Somewhere along the line, consumer display technology became an alphabet soup full of terms using the letters “LED.”
In this succinct guide, we’ll provide a brief overview of common initialisms found in the world of TV, PC monitor, and laptop displays. To keep things simple, we’ll focus on how each technology impacts expected image quality. Whether you’re looking for a handy refresher for the next time you’re shopping or a quick, digestible guide to give to inquisitive friends and family, we’ve got you covered.
You’re likely reading this article on a liquid crystal display (LCD). “LCD” refers to any display type that uses liquid crystals, including TN, IPS, and VA (which we’ll get into shortly). Even an old-school calculator or digital watch can use an LCD. But a simple “LCD” designation doesn’t tell you how a screen will perform. You need more information, like the backlight type the panel uses—usually LED, followed by the more expensive Mini LED.
LCDs long ago ousted cathode ray tube (CRT) and plasma displays as the dominant consumer display tech. In the past, it was common to find LCDs with cold cathode fluorescent lamp (CCFL) backlights, but most LCD displays today use LED backlights (more on that below).
All LCDs, as the name suggests, use liquid crystals sandwiched between polarized glass.
When electricity is applied, the crystals morph to allow or block light from going through color filters, depending on the image, to form what you see on the screen.
TN vs. IPS vs. VA
TN, IPS, and VA are the three primary types of LCD displays you’ll find in TVs, monitors, and laptops. They all vary in how they use their liquid crystals. Each could warrant its own article, but we’ll keep it simple here by focusing on the differences you can expect to see in real life.
Twisted nematic displays are known for their high refresh rates and low prices. Their liquid crystals twist 90 degrees to let light come through.
- TN displays are typically cheaper than IPS and VA displays.
- It’s easier to reach high refresh rates and low response times with TN displays, although pricier IPS and VA are catching up. It’s worth noting that the upcoming Asus ROG Swift 500 Hz Gaming Monitor, which should be the fastest monitor on the market, purportedly achieves its refresh rate via an “E-TN” panel that claims 60 percent better response times than regular TN. So while you can buy a supremely fast IPS (up to 360 Hz) or VA monitor, TN is still the technology pushing the limits of refresh rates.
- TN has worse color reproduction than IPS and VA.
- TN also has worse viewing angles than IPS and VA, meaning it’s harder to see the image when viewing the screen from an angle or from above.
In-plane switching displays are known for their strong viewing angles and vibrant colors and use liquid crystals that are parallel to the glass layers. The crystals rotate in parallel to let light pass through.
- IPS panels have wider viewing angles than VA and TN screens.
- IPS delivers richer, wider color gamuts than rivals, particularly TN.
- IPS displays, especially monitors, have become increasingly popular over the last couple of years.
- A fast IPS panel is way more expensive than a TN panel with similar refresh rates.
- IPS monitors are often pricier than VA screens.
Vertical alignment displays are known for their strong contrast. Their liquid crystals are perpendicular to the glass substrates and allow light to pass through as the crystals tilt.
- VA panels excel in contrast, which is often considered the most important factor in image quality. VA monitors commonly have contrasts of 3,000:1, while a typical IPS comes in at 1,000:1. IPS Black displays, which started coming out this year, claim to double the contrast of typical IPS monitors to up to 2,000:1. We reviewed the IPS Black-equipped Dell UltraSharp U2723QE, and the difference was noticeable.
- VA monitors are often (but not always) cheaper than similar IPS options.
- VA monitors are generally more expensive than TN monitors.
- While there are many VA monitors on the market, IPS has become a bit more common.