Laptop Screens Explained: IPS, LED, & AMOLED

by Reads (6,599)

The screen is the centerpiece of just about any computer. We’ll take you through the terms you need to know about laptop screens when shopping for your next notebook.

This article isn’t meant to be an exhaustive technical resource. Rather, it’s something you can refer back to for the need-to-know information, critical to making a buying decision.

AcerPredator21X

The massive 21-inch Acer Predator 21X.

Notebook Screen Panel Size

Before any other screen metric, you’ll want to decide on a size. Screen sizes are measured diagonally in inches. When you see an ad for a 14-inch notebook, it’s referring to just the screen size. Notebooks housing 14-inch displays tend to share similar physical dimensions, but they’re not exact.

Notebooks are generally available with screen sizes ranging from 10.6 to 18.4 inches, with just a handful breaching the 20-inch mark. The Acer Predator 21X is an example of the latter.

Our general recommendation for a balance between portability and viewing comfort is a 14-inch display. The overall portability of the notebook is determined by the physical footprint, and not the weight. A physically smaller notebook will be more portable, but as a compromise you’ll also be working with a smaller screen. The Lenovo Yoga 14 is a practical example of a 14-inch notebook.

The 14-inch Lenovo Yoga 14 convertible notebook.

The 14-inch Lenovo Yoga 14 convertible notebook.

A 15.6-inch screen, on the other hand, is more comfortable to sit and look at for extended periods, but is significantly less portable due to the physical size of the notebook.

We recommend trying out different screen sizes in person to find the size that works best for you. If you like big displays, you may not be comfortable with a small Ultrabook like the 12.5-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X260.

Notebook Screen Resolution

The picture on a computer display is made up of individual squares called pixels. A screen’s surface would resemble a fine-mesh net if you looked at it under a magnifying glass. Each pixel can be one of 16.7 million (or more) colors. From a distance, the individual pixels aren’t distinguishable.

The number of pixels on the display does matter. The count of pixels is called display resolution. It’s defined as the number of pixels wide by the number of pixels tall. A 1,920×1,080 display, also known as full HD, has 1,920 pixels spanning horizontally, and 1,080 pixels vertically. This resolution is also called 1080p, the “p” standing for progressive, indicating the number of vertical lines in the display.

The 4K panel on the Dell XPS 15 (2016).

The 4K panel on the Dell XPS 15 (2016).

The lowest resolution generally sold on notebooks today is 1,366×768, also known as HD or 720p. The highest resolution at the time of writing this article is 3,840×2,160, or 4K. Higher resolution screens are generally more expensive, though not necessarily of better quality, as we’ll discuss shortly.

Each object you’re seeing on-screen, including this very text, is made up of a certain number of pixels. The higher display resolution, the more pixels you have, and therefore the more objects and detail can be shown on the screen at the same time. That’s why high-resolution displays tend to look clearer, because they can show a finer level of detail.

From a productivity standpoint, there’s a practical limit to how many pixels are needed. If a certain object is 100×100 pixels, it can easily be displayed on a display with a 1,920×1,080 resolution. It can also be displayed on a 3,840×2,160 display of the same physical size, but it would look much smaller than it does on 1,920×1,080 because there would be more pixels packed into the same physical area. The practical limit, therefore, is when objects approach the point where they’re too small to comfortably see.

A full HD resolution on a 15.6-inch display is approaching the limit where any higher, and it’d be hard to see text and menus, because they’d be too small. The improvised solution to this problem is text scaling. This technology is available on different computer operating systems, including Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows 10. With scaling set at 125 percent, the text size will appear 25 percent larger than normal.

If you’re faced with two screen resolution choices, and have to decide, consider which of the two will be more practical for your eyes. The almost scientific way to figure this out is to use a PPI (pixels per inch) calculator. This is one example.

Use your current screen dimensions and resolution as an example of what’s comfortable for you. Based on the the calculator linked above, if you have a 17.3-inch display, and it has a 1,920×1,080 resolution, that equates to 127 PPI. Suppose you were interested in dropping down to a 15.6-inch display on your next notebook with the same resolution. That would equate to 141 PPI. Therefore, text will appear about 12 percent smaller on the 15.6-inch screen as compared to the 17.3-inch screen, because the pixel density is higher.

You can simulate the effects of smaller text size by zooming out. If your eyes can read text at 90 percent zoom on your current monitor, chances are you could go with a higher resolution than you currently have.

Notebook Screen Panel Types

The type of display panel that comes in a notebook isn’t always advertised. Chances are, if it is advertised, it’s probably one of the better panel types. Here’s a table showing common panel types and their general characteristics.

Panel Type

TN (Twisted Nematic)

IPS (In-Plane Switching)

IGZO (Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide)

Price range

$ – $$

$$ – $$$

$$$

Viewing angles?

Limited

Generally unlimited

Generally unlimited

Contrast

Low to medium

High

High

Color Reproduction

Average to Good

Very Good to Excellent

Excellent

Touch available?

Yes

Yes

Yes

The Dell Inspiron 15 7559 is a budget gaming notebook with an IPS panel.

The Dell Inspiron 15 7559 is a budget gaming notebook with an IPS panel.

IPS displays have become increasingly common on notebook computers, though TN panels still make up the majority sold. TN panels are less expensive to produce. Notebooks with IPS displays can generally be found starting around $600. The Dell Inspiron 15 7559 is one example.

IGZO is a recent yet still rare alternative to IPS. It’s generally found in very thin notebooks, like the Razer Blade Stealth, as IGZO technology allows the panel itself to be slightly thinner. However, it doesn’t necessarily offer image quality that’s superior to IPS.

Notebook Touch Screen Technology

Notebooks with touch displays have become increasingly more popular since the introduction of Windows 8, and even more so with Windows 10. The Dell Inspiron 13 7000 series, shown here, is an example of a touch device.

The upside with touch technology is that it’s generally inexpensive to add to a display. The touch layer isn’t actually part of the display panel itself, which is why TN, IPS, and IGZO panels can all be found with it.

The Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Series is a 2-in-1 device with a touch display.

The Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Series is a 2-in-1 device with a touch display.

Touch technology generally doesn’t detract from a notebook’s usefulness. Aside from adding an almost insignificant amount of weight and thickness, and slightly increasing power draw, touch technology generally isn’t a burden beyond the marginal extra cost.

Is it worthwhile? Perhaps – it depends on your usage. This is one question for which the only right answer can come from you. In our reviews, we tend to find touch more useful on 14-inch and under notebooks, where it’s more natural to reach out and touch the display. Touch technology is ultimately limited by the ability of software to make use of it.

Notebook Display Surface

The physical surface coating of a display is going to be glossy (reflective), anti-glare (matte), and perhaps a little in-between, but it’s usually one or the other. A glossy display will look like a mirror when it’s turned off, whereas you’ll only see a faded silhouette in a true anti-glare display.

Glossy displays can add a measure of clarity to the picture, but also bring reflections. In an office with overhead CCFL lighting, situations where light sources are behind you, and especially outdoors, a glossy display can be a distraction. If you want touch technology, you’ll almost exclusively be stuck with glossy displays, for better or worse. Anti-glare displays are a more practical choice for most conceivable usage.

For Gamers: Refresh Rates and Response Times

The MSI GT73VR Titan Pro has an available 120Hz G-Sync display.

The MSI GT73VR Titan Pro has an available 120Hz G-Sync display.

If you’re into the latest 3D games, you might realize the importance of a display that can keep up with your high-powered graphics card. Most display panels have a refresh rate of 60Hz; that is, they can display 60 individual frames per second (fps).

Only recently have gaming notebooks started coming out with display refresh rates higher than 60Hz. The 120Hz display on the MSI GT73VR Titan Pro is one example. High refresh rates at advantageous in fast-paced games where you’ll be moving quickly across the screen. The picture looks smoother because more frames can be displayed.

Response time is another metric used to denote a fast display. It’s measured in milliseconds, and basically defines the time it takes for a pixel to switch on and off. A lower response time means the display will respond faster to change, an undeniable advantage in gaming. The image can appear to lag or smear on the screen if the response time is too high.

Response times are difficult to compare across panel manufacturers unless you know how the measurement is done. As a general rule, 5ms or less is considered fast. TN panels, described earlier in this article, tend to have the fastest response times of the available panel technologies. IPS panels haven’t yet caught up.

On a related note, Nvidia G-Sync technology is starting to become more widely available in gaming notebooks. It’s an advanced version of V-Sync, which prevents the on-screen picture from tearing due to the number of frames being produced by the graphics card exceeding the refresh rate. G-Sync essentially syncs up the fps output of the graphics card with the display’s refresh rate to ensure that doesn’t happen. It’s a worthwhile technology if you’re buying a high-powered gaming notebook.

Take a look at our 2016 Gaming Notebook Guide for a full run-down on what to look for in a gaming notebook.

Final Thoughts and Advice

DellE5570M5510No single display specification automatically makes it better than another. It’s the combination of specifications that makes the display what it is.

Start with the display size when shopping for a notebook, and establish your options from there. Remember, it’s the physical size of the notebook that determines its portability, not the weight.

Next, prioritize the panel type. A notebook with an IPS panel is going to be more expensive than one with a TN panel, on average, but will likely deliver superior image quality. Be careful when reading the specifications for a given notebook; if its display isn’t advertised as IPS, it’s probably not. IPS is a selling point, and companies are quick to catch on and advertise a display as IPS if at all possible, because people are willing to pay more for it.

Resolution is the third-most important factor. A 4K display may sound snazzy, but it’s not inherently more productive than a 1080p display, as you wouldn’t be able to use a 4K display without bumping the text size via scaling. Therefore, you could go with a lower resolution where you didn’t have to bump the text size, and not be worse off. Again, that’s just from a productivity standpoint. For multimedia work, 4K can have its advantages.

After the big three, the rest is your call. Given the display on a notebook isn’t generally upgradeable, it’s worthwhile to take the time and choose wisely. If you find yourself in a bind, we highly encourage you to make a thread in the NotebookReview forums and ask for advice using our FAQ. Getting a second opinion never hurts, especially when it’s your money on the line.

 

 


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  1. John Ratsey

    I would note that IPS is just one of several technologies which improve LCD viewing angles (others include PLS and AHVA) so I look for “wide viewing angle” in the notebook manufacturer’s description of a product and near to 180 degree viewing angles in any technical specification. Key advantages of these panels are more consistent contrast and colour rendering over a wide range of viewing angles. TN panels have one optimum viewing angle for best contrast and (usually another) for best colour rendering.

  2. sooomitin

    Nice article, but very poor headline. No talk about LED/AMOLED at all!
    I don’t agree that “it’s the physical size of the notebook that determines its portability, not the weight”; a 12″ notebook weighing like a 15″ one would be a bummer; despite its small size, one may not feel to carry it around!
    I am still in search of my dream 2-in-1 Windows notebook, but I would like to see one having the iPad Air 2 display specs: 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit Multi-Touch display with IPS technology, 2048-by-1536-pixel resolution at 264 ppi, Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating, Fully laminated display, Antireflective coating.
    Before the making of high quality display, I used to prefer 13″, but now, I think I want 10″. Of course, finding a full size capable keyboard would be even more difficult, not a difficult task to make one though. For example, Logitech makes one although the docking is quite unstable. And, they should make a decent stylus!