How are we to navigate this confounding morass? Well, that’s the point. Marketers purposefully imbue these acronyms with a certain mysticism to dupe consumers into thinking that the technologies hiding behind them are nothing short of cutting edge and, therefore, haven’t seeped into the popular lexicon.
The reality is that these monitor techs have been around for many a year and when broken down provide insight into how a monitor works and what characteristics the display has.
In our ongoing mission to unshroud the mysteries of PC gaming, behold our guide diving into the intricacies of IPS and LED monitors, and more importantly shedding light on what the difference is between the two.
Before we dive into the meat and potatoes of what IPS and LED are, it’s worth having a fundamental understanding of current flat-panel monitor technology.
First and foremost, the overwhelming majority of monitors on sale today are Liquid Crystal Display, or LCD. Liquid crystals have inherent light-modulating properties that require a backlight to display images on a monitor. LCD monitors differ from traditional cathode ray tube equivalents that were the dominant technology up until the latter half of the 2000s, at which point LCD technology overtook CRT. Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find a new CRT monitor as production has all but seized.
Let’s dive a little deeper: high-resolution color LCD monitors use active matrix TFT, or Thin Film Transistor, technology. Without getting too technical, a matrix or grid of thin film transistors is added to the liquid crystals to improve contrast, sharpness, and brightness. The transistors retain a charge for a limited amount of time (very much like a capacitor), sufficiently long to effectively store the state of a pixel while refreshing for the next wave of display information coming from the source.
TFT LCD monitors are ideally suited to PC monitors, TVs, phones, and tablets because they provide quality at reasonably low physical weight making them the only workable LCD tech for current needs. With that in mind, any LCD monitor will be a TFT LCD monitor.
Now, with that behind us, we can reveal that IPS is none other than a type of active matrix TFT technology.
What Is An IPS Display?
IPS stands for In-Plane Switching and refers to the way the molecules inside the liquid crystals of an LCD display are positioned and oriented. As the name suggests, the molecules are positioned parallel to the plane of the screen, instead of perpendicular as is the case with the most popular TFT tech, Twisted nematic panels, or TN, and VA, or vertical alignment, panels.
IPS was developed as a solution to the problems of limited view angles and off-color issues when viewing a screen from a non-perpendicular position. Because the molecules of the liquid crystals are parallel, the viewing angle is significantly wider, and color reproduction fidelity remains accurate regardless of the viewer’s position. Images also appear sharper, more ‘’life-like’’ even. In TN monitors the colors seem to shift and even invert as the viewing angle becomes more and more extreme.
Furthermore, IPS tech results in the absence of surface distortions such as tailing. Avoiding these types of artifacts is particularly crucial when touch screen devices use IPS LCD technology. The touch of a finger doesn’t result in an unsightly temporary indentation of the screen.
The downside to IPS is that it costs markedly more than TN LCDs, requires more power, and the molecule orientation coincides with a slower response time/refresh rate and contrast ratio than its TN counterpart. TN usually sports a refresh rate of up to 144Hz, while IPS is limited to 60Hz at best.
Response time is crucial because it can cause ghosting if it’s too long. Ghosting is a display artifact caused by a rapid shift in the position of on-screen objects. The monitor is unable to keep up with the movement and change the colors fast enough thus producing a kind of ghostly trail behind the object until it catches up.
To complicate matters, there are variants of IPS such as Advanced Super-IPS, Professional IPS, and Advanced High-Performance IPS. To keep it simple the difference relates to how well the IPS tech improves contrast ratios and the color gamut range.
What Is LED?
LED, on the other hand, refers to the type of backlighting used to provide light to the liquid crystals on an LCD monitor. LED stands for light-emitting diode and within the context of LCD monitors differs from the other lighting standard, cold cathode fluorescent backlighting, or CCFL.
Two types of LEDs arrangement exist. Edge-lit LEDs, which sit on the rim of a screen to spread the light uniformly across the screen, and direct LED full array, where the LEDs are positioned directly behind the screen.
The benefits of TFT LED monitors are lower energy consumption compared to CCFL displays, as well as improved quality when it comes to displaying brightness, and the contrast ratio is higher producing better true blacks as well as a broader gamut of colors than CCFL. Equally, the sum monitor can be extremely slim and light in weight when using LED backlighting with improved reliability over CCFL.
The existence of LED displays complicates things further. A nLED display uses LEDs instead of liquid crystals as the core technology of a screen or monitor. LED displays were popular in the 1970s but fell out of favor for being monochromatic, and when full color got implemented in the late 1980s, LCD technology had taken over the market. They have, however, reemerged in the past decade thanks to Sony’s OLED and Crystal LED Integrated Structure technology. They remain considerably more expensive than LED-backlit LCDs.
What’s The Difference?
As you now understand, IPS and LED refer to different components of the monitor and aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s possible to have an LED monitor with an IPS display or without one.
As for the main functional difference, it comes down to what you hope to achieve with a monitor. IPS monitors are ideally suited to graphic designers, photographers, or artists who need color fidelity and a non-distorting wide-angle monitor but aren’t too fussed about refresh rates. The idea is to get a realistic representation of colors and IPS performs best, explaining why creatives favor Apple’s Retina Display (a proprietary variant of IPS).
A gamer who relies on running crisp frames per minutes to play the latest high octane shooter would probably prefer a TN monitor for the faster response times, although IPS provides a better overall image quality. The better contrast ratio of TN may also be preferable for spotting enemies in shaded areas or dark buildings to gain a competitive edge.
As for LED backlighting over CCFL, there’s absolutely no contest. CCFL is more or less obsolete, and most manufacturing processes have phased it out. LED is cheaper, more reliable, lasts longer, and chiefly is less of a plight on the environment than its fluorescent equivalent. Contrast ratios and color gamuts have also caught up with CCFL in recent years, so there’s very little loss of quality.
The UK-based journalist and gamer, Thomas, describes himself as a man of few words with an unhealthy obsession for everything wonderful about the world of gaming. Thanks to his experience in the gaming industry, he brings a wealth of talent into GamingScan.