Screen Resolution Doesn’t Paint the Whole Picture

Screen Resolution Doesn’t Paint the Whole Picture

Written by Conor McGill

Try this simple exercise. Look closely at your screen, see if you can distinguish individual pixels. If you have a relatively new screen, it is likely that it will be difficult to see each pixel. Now, bring your eyes to within 12 inches of the screen, you will most likely start to see the pixels, and the overall picture will look more choppy. Now, bring your eyes 2-3 inches from the screen. At this distance you can clearly make out each individual pixel.

If you’ve researched, or purchased a television recently, you probably came across the number 1080. This is the shortened version of 1920 x 1080 which is the resolution that most displays today, whether for commercial or consumer use, boast. This refers to the number of pixels that a screen will display in the vertical and horizontal dimensions, respectively. As an extension of the first exercise, you could count each individual pixel and you would find this to be true…or you can take my word for it.

With a little high school trigonometry (or a specialized screen calculator like this one), you can find that the relationship of these two numbers is the ratio 16 to 9. This has come to be know as the widescreen format (or “aspect ratio” in technical speak). Every Superbowl and episode of Mad Men that you have watched in the last decade has been in this format.Aspect Ratios

If you are an average consumer, this information is arbitrary because almost all the content that you will watch, whether it be a blue ray DVD, digital cable, or content on your computer will be broadcast and displayed in this format. However, in the world of commercial displays, this is only the case some of the time. Think of the narrow LED ribbon between the first and second deck of seating at any major sports stadium that says “Get Loud” or advertises a sponsors logo. These displays have a completely different layout and require the expertise of a professional graphic designer to display a pleasing image.

Other examples of unique screen formats include:

  • The iPad, which has an aspect ratio of 4:3 (the same as “tube TVs” of old).
  • Movie theatre screens, which are wider and shorter than standard widescreen with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, or
  • The touch LCD display on your printer, which could have any combination of horizontal and vertical pixels.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, there is a new technology taking the AV world by storm which gives you even more to think about when considering the right screen. This technology is called 4K.

4K is short hand for the resolution 3840×2160, two times the prevailing 1920×1080 in each dimension and four times the overall resolution. What does this mean? It means that, in the same screen area, you can now show four times the amount of visual information. It is impossible to express the visual impact of a 4K screen versus the commonplace 1080 high definition in words. So, head into your local electronics retailer or contact Spye to set up a 4K demo to experience the difference for yourself. What can certainly be said is that, in the appropriate application, 4K can be hugely impactful and creates amazing opportunities for engaging your audience in a way that has never been possible.

We say “in the appropriate application” because, although 4K has more pixels, it isn’t always better.  When specifying a display, whether for digital signage in an airport terminal or in your living room, there are two things that need to be considered. The first is viewing distance, the second is screen size. These are so important because they have just as big a bearing on the viewing experience as resolution, and will save you time and money from both a hardware and content standpoint.


Take, for example, a 55” 1080p consumer display in your living room. Since high definition video has become widespread, you have probably never thought to yourself “Gosh, I wish this picture was clearer so I could see the pores on this newscaster’s face even more.” This is because you are most likely sitting between 6 – 8 feet from your 55” screen. A 55” screen with 1920×1080 resolution has an extremely high pixel density and you are sitting far enough away that the image looks perfectly smooth and vivid.

Now, think of this example. A 98” touchscreen at a flagship retail store. Holding the 1920×1080 resolution constant, we are already at a disadvantage because the 2,073,600 pixels (1920 multiplied by 1080) are spread over almost 4 times the screen area. This means the pixel density plummets and if you’re standing at the same 6 – 8 foot distance the viewing experience will suffer. Furthermore, because this is a touchscreen, you will have to be at arms distance (much closer than the 6 – 8 foot distance between your couch and living room TV) in order to interact with the content. In this case 4K is a much more appropriate technology.

What does this tell us? When designing an AV system, whether for your home or business, it’s best to start by thinking of the user experience and content goals. The answers to these questions will inform you as to the best technology to implement and will ensure that the time and money you commit to technology will be well spent and add to the overall experience of a space.

Photo Credits:

Featured Image – Planar

Aspect Ratios –