-Hundred Dollars

I recently decided that it was time to transition from using a forty-inch TV to an actual monitor. For the most part, I wanted to move past the sixty frames per second limitation that most TV based screens are stuck with. I would have loved to picked up a 4K Predator but couldn’t justify the two-thousand dollar price tag. I had a max budget of five-hundred dollars and hoped to spend less.

As with all of my technology purchases, I started by doing a ton of research. There are a lot of terms and specs wrapped around computer screens these days and I wanted to understand their meanings before making my choice. I’ve provided an overview of a few of the more important terms below.

HDR stands for high dynamic range and is a feature that provides better contrast and colors to the content on your screen. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the same thing as the HDR that you find on cameras. CNET has an excellent write up on how the technology works. This particular feature can have a dramatic effect on how things look, but the media and screen must both support it. It’s great for games and videos, but doesn’t do anything for documents.

FPS is frames per second. Moving video is created just like those old flip books you drew in grade-school. Still images called frames are flashed on your screen so quickly they appear to be moving. The faster the frames flash by, the smoother the movements appear to be. Security cameras tend to run around 15 FPS, TV around 30 FPS, 60 FPS is the minimum most gamers shoot for, 120 is ideal for action video and games, 240 FPS is found only on high-end gaming monitors.

Resolution is an indication of how finely detailed a displayed image can be. Each frame of a video is composed from colored dots of light. Squeezing more dots onto the screen results in more detail being available. Resolution is measured in the number of dots aka pixels, that are available horizontally and vertically. 1080P is 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels tall and is comprised of 2,073,600 individual dots of light.

There is a never-ending debate around which is more important for gaming resolution, or frames per second. The choice is a personal one, but if you play competitive on-line games, higher FPS means you are less likely to loose track of your target. At 30 frames per second, a 180 degree flick-turn looks like you magically appear to be facing the opposite direction from the moment of execution. This happens because the movement is over with quicker than the next frame can be displayed. At 120 FPS you actually see your surroundings during a flick-turn. This can also be observed by quickly moving your mouse across your monitor; on lower FPS screens the mouse appears to blink as it moves.

There are of course many more terms, like response times (how fast the dots change color), contrast ratios, OSD (on screen display), etc. but my intent is not to write a book on monitor specifications. NewEgg has a glossary of these terms if you’d like to learn more: https://www.newegg.com/insider/guide-monitors-terms-need-know/.

After all my research, talking to the industry people I know, and wandering around the local computer stores was complete, I ended up purchasing Dell’s S3220DGF. The 32 inch, curved, HDR screen is superb. I’ve never owned, or even used a better looking monitor. The colors are great and the blacks are fantastic. The screen is the perfect size to fill my entire field of vision when gaming. Text is easy to read when sitting a little farther back. My system is primarily used in a dark room so the non-bleeding edges are a big plus too.

The height, swivel, and tilt adjustable stand makes putting the screen in the perfect position a snap. The integrated USB 3.0 hub is a convenient place to plug-in my desktop accessories without having to drape cables down the back of my desk. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that all of the cables I needed including a display port and HDMI cable were in the box.

The monitor’s resolution is 2560 x 1440 aka 1440P and its fastest refresh rate is 165 FPS. This combination makes games like Destiny and Call of Duty look fantastic and run buttery smooth. In addition it supports AMD’s FreeSync technology which allows the refresh rate to dynamically match the media being displayed. If your game hits a particularly graphic intensive spot and the frames slow, your monitor will lower its refresh rate to match. This prevents tearing and choppy video. Despite the name, Nvidia GPU’s can use the FreeSync feature with this monitor.

The OSD (on screen display) controls are easy to figure out, some of the other monitors that I tested had a joypad or touch interface which I preferred to the Dell’s individual buttons, but it obviously wasn’t a deal breaker. Besides the OSD and button controls, this monitor can be controlled by Dell’s Display Manager Software. In addition to editing settings like the brightness and contrast, the app lets you control and customize Window’s Snap Zones.

Modern Windows operating systems let you grab the title bar of an application’s window and drag it quickly against the side of your monitor to split the screen in half and select a window for the free side. Snapping windows is incredibly useful for multitasking and is a feature I use frequently. You can also snap a window by pressing the Windows key and an arrow key at the same time. My only gripe with snapping is that I wish there were more layouts.

The Display Manager software addresses my complaint by providing countless pre-configured layouts that are easily selectable. Besides the pre-made layouts you can also make your own. You don’t have to buy an expensive new screen to get this functionality. Microsoft’s Power Toys includes a feature named FancyZones that is similar, but not quite as easy to use and suffers from a few bugs.

The monitor’s memory will store several different presets of brightness, contrast, color, black mode, refresh rates, and other settings which you can name. The Display Manager application will allow you map specific applications to those stored presets. This allows you to easily customize the screen for whatever you happen to be doing. I wasn’t aware the monitor was capable of this when I bought it, but it is a feature I use quite often.

Most monitors that are connected to a Windows PC use the built-in generic driver and color profile. This works fine for 80% of use cases. However, if you edit photos or video having a tuned color profile and purpose made driver can help colors and contrast appear more realistic. This Dell S3220DGF comes with both.

I’ve owned the monitor for a couple of months and am very happy with my purchase. I found it on sale at Best Buy for $399.00 but it’s normal price is $449.00. I was concerned that I would miss 4k but the FPS is more important to me overall. I barley notice the difference in resolution. I also debated a flat screen versus a curved one. The curve really makes a difference on a screen this size that is only a few feet from my eyes. If you’re in the market for a new monitor, I recommend you take a look at the S3220DGF. That name just rolls of the tongue doesn’t it?

About Kevin Trent

IT professional with almost 30 years of experience in Infrastructure, Architecting, Administration, Development, and Communications.

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