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Screen resolution: The ultimate guide

screen resolution
(Image credit: Designecologist on Pexels)

This is our guide to screen resolution. Here, we'll explain why the screen resolution of your monitor is so important for designers, photographers and artists. The screen resolution of a monitor can affect your digital work, so we will also explore how to buy the best monitor for your needs and how to check the resolution of your current monitor. 

Every designer, digital artist or photographer needs to know what the ideal screen resolution is for their needs. Your monitor shows you what is happening when creating your art, as well as showing off the final project so it's one of the most important tools you'll own. Getting the resolution right has a huge impact on how your work is displayed, and it also means you can work comfortably.

Icons and texts can appear to small to use if your screen resolution is too high, plus it can put additional strain onto your hardware as the monitor struggles to hit the high resolutions. But, screen resolution set too low can result in poor image quality that does your work a disservice and takes up too much workspace on your monitor. 

See our best ultrawide monitor if you're thinking about an upgrade, and you may also want to check out our guide to monitor calibration to optimise your monitor's performance. Or if you want to skip to purchasing a better computer, see our guide to the best laptops for photo editing

In the meantime, read on to find out everything you need to know about screen resolution.

What is screen resolution?

how to calibrate your monitor

(Image credit: Future)

When we talk about screen resolution, what do we mean? The monitor that's plugged into your PC – or built into your laptop – displays images via pixels, which are essentially small squares of light that change colour. Computer screens are made up of thousands of pixels, and by changing the colours of pixels in certain patterns, the screens can show images, photos, text and all kinds of graphics.

Screen resolution is the number of pixels a screen can show, both horizontally and vertically. So, a screen that has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 (a popular resolution that's also known as 1080p or Full HD), can display 1,080 pixels vertically, and 1,920 pixels horizontally.

The higher the number of pixels a screen can show, the sharper and more detailed the image quality is. However, the number of pixels a screen can show isn't the only factor when it comes to image quality – there's also pixel density. You see, monitors come in all kinds of sizes, as well as resolutions, and you often get monitors of different sizes that have the same number of pixels.

So, you can have a 24-inch monitor with a screen resolution of 1920 x 1080, as well as a 32-inch monitor with that same screen resolution. The image quality on the smaller monitor can often look sharper and more vivid, and that's because of its pixel density. This is measured in PPI (Pixels Per Inch). So, the smaller screen will have a higher number of pixels per inch than the larger screen. 

The higher the PPI, the better the image quality, so while it might be tempting to go for the largest screen possible, if you're after the highest image quality, consider getting a smaller monitor with a higher resolution, rather than a larger monitor with a lower resolution.

Native screen resolution

It's worth noting that the screen resolution that your monitor or screen is advertised at isn't the only resolution it can display. This is known as the native resolution of the screen – and it's the resolution that looks best on the display. It is possible to change the resolution of the screen – though you can only change to a lower resolution than the native resolution – not higher.

So, if you buy a 4K (also known as an Ultra High Definition) screen, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160, and you find that resolution is too high, you can set your PC, Mac or laptop to display at a lower resolution, such as 1920 x 1080.

How to check screen resolution

If you want to find out the screen resolution of your monitor or laptop screen, then the process is pretty easy. However, the way of doing it differs depending on whether you use a Windows machine, or a Mac or MacBook.

How to check your screen resolution (Windows)

how to check your screen resolution: windows

You can view and change the screen resolution in Windows  (Image credit: Future)

01. Open the display settings

If you use Windows on your PC or laptop, then you can check the screen resolution (and change it) by right-clicking on an empty space on the desktop, and clicking 'Display settings'.

In the window that opens, you'll see 'Display resolution' with the current resolution listed underneath. If it says '(Recommended)' next to the resolution, that means it's the native resolution of your display, and the one that will most likely look the best.

02. Change the resolution

If you wish to change the resolution of the display, click the down arrow next to the resolution. This will show a list of all the other display resolutions your screen can handle. Click one, and the resolution will be applied – temporarily at least.

Because changing the resolution to something that your screen doesn't support can cause problems, Windows will show you what the resolution is like, and ask you if you want to keep the resolution.

If you do, click 'Keep changes'. Otherwise, click 'Revert' to change the resolution back to what it was before. You can also do nothing, and after 15 seconds the older resolution will be applied. This is useful if you accidentally choose a resolution that your display can't handle, leading to it displaying a blank screen. Simply wait 15 seconds, and the old resolution will return.

How to check your screen resolution (Mac)

how to check your screen resolution (Mac)

It's easy to check the screen resolution on your Mac (Image credit: Future)

01. Find your resolution

The easiest way to find the display resolution of your Mac or MacBook is to click the Apple icon in the top left-hand corner of the screen.

From the menu that appears, select 'About This Mac'. A window will pop up, and at the top you'll see 'Displays.' Click it, and you'll see the size and resolution of the screen of your Mac.

02. Change the display resolution

To change the display resolution of your Mac's screen, click on 'Displays Preferences' in the bottom right-hand corner of the window that's open.

In the new window that pops up, select 'Scaled' next to where it says 'Resolution'. Then, choose the resolution based on whether you want larger text or more space.

What screen resolution do I need?

So, what resolution should you go for? This varies depending on the sort of work you'll be doing, and what kind of machine you'll be working on.

Let's start with the kind of work you'll be doing. If you're a graphic artist or 3D modeller, then the minimum resolution you should go for is 1360 x 768. However, if you can, we recommend going for 1920 x 1080 if possible – that extra resolution will give you a bigger canvas to work on, and will improve the image quality.

For people working with complex 3D models, such as architects, animators or game developers, going above 1920 x 1080 can begin to put a real strain on the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) in your machine. So, if you want to go for a higher resolution, make sure your hardware can handle it, otherwise you may find your PC performs very slowly when trying to render at those high resolutions.

For video editors, we recommend 1920 x 1080 as a minimum. This is because 1080p is the standard high definition resolution for videos, so if you are working with 1080p video, you'll want a screen that can display that natively. If you work with 4K video, then go for 3840 x 2160 as a resolution, as this will allow you to play back 4K footage natively.

For photographers, we'd recommend going for the highest resolution you can afford. Still images don't require as much graphical grunt to display on high resolution screens, and most photographs are taken at well above 1080p resolutions. For example, a camera that takes 21 megapixel photos, is actually capturing images at 5,104 x 4,092 resolution. So, even a 4K monitor won't display it natively, but the higher the resolution of the screen, the better (and more accurately) your photos will appear.

The best laptops for screen resolution

Now, the resolutions we mention here apply to standard widescreen monitors with a 16:9 aspect ratio. However, some devices have different aspect ratios – and therefore different display resolutions. 

For example, the 15-inch MacBook Pro has a 2,880 x 1,800 resolution screen. That makes it a lot sharper than a standard 1080p display.

Meanwhile, the Surface Laptop 3 has a 15-inch display with a 3:2 aspect ratio and 2,496 x 1,664 resolution. Again, that makes it a better display than a standard 1080p screen, though not quite as sharp as the screen on the MacBook Pro.

Other brilliant devices with high screen resolutions that digital creatives should try include the Surface Book 2 (with a 3,240 x 2,160 resolution), the Huawei MateBook X Pro (with a 3,000 x 2,080 resolution) and the gorgeous Dell XPS 13, which comes with either a 2,560 x 1,080 screen, or a 3,840 x 2,160 display.

Check out our pick of the best laptops for graphic design for more great laptops with high resolution screens.

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