by Todd Haselton on August 11, 2008
If you’re in the market for a new notebook, the processor, RAM, and hard drive aren’t the only specs you’ll want to consider. The display also plays an important role. And we’re not just talking about size. Resolution also matters. Why? Because the number of pixels a screen outputs determines how much detail you’ll get from that LCD, whether you’re editing photos or playing the latest games. A larger resolution also means that you’ll have more on-screen real estate, which is good if you want to have two applications open side by side or you want to minimize scrolling when Web surfing. You’ll also have more pixels to work with when outputting the display to an external monitor.
Bigger isn’t always better, however. Higher-resolution screens are not only more expensive, they can make icons and type appear too small on notebooks, which can result in unwanted squinting. And since we don’t recommend that users lower the native resolution on any laptop, as the resulting image is typically fuzzy, it’s critical that you make the right call the first time. So what resolution is right for your next notebook? Use this as your guide.
On mini-notebooks with a 7-inch display, you’re limited to 800 x 480 pixels. This resolution makes icons and text large and easy to read, but in many cases you’ll find yourself doing a fair bit of scrolling around. We recommend spending a bit more for a model with a 9- or 10-inch display, where the sweet spot is 1024 x 600 pixels (such as on the new Acer Aspire one and the MSI Wind NB). You’ll be able to see more of Web pages and documents and won’t need to scroll as much up or down or from side to side. The HP 2133 Mini-Note goes up to 1280 x 768 pixels, but some may find that too high for such a small display. Pictured: 800 x 600
These notebooks are designed to go anywhere but offer more horsepower and features than mini-notebooks. Generally, 10-inch ultraportables are giving way to systems with 11-inch LCDs. Some of the most popular 11-inch systems include the ASUS U2E, Lenovo IdeaPad U110, and Sony VAIO TZ series, which come standard with 1366 x 768 pixels and no other display option. This resolution offers a good balance between screen real estate and the size of icons and text, but you’ll pay a premium for the screen size. For extended computing sessions, 12-inch screens are just more comfortable than 11-inch options.
You’ll find a bit more variety in the 12-inch range, but resolutions are largely limited to one choice for any given notebook. For a system this size, 1024 x 768 pixels provides adequate resolution for basic productivity, which you’ll find on ultraportables such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X61s. If you want more resolution, step up to 1280 x 800 pixels, which is better for multimedia applications and available in high-end, lightweight machines including the ASUS Lamborghini VX3-A1 and Fujistu LifeBook P8010. Pictured: 1024 x 768
In this class of notebooks, resolutions range from 1280 x 800 up to high-definition 1920 x 1200 on high-end gaming systems. For everyday computing chores, 1280 x 800 pixels is fine, and you’ll find it on popular 13.3-inch systems such as the Apple MacBook, Dell XPS M1330, Sony VAIO CR, and Toshiba Satellite U405.
That same resolution is standard as you move up to 14- and 15-inch notebooks, but there are some notable exceptions. For example, the 14.1-inch Dell Inspiron 1420 and the 15.4-inch Inspiron 1525 have a $50 option to upgrade the panel to 1440 x 900 or 1680 x 1050 pixels, respectively, which should provide more desktop real estate and more details for tasks like photo editing, albeit with smaller icons and text. The 15.4-inch MacBook Pro has a 1440 x 900-pixel display, which is sufficient for creative pros on the go.
As you move into 15-inch multimedia notebooks and gaming systems, such as the Alienware Area-51 m15x and Dell XPS M1530, you’ll see higher-resolution LCDs. In the case of Dell’s M1530, moving up to 1440 x 900 pixels costs $50 (plenty of eye candy for the latest 3D titles), and the high-definition 1920 x 1200-pixel display costs $100 more. Note that this resolution may be overkill given the midrange 256MB Nvidia graphics card and that you won’t see the true benefit of the $500 Blu-ray Disc option on a 15.4-inch screen. On Alienware’s m15x, the extra $300 will be well spent, especially if you opt for Nvidia’s 8800M GTX graphics, complete with 512MB of video memory. Pictured: 1280 x 800
Most of the systems in this screen-size range are for multimedia tasks and gaming. You can get by with a 1440 x 900-pixel display if you won’t be doing much more than checking e-mail and surfing the Web. For instance, the Toshiba Satellite L355 sports a 17-inch screen with this resolution and costs less than $800.
Are you into multitasking or gaming? You’ll want to step up to 1680 x 1050 pixels. In the case of HP’s dv9700t, for example, upgrading from 1440 x 900 to 1680 x 1050 costs a modest $50. which should enhance movies, photos, and gaming, as well as provide more real estate so you can have multiple applications open on the desktop. Pictured: 1400 x 900
Only serious high-def movie fans, gamers, and creative pros will want to splurge for a 1920 x 1200-pixel screen (also known as 1080p). In the case of the Alienware Area-51 m17x (starting at $2,199), a 1920 x 1200-pixel LCD comes standard. The Gateway P-172X FX (starting at $1,999) is yet another 17-inch gaming rig with a 1080p screen. In the case of the 17-inch MacBook Pro, jumping from 1680 x 1050 to 1920 x 1200 for only $100 is a no-brainer, especially if you’ll be outputting to an external monitor. Pictured: 1920 x 1200