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Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Better When It Comes to Computer Monitors

by Tony Lovasco

It’s not uncommon for shoppers looking to upgrade their monitor to seek out the biggest display they can afford.  This temptation is unsurprising – when one shops for a television, the physical size of the display is typically the most important decision – why would it be any different for a computer monitor?  To answer that question, we must examine how a typical digital display renders content.

If you were to look closely at a modern flat-panel LCD screen, you’d discover that the images shown are made up of an enormous number of tiny colored rectangles.  These boxes—called pixels, or sub-pixels depending on how narrow you focus—are arranged in much the same way as the holes in a screen door.  Each pixel renders a very small part of the image, and when viewed at a distance your brain blends them together to create the illusion of a continuous picture.  The number and arrangement of these pixels is denoted as a measurement called “resolution”.

Resolution is expressed in the form of a ratio – the number of horizontal pixels by the number of vertical ones in the grid.  In the world of televisions, there are only a handful of common resolutions (for example, 1920×1080 is the resolution for TVs advertised as being 1080p). But in the world of PC monitors and laptop displays, there are dozens of different common resolutions, even when comparing two displays of exact same physical size.

A higher resolution display of the same size will naturally appear to be sharper and more refined than a lower resolution one, by virtue of the fact that your eye is able to more easily blend together a higher number of smaller pixels.  But equally as important is how much content will fit on screen. If the content occupies a fixed number of pixels, a higher resolution monitor will be able to display more on screen at any given time than the same physical size display with a lower resolution.

It’s important to remember that a larger physical display does not always have a higher resolution than a smaller display.  While resolution often increases with the physical size of the panel, some larger monitors are sold with lower resolutions in order to meet a budget price point.  The result is that you might buy an “upgraded” monitor, only to discover that you can’t fit any more on the screen than with the smaller one.

Due to the variety of different screen resolutions and the labor involved, many vendors don’t advertise detailed specifications of the monitors they sell, and instead only provide basic details such as the size and model number.  In those cases it’s always best to check out the monitor manufacturer’s website, where you should be able to find complete resolution information to make comparison shopping easier.