Amazing video quality is what everyone wants, but do you really know what screen resolution is and what the numbers mean? While resolution definitely matters, picking the right screen, monitor, or TV means knowing how to pick the best for your needs.
What Is Screen Resolution?
First, let’s define screen resolution. 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, 1920 x 1080). This means that the screen has 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically (or 1366 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically, and so on).
If you don’t know what your screen resolution is, you can find it with this free tool.
Screen Size vs. Screen Resolution
In addition to 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.
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 the same, they’ll 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 on one screen. The images will be smaller but sharper because the distance between the pixels will be shorter.
How Does Screen Resolution Affect You?
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. This isn’t necessarily so.
With two identically-sized screens, the screen with the higher resolution shows more, and there’s less scrolling. Additionally, the image is sharper.
However, the trade-off is that the image will also be smaller. This strains your eyes, and in extreme cases, you may need to zoom the image to see it properly. This actually causes you to see less on the screen and use a lower resolution. What’s the point in getting a device with a higher resolution when you won’t be able to use it efficiently? This is especially true for smartphones, tablets, and other small devices.
You may 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 is money. Super high-res screens cost more, no matter the screen size.
The second reason is technical. High resolutions require 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. This is because every pixel on the screen is refreshing at once. More pixels equal a higher strain.
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.
Do You Need HD, 4K, Etc.?
Outside of the numbers themselves, you now also have to consider things like HD, 4K, 8K, and UHD. The big switch from analog to digital TV shows the clarity difference with HD or high definition. With HD, you automatically get a 16:9 aspect ratio, much like a movie theater, along with resolutions of 720p (1280 x 720) and 1080p (1920 x 1080). Less common is 1080i, which divides the resolution into two groups of 540 lines each. All of this means you get a much sharper image.
But then, 4K was introduced. These screens are designed to show even more detail by having a much higher resolution, which varies between 3840 x 2160 and 4096 x 2160. These are ideal for the fine details that come with gaming and movies. However, there’s no point in opting specifically for 4K resolutions unless you have games and videos made for it. However, more games, movies, and even TV shows are being made in 4K.
For now, HD is sufficient for most users and has become the standard for modern screens, from mobile devices to big-screen TVs. A 1080p HD screen gives you amazing clarity and quality for a fairly affordable price. It’s also common to find 4K TVs at more affordable prices, though anything not in 4K will still just show in HD.
The new gold standard resolution is 8K. Just like 4K did with HD, 8K doubles the 4K resolution to 7680 x 4320. Naturally, 8K TVs are more expensive, and viewing options are limited for now.
Another option you’ll commonly see is UHD. Technically, this is just 4K. Ultra HD (UHD) refers to the lower end of the 4K resolution range at 3840 x 2160.
What screen resolution should you choose? For small devices, like phones, you don’t need the highest quality available since it’s a smaller screen. Save your money and skip the 4K phones. But if you want a major cinematic experience, a higher resolution for a larger computer monitor or TV is definitely worth it.
What Is Native Screen Resolution?
If you’re shopping for a computer, phone, tablet, or TV, you may come across the term “native screen resolution” or “native resolution.” All this means is that it’s the default, and usually the highest possible resolution, for that particular device. The device can support lower resolutions, which may be necessary depending on your needs. It usually has “recommended” beside it in your device’s resolution settings.
However, it’s recommended to not attempt to bypass the native screen resolution and increase it. Your system will typically just scale down the resolution automatically, which can create a blurry or grainy image. Even if you try manual scaling, the image quality won’t look as good as your native resolution. This resolution is determined by your system’s hardware and can’t be changed without changing the hardware itself. At that point, it’s better to just buy a higher resolution device.
LED vs. OLED
When it comes to screen resolution, another element to look at is LED vs. OLED. It’s not that they change the screen resolution itself necessarily, but each technology affects the brightness and sharpness of the pixels on the screen.
With LED, all the pixels on your screen are lit at all times. A light shutter behind the screen itself brightens or dims pixels as necessary. With OLED, only the pixels that need to be lit are lit. They work similarly to plasma screens with a carbon film behind the activated screen as electricity hits it.
Thanks to only lighting up pixels as needed, blacks tend to be much sharper with OLED. With LED, you may notice blacks are more gray. As a result, OLED screens often appear to have a sharper, clearer screen resolution.
However, OLED screens can have burn-in issues – just like plasma screens, so if your screen tends to stay on the same screen for long periods, LED is better.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Should I ever opt for a lower screen resolution setting?
The only time you should adjust your screen resolution to a lower number than the native or maximum resolution is when an app, video, show, or anything else you’re trying to view is optimized to only look best at a certain resolution. For instance, older TV shows are often shown with black bars on either side, as stretching them to match the resolution and screen size of modern TVs makes them look blurry.
If something you’re trying to view seems stretched and blurry, reduce your resolution a little at a time to see if that helps. For instance, on YouTube, some videos look better on 480p than 1080p. This is simply the way they were originally shot.
2. Can I just replace my laptop screen to increase screen resolution?
It’s not recommended. Your laptop’s screen is designed to work with the internal hardware. If your graphics card isn’t designed for a higher resolution workload, it could overheat your laptop. It’s a compatibility issue. It’s the same as your laptop’s motherboard only being able to upgrade the RAM to a certain point.
3. Can I just buy a higher resolution monitor to increase native resolution?
Yes and no. It all depends on your GPU’s maximum output. While the monitor that came with your desktop or laptop might max out at 720p, for instance, your GPU might support resolutions up to 1080p. Check your GPU’s specs before buying a new monitor. If your GPU doesn’t support higher resolutions, you’ll only get your native resolution on the new monitor.
4. Does a lower screen resolution consume less power?
Yes. However, it’s usually not enough to make much of a difference. If you really want to reduce power consumption, especially with mobile devices, opt for an OLED screen. By lighting fewer pixels at a time, your device uses less energy, leading to a slightly longer battery life.
Usually, you’ll get better battery life by just changing system settings. For instance, you can boost a Nintendo Switch’s battery life by just lowering the brightness.
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