I’m going to attempt to explain a bit about resolution and aspect ratios in regard to Windows PCs. The basic concepts and math would apply to any Operating System but since I don’t know anything at all about the MAC or Linux or any other non Windows O/S I won’t have any info or screen-shots specific to those.
Before you choose & set the resolution of your monitor you need to know what type of screen you have and what aspect ratio it is. The aspect ratio is basically the SHAPE of the screen. Resolution is the amount of pixels in width and height. There are four aspect ratios still commonly in use:
4×3 -this is the “old standard” used by CRT monitors and nearly ALL “tube TV” sets. The screen is more of a square shape than widescreen movie shape. Resolutions in this shape include:
640×480, 800×600, 1024×768, 1280×960 & 1600×1200
Some LCD monitors were built in this shape but are becoming less and less common.
5×4 – this is a slightly taller squarish shape that was used by some 17 & 19 inch LCD monitors. The resolution was usually 1280×1024. The 19inch LCD running 1280×1024 was the PERFECT set-up for someone with less than perfect eye sight. I always recommended this to my older clients. Unfortunately they (19inch 5×4 LCDs not older clients!) are very hard to come by any more.
16×9 – this is the aspect ratio of HDTV. 1080p is 1920×1080 and it’s little brother 720p is 1280×720. Computer monitors come in many different resolutions with this ratio including:
1920×1080, 1600×900, & 1280×720
16×10 – this in my opinion is the PERFECT choice. Unfortunately it is becoming less and less common as the LCD industry has found it cheaper and easier to cut panels in 16×9 sizes rather than the slightly taller 16×10. So fewer and fewer of the 16x10s are being produced at this time. The resolutions in this shape include:
1920×1200, 1680×1050 & 1280×800
If you have an LCD monitor it should always be set to the MAXIMUM resolution. LCDs will only ever really look good and sharp when set to the Native Resolution which as far as I know is ALWAYS the maximum setting. Many people set their LCD monitors for a lower resolution than maximum because they find the text too small to read. My advice to these folks is to buy a different monitor or adjust the font DPI settings to compensate. CRT monitors should NEVER be set to maximum resolution because maximum will usually not give a sufficiently high Refresh Rate to keep eye strain at an acceptable level. Many people find that on CRTs the refresh rate must be no lower than 85hz or they get head-aches from extended usage. LCDs don’t have this problem in the slightest and use much less energy doing it. This coupled with the huge weight and space savings and it’s no wonder the CRT’s days are quite numbered. The CRTs one big advantage over LCDs was it’s ability to run multiple resolutions well. Unfortunately this led to a lot of people setting it to the wrong aspect ratio. If your monitor’s shape doesn’t match the aspect ratio you have chosen then things will never be “right”. For example circles will become OVALS. There are plenty of other differences between CRTs and LCDs including color accuracy and font sharpness but that is outside the scope of this article.
To help illustrate the way aspect ratios and resolutions relate to one other take a look at this graphic (click for full size):
This shows a 1920×1200 shape with several other common screen sizes inside of it.
To change display resolution in Windows 95,98 & Windows XP you simply right click on an empty part of your desktop and choose “display properties”. It will look something like this:
In Vista you have to look under Appearance and Personalization and then display settings:
In Windows 7 it’s right click -personalize, then Display then Screen Resolution: