Laptop Display and Graphics Guide

How to Choose the Proper Display and Graphics for a Laptop

MacBook Pro 15 with Retina Display with school of fish swimming in a circle on the screen

Apple Inc.

When looking at the video for a laptop, you have four items to consider: screen size, resolution, screen type, and graphics processor. For most people, only the screen size and resolution will really matter. The graphics processor tends to make a difference for those looking to do some mobile gaming or high-definition video, but they have more uses than that. Most laptops use some form of backlit active matrix display for video playback.

Screen Size

Laptop screens have a range of sizes depending upon the type of system that you're looking at. Larger screens provide an easier to view screen, such as those for desktop replacements. Ultraportables tend to have smaller screens allowing for reduced size and increased portability. Almost all systems now 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 overall smaller system size.

All screens sizes are given in diagonal measurement: the distance from the lower screen corner to the opposite upper one. This will typically be the actually visible display area. Here is a chart of the average screen sizes for different style laptops:

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

Resolution

Screen resolution or native resolution is the number of pixels on the display listed in the number across the screen by the number down the screen. Laptop displays look best when the graphics are run at this native resolution. While it is possible to run at a lower resolution, doing so creates an extrapolated display. An extrapolated display tends to cause reduced image clarity as the system has to use multiple pixels to try and display how a single pixel would normally appear.

Higher native resolutions allow for greater detail in the image and increased workspace on the display. The drawback to high-resolution displays is that fonts tend to be smaller and can be more difficult to read without font scaling. This can be a particular drawback for people who have poor eyesight. It can be compensated by changing the font size in the operating system, but this may have unintended results in some programs. Windows has this problem in particular with the latest high-resolution displays and desktop mode applications. Below is a chart of the various video acronyms that refer to resolutions:

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

While the screen size and resolution are the primary features that manufacturers mention, the screen type can also make a huge difference in how the video performs. "Type" refers to the LCD panel and the coating over the screen.

There are two basic technologies that are used in LCD panels for laptops right now. They are TN and IPS. TN panels are the most common as they are the least expensive and also tend to offer faster refresh rates. They do have disadvantages including narrow viewing angles and colors. The viewing angle impacts how well the screen color and brightness looks the further off center you viewing the panel at. Color refers to the color gamut or the total number of colors that the screen can display. TN panels offer less overall color but this typically only matters for graphics designers.

For those wanting higher color and viewing angles, IPS does both of these better but they tend to cost more and have slower refresh rates and are not as suited for gaming or fast video.

IGZO is a new chemical composition for building displays that is replacing 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 is another technology that is starting to show up in some laptops. It has been used for high-end mobile devices like smartphones for some time. The primary difference between OLED and LCD technologies is the fact that there is no backlight on them. Instead, the pixels themselves generate the light from the display, which gives them better overall contrast ratios and better color.

Touchscreens are becoming a major featuring in many Windows-based laptops thanks to the new Windows interface design based around touch. This technology replaces the trackpad for many people as they navigate the operating system. Touchscreens generally add to the cost of a laptop and also draw more power, meaning that they have less running time on batteries than a non-touchscreen version.

Those laptops that do have touchscreens might come with a display that has the ability to be folded over or spun around to also provide a tablet experience. These were often referred to as convertible or hybrid laptops. Another term for them now thanks to Intel's marketing is 2-in-1. The important thing to consider with these types of systems is the ease of use in the tablet mode as based on the screen size. Often, the smallest screens, such as 11-inch, work best for these designs, but some companies make them up to 15-inches which are more difficult to hold and use.

The majority of consumer laptops tend to use glossy coatings over the LCD panels, which offers a greater level of color and brightness to come through to the viewer. The downside is that they are more difficult to use in certain light such as outdoors without producing a large amount of glare. They do look great in home environments where it is easier to control glare. Pretty much every display panel that features touchscreen uses a form of glossy coating. Hardened glass coatings are better at combating fingerprints, plus they're much easier to clean.

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

Graphics Processor

In the past, graphics processors have not been much of an issue for consumer laptops. The majority of users were not doing much graphically that required 3D graphics or accelerated video. This has changed as more people use their laptops as their primary machines.

Recent advancements in integrated graphics have made it less necessary to have a dedicated graphics processor, but they can still be beneficial. The primary reasons for having a dedicated graphics processor is either for 3D graphics (gaming or multimedia) or accelerating non-gaming applications such as Photoshop. Integrated graphics can also offer improved performance such as Intel's HD Graphics that support 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 is important to know that they should have at least a minimum of 1GB 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 while NVIDIA's is SLI. While the performance is increased, battery life for such laptops is greatly reduced due to the extra power consumption.