6 Signs Your Gadget’s Screen Sucks

As much as I’m a sucker for quad-core processors, slick interfaces and killer apps, none of that matters if the screen on a gadget I’m buying isn’t up to snuff. Whether we’re shopping for a laptop, smartphone or tablet, all of us should be spending less time pouring over the specs and more time looking at the display.

Is it sharp enough? Do the colors wash out? Can you actually use that gadget outside? These are just some of the questions you need to ask yourself before you buy. Here are six surefire signs that display just won’t cut it.

1. Pitifully low resolution

It’s truly sad to see $1,400 razor-thin Ultrabooks hit our labs with the same 1366 x 768 pixel count as $500 laptops. At least Vizio gets it. The company’s new $899 14-inch Thin + Light offers a 1600 x 900 panel, which fits more information on the screen. In other words, less scrolling for you. ASUS gives you a full 1920 x 1080 pixels for its $1,149 Zenbook Prime. It’s time for everyone else to step it up.

For tablets, a minimum of 1280 x 800 pixels is the new standard for 7 inches, thanks to the $199 Nexus 7. (We gave the Kindle Fire‘s 1024 x 600 a pass at launch because of its low price.) For 10-inch tablets, the iPad‘s Retina Display (2048 x 1536 pixels) is the gold standard, and there are now two full HD Android slates in the $499 Asus Transformer Pad Infinity and Acer Iconia Tab A700. Yes, you can get the Lenovo IdeaPad S2 for $150 less, but that 1024 x 768 screen makes the device instantly obsolete.

If you’re in the market for a smartphone, shoot for a resolution of at least 960 x 540 (also called qHD), but 1280 x 720 pixels is better. Stay away from phones with resolutions of 480 x 320 pixels. You’ll get fuzzy text and images and spend way too much of your time zooming in to see content.

2. Can’t be seen in the sun (or way too dim)

I was actually shocked to see that most reviewers of the Samsung Galaxy S III had nothing but praise for its Super AMOLED screen. I guess those folks didn’t bother to take the phone outside. While the panel offers excellent contrast and popping colors, it’s just too dim to comfortably see content in direct sunlight.

Using our light meter, the S III registered only 210 lux, compared with 302 for the category average. Other AMOLED-equipped phones also disappointed, including the Samsung Focus 2 (203 lux) and Nokia Lumia 900 (262 lux). The HTC One X notched a sky-high 525 lux, and the iPhone 4S got 549, making them easy to see outdoors.

We also measure the brightness for tablets and phones in our reviews, so you can easily compare results.

3. Poor viewing angles

If you have to push back a laptop’s screen 30 degrees to make out the image, don’t buy it. What happens when you get on the plane and the person in front of you jams his seat all the way back? We’re forgiving of narrow viewing angles on 15-inch budget laptops that likely won’t leave the living room, but not on notebooks that are designed to be used in tight quarters.

With smartphones and tablets, you’d think that limited viewing angles would be less of an issue because we tend to view the device head-on. Wrong. Yesterday I tested the Droid Incredible 4G LTE’s GPS feature in the car, and I had trouble reading the directions from my seat to the dashboard. Narrow viewing angles can also spoil an otherwise good tablet; you want the person next to you to see that movie, too.

4. Whites aren’t white

I don’t mean to keep picking on AMOLED screens (sorry, Galaxy S III) but I’ve noticed that many of them tend to have a blue cast when displaying a white background. Not having a white that’s really white doesn’t necessarily ruin the user experience, but it’s just annoying. A good way to test this out is to open the browser and enter “about:blank” and compare devices side by side.

5. Glare, glare and more glare

The industry calls them glossy screens, but I call them glare screens. If you’re looking at a laptop display and you can see more stuff going on behind you than what’s on that webpage, that’s a problem. That’s why it’s important to pick a notebook that offers good contrast and black levels but doesn’t go overboard with the glossy. The 13-inch MacBook Air is a great example.

If you want to avoid glare altogether, look for notebooks with matte screens, such as the 15-inch Samsung Series 9. Business notebooks from Lenovo, HP and others also come with matte panels.

All tablets and phones suffer from at least some glare. I simply haven’t seen a viable color matte option for mobile devices. But a bright screen can help minimize distracting reflections.

Still, if you want to a glare-free experience I recommend an E Ink e-reader like the Barnes & Noble Nook Touch with GlowLight.

6. You can see gridlines on the touch screen

I was shocked to discover that Toshiba is charging $30 more than the iPad for its Excite 10 LE tablet. And that shock turned to horror when we got this device in the lab. What good is it to have the world’s thinnest tablet when the display is marred by crisscrossing gridlines? This proved very distracting when watching video or reading. The same weakness plagued the $179 Archos 70b. Being cheaper is no excuse. We’d much rather pay $20 more for the Kindle Fire than suffer with this poorly made screen.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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Submit Comments

  1. foobar Says:

    The link to the Nook tablet doesn’t seem to be an E-Ink reader

  2. kencanau Says:

    Well, glossy screens often offers way better colors and picture quality

  3. Anshuman Chandel Says:

    Nice information about screens, helped me a lot.
    + I really loved that someone somewhere gave a negative point about samsung s 3, while everyone is talking about how good it is. If we just can’t use the cellphone easily in direct sunlight then its of no good.

  4. Ben W Wuqvoh Says:

    “What happens when you get on the plane and the person in front of you jams his seat all the way back?” Didn’t the guy in the seat in front pay to be able to have his seat as far back as it goes? After all, he doesn’t control the space in front of his that is actually the guy in front of his seat space?
    The only point that this logic breaks down is the very last row…. but that is how the airline wants it, they could have a short space behind the last row… there’s really only consideration whether or not to recline when sitting in the second to last row..

  5. Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief Says:

    Hi Ben, you’re right that the person in front of you has the right to recline his or her seat. The point I was making that when that happens you want a notebook that will supply a good image even if it’s close to a 90 degree angle.

  6. Vaibhav Says:

    Nice article.

    I would like to mention a few other things to look out for:

    1. Battery life – my last laptop when brand new lasted 40 minutes
    2. Processor speed – 2 GHz AMD dual core that is slower than 1.4GHz in the MacBook Air
    3. Noise – When using the laptop, every minute or two the fan would spin up for 3-5 minutes and create enough noise for people in the entire office to notice.
    4. Structural rigidity – When picked up, the laptop would creak and bend beyond belief.

    The above is based on my purchase of HP TX2500 tablet, one of the worst designed computer I have ever used. And I have used over 50 different models in my job.

  7. Iain Cheyne Says:

    Very good article but you should have mentioned pixel density which matters a lot, especially for mobile screens because they don’t need quite such high resolutions.

  8. Ben W Wuqvoh Says:

    Ah. Quoting the great Gilda Radner in her Roseanne Roseannadanna character; “never mind” ;)

  9. chris Says:

    Ha. No… I have an Acer iconia a500 with a screen resolution of 1280 x 800. This article says something right under that is obsolete? You’re crazy with an HD obsession. The apples retina display is unnecassary! Plain and simple. The resolution on my tablet is plenty fine enough for reading small text online. No matter close my eyes are to it nothing is blurry, I can see no pixels. Yes high resolution is nice but my tablets screen iis far from obsolete. I don’t want some sucker out there to actually believe this crap and snub a perfectly good tablet. 1280×800 IS HD.

  10. ConnectionFly.Com Says:

    Nice article, but I agree with Iain Cheyne. Pixel density is a huge factor to consider, especially when you take into account the high end like Apple’s new retina displays, those next to an average device make the average screen look like a 480p tv next to a 1080p device.

    I will share on FB, twitter, and G+, thanks guys.

  11. Chaostheory6682 Says:

    You are aware that the design of the screen in the iPad is actually kind of misleading right?
    It uses whats called pixel sharing, which means that the actual resolution is much lower than what they claim. Its a numbers con, pure and simple.

    Also, You forgot to mention things like ghosting and refresh. Related yes, and very much important when choosing a screen that you plan on using for video and games, or even smooth scrolling for that matter.

    Another is screen strength, how likely is it to survive a fall? Some tablets are far more fragile than others in that area.

  12. Chris Taylor Says:

    Well the problem is MATT works fine on a laptop but NOT on a tablet or mobile.

    the reason is simple. SCRATCH resistant tough screens are by nature “GLOSSY” ie sleek and smooth surfaces.

    I was curious about the SII in daylight issues. I have an S2 (the spring larger screen version) maybe its different from normal S2’s but mine is fine in “MOST” sunlight conditions (it can be too bright of course) and was shocked at HOW BRIGHT the S2 screen was.

    now granted my only points of reference are my previous phones and devices so its very possible the SII simply has a superior screen to any of my PREVIOUS devices. I have not use any other current gen devices. I am not that rich :-) hehe

    I compared an Iphone 4s to my S2 and the S2 screen makes the iphone screen look downright horrid. no comparison. the S2 wins handily screen wise EVEN IF its a lower res (I use LCD Density to simulate 1280×700 MUCH better)

  13. George Shimerman Says:

    I had the same issues with my acer aspire 5940G. The viewing angle is so bad
    that you cant watch a movie or a show with someone else on the laptop’s screen.
    Also, the screen was a bit reflective, you couldn’t see it very well if you are in a dark
    environment with a light source shining at it.

  14. whitewer Says:

    Oddly enough, I have a galaxy s3 and I have no problems seeing it during the day in the middle of a bright afternoon. The worse thing I end up with is occasionally the color gets washed out if I hold the phone at an odd angle. I’ve noticed that a lot lately with reviews, they go by the sheer brightness of the display and seem to disregard any other things that can influence a display.

  15. overhyped yet again Says:

    It is a scientifically proven fact that a 50 inch screen is the smallest size at which our feeble brains can start to see the difference between720p and 1080p resolution. It is utterly impossible for us to tell the difference on a 10, 7 or 4 inch screen, yet the manufacturer will convince you to lose another $1000 for its newer model because yours is 6 months old already.

  16. blah Says:

    @ overhyped yet again

    That may be true for viewing a TV at a standard distance of several feet, but definitely not up close. You can definitely see a visible difference in the resolutions of tablet and phone screens.

  17. josh Says:

    Id like to concur that glossy screens offer WAY BETTER picture quality.

    i use my laptop for downloading tv shows and movies.

    i recently got a samsung notebook (series 3) with an anti-reflective screen and it’s absolutely TERRIBLE.

    i cannot, repeat CANNOT, watch ANYTHING (EVEN DVDS) at fullscreen dimensions as the grid pattern of the screen becomes incredibly visible when backed by moving images when watching on the fullscreen. i have zero problems using my ps3 or standalone to watch these on my flatscreen tv, mind you.

    my 5 year old HP shits all over this comp when it comes to image quality….of which, if this is a concern for you….YOU SHOULD NEVER BUY A SAMSUNG product. as they fucking suck shit. straight up.

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