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

When deciding on a new laptop computer, evaluating the machine's graphics and display capabilities is critical to your decision. There are four main areas to consider: screen size, resolution, screen type, and graphics processor. We'll 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-def 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 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.

Analyzing bar chart on laptop monitor in a cafe
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All screen sizes are given in diagonal measurement: the distance from the lower screen corner to the opposite upper corner. This typically will be the actual visible display area. This chart shows 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 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 to display how a single pixel would normally appear.

Confirm your lower resolution in macOS

Higher native resolutions allow for greater image detail 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 with poor eyesight. 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:

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 performance. "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 they are the least expensive and also tend to offer faster refresh rates. They do 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, or the total number of colors that the screen can display.)

Businessman using laptop for analyzing data stock market, forex trading graph, stock exchange trading online, financial investment concept. All on laptop screen are design up.
ipopba / Getty Images

IPS offers higher color and viewing angles, but 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 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

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 many people as they navigate the operating system. Touchscreens generally add to the cost of a laptop and also 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 systems is their 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

The majority of 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 more difficult to use with certain lighting, such as outdoor lighting, 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 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.

NVIDIA GPU

Recent advancements in integrated graphics have made it less necessary to have a dedicated graphics processor, but they 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 can also offer improved performance, such as Intel's 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's 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.