Gizmodo Laptop Buying Guide 2014: Screen Specs That Matter

Along with its keyboard and its trackpad, a laptop or tablet's screen is the crucial piece of hardware that you'll be interacting with every day. So how do you pick the best screen, and how does a screen's specs affect the way you use a laptop in the real world?

Resolution: The Higher, The Better

A laptop's native display resolution is usually the number of horizontal pixels by the number of vertical pixels — for example, the Surface Pro 3 has 2160 horizontal pixels, in 1440 rows, for a resolution of 2160x1400 pixels. A higher resolution means more pixels on a display, each of which can shine a tiny dot of colour (red, green or blue, or any combination of the three, with all three shining simultaneously to create white) and output an image or text or anything else you view on your laptop.

That number ties in with another figure, more commonly used to rank smartphone and tablet screens — pixel density. The density of pixels on a laptop's screen directly correlates with how detailed it looks — at any given screen size. That is, a 12-inch screen with a 1280x800 pixel resolution has 126ppi, while a 12-inch screen with a 1920x1200 pixel resolution has 189ppi. The larger number is better, because you can both fit more information on that screen and display more detail when showing a high resolution photo or graphic.

Higher resolution displays generally suck slightly more juice than lower resolution ones, but with a laptop the difference is marginal since CPUs, hard drives and graphics are more energy-demanding during general computing. So, all other things being equal, with two laptops that are only differentiated by their resolution, pick the higher-specced one!

Screen Size: One Size Doesn't Fit All

A laptop's screen size is the defining characteristic for most people. Smaller screens mean smaller, more portable devices, and larger screens mean larger devices that are generally a little better for productivity, browsing the net or watching movies. It's the classic trade-off, and the question is — how much of a compromise are you willing to make either way?

Generally, a laptop with a screen size of 13 inches or below is pretty easily portable, with 11-inch and 12-inch laptops being especially easy to carry around every day. Smaller laptops are usually slightly less powerful, too, which has the added benefit of requiring a smaller and more portable power adapter. For most people who want to carry around a device all the time, a 12-inch tablet like the Surface Pro 3 or a 13-inch ultraportable laptop like the MacBook Air are both a good choice.

Larger displays, though, just look better. You can really tell the difference towards the extremes of either side, though — a 12-inch screen like the Surface Pro 3 looks much larger and more impressive than the 10-inch Surface Pro 2, and a 17-inch MSI GT70 Dominator Pro looks much bigger and more imposing, painfully so, than a 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Picking the right screen size is inextricably tied to picking the right size laptop overall. If you have specific requirements for a laptop to fit in a backpack or satchel or purse already, the screen size decision has probably already been made for you. If you do your research, though, and find that you have a choice between two devices, we'd suggest going for the larger one of the two for the advantages it gives in productivity and enjoying movies on the go.

Brightness: It's Not Just The Maximum That Counts

There's no point having a beautifully detailed and pixel-dense display with the perfect screen size for your needs if you can't use it when you want to. That means picking a laptop or convertible tablet with a display that is bright enough to handle outdoor conditions or a bright day in the office. When you're using your laptop on its battery and not connected to a charger, turning your screen brightness up will use more power, but it's a compromise you have to make to get work done.

Similarly important, though, is having a laptop with a low enough screen brightness. If you are in an environment where the ambient light level is relatively low, turning your laptop's brightness down can massively improve your battery life, and at the same time it'll be a lot less strain and fatigue for your eyes. The lower the better, because if you're going to be watching a movie on a long flight or in your bedroom late at night, you'll appreciate as low a backlight setting as possible.

So, at the end of the day, what you want is a laptop display that can extend its brightness both as high and as low as possible. If you buy a laptop with the ability to control its own brightness level according to the light around it, it'll take care of a lot of the headache for you, and will maximise your battery life at the same time.

All The Extras: Viewing Angles, Glossy Vs Matte, White Balance, Bezels

There are a lot of other factors that can affect the quality of a laptop or convertible Windows tablet's screen. Finding a display with the best possible colour saturation and white balance is one, but generally that's not a spec that is advertised by manufacturers and you're best advised to compare two laptops side by side if possible to make a decision on that front. Ditto with viewing angles — specs don't tell the full story here and every user's requirements are different.

Similarly, picking a laptop with either large or thin bezels is a matter of personal preference. The MacBook Air has thick bezels, the LG Ultra PC has super-thin ones — and it's honestly down to which one you think looks nicer. To the same end, you'll have to compare a laptop with a glossy screen to a matte one and see which works best for you during daily usage; matte screens don't reflect bright spots of light as easily as glossy ones but they often make small compromises in contrast and colour saturation to do so.

Doing your research is key, because finding out as much as possible about the technical design of any laptop's screen will give you all the information you need as to how it will perform for your daily needs. If you do that research, and ideally if you're able to take the time to compare your top choices to each other and make a decision in a real-life setting, you won't be disappointed when it comes to using that laptop in the long run.



    I bought a 2014 MacBook Air a couple of months ago and I must say the screen has been my biggest disappointment with it. Up/down viewing angle especially sucks and it just isn't that clear compared to anything else that I own (Nexus 7, Dell UltraSharp, Samsung tv and phone).

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