by Dustin Sklavos, California USA
Notebook screens! Notebooks…have screens. And we usually don’t give them too much of a passing thought when we go buying; by and large when I went notebook shopping I just assumed “well, it has one, and it sure looks pretty” and was pretty much done with that.
The problem is that as consumers we like and want to be informed, and we shouldn’t have to default to “oh, well, okay.” But the terminology used to describe notebooks is always a bunch of complex crap that, quite frankly, doesn’t mean anything to most consumers. I’ve been working on computers for years and years and “WSXGA+” and “WUXGA” and all that don’t make any sense at all. Why can’t they just state the actual screen resolution?
The reality of it is that there are all kinds of minutiae about notebook screens that should be understood, as well as a couple of major things, like dead pixels.
This guide is here to help make some sense of it all.
Aspect Ratio and Resolution
Aspect ratio isn’t just “widescreen” and “standard.” Where TVs are basically two different sizes, computer screens have been hopelessly convoluted.
Resolution is the number of pixels (the individual dots that make up the picture) wide the screen is and the number of pixels tall the screen is, and we can get the aspect ratio from this. For example, the average 15″ flat-panel screen is 1024×768. That means the picture is 1,024 pixels wide and 768 pixels tall. This screen has an aspect ratio of 4:3. That means that for every four pixels there are horizontally, there are three pixels vertically.
Your home television and most desktop computer screens are built 4:3.
Now, of course, this is all great, but notebook manufacturers often don’t tell you the screens aspect ratio and seldom list resolution. They usually just say “WUXGA” or something similar. Here’s a guide that tells you exactly what each of those abbreviations really means. I’ve *’ed the odd ones out and will explain them in detail after the chart.
Abbreviation / Resolution / Aspect Ratio
- XGA / 1024×768 / 4:3
- SXGA / 1280×1024 / 5:4*
- SXGA+ / 1400×1050 / 4:3
- UXGA / 1600×1200 / 4:3
Abbreviation / Resolution / Aspect Ratio
- WXGA / 1280×768 / 5:3**
- WXGA / 1280×800 / 8:5 (16:10)***
- WXGA+ / 1440×900 / 8:5 (16:10)***
- WSXGA+ / 1680×1050 / 8:5 (16:10)***
- WUXGA / 1920×1200 / 8:5 (16:10)***
Yeah, you can see how that could get a little confusing!
SXGA resolution (1280×1024) is sort of anomalous. For some odd reason, it became very popular, but the aspect ratio is off. The actual proper step up in resolution to maintain the 4:3 ratio is 1280×960, but it’s fairly uncommon for people to run screens at that resolution, and notebook screens almost never appear with it.
The widescreen resolutions are a real chore. They’re usually cited as 16:10 to bring them in line with the 16:9 that the home theatre enthusiast is familiar with, but true 16:9 would be 1280×720, and that’s a pretty odd resolution. So your DVDs are STILL going to get letterboxed, but it’ll be much more negligible.
Also, one major pain is that ultraportable notebooks will sometimes use a resolution of 1280×768 instead of 1280×800, and that’s even weirder. (But it sure looks nice on that tiny screen.)
Note that any of these screens can scale down in resolution. Because notebook screens have a fixed number of pixels (while desktop CRT monitors do not), pixels are essentially “blended” to achieve the intended resolution. In older screens this tended to look pretty awful, but newer ones blend very well and produce a fairly good picture. Still, it won’t look as good as the screen’s native resolution. The reason that I mention any of this is because I’ve seen people ask if their screen can run at a lower resolution, and yes, it can. But you probably won’t want to.
Gamers will actually probably want to stick to lower resolution screens so the games can run at native resolution, while multimedia enthusiasts (digital image manipulation, video editing) will want to get as high a resolution as they can.
So now you have the fundamentals for understanding how many pixels are on the screen, but what about the screen size?
When a manufacturer lists a screen size in inches, it measures that distance from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. So if a screen size is listed as 15.4″, it’s 15.4″ from the bottom left corner to the top right corner.
Below is a list of the typical screen sizes you can expect to find and the resolutions they routinely appear with. Note that the first one in each list will be by far the most common one.
Standard Screen Sizes and Typical Resolutions:
- 14″ – XGA
- 15″ – XGA, SXGA+
Widescreen Screen Sizes and Typical Resolutions:
- 10.6″ – WXGA (1280×768)
- 12.1″ – WXGA (1280×800)
- 13.3″ – WXGA (1280×800)
- 14.1″ – WXGA (1280×800)
- 15.4″ – WXGA (1280×800), WXGA+, WSXGA+
- 17″ – WXGA, WXGA+, WSXGA+, WUXGA
14.1″ seems to be the sweet spot for travel-ready notebooks, while 15.4″ is more for notebooks geared for desktop replacement, and 17″ is almost strictly desktop replacement. The lower sizes are for ultraportables and thin and lights.
Widescreen Vs. Standard
Widescreen is becoming the norm against standard aspect ratio in notebooks, partially because a widescreen will effectively add a lot more reading space to a screen with a minimal amount of increase in size. More than that, widescreen is fairly logical for humans, since our eyes aren’t jammed right next to each other.
If you’re going to be a gamer, though, widescreen can become a problem. While many games will run at widescreen resolutions, many won’t either. This is one of those things that really just befuddles me, as most gamer boutique notebooks are being made with widescreens these days.
The IBM ThinkPad X41 screen is shown on the right. On the left is the Dell Latitude X1 screen. The X1 has a widescreen format whereas the X41 is standard (view larger image) Notice you can see more horizontally on the X1 widescreen which is dramatically shown by all the white space on the right side of BBC News web page.
However, if you’re going to be watching (or editing) movies on your notebook, widescreen is the screen of choice.
Standard notebooks are becoming a true rarity on the market, and routinely only appear in the lower budget machines these days, barring ThinkPads where only one model exists (the new Z series) that does have widescreen
Glossy Vs. Matte
There are basically two flavors of screen available on notebooks (and flat panel monitors in general) right now: glossy and matte.
Because glossy screens are more common these days, I’ll go over those first. Glossy screens are just that – glossy. They have a coating applied to the screen beneath them that is reflective, but also helps reduce “screen door effect” – the black spaces between pixels – and improves the contrast and brightness of the image.
Of course, the downside of a glossy screen is the reflectiveness. It’s not at all uncommon to catch a crystal clear reflection or a glare off of something in the environment. Additionally, some users have reported that glossy screens cause more eyestrain for them than matte screens. This pretty much boils down to personal preference; I personally have a hard time choosing between one or the other, though I usually lean towards glossy.
A glossy screen can provide a bright display with bold contrast, as shown on this Fujitsu LifeBook S6231 screen
But the downside is the reflectivity you’ll get from the screen, as noticed in this almost perfect reflection of the keyboard in the glossy (Crysal View) screen of the Fujitsu notebook.
To look directly at a notebook screen, you’ll know if it’s a glossy or not solely because of the reflectivity of the screen and contrast of the picture. However, if you don’t have that option (buying online, for example), glossy screens are typically noted by a special name. Sony calls them XBRITE, Fujitsu calls them CrystalView. My Gateway is Ultrabright. You see how it is, and you’ll know a glossy screen when you see the option, because many order online notebooks offer the glossy screen at an extra cost (usually a small cost; HP adds $25).
Matte screens are basically the screens of old, although they do still see use today and for some, these are preferable. These have no reflectivity, and newer ones still have excellent contrast. The “screen door effect” can be more pronounced on these screens. These tend to be less expensive than glossy screens. New iBooks, for example, use these screens.
Even if you’re shopping online, you’ll want to go to a local retailer and actually get a good look at the screens for yourself so you know the difference. It’s one of those things that can’t be fully articulated in a guide and should be experienced personally, but hopefully this guide will help you tell the difference between the two.
Backlighting and Spill
Notebook screens have adjustable brightness, mainly to conserve power, but the brightness adjustment actually adjusts the intensity of the backlight – a light inside the panel that illuminates the screen. The screen consumes a substantial amount of your notebook’s power, so adjusting the brightness to a lower setting can save a lot of battery life.
However, backlighting isn’t always even and sometimes the source of the light can be seen (usually on the bottom). This is called spill. Some less expensive notebooks (and even some more expensive ones, like Dell’s Inspiron 9300 line) have some problems with spill, where a portion of the screen might be noticeably brighter than the rest (though never by too much). Spill is most noticeable when the screen is black.
Uneven backlighting is seen on this VAIO S notebook, notice how the bottom is brighter than the top corners (view larger image)
Notebook screens and flat panel monitors are unique in that unlike their boxy CRT cousins, they don’t always look the same from different angles. The best picture a viewer can get of a notebook screen is invariably from straight on. From the sides and especially from above, contrast may seem off, and colors may look different. This really varies from notebook to notebook and by and large isn’t a huge problem. If you’re in the store, you can check it out for yourself.
More expensive screens tend to have better viewing angles than the cheaper ones; getting into any more detail than that would require delving into esoterica that likely the technician at your local retail store isn’t even familiar with. Suffice to say, while viewing angles used to be a huge problem with these screens (early notebooks were practically unviewable from the sides), it’s pretty tolerable and minor these days.
When viewed straight on the Dell Inspiron 9300 notebook has a better and brighter screen than even some high-end desktop LCD screens (view larger image)
BUT, here we have a Dell Inspiron 9300 and the same high-end 23″ LCD desktop screen from the above picture and now you can see that the Inspiron 9300 viewing quality and brightness is not as good when viewed at an angle (view larger image)
Ah, the most hated of problems with notebook screens. A desktop CRT screen will never have these, but because notebook screens are comprised largely of tiny dots that light up depending on what’s displayed, there’s a small chance that your notebook’s screen will have some dead pixels.
This is one of those things that really hoses the consumer lately, because when you buy a notebook you pretty much expect it to work 100%, and if there are dead pixels on the screen, that isn’t 100%, and many companies will only accept returns or replace the screen after a certain number of dead pixels are reached on the screen.
The editor, Andrew Baxter, wrote up an excellent guide to dead pixels, found here, which I strongly encourage you to read, since it covers this subject in far more detail than I can, and includes existing dead pixel policies for major vendors.
I will add two suggestions, though.
- First, most major retailers can be pretty understanding when it comes to dead pixels. I know Best Buy will usually accept an exchange on a notebook with dead pixels.
- Second, many users advocate the use of a program called Dead Pixel Buddy to find dead pixels on your screen. I do not, and I will tell you why — If the dead pixel isn’t immediately apparent on a personal examination of the screen or after casual use of it, chances are you aren’t going to notice it. If you’re anything like me, and you run Dead Pixel Buddy, and you find a dead pixel (or more), it’s going to tick you off where you wouldn’t have been ticked before. I don’t see any dead pixels on my screen in casual use, but I’m not going to go looking for them, either.
Oh no! See that red dot in the top middle of the screen of this Toshiba Tecra M4 Tablet PC? That’s a stuck red pixel, commonly called a “dead pixel”
Okay, so I’ve dumped all of this knowledge on you, and some of it’s pretty hairy. All you really want to know is: what kind of screen would be good for me?
So I’ve split up the categories of uses, and hopefully one of the categories will best describe the main uses you’ll have for your notebook.
- Internet, E-mail, Word Processing – The casual user would be served well even by a $700 notebook. For you, pretty much any screen will do. Obviously if you want more screen real estate, a bump in resolution might work for you, but keep in mind that increased resolution means text is going to be smaller. And while Windows will let you scale up text size to make it more legible, it almost never looks very good. This becomes entirely personal preference, though I’d suggest a matte screen over a glossy. Other than that, knock yourself out.
- Gaming – I cannot for the life of me understand why widescreen notebooks are the default for gaming now, but there you go. I personally would still recommend a standard aspect ratio over widescreen, but barring that, you’re going to want to keep your screen resolution on the lower side. Whatever the lowest resolution available for your chosen screen size is, you’re going to want it. Games look best when running at the native resolution of the screen. Note, too, that your screen likely won’t get smaller than 14″, since thin-and-light and ultraportable notebooks seldom have the hardware required to properly run games. A glossy screen would be ideal, but that’s going to be a personal preference.
- Movies – You want a widescreen notebook, and probably one of the lower resolutions. Since most movies today come out in widescreen aspect ratio, this will be ideal for you. Also keep in mind that if you’re going to be watching movies more on the road (or in the air), you’ll want a smaller screen so your notebook takes up less real estate. If you’re watching them at home (or in a dorm room setting, for example), you’ll want a larger screen, possibly even a 17″. For either situation, a glossy screen isn’t just ideal, it’s almost essential.
- Visual Multimedia – For digital video editing and image manipulation, I’ve found a glossy screen to be ideal. You’ll also want one of the larger screens and, quite frankly, high resolution. My 15.4″ widescreen is 1280×800 (WXGA) and frankly, just doesn’t cut it for Adobe After Effects, and barely does for Premiere Pro. You want as much screen real estate as you can get, so you’re going to want to pay extra for a higher resolution screen. You’ll also want a widescreen, especially the video geeks. Your notebook is NOT going to be cheap, considering you’re going to need a lot of RAM, a decent speed hard disk, and a powerful processor backing up that screen. The only brands I can think of that make notebooks that would be suited for this that clock in at under $1,500 are HP, Compaq, and Gateway (especially Gateway), but their screen resolutions are all going to be low (generally WXGA or WXGA+). So if you’re on a budget doing this, you may want to get an inexpensive external monitor.
Some of this guide has been conversational and subjective, and that’s because screen preference is one of those things that’s unique to the individual user.
This is the best tool I can give you, but you should go to the store and look for yourself, too. Even if you’re going to order online, even if from a brand that isn’t available on the floor, go and look anyhow and get a feel for the screens, particularly for the resolutions and for the differences in glossy and matte screens.
Hopefully, when you do go to purchase a notebook you’ll feel like an informed consumer. And again, as I always stress, check the forums and reviews here and learn about other users’ experiences with the notebooks you’re interested in. The reviews on this site are particularly noteworthy in that they come from real consumers, not from people who may or may not have been bought off by the notebook vendor, so be sure to take advantage of other peoples’ experiences, especially with something that can be as touchy as this. There is no real performance grade for a notebook screen, only perception.
Go out, take a look for yourself, consult the forums and reviews here, be an informed consumer, and remember that the notebook is only ever really going to be as good as the screen you’re looking at it through. (Unless you buy an external monitor, in which case this article is of no use to you. 😉 )