How Many Dots
Has It Got?

by John Walker

What's a "WUXGA"? You might make a stab at guessing it's a rare four-horned bovid found in Central Asia, but in fact it's one of the grotesque acronyms vendors of personal computers, display boards, monitors, and projectors use to obfuscate one of the most fundamental specifications of the gear they're selling you: just how many pixels it can display.

After the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer in 1982, the PC industry got into the (bad) habit of identifying various screen resolutions by the name of the IBM or equivalent display adaptor having the corresponding maximum resolution. At the outset, this made sense: a user whose machine was equipped with an EGA (Enhanced Graphics Adaptor) need only look for monitors labeled "EGA Compatible". As the years passed and Moore's Law worked its magic on display resolution as well as compute speed, more and more mnemonics were coined as higher resolutions appeared and were adopted, resulting in today's ridiculous alphabet soup. Many of the current acronyms are, in fact, examples of "nested acronyms" of which Lisp programmers and other über-nerds are so fond. "WUXGA", for example, is "Wide UXGA", where "UXGA" means "Ultra XGA", and "XGA" is itself an acronym for "Extended Graphics Array--three levels of acronyms!

"Why can't they just say how many pixels the bloody thing's got?", you mutter in exasperation. Well, if they won't, I will. This document gives all the display resolutions of which I am aware, both in use on current hardware and anticipated for forthcoming higher-resolution products. Some of the names and acronyms for these various resolutions differ and some products, particularly projectors mainly intended for HDTV video, claim compatibility with a given standard but, in fact, display a slightly different number of pixels. So this is more marketing mumbo-jumbo than exact science, and it's always wise to demand detailed specifications from a manufacturer before buying a product, as opposed to relying on assertions of compatibility with one or more mnemonic-specified standards.

Normal (4×3) Screen Aspect Ratio

The following display formats are typically used with screens having the 4/3 width to height ratio of traditional television broadcasting. For each display mode the width and height in pixels, the total number of pixels, and the name from which the mnemonic was derived is given. The "H/V" ratio gives the ratio of the image width to height in pixels, as a fraction if exact, otherwise to two decimal places.

When adjusted to fill a screen with 4/3 width to height ratio, only those display modes with an H/V Ratio of precisely 4/3 will have "square pixels". If the pixel size ratio differs from the physical screen size ratio, the number of pixels per unit of length will differ in the vertical and horizontal dimensions, and circles drawn with a uniform radius in pixels will appear as ellipses on the screen. To avoid this distortion, graphics software must differentially scale images to compensate for the disparity between pixel and physical screen size ratios. Note that the ancient IBM CGA actually has a pixel ratio of 16/10, just like the hottest new wide-screen HDTV displays. If you blow up a CGA image to fill a large screen HDTV monitor, the pixels will be square, albeit about as big as your thumb!

The "Quad" and "Hex" designations are emerging as nomenclature for high-resolution displays. "Quad" refers to a mode with four times as many pixels (hence twice the vertical and horizontal size in pixels) as a previous mode, while "Hex" denotes a display with 16 times the pixels (four times the vertical and horizontal pixels).

Mnemonic Width × Height Total Pixels Name H/V Ratio
CGA 320×200
Color Graphics Adaptor 16/10
QVGA 320×240 76,800 Quarter VGA 4/3
EGA 640×350 224,000 Enhanced Graphics Adaptor 1.83
VGA 640×480 307,200 Video Graphics Array 4/3
SVGA 800×600 480,000 Super VGA 4/3
XGA 1024×768 786,432 Extended Graphics Array 4/3
SXGA 1280×1024 1,310,720 Super XGA 5/4
SXGA+ 1400×1050 1,470,000 Super XGA+ 4/3
UXGA 1600×1200 1,920,000 Ultra XGA 4/3
QXGA 2048×1536 3,145,728 Quad XGA 4/3
QSXGA 2560×2048 5,242,880 Quad SXGA 5/4
QUXGA 3200×2400 7,680,000 Quad Ultra XGA 4/3
HSXGA 5120×4096 20,971,520 Hex Super XGA 5/4
HUXGA 6400×4800 30,720,000 Hex Ultra XGA 4/3

Wide (16×9 or 16×10) Screen Aspect Ratio

High Definition Television (HDTV) specifies a screen width to height ratio of 16 to 9; digital broadcast HDTV uses a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels for high resolution mode, which conforms precisely to this ratio. (Actual broadcast images are encoded as 1920×1088 pixels because MPEG-2 encoding requires the number of vertical lines to be a multiple of 16.) The wider screen aspect ratio permits viewing widescreen movies without either wasting a large portion of the screen by a "letterbox" presentation or ghastly "pan and scan" adaptation to a 4 by 3 screen.

The following computer display modes are intended to be used with HDTV-style wide screen displays. Most of these modes have a pixel width to height ratio of 16 to 10, since that yields pixel array dimensions easier to cope with in computer hardware and software. (The WXGA mode, with the somewhat odd dimensions of 1366×768 pixels is, however, within one pixel of 16 by 9 ratio.) "Quad" and "Hex" denote higher resolution multiples of the base wide screen modes, as for the 4 by 3 modes above.

Mnemonic Width × Height Total Pixels Name H/V Ratio
WQVGA 400×240 96,000 Wide Quarter VGA 1.67
WVGA 852×480
or 858×484
or 415,272
Wide VGA 16/9
WXGA 1366×768 1,049,088 Wide XGA 16/9
WSXGA 1600×1024 1,638,400 Wide Super XGA 1.56
WSXGA+ 1680×1050 1,764,000 Wide Super XGA+ 16/10
WUXGA 1920×1200 2,304,000 Wide Ultra XGA 16/10
WQXGA 2560×1600 4,096,000 Wide Quad XGA 16/10
WQSXGA 3200×2048 6,553,600 Wide Quad Super XGA 1.56
WQUXGA 3840×2400 9,216,000 Wide Quad Ultra XGA 16/10
WHSXGA 6400×4096 26,214,400 Wide Hex Super XGA 1.56
WHUXGA 7680×4800 36,864,000 Wide Hex Ultra XGA 16/10

Nomenclature for wide screen display modes is far from settled. The mnemonics given above seem to be the most frequently encountered, but various manufacturers have their own schemes for denoting wide screen variants of basic display modes. The following table gives the forms I've seen, but you may encounter still others.

Mnemonic Alternative Designations

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by John Walker
July 10th, 2006