What Is Screen Resolution and Why Does It Matter?

When you think about monitors and screens, one of the first terms that comes to mind is screen resolution. Screen resolution is a key term for sure and does impact the way you use your smartphone, laptop or TV, but aren’t we too obsessed with it?

First, let’s define what screen resolution is. Maybe you know it already, but we need to be sure we are on the same page.

A computer screen uses millions of pixels to display images. These pixels are arranged in a grid horizontally and vertically. The number of pixels horizontally and vertically is shown as the screen resolution.

Screen resolution is typically written as 1024 x 768 (or 1366 x 768 or 1920 x 1080). This means that the screen has 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

If you don’t know what your screen resolution is, you can find it with this free tool.

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In addition to screen resolution, screen size is another factor to consider. Screen size is the physical measurement of the diagonal of your screen. Screen size is measured in inches – e.g. 5”, 10”, 13”, 17”, etc.

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Screen size and screen resolution aren’t directly related. For instance, you can have a 10.6” tablet with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and a 24” desktop monitor with the same resolution. Since the resolution of both devices is exactly the same, they will be able to show exactly the same image (in terms of numbers of pixels); it’s just that the image on the computer screen will look much larger because of the larger physical dimensions of the monitor.

However, the larger image will also look blurrier because the distance between the dots is greater (i.e. the pixel density, measured as pixels per inch (ppi) is lower).

Similarly, two monitors of the same physical size can have different resolutions. In this case the monitor with the higher resolution will be able to fit more stuff on one screen. The images will be smaller but sharper because the distance between the pixels will be shorter.

If you have been following so far, you have most likely already reached the conclusion that as far as screen resolution is concerned, the bigger the better. Well, this isn’t necessarily so.

With two screens with the same size, the screen with the higher resolution will show more stuff, and there will be less scrolling. Additionally, the image will be sharper.

However, the tradeoff is that the image will also be smaller. This strains your eyes, and in extreme cases you might need to zoom the image to be able to see it properly. Since you will zoom the image and a smaller part of it will fit onscreen, you are essentially using a lower resolution. So what’s the point in getting a device with a higher resolution when you won’t be able to use it efficiently?

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This is a valid reason mostly for smartphones, tablets, and other small devices. Or as CNET writes, “If super high-resolution screens are arguably unnecessary for your 65-inch TV, they’re just about useless for your 5.5-inch phone.”

You might be thinking that even though you don’t desperately need a super-high resolution, since it’s available, why not get it. There are a few reasons.

The first one is money. All equal, a super high-res screen costs more.

The second reason is technical. All equal, a higher resolution requires more resources. If you set the refresh rate of your screen at 60Hz, your video card refreshes the frame 60 times a second. For most people, 60Hz is low, and they would go for 120Hz or 144Hz, if possible. The larger the resolution, the higher the strain on the video card.

Here are some figures from Tom’s Hardware to illustrate how many pixels per second your video card must display at different resolutions and refresh rates:

  • 1920 x 1080 x 60FPS = 124,416,000 pixels per second
  • 3840 x 2160 x 60FPS = 497,664.000 pixels per second
  • 3840 x 2160 x 120FPS = 995,328,000 pixels per second
  • 3840 x 2160 x 144FPS = 1,194,393,600 pixels per second

While 1920 x 1080 x 60FPS is fine for even low-end video cards, higher resolutions and refresh rates do pose a challenge even for high-end cards.

After all these explanations, the only thing left to say is that there is no optimal screen resolution, even per device type (e.g. smartphone, desktop, etc.). While it is nice to be able to fit more on one screen (e.g. have a higher resolution device), if this slows down the device or makes it hard to see what’s onscreen, and it has a higher price tag, what’s the point?

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