Ken Colburn of Data Doctors answers Cory, who writes:

Q: When shopping for LCD screens, what does ‘native resolution’ mean and what happens if I don’t want to run at that size?

A: The amazing growth in the sales of LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) screens is a testament to how little the technical specs on some devices matter and how ‘form over function’ is the rule of the day. 2004 is predicted to be the first year that more LCDs will be shipped than CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes).

From a technical standpoint, LCDs don’t perform as well as the average CRT, but the form factor and ‘cool’ factor have made image quality irrelevant. LCDs have poorer viewing angles, much slower pixel response times (bad for gamers), they don’t handle resolution scaling (interpolation) very well, the contrast is noticeably lower, AND they cost (on average) about twice as much as their CRT counterparts.

The ‘native resolution’ specification points out one of the big differences between LCD and CRT displays. If you run an LCD at any resolution other than its native resolution, the display will become fuzzy or blurry, especially with text. The reason this happens on LCDs is that they are made up of tiny cells in a matrix (called the native resolution). For instance, if the native resolution is listed as 1280×1024, then there are 1280 cells across and 1024 cells down the screen. If you only display at 1024×768, then a large number of the pixels are being ‘stretched’ over multiple cells, which is what causes the image quality to degrade (think Jumbotron at the ballpark).

CRTs spray the image (at any resolution) on the back of a glass tube, so they don’t have a native resolution, making the job of ‘resolution scaling’ at any setting much easier. When you shop for LCDs in the stores, they are usually displayed at their native resolution, so if you don’t plan to run it at that setting, be sure to lower it to see what it is really going to look like when you get it home. The problem most people have with the native resolution on most LCDs (especially the larger units) is that the images and text become so small that they are hard to read. Instead of increasing the size of the display font or other adjustments, lowering the resolution is the usual ‘fix’ for most users, which is what reduces the image quality.

The thing to remember with LCD screens is, in general, the larger the display, the higher the native resolution. Getting a larger display will not make the problem better, but more likely make it worse for those that want large icons and text. A possible exception would be if the displayed resolution is exactly half the native resolution (800×600 for a 1600×1200 native resolution display) when the pixel to cell ratio is more inline. If you find the native resolution too small on an LCD screen, try working with the ‘Appearance’ tab in the Display Properties (right-click on the Desktop, then select Properties) before lowering the resolution.