There are a few laptop components that have an oversized impact on your computing experience. The keyboard is one, as is the touchpad—you get hands-on, literally, with these components every time you use your laptop. The CPU and other internal components are also important, determining your laptop’s speed and how efficiently it lets you get your work (and play) done.
But there’s one component that has the most impact on your computing experience: your laptop’s display. Unless you’re connected to an external monitor, then you have no choice but to use the internal display that ships with your machine. You stare at it for hours a day, and it simply must meet your needs or your laptop will fail to live up to your requirements. In this guide, we cover some of the things you’ll want to consider as you’re choosing your next laptop.
Laptop Display Size
The first decision to make is your laptop display’s size, measured diagonally. Display size has several important ramifications, the most obvious of which is that the larger the display, the larger on-screen elements will appear. As we’ll see in the resolution section below, though, a display’s size by itself doesn’t determine how much information can be displayed at once.
Another important impact of display size is the size of the laptop itself—obviously, the larger the display, the larger the chassis needed to contain it. That impacts other factors, such as the size of the keyboard and touchpad, the laptop’s weight, and more. Manufacturers have gotten very good at fitting a lot of computer into smaller machines, and so there’s not a direct linear relationship between display size and overall laptop capabilities. Nevertheless, you’ll find that laptops with smaller displays, typically called ultrabooks, tend to be thinner, lighter, and less powerful than laptops with larger displays.
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You can find laptops with a variety of display sizes, but the most popular are 13.3 inches, 14 inches, 15.6 inches, and 17 inches for laptops with 16:9 aspect ratios (the ratio between the width and height of a display). We’ll discuss other display sizes when we discuss aspect ratios in the section below.
Laptops that are 14 inches and smaller tend to use midrange CPUs like Intel’s U-series processors that provide good productivity performance but can’t keep up with demanding creative applications and games. Laptops with 15.6-inch and larger displays are often equipped with more powerful processors, like Intel’s H-series CPUs, which are aimed at creative tasks and games.
Basically, then, display size tends to determine a laptop’s size, its portability, and its performance. Therefore, there’s a tradeoff between a laptop’s display size and its overall capabilities.
Measured as the number of pixels, or individual image elements, arranged horizontally and vertically, resolution determines a display’s sharpness. The most common resolution today is Full HD (FHD), or 1,920 pixels x 1,080 pixels (we’ll drop the word “pixel” from now on and just use the numbers to describe resolution). Another popular resolution is Ultra High Definition (UHD), or 4K, which runs at a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160. That’s four times as many pixels as FHD, meaning it creates a much sharper image. There are many other resolutions available today, which we’ll also discuss in the aspect ratio section, but FHD and UHD are the most common.
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The primary advantage of higher resolutions is the ability to display more information on a display at once and/or to make it look better. With modern operating systems like Windows 10 and Mac OS, you can change the scaling of on-screen items to make them larger and much sharper (because more pixels are being used to represent them). This is particularly apparent with text, which on a UHD display will be much sharper when scaled to the same size as on an FHD display. In this case, you’re showing the same amount of information, but it’s much clearer and more attractive. Scaling can be adjusted to find the right balance between the size of on-screen items and their sharpness.
The primary disadvantage of higher resolutions is that the additional pixels use more graphical processing power. This can slow down a laptop that doesn’t have a fast enough GPU—although most modern laptops can handle higher resolutions for simply displaying the Windows 10 or Mac OS desktop and simple applications. If you’re a gamer, then you’ll need a very fast GPU to run games at higher resolutions. Another disadvantage is that the higher the resolution, the shorter the battery life—the same laptop with an FHD instead of a UHD display can get many hours of additional use while away from a charger.
FHD tends to be more popular on smaller laptops, say 14 inches or less, where UHD is overkill for many people. On larger displays, though, FHD can lack sufficient sharpness. Also note that some streaming video services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, offer UHD content that’s much more enjoyable than when displayed as FHD — which, again, you’ll notice more on a larger display than a smaller one. In the end, the “correct” resolution can be a very subjective decision.
As mentioned above, a display’s aspect ratio is the ratio between the display’s width and its height. Until recently, most laptops have been 16:9, which matches modern TVs. Lately, though, taller displays have become more popular, specifically those with 16:10 and 3:2 aspect ratios.
You can read our guide on taller displays for more in-depth information, but to summarize, taller displays are great for productivity because they’re able to display more of today’s most popular content on-screen at one time. This includes long web pages, PDFs, word processing documents, and more. They’re not as good for displaying wider content, such as spreadsheets with many columns, and they use letterboxing—black bars above and below—when playing 16:9 video (which is most video today).
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As we also mentioned above, the aspect ratio affects the resolution. A 16:10 display, for example, will use an FHD+ (1,920 x 1,280) resolution and a UHD+ (3,840 x 2,400) resolution. A 3:2 display might use a 3,000 x 2,000 resolution, as with the Microsoft Surface Book 13. Because they’re taller and make for deeper laptops, you won’t find as many larger laptops with taller displays. One example of a larger laptop with a 3:2 aspect ratio is Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 15, which has a 15-inch display at a 3,240 x 2,160 resolution (which makes it unable to display UHD video).
Until just recently, the most popular display technology has been in-plane switching (IPS) liquid crystal displays (LCDs). We won’t go into the very technical details here of how IPS LCD displays function, but suffice it to say that they provide several advantages over their predecessors, twisted nematic field effect (TN) displays. IPS advantages over TN include better colors and wider viewing angles. TN displays do offer faster refresh rates than all but the newest IPS displays, and so they’re still sometimes used in gaming laptops.
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A newer display technology that has become increasingly popular is the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display. Where IPS LCD displays use backlights that shine through the LCD panels to display images, every OLED pixel is its own light source. The biggest advantage of OLED over IPS displays is that black pixels are truly black—there’s no light being emitted—whereas with IPS LCDs “blacks” are actually dark gray because of some minor light bleeding through. Because of this, OLED displays have significantly higher contrast than IPS displays. OLED displays can also produce more vibrant colors, although in some cases they’re not as accurate. Disadvantages of OLED displays include increased power use with bright images and the potential for burn-in over time as individual pixels get “stuck” when displaying the same image for extended periods.
Laptop displays also vary in their overall quality, which isn’t something you can tell just by looking at the specifications. Some displays have more brightness, higher contrast ratios, wider color gamuts (measures of how many distinct colors the display can produce, and there are several including sRGB for web viewing and AdobeRGB for working with images), color accuracy, and more. Some manufacturers will tout various characteristics of their displays, such as brightness and color gamuts, but like with many marketing claims these promises don’t always materialize in real-life use.
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Laptop quality, therefore, is one area where you’ll want to do your research. Read reviews on the laptops you’re considering and pay special attention to those reviews that give objective measurements of display quality. It’s one thing to say, “This display was bright enough to use in most ambient lighting” and quite another to say, “According to my colorimeter (a tool used to test display quality), this display is capable of 450 nits of brightness that’s more than enough for most office environments.”
There are some other important display features to consider when buying your new laptop, and we’ll briefly cover a couple of them. One important feature for gamers is a display’s refresh rate, that is, how many times the display refreshes the image per second. Most laptops use displays that refresh at 60Hz, or 60 times a second, which is fine for productivity use and media consumption. It’s not fast enough, though, for a gaming laptop with a GPU that’s capable of running a game at over 100 frames per second (fps). You’ll want a display that can meet or exceed your GPU’s capabilities, such as in this case a display with a 144 Hz refresh rate.
Another feature that’s become increasingly common on laptops is high dynamic range (HDR) support. HDR makes darker scenes more legible and everything brighter and more colorful. Netflix and Amazon Prime video are two streaming services with HDR content and having a laptop that supports it can dramatically increase your viewing pleasure. Not all HDR is created equal, though—and you’ll only get HDR support on Windows 10 laptops that meet certain specifications. The best HDR experience today is provided by laptops with Dolby Vision support—like on the Dell XPS 13 and XPS 15 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3.
Clearly, there are quite a few details to consider when buying your next display. We’ve covered most, but not all, in this guide. The more attention to pay to these details when buying your laptop, the happier you’ll be, and the more effectively your laptop will meet your particular needs.