Aspect Ratio and Resolution
Aspect ratio isn't just "widescreen" and "standard." Where TVs are basically two different sizes, computer screens have been hopelessly convoluted.
Resolution is the number of pixels (the individual dots that make up the picture) wide the screen is and the number of pixels tall the screen is, and we can get the aspect ratio from this. For example, the average 15" flat-panel screen is 1024x768. That means the picture is 1,024 pixels wide and 768 pixels tall. This screen has an aspect ratio of 4:3. That means that for every four pixels there are horizontally, there are three pixels vertically.
Your home television and most desktop computer screens are built 4:3.
Now, of course, this is all great, but notebook manufacturers often don't tell you the screens aspect ratio and seldom list resolution. They usually just say "WUXGA" or something similar. Here's a guide that tells you exactly what each of those abbreviations really means. I've *'ed the odd ones out and will explain them in detail after the chart.
Abbreviation / Resolution / Aspect Ratio
- XGA / 1024x768 / 4:3
- SXGA / 1280x1024 / 5:4*
- SXGA+ / 1400x1050 / 4:3
- UXGA / 1600x1200 / 4:3
Abbreviation / Resolution / Aspect Ratio
Yeah, you can see how that could get a little confusing!
- WXGA / 1280x768 / 5:3**
- WXGA / 1280x800 / 8:5 (16:10)***
- WXGA+ / 1440x900 / 8:5 (16:10)***
- WSXGA+ / 1680x1050 / 8:5 (16:10)***
- WUXGA / 1920x1200 / 8:5 (16:10)***
SXGA resolution (1280x1024) is sort of anomalous. For some odd reason, it became very popular, but the aspect ratio is off. The actual proper step up in resolution to maintain the 4:3 ratio is 1280x960, but it's fairly uncommon for people to run screens at that resolution, and notebook screens almost never appear with it.
The widescreen resolutions are a real chore. They're usually cited as 16:10 to bring them in line with the 16:9 that the home theatre enthusiast is familiar with, but true 16:9 would be 1280x720, and that's a pretty odd resolution. So your DVDs are STILL going to get letterboxed, but it'll be much more negligible.
Also, one major pain is that ultraportable notebooks will sometimes use a resolution of 1280x768 instead of 1280x800, and that's even weirder. (But it sure looks nice on that tiny screen.)
Note that any of these screens can scale down in resolution. Because notebook screens have a fixed number of pixels (while desktop CRT monitors do not), pixels are essentially "blended" to achieve the intended resolution. In older screens this tended to look pretty awful, but newer ones blend very well and produce a fairly good picture. Still, it won't look as good as the screen's native resolution. The reason that I mention any of this is because I've seen people ask if their screen can run at a lower resolution, and yes, it can. But you probably won't want to.
Gamers will actually probably want to stick to lower resolution screens so the games can run at native resolution, while multimedia enthusiasts (digital image manipulation, video editing) will want to get as high a resolution as they can.
So now you have the fundamentals for understanding how many pixels are on the screen, but what about the screen size?
When a manufacturer lists a screen size in inches, it measures that distance from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. So if a screen size is listed as 15.4", it's 15.4" from the bottom left corner to the top right corner.
Below is a list of the typical screen sizes you can expect to find and the resolutions they routinely appear with. Note that the first one in each list will be by far the most common one.
Standard Screen Sizes and Typical Resolutions:
Widescreen Screen Sizes and Typical Resolutions:
- 14" - XGA
- 15" - XGA, SXGA+
14.1" seems to be the sweet spot for travel-ready notebooks, while 15.4" is more for notebooks geared for desktop replacement, and 17" is almost strictly desktop replacement. The lower sizes are for ultraportables and thin and lights.
- 10.6" - WXGA (1280x768)
- 12.1" - WXGA (1280x800)
- 13.3" - WXGA (1280x800)
- 14.1" - WXGA (1280x800)
- 15.4" - WXGA (1280x800), WXGA+, WSXGA+
- 17" - WXGA, WXGA+, WSXGA+, WUXGA
Widescreen Vs. Standard
Widescreen is becoming the norm against standard aspect ratio in notebooks, partially because a widescreen will effectively add a lot more reading space to a screen with a minimal amount of increase in size. More than that, widescreen is fairly logical for humans, since our eyes aren't jammed right next to each other.
If you're going to be a gamer, though, widescreen can become a problem. While many games will run at widescreen resolutions, many won't either. This is one of those things that really just befuddles me, as most gamer boutique notebooks are being made with widescreens these days.
Glossy Vs. Matte
There are basically two flavors of screen available on notebooks (and flat panel monitors in general) right now: glossy and matte.
Because glossy screens are more common these days, I'll go over those first. Glossy screens are just that - glossy. They have a coating applied to the screen beneath them that is reflective, but also helps reduce "screen door effect" - the black spaces between pixels - and improves the contrast and brightness of the image.
Of course, the downside of a glossy screen is the reflectiveness. It's not at all uncommon to catch a crystal clear reflection or a glare off of something in the environment. Additionally, some users have reported that glossy screens cause more eyestrain for them than matte screens. This pretty much boils down to personal preference; I personally have a hard time choosing between one or the other, though I usually lean towards glossy.