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Customize Your Screen Resolution

by Oscar Sodani
February 26, 2003

Oscar Sodani is a founder of Help2Go and owner of Help2Go Networks, an IT consulting firm in the Washington D.C. area. Oscar holds the CISSP certification as well as industry certifications from Microsoft, Cisco and Novell.

Your screen is one of the most important, yet overlooked parts of your computer. How you view your desktop and your applications is directly tied to how much you can see on the screen at one time. Modern monitors are capable of displaying millions of colors at very fine resolutions, which creates crisp and clear images. These monitors also support high refresh rates, which reduces the strain on your eyes. And yet, most computers are setup in people's homes or offices without using the full capabilities of their monitor.

In this Help2Go tutorial, we'll show you how to

  • Change the how much you can see on your screen at one time by changing the display resolution
  • Change how many colors are being displayed on your screen
  • Change the refresh rate of your monitor, which helps to reduce eye strain.


A computer uses individual points of light, called pixels, to make up an image. Pixels of different colors are grouped together to form images on the screen -- pictures, icons, even the text you are reading right now. By using more pixels to make an image, the image becomes clearer and crisper, and yes, bigger on your screen.

The key is to allow your monitor to display as many pixels as possible at the same time. A few years ago, most computer monitors were equipped to work at a resolution of 640 pixels across by 480 pixels down. Multiply 640x480, and you get 307,200, the number of pixels that could be drawn on a standard monitor.

As monitors got bigger, the standard resolution increased, to 800x600. That meant that 480,000 pixels could be used to draw the image on your computer monitor, resulting in better screen quality. Nowadays, new computer monitors can handle well over 1 million pixels on your screen, and yet most people's screen resolution is stuck on 800x600, or even worse, 640x480!

How many pixels you should display depends on the size of your monitor. Here is a list of our recommendations:

Monitor Size Resolution
14" and below 640x480
15" 800x600 or 1024x768
17" 1024x768 or 1152x864
18-19" 1152x864 or 1280x1024
20-21" 1280x1024 or 1600x1200

Whether you use the higher or lower resolution depends on how good your monitor is at displaying that resolution, how good your eyesight is, and how close you sit to your monitor. We suggest trying the higher resolution first, and if it doesn't suit you, switch to the lower.

To change your screen resolution:
1) Click on Start
2) Choose Settings
3) Choose Control Panel
4) A box called Display Properties will pop up. You will see several "tabs" near the top of the box. Click once on the Settings tab -- it will look something like Figure 1 below:

Figure 1

5) On the right side, you will see a setting for "Screen Area". The number underneath will show your current screen resolution (i.e. 640x480, 800x600, 1024x768, etc.) Move the slider towards "More" until the desired resolution is reached.
6) Click OK to see if the new settings work for you. Windows will display the new setting for 15 seconds. During this time, you will see the graphic in Figure 2:

Figure 2

7) If you do not click the Yes button within 15 seconds, the display will return to its previous settings. That way, you can experiment all you want without the fear of messing something up!


The number of colors that your monitor displays can improve the quality of just about any picture-- especially those pictures created with a digital camera. However, your computer will use more memory to display those extra colors -- so it is best to only use the color depth that your computer can handle.

For instance, if you only word-process, or if you have an older, slower computer, 8-bit color (256 colors) will be all you need. But photographs on the web viewed with only 256 colors are going to look a little funny,

If you surf the web, you are probably going to want to have 16-bit color (65,536 colors) set at all times. The images on the web will look the way they should.

If you use image viewing or editing programs, maybe with a digital camera, you will be best off with 24- or 32-bit color. This will show pictures as they are MEANT to be seen, with every color available to the human eye. If you have a fast computer with a lot of memory, displaying this depth of color really won't have any adverse effects on your computer's speed.

The option to change your color depth is on the same box as your resolution settings were.

To get there:
1) Click on Start
2) Choose Settings
3) Choose Control Panel
4) A box called Display Properties will pop up. You will see several "tabs" near the top of the box. Click once on the Settings tab.
5) On the left side, you will see a setting for "Colors". Here you can choose the color depth you want from the drop down list.
6) Click OK to see if the new color settings work for you. Once again, Windows will display the new setting for 15 seconds. During this time, you can choose to wait it out and return to the previous setting.

Refresh Rate

The third piece of the puzzle is refresh rate. Refresh rate is the number of times that your monitor redraws what you see in a given time frame. The higher the refresh rate, the faster your monitor updates, causing less strain on your eyes.

Ever notice that when you see a computer monitor on TV (like on the news), the monitor seems like it is flickering and the picture isn't stable? That is because a TV camera can capture images faster than old monitors could redraw, so the TV camera would actually record what the monitor looks like in-between redraws! This is not the case with newer monitors -- they have faster refresh rates, reducing flicker almost completely.

Now, as you raise the resolution and color depth of your display, the refresh rate that your monitor can handle will decrease. For instance, your monitor may be handle a refresh rate of 85 Hz at a resolution of 1024x768 and a color depth of 16-bits. However, that same monitor might only be able to draw a 1280x1024 screen with 24-bit color at 72 Hz.

When choosing resolution and color that you are comfortable with, make sure that you can get a refresh rate of at least 75Hz. Any lower, and the flicker may hurt your eyes. Ideally, no one should be using a refresh rate less than 85Hz -- but the world isn't always ideal.

To change the refresh rate of your monitor, we are going to go back to that same Display Control Panel:

1) Click on Start
2) Choose Settings
3) Choose Control Panel
4) A box called Display Properties will pop up. You will see several "tabs" near the top of the box. Click once on the Settings tab.
5) Now, you will need to click on the Advanced button.
6) Another dialog box will pop up -- choose the Adapter tab. You will see a screen similar to Figure 3 below:

Figure 3

7) Don't worry if your box doesn't look exactly like mine. Near the bottom of this screen, you will see an option for "Refresh rate". Click the down arrow and choose the one you want.
8) Click OK and choose OK on the confirmation boxes that follow. Once again, Windows will wait 15 seconds, letting you undo by showing Figure 4 below:

Figure 4

It is important to balance your display settings so that you can achieve good resolution and good color at a high refresh rate. Play with the settings until you find the perfect combination for you and your monitor. If you can't find the combination you want, it may be time to invest in a new monitor. After all, a good 17" model costs less than ever -- just a few hundred bucks. If you take the time to adjust these settings, your eyes will thank you -- and you'll be able to get more work done.

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