The display is probably the second most important hardware in a laptop. After all, it is the means by which you actually use the device.
However, ads are difficult to explain and understand. They can be measured, but most people don't know what these measurements mean or how they relate to their own viewing experience. Contrast. Screen resolution. Black level. Gamut. Uniformity. These words may seem like an arcane scribble to the uninitiated, but are actually not difficult to understand.
Here is our guide to the terms you need to understand when considering a notebook display and the terms you need to search for in each.
Dan Baker / Digital Trends
You've probably heard it before, but screen resolution refers to the number of pixels packed in the vertical and horizontal areas of a particular display. Some of the most common screen resolutions are 1,920 x 1080 and even 1,024 x 768. These numbers can become confusing due to the different aspect ratios available on the display. Sometimes these resolutions are listed at FHD, 1440p, 1080p, 4K or QHD. Each of these terms still refers to the total amount of pixels packed into the screen resolution.
For example, 1080p offers a standard resolution of 1,920 x 1080, while QHD and 4K contain 2,560 x 1,440 and 3,840 × 2,160, respectively. Our guide to buying displays and monitor resolutions is available. The higher the resolution, the sharper the image. This is often what you can get in new displays and what newer terms like 4K or QHD refer to.
Displays – and laptops – with 1080p or FHD resolutions are the most common and cheapest on the market. More recently, 4K options have also become available, but they are often quite expensive. The Dell XPS 13 is one of the best laptops that we recommend. It comes with 1080p and 4K options, although we usually recommend the 1080p option as this shortens battery life.
IPS vs. VA vs. TN
One of these three display types is likely to be listed in the laptop specifications. They are an indicator of the technology with which your display is operated and of the advantages they offer.
TN or Twisted Nematic is the oldest of the three and allowed the use of flat LCD displays that push bulky, heavy, curved CRT screens out of the picture. This technology is still used today and offers extremely high refresh rates and response times. The biggest mistake of a TN panel is the viewing angle, which loses color when you move your head away from the center. Gaming laptops tend to attract this technology due to the advantages mentioned above.
IPS or in-plane switching made its debut on smartphones. Mobile devices not only required larger viewing angles, but also stronger colors and better black levels so that screens could be seen outdoors. This technology has finally found its way into standard desktop monitors and laptop displays and enables better color accuracy when editing various media. Newer IPS panels now offer higher TN panel-like refresh rates of more than 200 Hz as well as extremely low response times.
VA or vertical alignment serves as a compromise between IPS and TN technology. It offers the best contrast ratio of the three and better colors than TN panels, but can react more slowly than TN and IPS displays. The viewing angles are closer to the IPS, but not quite as wide. This technology is mainly used in television sets. However, it can also be applied to laptop displays to keep the total cost down.
Ultimately, you want to decide what to expect from a laptop display. If you are a professional who edits photos, a laptop with an IPS display is ideal. If you're playing on the go, a TN or VA panel may be more suitable.
Contrast ratio – Not really 1,000,000,000: 1
This sentence is one that you almost certainly have heard before. Display manufacturers love to use contrast ratios because they have such impressive zeros. Numbers are easy to understand and the higher they are, the better their display will appear on paper.
The contrast ratio is simply the ratio of the luminance between the lightest color (white) and the darkest color (black) on a display. Higher ratios are considered better, as this makes images appear more defined and realistic. There is only one minor problem: nobody uses a standardized test for contrast ratios. There are many ways to falsify the results, which is why there are inexpensive displays that claim crazy ratios like 10,000: 1.
Reviewing display specifications may show two different types of aspect ratios, which can confuse you even more: native (or static) and dynamic. A native contrast ratio is the largest distance between dark and light that a display can project at a certain brightness setting. A dynamic contrast ratio is the largest distance between dark and light that a display can project over a certain period of time. This latter type of contrast ratio usually has crazy numbers that manufacturers like to promote, like 1,000,000,000: 1.
You should trust contrast ratios as stated in reviews. An in-depth analysis with identical test methods and devices is the only way to determine the actual contrast of a display.
The brightness is important for mobile devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets. Most devices have a glossy display to improve the contrast. However, the sheen makes reflections a problem in bright rooms or outdoors. These reflections can only be overcome with a bright display.
The Nit is the standard unit of luminance used to describe different light sources. A higher rating means a brighter display. Displays for laptops and mobile devices usually average between 200 and 300 nits. A rating over 300 nits is solid and a rating over 500 nits is extremely good. Few devices can emit so much light. However, this changes with the increasing spread of HDR and OLED laptops.
Apple's MacBooks are known to have the brightest screens on a laptop. The 13-inch MacBook Pro we tested had a screen with a maximum of 548 nits. Televisions are a different story, and the brightest go north of 1,000 nits.
See in black and white
Reviews of displays, including ours, often relate to black levels. You may be able to conclude that this has something to do with how the display shows black, but it doesn't explain much else.
The black level itself is expressed in a number, the lower being better. A black value of 0 stands for a dark, pure black. The number is relevant because it affects how an ad deals with dark images. If you ever see a movie on a poor display, you will find that details are missing in dark scenes. This is because the display is unable to display the darkest areas of the picture.
White values are the opposite. The higher the value, the better. A white value of 255 is the maximum on the RGB scale, so an ideal display comes close to this number and shows a bright, flawless white. Modern displays master white values better than black values, so this is usually not a defining quality. However, an exceptionally good or bad result can make a difference.
A journey through space
Microsoft and HP worked together in 1996 to create a standard color space called sRGB. As you can imagine, it is most relevant to computers. A color space is a standard color gamut that displays should be able to reproduce.
Nowadays, most laptops you buy can process most of the sRGB color space. Even most IPS displays in the middle range can process about 90% or better. For this reason, we often test the color gamut using the AdobeRGB color space by today's standards. Although it is less important than sRGB, only the highest quality laptop panels process more than three quarters of this color space.
Only professional high-end laptops like the MacBook Pro, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme and the Dell XPS 15 reach the high 90s of sRGB and AdobeRGB.
Respect the uniform
Almost all displays on the market today use LCD technology. This technology has been developed to be inexpensive and of high quality, but with some drawbacks. This includes that the panel itself does not emit any light.
For an image to be visible, a light must be shown on the LCD. In an ideal world, the light behind the LCD would be equally bright in all areas, but that's easier said than done. Most displays are at least a little brighter in some areas than in others. This is a problem of uniformity.
We tested displays with uniformity problems that were so severe that an inexperienced eye could see them immediately. The problem is most evident in dark scenes and is most common in mobile devices. Plasma and OLED do not have this problem because they create their own luminance.
Bring the band together
We usually use a banding test pattern when looking at a display. This picture shows a color gradient between absolute black and absolute white. A perfect product shows the image as buttery soft, but most don't. Ribbons often appear in the picture and are most often in their darkest quarter.
Banding is a noticeable problem. This is common for all content that represents a color level that changes gradually. A photo of a sunset is a good example. Streaking causes the photo to have unnatural layers of color that shift abruptly.
Rich Shibley / Digital Trends
HDR is a relatively new term in the laptop and display market. Better known as high dynamic range, it is slowly becoming a term to look for when buying new displays or laptops. It's not complicated at all and just a technology that enables high contrast between light and dark images on a screen and better color depth in images.
Some Windows 10 laptops now come with HDR displays, but it doesn't make much of a difference to the user interface and graphics across the operating system. Instead, HDR can make movies and games bright, vivid, and entertaining. Note that only a few programs currently support HDR and you may have to activate it manually in Windows Settings to get started. A laptop like the 3rd generation ThinkPad X1 Yoga is one of the best to enjoy HDR content.
Jayce Wagner / Digital Trends
Measured in Hertz, the refresh rate is a term that explains how often an ad can change the image in a second. Typical refresh rates are 60 Hz, 120 Hz and 144 Hz, but these have nothing to do with color accuracy or resolution. However, refresh rates are especially important for games.
Playing games with a native refresh rate on a monitor or laptop is best because it can avoid tearing the screen when the graphics card ejects more frames than a display can handle. Older games and esports titles can easily be moved over 60 Hz, and playing on a monitor that can take advantage of all these additional frames can be a real benefit. Most of our favorite gaming laptops have screens with a high refresh rate.
A higher refresh rate can also make mouse movements and other aspects of Windows usage smoother. This isn't life-changing, but it can add to the enjoyment of using your PC. However, it is still mostly beneficial for gamers.
The screen door effect
"Screen door effect" is a term used to describe a monitor that has a visible gap between individual pixels. The technical term for this phenomenon is "point spacing", which describes the size of individual pixels and the distance between them. A low point spacing means that gaps should not be easily visible, while a high point spacing means the opposite.
The influence of the point spacing is relative to the device. The distance between the pixels becomes easier to see when the distance between the display and the viewer decreases. For this reason, dot spacing is the most common problem on a mobile device or VR headset. Monitors and HDTVs usually don't have a problem with this problem because the user is much further away.