Display Tech Compared: TN vs. VA vs. IPS

When choosing a new computer monitor, the type of panel used by the display is a key piece of information that reveals a lot about how the monitor will behave and perform. By far the most common types of display panels are TN, IPS and VA.

Monitor LCD panels are made up of many layers, including a backlight, polarizing filters and the liquid crystal layer. It’s this liquid crystal layer that determines the intensity of light let through from the backlight, and in what colors, whether red, green or blue. To control this intensity, a voltage is applied to the liquid crystals, which physically moves the crystals from one position to another. How these crystals are arranged and how they move when voltage is applied, is the fundamental difference between TN, VA and IPS.

Our original explainer about display technology and the difference between TN vs. VA vs. IPS was published almost three years ago, and while most of that information remains accurate to this day, we’ve seen the introduction of much faster IPS displays as well as a revolutionary updates to VA panels, particularly from Samsung Odyssey gaming monitors. We’ve also since tested over 100 monitors, so we have a lot more insights to share about performance.

Thus, a brief overview is in order, before we focus on the individual characteristics of each technology and how they perform.

TN is the oldest of the LCD technologies and it stands for twisted nematic. This refers to the twisted nematic effect, which is an effect that allows liquid crystal molecules to be controlled with voltage. While the actual workings of a TN-effect LCD are a little more complicated, essentially the TN-effect is used to change the alignment of liquid crystals when a voltage is applied. When there is no voltage, so the crystal is “off,” the liquid crystal molecules are twisted 90 degrees and in combination with polarization layers, allow light to pass through. Then when a voltage is applied, these crystals are essentially untwisted, blocking light.

VA, stands for vertical alignment. As the name suggests, this technology uses vertically aligned liquid crystals which tilt when a voltage is applied to let light pass through. This is the key difference between IPS and VA: with VA, the crystals are perpendicular to the substrates, while with IPS they are parallel.

IPS stands for in-plane switching and, like all LCDs, it too uses voltage to control the alignment of liquid crystals. However unlike with TN, IPS LCDs use a different crystal orientation, one where the crystals are parallel to the glass substrates, hence the term ‘in plane’. Rather than ‘twisting’ the crystals to modify the amount of light let through, IPS crystals are essentially rotated, which has a range of benefits.

There are various subvariants to these technologies which can tweak things further, and you’ll also see different brand names depending on the panel manufacturer. For example, AU Optronics use “AHVA” to refer to an IPS-type panel, not a VA panel. Samsung use PLS, while brands like LG simply use “IPS”. Then on the VA side we have AU Optronics “AMVA” and Samsung’s “SVA” among others.

So in summary, TN panels twist, IPS panels use a parallel alignment and rotate, while VA panels use a vertical alignment and tilt. Now let’s get into some of the performance characteristics and explore how each of the technologies differ and in general, which technology is better in any given category.

Viewing Angles

The most immediately obvious difference when viewing a TN, IPS or VA panel for the first time is in viewing angles. This is one area that hasn’t significantly changed since the introduction of these technologies.

TN panels have the weakest viewing angles, with significant shift to color and contrast in both the horizontal and especially vertical directions. Typically viewing angles are rated as 170/160 but realistically you’ll get pretty bad shifts when viewing anywhere except for dead center. Higher-end TNs tend to be somewhat better but overall this is a big weakness for TNs and can impact the experience for productivity where any shifts to color impact accuracy for things like photo editing.

VA and IPS panels are significantly better for viewing angles, with IPS panels generally giving the best overall experience. Here you’ll commonly see 178/178 ratings for viewing angles, and while there can still be some shift to colors and brightness viewing at off-center angles, this will be far less noticeable than on a TN panel. Of all the IPS panels we’ve reviewed over the years, I’d describe the majority of them as having excellent viewing angles, a non-issue for modern IPS displays.

VAs are also good but not as good as IPS and can have a greater degree of contrast shifting than IPS. But the thing that impacts VA viewing angles more than this is the fact that many VA monitors today are curved, and any introduction of a curve reduces viewing angles. That’s something to keep in mind when choosing between IPS and VA

Brightness & Contrast

Because the liquid crystal layer is separate to the backlight layer, there is no technical reason why TN, IPS or VA monitors should differ in terms of brightness. Across the 100 displays we’ve tested using our latest test suite, the average SDR brightness for IPS panels was 385 nits, versus 367 nits for TN and 346 nits for VA – so really there’s not much of a difference.

Contrast ratio, on the other hand, is where another major difference occurs. TN panels have the worst contrast ratios, with the twisting technique not particularly great at producing deep blacks. In the best cases you’ll see contrast ratios around 1000:1, but typically after calibration these numbers are lower, in the 700:1 to 900:1 range. Of the monitors we’ve tested, the average TN has a contrast ratio of 872:1, which is poor so if you want rich, beautiful blacks – well maybe just buy an OLED but if you’re buying LCD, don’t get a TN.

IPS is the next step up, though generally IPS contrast ratios aren’t that different from TN. In the worst cases – in particular LG’s current line-up of Nano IPS panels – you won’t see contrast performance any different from a typical TN, with a ratio below 1000:1. However outside of those worst cases, it’s much more common to see contrast at or above 1000:1, with some best case examples pushing up to 1500:1 which is about the ceiling I’ve seen for IPS. Of the IPS panels we’ve tested, an average contrast ratio of 1037:1 was recorded, 19% higher than the average contrast of a TN.

If you really want an LCD to produce deep blacks though, you’ll have to go with a VA panel. The design of these panels is much more conducive to great contrast ratios, which typically start at 2000:1, higher than even the best IPS alternatives.

We’ve measured ratios up to 5000:1 for VAs, and some TVs can push this even higher. The range of typical contrast ratios is also quite a bit larger than with the other two technologies, but when manufacturers list a 3000:1 ratio for their VA monitor they’re usually correct – on average we measured a 2898:1 contrast ratio for VAs. With that in mind you can see VAs are usually 2.5 to 3 times better at producing blacks than IPS or TN, great for night scenes.

We often get asked whether these differences in contrast ratios actually matter. Almost all monitors use some sort of matte anti-glare coating, which can reduce the effective contrast ratio in brighter viewing environments. So if you’re using your monitor during the day, or under artificial lights, the difference between TNs, IPSs and VAs in contrast ratio is going to be less noticeable. But if you typically use your monitor in a dimmer environment, like gaming with the lights off or having a cheeky late night incognito browser session, you’ll much more easily spot the massive superiority VAs have in this area.

It’s also worth mentioning that while IPS panels tend to be a middle ground for contrast they do suffer from a phenomenon called “IPS glow,” which is an apparent white glow when viewing dark imagery at an angle. The best panels exhibit minimal glow but it’s still an issue across all displays of this type, and can vary between individual units.

Color Quality

Before when discussing TN vs. VA vs. IPS, we spent some time talking about the differences between TNs, VAs and IPS in terms of bit depth — or the difference between 6-bit, 8-bit and 10-bit panels. But we feel this is less relevant these days when the vast majority of displays are native 8-bit panels, with the exception of a few low-end panels that are 6-bit, and a few professional grade high-end panels that are 10-bit.

It remains the case that most displays advertised as “10-bit” or having “1 billion colors” are not true 10-bit panels, instead achieving this through FRC or dithering, and the type of LCD panel technology makes little difference.

There also isn’t a significant difference these days between LCD types when it comes to coverage of “standard” color spaces like sRGB or Rec. 709, which is used by default in Windows and is widely used for video content.

Even TN panels, which historically have had the “worst” color quality, these days will cover over 95% of the sRGB color space at a minimum for any monitor worth buying. The exceptions to this are entry-level junk some OEMs like to punish their low-end laptop buyers with; it’s rare for a desktop monitor to go below 90% sRGB coverage and certainly you shouldn’t buy it if it does.

As for native true 10-bit, typically you’ll need to look for an IPS panel, which make up the majority of native 10-bit panels. Some VA panels can do it, but they are rare. Most displays you purchase that claim to be 10-bit, are actually 8-bit+FRC, with only high-end professional-grade monitors offering a native 10-bit experience.

Color Gamut

The main differences between TN, IPS and VA for color quality these days comes in coverage of wider gamut, such as DCI-P3, Adobe RGB or Rec. 2020. DCI-P3 and the larger Rec. 2020 are important for HDR videos and gaming, while Adobe RGB is common for work with wide gamut images.

As far as gaming monitors are concerned, which is the majority of monitors we test, it’s uncommon for TN panels to exceed the sRGB color space and produce a wide color gamut. We’ve seen it on occasion, with DCI-P3 coverage topping out around 92% in the best cases, but the majority of TN displays are standard gamut which is fine for SDR content.

The next best panel type for color gamut is VA. Some entry-level VAs will start at only sRGB coverage, but today’s wide gamut VA monitors typically cover between 85 and 90% DCI-P3, or up to around 66% of Rec. 2020. They don’t generally have adequate Adobe RGB coverage (below 85%), making them most suited to a basic wide gamut experience for videos or games. We’ve also yet to test a VA monitor with a really wide color gamut, like 98% DCI-P3, despite the highest end models of today using Quantum Dot enhancement films. Still, VA is decently mid-range for gamut coverage.

If you want the widest color gamut, you’ll need to get an IPS monitor. While basic IPS panels will be limited to sRGB only, the best wide gamut IPS displays offered these days can achieve much higher gamuts than TN or IPS.

We’ve measured up to 97% DCI-P3 and over 99% Adobe RGB in the same panel – usually a high-end model from AU Optronics – which leads to excellent Rec. 2020 coverage above 80%. This tends to make IPS the most, or at times only suitable technology for color critical wide gamut work like video or photo editing, and it’s the tech I’d choose for that task.

Refresh Rates

Time to talk about speed. Whereas before there was a pretty clear cut distinction between the technologies: TN was the fastest, IPS sat in the middle, and VA was the slowest. In 2021, that is no longer the case, and there’s a lot less separating each technology.

Historically, the highest refresh rate displays on the market were almost all TN models, but that’s not true anymore. Currently there are TN, IPS and VA monitors capable of 240Hz speeds, or sometimes in excess of 240Hz, including at resolutions like 1440p.

The highest refresh rate displays on the market today are capable of 1080p 360Hz speeds, and use an IPS panel from AU Optronics, not a TN. There is lower demand for TN panels than other panel types these days, so a lot of development effort on high refresh models has gone into IPS instead. This makes IPS the highest refresh technology for now, with all three technologies being available at 1440p 240Hz.

Response Times

Response times have also improved substantially for IPS and VA monitors, especially for high-end panels. There is no longer a clear distinction between TN and the rest of today’s contenders, thanks to big speed gains headed by LG’s Nano IPS and Samsung’s new-gen VA.

The fastest TN panels that we’ve measured using our current, strict test methodology are able to hit the 4ms mark on average with a cumulative deviation of around 400. Cumulative deviation tells us how close a monitor’s response times get to the ideal instant response, and also show the balance between response times and overshoot. The HP Omen X 27 is definitely a fast monitor with its 1440p 240Hz spec. However, the Samsung Odyssey G7 and G9 are actually slightly faster, with response times between 3.4 and 4.0 ms and cumulative deviation below 400.

This puts the best VA monitors of today slightly ahead of the best TN monitors that we’ve tested, which we definitely couldn’t have said a few years ago. With these new panels, Samsung have also fixed the unsightly dark level smearing issue that plagued last-generation VA panels, giving the latest VA panels an overall experience similar to the best LCDs have to offer.

Meanwhile over at the IPS camp, the best IPS panels are slightly slower than VA and TN, but still highly competitive with the best of today. The fastest we’ve seen is a response time average of 4.5ms, with cumulative deviation around 460. That’s less than 20% off the best from other technologies, giving us a pretty small difference in 2021 between the three LCD panel types in a best vs best comparison.

With that said, this discussion of response times only applies to high end monitors. Currently in the mid-range and entry-level markets, the performance differences between TN, IPS and VA are more traditional. TN monitors can still be quite fast, with performance in the 4ms range even with basic 1080p 144Hz panels. Basically if you buy a TN in any market segment, you know it will be fast.

The next step down is IPS in lower price segments, with performance varying a bit depending on the exact model. The reason for this is that mid-range and entry-level IPS monitors tend to use more last-generation panels, which aren’t as fast as the best of today. Still, performance between 6 and 9ms on average is pretty common, and cumulative deviation is still quite competitive, especially in the value-oriented IPS market. Not as fast as TN, but still generally good for motion clarity.

Budget-oriented VA panels are, unfortunately, nowhere near as fast as the best panels of today used in Samsung’s Odyssey G7 and G9 series. It’s much more common to get a 9ms to 13ms average response time here, which puts the best budget VA panels behind an average budget IPS in performance. You’ll also get dark level smearing, which is seen as a dark trail following moving objects, which you don’t get with the other two LCD technologies.

Backlight strobing or black frame insertion is also a popular feature these days for some, particularly those after a high performance gaming monitor for esports. Generally speaking, the performance of backlight strobing is dictated by response time performance, so you can get good results with all three monitor types depending on the implementation, especially with high-end panels.

However these days the most focus tends to go into TN-based esports-oriented monitors when it comes to backlight strobing, so monitors like the BenQ XL2546K can be highly attractive offerings and preferred over the best IPS or VA monitors in this feature. We’ve also seen really good implementations with IPS and VA monitors, but TN is known to be the best.

Wrap Up

Summarizing each of the three main LCD technologies is much harder today than in previous years, as there’s been a lot of focus on improving IPS and VA panels. This has led to much better gaming monitors for all, and many more displays to analyze and keep us busy which is always a good thing.

If we had to summarize the LCD ecosystem today… TN panels are a dying breed and their main strengths have been countered in recent years. TN panels are still very fast and great for competitive gaming, but aren’t as much of an outright speed leader anymore, especially at the high end. The main advantage to buying a TN is their affordability and consistency of speed even with entry-level panels, but this comes with weaknesses like viewing angles, contrast ratio and gamut coverage, which makes them unsuitable for a lot of stuff and probably not what you’d want to choose these days.

VA panels are a real mixed bag. At the high end, VAs are very competitive with excellent motion performance, no dark level smearing, decent contrast ratios and good colors. They have to some degree replaced IPS as the middle-ground technology that offers a bit of everything. However in the lower-end of the market, VAs retain the great contrast ratios they are known for, but suffer in motion performance due to the use of last-generation panels and end up quite slow. That’s offset by affordable prices which makes them a decent budget buy in some monitors.

IPS panels have received the most attention and continue to improve each year. IPS monitors are typically the most balanced choice, with strengths in many areas including motion performance, gamut coverage and viewing angles. These strengths tend to apply consistently in all market segments, whether high-end or entry-level, and that can make IPS a great bang for buck option.

Due to the prevalence of flat panels with great uniformity and very wide gamuts, IPS is also the most suitable technology for gaming and content creation on the same display, though contrast ratios are still well behind what VA panels can achieve.

But really there’s no right answer to which monitor technology is best. You might want excellent black levels and great speed, in which case a high-end VA is best for you. Or you might want Adobe RGB coverage, in which case you’ll need to go IPS. There’s no overall winner in the LCD space right now, it’s all about which individual qualities matter most to you.

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