When looking for a new monitor, one of the first things you'll see about its specs is its resolution, but how does that affect your buying decision? Those numbers may mean little if you don't know too much about them before looking for a monitor or if you don't know how the resolution affects how you'll use the monitor. While many different resolutions are available, in this article, we'll break down the differences between the most common ones on monitors: 1080p, 1440p, and 4k, and help you decide which one is right for you.
We test for a monitor's resolution in our reviews, which you can read more about here. You can also read more about resolutions on TVs here. If you have any more questions about this topic, don't be afraid to use our Forums to ask us anything!
The resolution on a monitor defines how many pixels it has, affecting things like its sharpness and the details in images. You'll often see the monitor's resolution right in marketing, but companies may use different terms and names for various resolutions, so it can be confusing. However, there are many aspects to consider alongside the resolution when looking for a monitor, like its size and aspect ratio.
Firstly, let's look at the differences between the three common resolutions: 1080p, 1440p, and 4k. While there's no perfect solution for everyone, learning about the pros and cons of each resolution can make it easier for you when you need to decide which resolution to look for. You'll see in the table below that a 1080p and 1440p resolution represents the vertical pixels of the display, but 4k represents the horizontal pixels of the display (even though a 4k monitor actually has less than 4,000 horizontal pixels), so the common names of these resolutions don't all relate to the same thing.
|Marketing Names||Full HD, FHD||2k, Quad HD, QHD||2160p, Ultra HD, UHD|
|Common Screen Sizes||22 to 27 inches||25 to 32 inches||27 to 48 inches|
|Cost||Low to Medium||Low to High||Medium to High|
The resolution alone doesn't tell you much about how it affects the user experience without knowing its size and aspect ratio. The aspect ratio defines the shape of the display. While most monitors have a 16:9 aspect ratio, similar to TVs, older monitors have a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio, while ultrawides have an aspect ratio of 21:9 or 32:9.
The aspect ratio and resolution are related because the aspect ratio defines the number of horizontal pixels versus vertical pixels. You can see a list of some resolutions and their aspect ratios, but this isn't an exhaustive list that covers every resolution available on displays, like those on laptop and phone screens. For example, the 16:10 aspect ratio is very popular on laptops but isn't as common on monitors.
Another resolution you can find on monitors is 5k, which can have a layout of 5120x2880 and a 16:9 aspect ratio. Only a handful of monitors have this resolution, and they're targeted for use with Mac computers due to their high pixel density on a 27-inch screen. While it doesn't sound like a big jump over 4k, it has 6.5 million more pixels, so the image sharpness and text clarity are remarkable, which is useful for photo editing. If a 5k monitor is something you're interested in, check out the best 5k monitors.
Now that you know the different resolutions and aspect ratios commonly found on monitors, the refresh rate is another thing to consider when looking for a monitor. This isn't directly related to the resolution but still affects how you use the monitor. This is because a high resolution and high refresh rate require a lot of bandwidth from your graphics card, so a compromise that monitors have is either a lower resolution and high refresh rate or a high resolution and lower refresh rate. This isn't a concern for general work use, but it's something to consider if you want a gaming monitor.
For example, if you're a gamer who wants a monitor with the highest refresh rate, of around 240Hz or even 360Hz, then you may need to sacrifice the resolution and get a 1080p monitor so that it isn't too taxing on your graphics card. While there are 4k, 240Hz monitors available, you need a high-end graphics card to take full advantage of them, and even at that, most graphics cards struggle to maintain high frame rates with a 4k resolution in demanding games. For most gamers, the sweet spot of compromise between resolution and refresh rate is a 1440p display with a refresh rate of around 144 to 170Hz, although more 1440p @ 240Hz monitors are coming out. If you are a gamer and think 1440p is the right resolution, check out our recommendation for the best 1440p gaming monitors.
Before making a buying decision, there are some things to know about the resolution because having a high resolution doesn't mean you'll get the sharpest images and text. The panel's subpixel layout also impacts this, which is how each individual pixel exists. Most monitors do have an RGB subpixel layout, meaning each pixel has a red, green, and blue subpixel in a straight line. However, there are some with BGR (which is more common on TVs) and others with an RWBG layout or even a triangular RGB layout. The layout affects text clarity because computer programs are optimized to render text in RGB, so the other layouts have text clarity issues. This is one reason the resolution doesn't always dictate the text clarity, as the subpixel layout is another big factor. Below you can see examples of each.
|Panel Type(s)||IPS, VA||IPS, VA||OLED||QD-OLED|
Unless you're buying an OLED or QD-OLED monitor, it's hard to know the subpixel layout of the monitor you want to purchase without researching. Still, as mentioned, most LED monitors have an RGB subpixel layout. Only with TVs, there's a wider variety of questions about different subpixel layouts, and even at that, most LED TVs have a BGR subpixel layout.
You can only notice the differences between different resolutions if you sit close to the screen, approximately within two to three feet. While that's the case with most people, if you sit further away from your monitor—like further than four feet—you won't get any benefits from a 4k monitor versus 1080p. This is because our eyes can't tell the differences between resolutions at a certain distance, but on the reverse side, if you sit very close to your monitor, it's easier to spot pixels and those minor differences.
The resolution to distance dilemma is more of a consideration regarding TVs and the content you watch. There's a relationship between the size of the TV and the distance you watch it at to notice the differences in resolution, which you can see below. You can read more about this here.
That said, if you already know you sit far away from your monitor and you won't benefit from getting a high resolution, you might be fine sticking with a lower resolution or might not even need to consider the resolution when shopping for a new monitor.
Now that you've learned about the different types of resolutions and what to consider when buying a monitor, you must consider how the resolutions affect you. It affects the user experience in a few ways, namely, with the text clarity and size of the image. However, it's important to remember that the text clarity is also related to other factors like the subpixel layout, which we've discussed above, and the pixel density. The pixel density is a measurement to show how many pixels there are per square inch of the display; we calculate this using the monitor's size and resolution. The higher the pixel density, the better, which means that a 27-inch, 4k monitor has higher pixel density and better text clarity than a 42-inch, 4k monitor. Below you can see three 27-inch monitors with different resolutions (1080p, 1440p, and 4k), and you can see how having higher pixel density results in the pixels being closer together, producing sharper text.
As the pixel density increases, so does the text sharpness, as there are more pixels to accurately display information. For example, with the diagonal lines in the images above, the 4k monitor has the sharpest lines because it simply has more pixels to display those lines properly.
As higher-resolution displays with high pixel density have pixels close to each other, one trade-off for having a high-resolution monitor is that text may seem too small, especially if you leave it on the default scaling. For example, the default text size on a 4k monitor appears much smaller than on a 1080p monitor, and if it's hard to read, you may need to increase the scaling so that it's easier to see. There are advantages to this, though, and if you don't mind the default scaling on a 4k display, you can have more text appear on your screen at once, which helps with productivity. Of course, getting a large display is the best solution if you want to open multiple windows at once, but having a high resolution and high pixel density also helps.
This brings us to the main question: what resolution is right for you? After everything discussed in this article, the answer isn't so straightforward. This is because resolution is a personal preference, and there's no perfect solution for everyone. Here at RTINGS, we often have discussions in the office about which monitors we use. Some people prefer one resolution, while others are adamant about another resolution. Like choosing a new pair of shoes, you'll know what works for you once you've physically sat in front of monitors to see the differences in resolutions.
You should also consider how you'll use the monitor; you don't need a high resolution if you're just after the best gaming experience with fast refresh rates and smooth motion handling. Inversely, a high resolution is right for you if you sit in front of the computer all day for work and like sharp text.
You should look for a 1080p monitor if: you're a gamer or want a smaller screen. As many 1080p displays have high refresh rates, as there's even one with a 500Hz refresh rate, you won't have difficulty finding a 1080p gaming monitor. While 1080p displays are available in various sizes, most are limited to 22 to 27 inches, so if you don't need the biggest screen, these are right for you. Of course, there are 1080p portable models with high pixel density and sharp text clarity, but these are a unique set of monitors designed for use on the go, and you shouldn't use them as a primary desktop monitor.
You should look for a 1440p monitor if: You need something versatile. 1440p displays are the most common type of monitor, so you can find them for various uses, from gaming to office work to photo editing. If you need something for work and play, many 1440p displays strike a balance between having good gaming and good office performance. Of course, you can also find high refresh rate 1440p monitors if you want a step-up from 1080p displays, but if you want a high refresh rate, you should consider both 1080p and 1440p monitors.
You should look for a 4k monitor if: You crave sharp image and text clarity. 4k monitors are the king for image sharpness compared to 1080p and 1440p, which is the main advantage of those resolutions. 4k monitors can still be versatile if you need something for gaming and office work, but they cost more than 1440p monitors, so only go for these over 1440p displays if your budget allows for it. 4k office monitors are also a good solution if you don't need a gaming display, as these tend to cost less and have fewer gaming features.
Question: Will there be higher resolutions in the future?
Answer: There will likely be higher resolutions, but it's unknown if consumer monitors will use them. There are already 8k TVs available, but that resolution has yet to make its way into the mainstream monitor market, and even then, TV manufacturers are starting to make fewer 8k TVs. This is because higher resolutions require more power, and more regulations are coming out to limit the power consumption of electronics, particularly in Europe. It's unlikely we'll see higher resolutions at the consumer level anytime soon, but it can happen if manufacturers find ways to be more efficient.
Question: How much does the resolution affect the monitor's performance?
Answer: The resolution doesn't affect the monitor's performance much. You can have two 1440p monitors that perform very differently. There are many different factors in its overall performance and image quality, like its panel type, brightness, image accuracy, and even motion handling. The main purpose of the resolution of your monitor is to determine what type of signals you can send from your source and how many details those signals will carry.
Question: Can my monitor accept a lower resolution, or vice versa?
Answer: You can definitely send a lower resolution to your monitor, which will display it. However, monitors don't generally have processors to upscale images like on TVs, so sending a 1080p signal on a 4k monitor looks worse than viewing that same signal on a 1080p monitor, as the high-resolution display will have upscaling artifacts. On the flip side, some monitors downscale higher-resolution signals, particularly from gaming consoles, like if you want to display a 4k signal on a 1440p monitor. While this doesn't produce the same image sharpness as on a native 4k monitor, it's at least a more detailed image than a native 1440p signal.
Question: I don't know the resolution of the monitor I want to buy; what should I do?
Answer: Some manufacturers aren't always clear about the monitor's resolution, so you need to learn for marketing names to decode what they mean. 1080p is also known as Full HD/FHD, 1440p is Quad HD/QHD or even 2k, and 4k is also known as Ultra HD/UHD. It may not be clear immediately, but after some translating, you can find the display's resolution.
Question: Does the resolution change if I use DisplayPort or HDMI?
Answer: Nope. As long as you're meeting your monitor's bandwidth limitations for each connection type, you can display content at its native resolution.
A few resolutions are available on monitors, with the most common being 1080p, 1440p, and 4k. Although most people may think that the highest resolution is the best solution for everyone, this isn't the case with monitors, and sometimes it's better to get a lower resolution, like for gaming. Your preferred resolution is a personal choice, but considering how you'll use the monitor can help you narrow your options when looking for a new model.