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I'm thinking about buying a new laptop, and while I bought my original one oblivious to the fact that there could be different quality screens out there, after seeing the screen on my sister's netbook I realized that I might have to be cautious with my next purchase.

Granted, I did not confirm that the reason my sister's screen looks the way it does is due to the screen itself and not color scheme/graphics card, but I know very little about the different screen technologies and how they differ in image quality and therefore can't really tell if wondering about it even makes sense or not.

So what I'm asking is: should I be worried about screen quality? And if so, what technologies should I be looking for? How do they differ and which are the best ones? What are the different elements that determine the quality of a screen and which stats should I go for in each element?

For the record, I'm not interested in opinions about screen size, but picture quality for lots of reading/coding.

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18 Answers 18

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+100

Should I be worried about screen quality?

It depends. You might be happy with a lower-end laptop screen. You might be annoyed with it too. Price also might be a factor to you. For writing code, I don't think it matters much. The biggest "issue" you might run into with coding is that poor color accuracy, poor viewing angles, and poor screen uniformity may make it harder to read the different colored syntax (or at least differentiate between two similar colors).

What technologies should I be looking for? How do they differ, and which are the best ones?

  1. In Plane Switching technology variants. IPS panels are generally considered the best overall LCD technology in these categories as stated by LCD Panel Technology Explained:

    • Image Quality
    • Color accuracy
    • Viewing angles.

    This technology is better overall compared to other LCD technologies like Vertical Alignment (VA) variants and Twisted Nematic (TN) panels. This isn't to say that the other technologies are bad per se, they all have pros and cons.

    Within the IPS and VA categories there are many sub variants. You can read about TN, VA, IPS, and the various variants in this Wikipedia article. Unfortunately it isn't always easy to know what type of panel technology is being used because manufactures don't always advertise these details.

  2. A possible up and coming technology is OLED (organic light emitting diode). You can read more about OLEDs here.

    Do not confuse OLED with LED screens, despite similar names. LED (light emitting diode) is the newer type of back light used in LCD screens. Prior to LED, CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamps) was used. In either case (LED or CCFL), the actual image is produced by LCD (liquid crystal display), with the backlight illuminating the image. OLED on the other hand functions without any backlight as the material that produces the image also illuminates itself.

FYI: LED backlighting can come in the form of being edge-lite or consist of an array of LEDs behind the screen that allows for local dimming. The later produces a much better picture quality on TVS, but I don't even know if this exists for laptop screens.

What are the different elements that determine the quality of a screen

  • Black level (a.k.a brightness). How black are the blacks. Poor contrast ratios typically are because of blacks appearing gray.
  • White level (a.k.a contrast). How bright are the whites (also affects contrast ratio).
  • Response time. The amount of time a pixel takes to go from one value to another and back again. Slower times result in motion blur.
  • Color Accuracy. How life-like the colors are. Do they look natural or "off". Some monitors allow the color temperature to be adjusted which can improve color accuracy.
  • Calibration settings (to adjust black level, while level, color temperature, sharpness, and other options). If available this can improve the image quality.
  • Resolution. The higher the resolution the less you have a screen door effect (given the same screen size).
  • Matte or Reflective screen. Glare can be annoying from reflective screens, though some have good anti-reflective coatings.
  • Viewing Angle. A good viewing angle is one where the image looks good off axis as much as it does on axis. Poor viewing angles result in extreme color shifts and may even prevent of axis viewing.
  • Screen uniformity. Good uniformity is when colors, contrast, brightness, etc, doesn't shift depending on what part of the screen you are looking at (i.e. when a solid-colored background is displayed).

Which stats should I go for in each element?

  • Response time: 8ms or faster.
  • Choose a resolution appropriate to the screen size, your eye sight, and the amount of coding real estate you want to have.
  • Non-reflective screen, or one with a good anti-reflective coating
  • Ignore any mention of contrast ratio. Manufactures don't have a standard why of rating contrast. Real contrast is much lower than what they advertise. The only real way to compare is to do so in person, in a dark room (not in a store's bright lighting). Typically IPS screens will have a better contrast ratio than VA or TN LCDs.
  • Color accuracy and settings isn't usually reported.
  • Viewing angle: The higher the better (stated in either one direction such as 89 degrees, or in two directions such as 178 degrees).
  • Screen uniformity: Pretty much dependent on backlight quality (not all LED back lights are created equal) and screen technology. Hard to tell from stats.
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Dell U2410 Love love LOVE these! I think 24" is the perfect size for programming, and the portrait rotation I really love. Its great when you're looking at silly junior prog god class files (should your company be silly enough to even allow those to slip through the cracks) or just procedural programming files like scripts. They can be changed to having a 60hz refresh rate should you need (which is pretty good for an IPS monitor). Otherwise, pretty cheap for an IPS monitor.

edit This is assuming of course you're willing to plug your laptop into an external monitor. If you are not then in order to get a good laptop screen quality you will be looking at high end laptops. Almost all laptops that are less than $1000 and smaller than 17 inches only have a screen with a 1366x768 res monitor. Its only until you start going to more expensive laptops like the macbook pro/airs or lenovo thinkpads that you start to see the 1400x1050 matte screens.

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Dell makes kickass monitors. The Ultrasharp series is awesome. –  Robert Harvey Nov 3 '10 at 20:12
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We have these monitors at the university CS lab. I plug my laptop to the monitor all the time. Its great having two editor windows open in eclipse when working with multiple files. Screens nowadays are getting wider and shorter, which is great if you watch lots of movies but sucks if you read or write. –  Jason Nov 5 '10 at 1:03

I don't think there is a single best one. Like there isn't a single best car. Outside of some absolute measures such as resolution and dot pitch, it really comes down to factors like "do I like glossy or matte? do I like very bright or dim and subtle?"

Best thing to do is go to one of them big box stores in your area where there are lots of machines and find the one that looks best to your eyes. Do remember to play around with the brigthness a bit

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If I could look at it in a store I definitely would. The thing is I have to go by catalogue descriptions for various reasons and my preferred models may not be physically in a store and will have to be ordered on my request (==I'm bought it). Can you elaborate some more on the difference between glossy and matte? –  EpsilonVector Nov 3 '10 at 19:08

One thing that makes a difference to me is the dot pitch. I have an old 19" CRT that I just love because it has a 0.25mm (diagonal) dot pitch. This makes everything very crisp and well-defined. Look for a screen that has a high resolution (a 15" screen should be capable of at least 1440x900) as well as a good backlight. Glossy or matte I think is just personal preference.

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There are a number of factors to be aware of:

Resolution

While it's cool to have high resolution for things like 1080p HD, this can mean that the pixels-per-inch is very high. I have a very old Dell Latitude D810 which is 1920x1200 in a 14.7" screen. When I boot into XP on it, I have to squint to read anything. Sure, I could boost the resolution in Control Panel but many many apps just can't deal with that and range between looking terrible and being unusable due to UI elements being inaccessible.

If the default state of our favourite OS looks poor at a very high resolution, consider going down to a lower resolution.

Lighting

There's a move towards using ultra-bright white LEDs to provide the backlight on an LCD panel. This is a good thing for brightness and cost, so be sure to look for this.

Glossy, Matt or Anti-Glare

I've seen three different options offered of late. It's worth trying out the different options to see how you get on. Glossy/glassy look beautiful and are easier to wipe clean but you definitely get reflections. Matt have less reflection but a softer and slightly dimmer image in my experience. YMMV, so go to a large retailer and try them out.

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One thing seldom mentioned to look out for is viewing angle. At lot of the cheap LCD displays look like junk if you move you head off-center (easy to do when using a laptop with non-optimal ergonometrics). This angle is often not spec'd anywhere. You have to go to the store and tilt the laptop side to side and move your head up and down to see the effect. The better laptop LCDs show more correct colors over a far wider viewing angle.

Another visible difference might be due to setting the brightness incorrectly for the current ambient lighting. Make sure you check this setting before deciding one display is better than another.

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Personally I would favor two characteristics over the others:

  1. Vertical resolution
  2. Matte display

Vertical resolution should be at least 1050 pixels. Having a decent vertical resolution is quite a problem these days because of the "16:9 trend". Finding something with a vertical resolution higher than 900 pixel is almost impossible or really expensive, while some years ago this was not a problem at all.

A matte display will allow you to be comfortable with different lighting settings. Again, the trend is to have a glossy display which is, of course, more reflective.

To actually make a choice the best is to go to a store and have a look to the real thing. There are a lot of other qualitative parameters that can affect the perceived quality of a display. The best is to look at them for real.

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You say you are looking at buying a new laptop. If you are 100% sold on a laptop, I would highly recommend hooking it up to multiple large external monitors (and keyboard/mouse) for the times you are not on-the-go with the laptop. Those external monitors are the ones to be concerned at for image quality as you'll be in front of them the vast majority of the time.

I'm not saying disregard image quality on the laptop display, but take into account how much you will be using that screen versus a better/larger external display.

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For me all resolutions and dot pitch aside, the most important thing is a font style you find easily readable, and a color scheme that doesn't strain the eyes.

My preference will always be for mac displays, but I love my Samsung with LED backlight at 1/2 the price the contrast is great for text. Homebrew console, consolas font 13px with anti-aliasing.

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For lots of reading, I much prefer e-ink displays to monitors. They aren't backlit and are very high resolution. So I have a Kindle on the desk next to my computer, and use that for reading (I've previously used Sony readers, which use the same display. You can add your own files to either, and can use the web on the Kindle).

For coding and editing, I find most monitors are much of a muchness and many of the manufacturers use the same panels. Finding a comfortable colour scheme, font and control layout is the easiest win.

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The type of monitor you need depends on the type of work you do. Programming is not very visually intensive, but the type of projects you are working on might be.

For example:

  • if you are doing game programming, you'll need fast response times (anything less than 10ms, lower is better).
  • if you are writing apps for photography or movie work, you'll need an IPS screen for faithful color reproduction and some calibration equipment. Making sure your apps use the color profiles is important to these types of applications.
  • if you are writing business apps, there are no specific requirements on your monitor. Just resolution and readability.

Screen finish considerations:

  • Glossy: you get deep, satisfying blacks; but at the cost of glare problems. If you are in full control of your lighting (i.e. you use desk and floor lamps instead of in-ceiling mounted lights or large windows) you can arrange the lights so that the reflections are never in your face. Otherwise, that can be a problem.
  • Matte: your blacks suffer because light from the room is scattered across the surface of the screen (same issues for photographic prints). However, you never have to worry about glare either. These screens are typically unprotected, and any blemish is going to remain forever because an unprotected screen can't really be cleaned.
  • Anti-glare: most of the new monitors and TVs use this finish, it lives somewhere between the extremes of glossy and matte. The screen is protected, so it can be cleaned. The light is scattered somewhat, but not to the degree of a matte finish so you won't be seeing your face in the screen.

Probably the most important thing you want is a screen that isn't going to introduce eye fatigue. With the LED/LCD displays this is not as much a problem as with the old CRTs due to the fact that you don't have focus problems with the photon beam that you used to. However, you'll want as low a dot-pitch (.25mm or lower) as you can. What this translates into is resolution per screen screen size. A denser display produces smoother characters. It would be better to have a 23" 1080p monitor than a 27" 1080p monitor (many 27" and larger screens have higher resolutions), and compensate by bumping up the font size. The result is clear, crisp text that doesn't strain your eyes after a long period of staring at it.

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This is often overlooked, since most people like dark-on-light color schemes, but if you prefer dark backgrounds you need a good contrast ratio. I've also found that my preferred scheme -- silver on blue -- looks terrible on many LCDs because their dark blues have an "odd" feeling. My favorite monitor is a Samsung, followed by an Acer H213H which I use at work. I have two Dell Ultrasharps as well, but their dark blue is unsatisfactory.

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I use two of Benq2420HD

Unless you are a graphics artist, dont go for the Dell Ultrasharp ones. You can get 3 24" Benq Full HD monitors at the cost of 1 Dell UltraSharp 24" monitor. As far as I can tell I see no difference in image quality. Only catch is that you cannot pivot in potrait with the stand that comes with it. I built my own stand using a standard VESA wall mount and a little carpentry. I can get a third one and it will still be cheaper than the dell.

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This is my two cents worth:

  1. Pick a matte screen. It's softer on the eyes.
  2. Pick a screen with as many individually adjustable features (brightness, contrast etc) to make the display easier on the eyes (Also look into f.lux for more on this).
  3. Widescreen vs. fullscreen aspect ratios are tough to talk about - everyone has their own preferences. In brief: widescreen makes it easier to have multiple viewable windows open on one screen, but fullscreen shows you more lines of code without having to scroll. Of course, you can circumvent this problem with virtual desktops (like mac OS and Ubuntu come with by default or by using dexpot for windows) or multiple monitors at your desk.
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Good answers. Just keep in mind that if the backlight fails, you're out big bucks, unless you get a good warranty.

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Actually I'm waiting for a nicely priced OLED display to come out that wont blast your eyes with way more light than needed.

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I was worried about the screen before purchasing my current laptop (Apple macbook pro 13"). I however spent a day looking at secondhand and brand new laptops and found that apple laptop screens seems to stand the test of time better coupled with the hardware you get in the 13" chasis... Bargain!! However if your decision is to be based on the screen alone then Matt Spinelli's answer is fr me the best one to read.

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Get a monitor with a good stand. Having a stand that you can adjust to your own needs (height, tilt, etc) will allow you to work without wrecking your back and neck. The Dell Ultrasharps are particularly famous for having great stands.

I personally have an Asus MS238. It has great picture quality. Its stand is... just good enough.

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