Laptops 101: What goes into selecting an ideal laptop display for gamers
Choosing the best specs for your next gaming laptop purchase is only half the job done. The laptop's display is the main component that you will interface with on a regular basis so it is imperative to focus on the display characteristics as well before committing to a purchase.
Display technology seems to be pretty straightforward at first sight — just decide on the resolution and you'll be good to go, right? Wrong. A lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes to ensure vivid visuals for an enhanced viewing experience. Modern laptop displays have come a long way and bring increased complexities that need to be properly evaluated to ensure that you're getting your money's worth. Factors such as screen size, resolution, refresh rates, response times, color gamut coverage, and panel choice and quality are all variables that can make or mar the viewing experience. That is the reason Notebookcheck tests out each of these parameters in all our laptop reviews.
In this article, we will take a look at how these parameters are factored in while deciding on a laptop display for gamers. We will restrict our discussion to LCD panels since OLED displays are still yet to mature enough to be used as gaming displays. We illustrate some of the concepts by showing examples from MSI gaming notebooks such as the MSI GT76 9SG.
We also encourage you to check out our previous Laptops 101 topics below:
LCD screen size
The LCD panel size (measured diagonally) directly influences the laptop's chassis. The general LCD panel sizes used in MSI laptops include 14, 15.6, and 17.3-inches. Thin and light laptops usually use 14-inch and 15.6-inch screens while desktop replacements can go up to 17.3-inches. A screen size that aids your workflow is very important as is the display resolution, which we will come to shortly. Designers, photo and video editors, and workstation users would do best with larger displays whereas internet surfers and document writers can make do with the smaller ones as well. Gaming and entertainment can also benefit from bigger screen sizes for a more immersive viewing experience.
Resolution is another important aspect of a laptop's purchase that must be considered along with screen size. Put simply, resolution refers to the number of horizontal and vertical pixels on a display screen. Pixels are the fundamental units of a display and each pixel in turn has a sub-pixel arrangement of Red (R), Blue (B), and Green (G) primary colors. Different proportions of RGB give the various colors we see on the display.
Most laptops today feature displays with at least a 1920x1080 resolution, i.e. the display has 1920 horizontal pixels and 1080 vertical pixels. This is also commonly referred to as Full High Definition (FHD). These pixels are arranged in a definite density. For example, a 15.6-inch FHD display has a pixel density — the number of pixels per inch — of 141.2 with a dot pitch of 0.18 mm. A dot pitch is the distance between adjacent pixels. Higher display resolutions include 2560x1440 (QHD) and 3840x2160 (UHD, or sometimes called 4K). The higher the resolution, the higher is the pixel density; and the smaller is the dot pitch, consequently, the sharper is the image.
Gamers generally prefer an FHD display with a high refresh rate. We'll get to the concept of refresh rate in just a bit, but an FHD display is less taxing on the GPU as it needs to draw only 2.07 million pixels compared to say 8 million pixels required to produce a 4K image. Thus, FHD displays are easier on a laptop's battery and can also be refreshed at a higher rate much more easily compared to 4K displays.
Originally, 4K displays were primarily used by graphic designers and video editors as they could make do with the standard 60 Hz refresh rate found in most monitors. These days, with the availability of powerful GPUs for laptops such as the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 or RTX 2080, it is very much possible to drive even 4K displays at high refresh rates without having to worry about artifacts or screen tearing issues. Thus, even competitive gamers can now reap the benefits of fast high-resolution screens.
Fast refresh rate
Refresh rates have a direct impact on the overall viewing experience. Basically, refresh rate denotes the number of times an LCD panel can refresh its image data. A display with a refresh rate of 60 Hz can refresh its on-screen content 60 times a second. Most laptop displays today offer a default 60 Hz refresh rate with some panels even offering up to 144 Hz. Higher refresh rates result in a smooth viewing experience without any perceivable lag in gaming or even while interacting with GUI elements in general.
While everyone benefits from high refresh rates, gamers are usually the primary target for such displays. Modern GPUs can output many more frames than a conventional display can handle. For example, the RTX 2080 can offer frame rates in excess of 100 fps at ultra settings in most modern AAA titles. If the display is only capable of refreshing 60 times per second, it cannot keep up with the high frame output of the GPU. This results in blurring or screen tearing artifacts, which not only ruin the viewing experience but also put you in a competitive disadvantage.
While 144 Hz is a high-enough refresh rate, this year, MSI's laptops have upped the ante by offering 240 Hz panels as well. This eliminates any instance of screen tearing and enables competitive gameplay in fast-paced titles where every single frame can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Low response time
Response time is another important factor that is to be considered alongside the refresh rate of the display. Response time, measured in milliseconds, is the time taken by the display to shift from one color to another. Generally, this is measured as the time taken to shift from complete black to complete white and then to black again. Along with black-to-white, gray-to-gray response times (one shade of gray to another) are also taken into account. Another way of measuring response time is to determine the Moving Picture Response Time (MPRT). While gray-to-gray response time measures the time taken by a pixel to change from one color to the other, MPRT indicates how long a pixel is continuously visible on the screen (persistence).
Visit this link to see the effect of MPRT and gray-to-gray response times in action on your current display.
The lower the response time, the better it is for gaming as it helps eliminate ghosting and motion blur. The response time is a very important metric for professional gamers where every millisecond can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Below is an example of black-to-white and gray-to-gray response time measurements in the MSI GT76 9SG gaming notebook. As you can see, the GT76 has some of the lowest response times, making it an ideal choice for competitive gaming.
Display Response Times
|↔ Response Time Black to White|
|10 ms ... rise ↗ and fall ↘ combined||↗ 5.2 ms rise|
|↘ 4.8 ms fall|
|The screen shows good response rates in our tests, but may be too slow for competitive gamers.|
In comparison, all tested devices range from 0.8 (minimum) to 240 (maximum) ms. » 11 % of all devices are better.
This means that the measured response time is better than the average of all tested devices (24.4 ms).
|↔ Response Time 50% Grey to 80% Grey|
|8 ms ... rise ↗ and fall ↘ combined||↗ 4.4 ms rise|
|↘ 3.6 ms fall|
|The screen shows fast response rates in our tests and should be suited for gaming.|
In comparison, all tested devices range from 0.8 (minimum) to 636 (maximum) ms. » 7 % of all devices are better.
This means that the measured response time is better than the average of all tested devices (38.7 ms).
The human eye can discern a wide range of colors and shades, but an LCD monitor can only reproduce a limited part of the visible color spectrum. The range of colors that can be reproduced by an LCD display constitutes its color gamut. Support for a wide color gamut means that the LCD panel can deliver more accurate color.
Color gamut is a tricky metric as most buyers tend to believe that a wide color gamut automatically implies a higher image quality. This is not always true. Color gamut is just one of the many specifications that go into determining the quality of the image. Essentially, the perceived quality of the image can vary from eye to eye. For example, a highly saturated image of a landscape might seem very appealing to the average user but inaccurate to the eyes of a designer. For this reason, there are color gamut standards that help determine whether a particular display's color profile can actually suit your workflow or not.
Modern LCD panels usually refer to coverage of a certain color gamut standard to convey to the buyer a sense of what to expect from the display's color reproduction abilities. Commonly used standards include sRGB, NTSC, and Adobe RGB. We will discuss more about color gamut standards and color accuracy in our upcoming article on laptop LCD displays for content creators.
sRGB is the commonly used color gamut standard across LCD monitors, printers, and most digital cameras. However, the overall color range of sRGB is very limited and does not include highly saturated colors. Adobe RGB overcomes this limitation, and displays supporting this color gamut standard can display a much more vivid color profile, especially when considering the greens. The image below illustrates this nicely.
If you are a gamer though, most displays in high-end gaming laptops cover the sRGB color space quite adequately so color gamut need not really be a primary concern, unless you are also using the display for productivity that requires wide color reproduction.
LCD panel technology
The choice of LCD panel influences all the factors listed above. Commonly used laptop LCD panels fall into three categories: Twisted Nematic (TN), In-Plane Switching (IPS), and Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide (IGZO) panels. Let's have a brief look at each of them.
In a typical TN panel, the TN liquid crystal (each crystal molecule corresponds to a pixel) is sandwiched between two electrodes and polarizers oriented in perpendicular phases to each other. So in an uncharged state, i.e. when current is not passed, light cannot pass from one polarizer to the other as it gets effectively blocked. When current is applied, the TN liquid crystal molecules bend or "twist" the light coming from the first polarizer by 90 degrees so that it can now pass through the second polarizer. Before getting through to the second polarizer, the light passes through color filters for red, blue, and green.
This simple arrangement allows TN panels to offer very low response times. TN panels still constitute the majority of laptop displays as they can be configured to offer response times as low as 1 ms (gray-to-gray) and true 120+ Hz displays on a restricted budget making them an ideal choice for gaming displays. However, TN panels have narrow viewing angles and can only use 6 bits per RGB color, requiring the use of workarounds such as dithering to produce 16.7 million colors.
IPS displays are similar to TN displays for the most part except for the orientation of the liquid crystals. Unlike in TN panels, there is no helical twisting of crystals involved. Rather, the IPS liquid crystal molecules rotate by 90 degrees "in-plane", i.e. horizontally, to allow light to pass through and they are aligned to the display plane at all times. Both the electrodes are placed on the first polarizer so less light from the source can pass through compared to TN, requiring the use of much brighter light sources.
Compared to TN panels, IPS panels offer excellent color reproduction and wide viewing angles but are generally more expensive to produce. IPS panels make an excellent choice for graphics professionals who value color accuracy above anything else. IPS panels generally offer a standard 60 Hz refresh rate, but higher refresh rate options are also available nowadays. A point to be noted is that all IPS panels suffer inherently from some sort of IPS backlight bleeding (IPS glow). IPS glow cannot be avoided, but proper choice of panels during quality control can minimize its effects considerably.
Unlike the difference between IPS and TN panels, IGZO refers to the type of transistor used and not the liquid crystal orientation. IGZO transistors can be used in all kinds of LCD panels including TN, IPS, and even OLED.
All displays use thin-film transistors (TFTs) to control the on-off states of each pixel. These TFTs are typically made of amorphous silicon (a-Si). a-Si transistors aren't really transparent, but manufacturers make them thin enough so that some light can pass through. Despite being difficult to crystallize, IGZO crystals are inherently transparent and therefore use much less power, as a high-intensity backlight is not needed.
Another advantage with IGZO is high electron mobility (20 to 50x more) compared to a-Si, which means better conductivity of current with much smaller transistor size. Although IGZO panels are expensive to produce, they have high refresh rates, higher pixel densities compared to typical a-Si TFT panels and significantly lower leakage current, making them an excellent choice for gamers. A still image displayed on an IGZO-TFT panel consumes way less power as the pixels remain charged without the need for continuous transistor refresh.
MSI not only offers high quality TN panels with fast refresh rates for gamers but also has 240 Hz IGZO options available in premium gaming laptops such as the GT76, GE65, and the GS65.
In this article, we have provided a brief overview into what goes into the design and selection of LCD panels for gaming notebooks. Although you can hook up your laptop to an external desktop monitor for enhanced multitasking, the primary display quality is very much essential when you go mobile. The factors to be prioritized depend on the target audience. For gamers, the primary considerations include low response times and high refresh rates, while professional users place emphasis on color accuracy and higher resolutions. For creatives who also game, it is essential to choose a panel that caters to both work and play. We will be looking into laptop LCD display choices for creative professionals in a subsequent article, so stay tuned for that.
We hope this primer on LCD panel selection for gamers was helpful in offering a high-level know-how into this important aspect of laptop purchase. Watch this space for more upcoming laptop 101 articles, including LCD panel design for creative workflows, touchpad design and more.
Besides this careful component matching it’s ensured that the latest GeForce RTX Turing graphics are at the centre of MSI laptops. Whether playing blockbuster games like Battlefield V with ray tracing for the very best image quality or working with creative apps like Autodesk 3DS Max, Adobe Premiere Pro and Lightroom or DaVinci Resolve, RTX Laptops are true "workhorses" for professionals, students, and gamers alike. They are perfect for combining leisure and work.