When shopping for a laptop, you’ll likely have a choice between several screen resolutions, with 4K UHD being one of them. It’s tempting to go for the higher resolution display option and be done with it, but is it worth it?
The “retina” resolution problem
Apple coined the term “Retina” to describe displays that have a pixel density that makes individual pixels invisible at normal viewing distances. In other words, increasing pixel density beyond the “retina” level increases perceived image detail because your eyes can’t resolve those extra pixels.
Each screen becomes “Retina” as its distance increases, but normally the ergonomic advice for computer screens is to have them no closer than 20 inches from your eyes. We used a 13.3-inch, 15.6-inch, and 17.3-inch laptop in natural positions, and in each case the distance was over 20 inches, so it’s not an unreasonable distance for comfortable use.
The problem is that even a large 17.3-inch 4K laptop screen becomes “Retina” at a distance of 13 inches according to Is This Retina? Online pixel density calculator.
The same screen at 1440p becomes “Retina” at 20 inches, just on the edge of the minimum viewing distances.
A 1080p screen converts to “Retina” at 27 inches, probably closer to the distance laptop users have between their eyeballs and the screen.
This is one of the main reasons why such small 4K panels may not be worth it for most users, as their main benefit is lost if you use your laptop normally. Now, there are some benefits of a 4K display that don’t go away even at “Retina” distances, but we’ll talk about that later.
High refresh 4K panels are rare
Screens have two types of resolution. Space resolution is what most people think of when talking about screen resolution. This is the number of pixels on the screen and the amount of fine detail that can be displayed based on having more pixels.
Temporary Resolution is the amount of detail a screen can display over time, commonly known as refresh rate. A 120 Hz display can display as much information over time as a 60 Hz display. This only applies to content that changes over time, such as videos, video games, and moving computer interface elements such as mouse pointers. and documents on the go. The higher the refresh rate, the sharper the motion will look and the less blur.
Unlike spatial resolution, the benefits of temporal resolution don’t diminish at normal viewing distances, but 4K displays that offer refresh rates higher than 60Hz are relatively rare and comparatively expensive. It’s now typical to have 1080p or 1440p displays offering 360Hz, 240Hz, 165Hz and 144Hz refresh rates, and this can have a bigger impact on visual clarity than a 60Hz 4K panel.
4K is a battery hog
When shopping for a laptop, battery life is a key consideration. Higher resolution screens require more power to run. It’s not just that the screen itself uses more power, but the components needed to control that screen also need more power. And it doesn’t just apply to video games; your GPU has to work harder to display a 4K desktop than a 1440p or 1080p one.
RELATED: 6 ways to improve battery life on Windows laptops
Screen scaling can make 4K moot
Modern operating systems use display scaling to ensure that user interface elements such as buttons, text, and widgets are the correct size relative to the display size. Without screen scaling, text and buttons on a 4K laptop screen would be so small as to be unreadable. At normal viewing distances, equivalently scaled, you won’t see any difference between a 1440p and 4K laptop display when it comes to desktop real estate.
There are better ways to make games look sharper
4K panels are now an option for many gaming laptops, and the “Retina” viewing distances argument isn’t entirely true. This is because rendering a game in 4K removes certain “macro” image artifacts, such as jagged edges on rendered objects and the characteristic “glow” that gets worse for some objects rendered at lower resolutions.
While you can see these kinds of visual artifacts in video games at normal viewing distances, and a 4k panel would reduce (but not eliminate) them, there are better ways to address these issues. With features like supersampling and smart anti-aliasing, it’s possible to get the same apparent reduction in these issues on lower resolution panels. These solutions also have the benefit of being less taxing on the laptop’s CPU and GPU compared to a raw, native 4K gaming render.
Who should buy a 4K laptop?
Until now, it might seem like a 4K panel isn’t really worth it in a laptop, but there are legitimate use cases for having high-density screens in small devices like laptops. Specifically, if you’re a content creator working with 4K media, it’s important to have a display that can natively display every pixel of that content to you.
Content creators also examine their screens differently than average users and may zoom in on the screen when editing or QA. While we can’t recommend a 4K laptop panel for most users, content creators who need to work on the go are the main exception.