So recently i was watching some movies on my Acer Aspire 5 and realised that the experience was not nice. Of course the movie played very well, but the audio and video quality was actually very subpar. When watching movies the only 2 most important things are the picture and sound quality.
I tried to change various settings in the laptop to improve the picture quality but learned that the options are limited.
So I decided to write this article to discuss a bit about what you should look for in a laptop if you are planning to buy it to watch movies or some other form of video content.
Technically you could play videos like youtube on any kind of modern laptop, but for movies you need some better performance that is not present on every budget laptop.
I was watching the movies on primevideo.com with my prime account and I was right away facing a lot of problems. Lets discuss them one by one.
1. The sound
Most budget and gaming laptops come 1-2 watt stereo speakers which will not produce loud enough sound if you are sitting beyond 3-4 feet. Partly because the audio in movies is usually lower compared to that in youtube videos.
Most of the time the sound is barely audible even when you are sitting right next to the laptop with the volume setting turned to maximum level.
You would almost always need external speakers for a proper loud sound audible across the room.
2. The brightness problem
Most movies do not have high resolution and bright visuals like youtube videos. Movies often use dark backgrounds to match the theme of the scene and for various other reasons. Sometimes they are so dark that its difficult for the viewer to spot crucial details.
Furthermore movie videos use a different camera settings for recording. Movies are played in DCI-2K resolution (2048x1080 pixels) and play at 24 frames-per-second. These are different settings compared to youtube videos which are 1920x1080 (FHD resolution) in 30 frames-per-second. This is why we see the black patch on top and bottom of a movie frame, because its more wide than tall.
For watching movies you should atleast have a display with higher brightness levels. Most budget laptops and smartphones max out at 250 nits of brightness which is simply not enough and will make it difficult to spot details in movie scenes that are dark. This seriously spoils the experience and makes it feel like you are watching some old crt television from the 90s.
There are laptops with display brightness upto 500 nits, that would be priced higher compared to budget ones. Getting something with 300-400 nits brightness should be a lot better. Apple Macs are probably the best option when it comes to quality display on a laptop.
I have the Apple Ipad Air 4 (2020) model which has 500 nits of brightness which is significantly better than my Acer Aspire 5
Looking at the Macbook Pro 16" it supports XDR (Extreme Dynamic Range) which delivers 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio along with XDR brightness of 1,000 nits sustained full screen and 1,600 nits peak (with HDR content only). The SDR brightness is 500 nits. Now this is some serious brightness and contrast power that would display the best picture quality when watching movies.
However not everyone wants to get a macbook.
As a gentle reminder, keeping brightness high on laptops will consume a lot more battery power, so make sure you are plugged to some power supply.
Black level adjust / Black Stabilizer
Desktop monitors have this setting that controls the level of blackness (brightness) of dark(black) areas of the scene. When this setting is kept high, the black colors will not go very black so as to become totally incomprehensible. Keeping it high hurts the contrast and color crispyness of the display but makes the movie a lot more bright specially if the visuals are heavily dark like in Batman and Matrix or Terminator.
This is really helpful in games and watching movies. But no such setting is available on laptops.
This setting is just a poor hack to make things more visible but does not deliver better picture quality overall.
3. The contrast problem
When compared to my Sony Bravia tv, this Acer Aspire 5 laptop seemed very dull, whereas the tv visuals were quire crisp even during the dark scenes.
This is due to the contrast. The contrast of laptop displays is usually worse than desktop monitors.
So for contrast quality
TV > Desktop Monitors > Laptops
To solve both the above issues an excellent option is oled displays which are brighter and have higher contrast. A budget laptop with oled display can easily offer upto 400 nits of brightness along with 100% DCI-P3 color gamut support which will produce the most vibrant colors possible on a laptop display.
Oled displays have their own problems like shorter lifespan, but overall they can be a great choice if you want the best movie experience. The Acer Swift Edge 16" 4K OLED 400 nits is one such laptop.
Here is a comparison of the contrast ratios of some of the displays that I have used.
|LG 22MK600M IPS Monitor||1000:1||250||-|
|Acer Aspire 5 A515-56-P8NZ||1800:1||?||-|
|Acer Aspire 5 A515-56-511A||877:1||?||-|
Oled displays can deliver contrast ratios of upto 1,000,000:1 which is huge when compared to the above standard displays.
Laptop displays do not often mention their contrast ratios unless its a high end model.
An HDR10 rated display with atleast 300 nits of brightness (like my LG 24GN650 24") can deliver decent "no-complains" movie viewing experience as it can offer wide color gamut along with higher contrast and brightness.
Even dark scenes would look very clear with easy to spot details and comfortable viewing.
It should be noted that HDR10 is just the wide spectrum of standards with multiple different ratings available. Within the HDR10 standard DisplayHDR 400 is the minimum requirement which should deliver atleast 400 nits of brightness with atleast 95% of BT.709 color gamut.
Extensive technical details about various parameters specified in the HDR standard can be found here.
The best thing to do would be to check the laptop's specifications and look for brightness levels and hdr rating data.
4. Display Size
Yes this might be the most obvious and least considered question, but do have a 15.4" display as minimum, if you want to view the movie from distance and comfort of your bed.
A 17.3 inch display would be even better, but that depends on what other things you would be doing on that laptop. Not to forget a larger screen also means a heavier laptop.
5. Display panel
The display accuracy from different angles is very critical when watching a movie. You might not be sitting right infront of the display in a straight line every time and there would be others joining you in the show. Make sure to have an IPS display which offers best viewing angles color accuracy so that the visuals look the same from different viewing angles.
Now a laptop IPS display cannot match up with that of a television display like Sony Bravia but it is certainly the best choice in the computer hardware segment that is critically important. If you choose anything else like a tn or va panel, the visuals will be very poor from the side angle views spoiling the whole experience.
Matte vs Gloss
An important aspect of the display panel is the finish type which can either be gloss or matte. The glossy ones tend to reflect a lot of light making viewing difficult from certain angles. When it comes to viewing movies, matte finish displays are the best because they ensure good viewing angles and similarly most televisions have matte finish displays.
A display resolution of 1080p or FHD is sufficient for watching movies. However with laptops higher HDR displays often come with higher resolutions. So if you are looking for a DisplayHDR500 or higher laptop then they will likely be equipped with 4K displays.
From a marketing point of view, its cost effective to add hdr technology to more expensive 4K displays rather than the cheap fhd 1080p displays.
If you are connecting the laptop to an external TV then any laptop should do the work since the display and sound would be taken care of by the tv. You need not have good display or sound quality on the laptop at all.
Just make sure that the laptop has hdmi output and the tv has an hdmi input to make connectivity easy.
Must have Accessories
If nothing else, then get a desktop monitor and attach it to the laptop to watch the movie. And pair it with a decent externally powered 5-10 watt speaker. Bluetooth bars do quite well for this purpose.
Other less relevant specs
There are several other specs that matter when choosing a laptop, like battery runtime and ram. When watching movies you would mostly be sitting near a power source for few hours so battery runtime should not be much of a concern, and any laptop with good battery should do.
Coming to ram, if you plan to just watch movies then you wont need anything more than 8gb. However assuming that you would be doing other productive work as well, we would recommend a minimum of 16gb of ram.
As with the cpu, make sure to get a modern processor that is atleast 4core/8thread or higher. Either of intel or amd would do just fine. Both have integrated gpus on laptops and the igpus can play movie videos adequately.
Overall my experience of watching movies on my laptop from the comfort of my bed did not turn out to be that great. I will probably buy a bluetooth speaker atleast and a remote to control the play/pause settings of the primevideo player inside the browser (google chrome).
And i you are planning to buy a laptop and will watch a lot of movies on it, then make sure to get one with DisplayHDR 400 support. Anything below that will be just poor and unpredictable. Alternatively attach an external monitor or a whole tv.