How to Choose the Right Display and Graphics for Your Next Laptop

Graphics are important. Make the most of them on your next laptop

The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
Introduction

When deciding on a new laptop computer, evaluating its graphics and display capabilities is critical. There are four areas to consider: screen size, resolution, screen type, and graphics processor. We take a look at each area to help you evaluate your options and needs.

For most people, screen size and resolution will likely matter most. Gamers and those who need high-definition video or other graphics-intensive capabilities will care more about the graphics processor.

Screen Size

Laptop screens have a range of sizes. Larger screens provide an easier-to-view workspace and work well as desktop replacements. Ultraportables tend to have smaller screens, allowing for reduced size and increased portability. Almost all laptops offer a wide aspect ratio screen either for a more cinematic display or to reduce the size of the screen in the depth dimension for an overall smaller size.

Analyzing bar chart on laptop monitor in a cafe
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All screen sizes are given in a diagonal measurement: the distance from the lower screen corner to the opposite upper corner. This is typically the actual visible display area. This chart shows the average screen sizes for different styles of laptops:

Laptop Style Screen Size
Ultraportable 13.3" or less
Thin and Light 14" to 16"
Desktop Replacement 17" to 19"
Luggables 20" and higher

Resolution

Screen resolution is the number of pixels on the display listed as the number across the screen by the number down the screen. Laptop displays look best when graphics are run at this resolution. While it is possible to run at a lower resolution, doing so creates an extrapolated display. An extrapolated display reduces image clarity because the computer uses multiple pixels to display how a single pixel would normally appear.

Confirm your lower resolution in macOS

Higher resolutions allow for greater image detail and increased workspace on the display. The drawback to high-resolution displays is that fonts tend to be small and difficult to read without font scaling. This can be a drawback for people with low vision.

While you can change the font size in the operating system, this may have unintended results in some programs. Windows has this problem, in particular, with the latest high-resolution displays and desktop-mode applications.

This chart shows the various video acronyms that refer to resolutions:

Graphics Type Screen Resolution
WXGA 1366x768 or 1280x800
SXGA 1280x1024
SXGA+  1400x1050
WXGA+ 1440x900
WSXGA+ 1600x900 or 1680x1050
UXGA 1600x1200
WUXGA 1920x1080 or 1920x1200
WQHD 2560x1440
WQXGA 2560x1600
WQXGA+ 2880x1800
WQSXGA+ 3800x1800
UHD 3840x2160 or 4096x2160

Screen Type

The screen size and resolution are the primary features that manufacturers mention. Still, the screen type also makes a difference in performance. The screen type refers to the LCD panel and the coating over the screen.

TN and IPS

There are two basic technologies used in LCD panels for laptops: TN and IPS. TN panels are the most common, as these are the least expensive and tend to offer faster refresh rates. TN panels have some disadvantages, including narrow viewing angles and colors. TN panels offer less overall color, but this typically only matters for graphics designers.

Color refers to the color gamut, which is the number of colors that the screen can display.

Businessperson using laptop for analyzing data stock market, forex trading graph, stock exchange trading online, financial investment concept. All on laptop screen are design up.
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IPS offers higher color and viewing angles. However, these screens tend to cost more, have slower refresh rates, and are not as suited for gaming or fast video.

IGZO

IGZO is a new chemical composition for building displays that replaces the traditional silica substrate. The technology allows for thinner display panels with lower power consumption. IGZO will eventually be a major benefit for portable computing, especially as a way to combat the extra power consumption that comes with higher-resolution displays.

OLED

OLED is another technology showing up in some laptops. It has been used for high-end mobile devices such as smartphones for some time. The primary difference between OLED and LCD technologies is that OLED doesn't require a backlight. Instead, pixels generate light from the display, which gives these screens better overall contrast ratios and color.

Touchscreens

Touchscreens are becoming a major feature of many Windows-based laptops. This technology replaces the trackpad for navigating the operating system. Touchscreens generally add to a laptop's cost and draw more power, meaning these laptops have less running time on batteries than a non-touchscreen laptop.

Some touchscreen laptops come with a display that can be folded or spun around, offering a tablet-style experience. These are often referred to as convertible or hybrid laptops. Intel's marketing refers to such machines as 2-in-1 designs. The important thing to consider with these types of laptops is the ease of use when in tablet mode, based on screen size. Often, the smallest screens, such as 11-inch screens, work best for these designs, but some companies offer them up to 15 inches, making the device more difficult to hold and use.

Coatings

Most consumer laptops tend to use glossy coatings over LCD panels, letting more color and brightness come through to the viewer. The downside is that these screens are difficult to use with certain types of lighting, such as outdoor lighting, without producing a large amount of glare. These look great in home environments where it is easier to control glare. Most display panels that feature a touchscreen use a form of glossy coating.

Hardened glass coatings are better at combating fingerprints and are easier to clean.

While most consumer laptops feature glossy coatings, corporate-style laptops generally feature anti-glare or matte coatings. These coatings reduce the amount of external light reflecting on the screen, making these laptops better for office lighting or outdoors. The downside is that the contrast and brightness tend to be muted on these displays.

Graphics Processor

In the past, graphics processors weren't much of an issue for consumer laptops. The majority of users didn't do much graphically that required 3D graphics or accelerated video. This has changed as more people use their laptops as their primary computers.

NVIDIA GPU

Recent advancements in integrated graphics have made it less necessary to have a dedicated graphics processor, but these can still be beneficial. A dedicated graphics processor is helpful for 3D graphics (gaming or multimedia) or accelerating non-gaming applications, such as Photoshop. Integrated graphics also offer improved performance, such as the Intel HD Graphics, which supports Quick Sync Video for accelerated media encoding.

The two major suppliers of dedicated graphics processors for laptops are AMD (formerly ATI) and NVIDIA.

If you're looking to buy a gaming laptop, it should have a minimum of 1 GB of dedicated graphics memory, but preferably higher.

AMD and NVIDIA have technologies that can allow certain graphics processors to run in pairs for additional performance. AMD's technology is referred to as CrossFire, and NVIDIA's is SLI. While the performance is increased, battery life for such laptops is reduced due to the extra power consumption.