Choosing the best screen resolution for your screencasts

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shutterstock 3197353 640x426 Choosing the best screen resolution for your screencastsThere is a lot of planning and thought that goes into a creating screencast. Determining your ideal screen resolution is an important factor to consider before you start your recording. Here’s a quick overview of what it is and why it matters.

First things first: What is screen resolution?

Screen resolution is a measure of how your monitor or screen displays an image; it essentially refers to the clarity of the content on your screen. Most LCD screens use pixels (tiny square or rectangular dots) to display text and pictures onscreen. These pixels are measured across and down the screen, and are usually shown as something like “480×360″, which means there are 480 pixels across and 360 pixels down. This measure of pixels is known as “resolution”.

As you can imagine, if you are looking at two screens of the same size, and one has a higher resolution than the other (1600×1200  would be a higher screen resolution than 640×480 for example), the content on the one with the higher resolution will appear sharper and clearer. There are more pixels there to represent the data.

At higher resolutions, the pixels are more numerous and smaller, so as a consequence the items onscreen will also appear smaller, with more items fitting on the screen. At lower resolutions, there are fewer pixels so the items on screen will be larger and fewer items will fit on the screen. At very low resolutions, images might look “pixelated” or  have jagged edges, because there are not enough pixels to provide a crisp, clear image.

What is aspect ratio?

Related to screen resolution, and another thing to consider when screencasting is your screen’s “aspect ratio”, which is the ratio of its width to its height. Every screen resolution has an aspect ratio associated with it. A few of the most common aspect ratios we see today are 4:3 (pronounced “4-by-3″, or “4-to-3″) and 16:9.  Another way to represent this is to divide each number by the height, so a 4:3 monitor is also known as a 1.33:1 display (4/3=1.33, and 3/3=1). In other words the display is 1.33 times as wide as it is high. A 16:9 monitor is also known as 1.78:1.

You can easily figure out what aspect ratio a resolution is by dividing the first number (the width) by the 2nd number (the height).

For example: 640 divided by 480 = 1.33. You may notice this matches the number for the 4:3 aspect ratio above, meaning this screen resolution (640×480) displays at 4:3 aspect ratio. As another example, a resolution of 1024×576 would display as 16:9 (1.78:1).

Why do screen resolution and aspect ratio matter?

It’s quite simple: If the resolution or aspect ratio of your video doesn’t match the resolution and aspect ratio of the display on which you want to show it, your video may appear cut-off, distorted, too small, or too large. When you see horizontal black bars at the top and bottom of a video  (called “letterboxing”) or vertical bars on either side of a a video (called “curtains”), that’s an example of a video that was recorded at a different aspect ratio than it is being presented. This wastes screen real estate, and potentially lowers your video quality.

Not only that, if you record something at a high resolution (say 16:9 1440×900)  that you want to display on a smaller screen at a low resolution (say 854×480), the type and images onscreen are going to be so small  they may be unreadable for your viewers. So if you don’t have an understanding about screen resolution you could end up with a low quality, unreadable video!

In the image below, I’ve tried to show the potential problems when you record in one resolution and display in a different resolution. If you record and export at high resolutions, the smaller you display that content, the smaller all the text and images become – to the point of being unreadable. (Shown in the bottom triangle of the image below.)  But on the other hand, if you record and export at a low resolution and try to display that on larger monitors or displays, the more fuzzy your content will be. (Shown in the top triangle of the image below).  If you’ve ever tried to watch a 320p YouTube video on full screen, you’ll know what I mean.

screenresolutionsillustrator 032 Choosing the best screen resolution for your screencasts

Here’s a table from TheScreamOnline that also shows the how resolution and screen size are linked.

14″ 15″ 17″ 19″ 21″
640×480 BEST GOOD TOO
BIG
HUGE TERRIBLE
800×600 GOOD BEST GOOD TOO
BIG
HUGE
1024×768 TOO
SMALL
GOOD BEST GOOD STILL
GOOD
1280×1024 TINY TOO
SMALL
GOOD BEST GOOD
1600×1200 TERRIBLE TINY TOO
SMALL
GOOD BEST
A 640×480 video shown on a 14″ monitor is going to look a lot better than on a 21″ monitor. On the flip side, even high resolution content can look terrible if displayed on a screen that is too small.The small pixels of the high resolution material become much too small to be readable if you reduce the overall size.

Putting this knowledge to practice: A few tips and best practices

  1. For best results, record at exactly the same target resolution at which you want to display. For example if you’re producing 16:9 720p, you should record 1280×720 pixels, and you should set your monitor to that resolution.
    • Presentations, images, and videos can be created in any aspect ratio, therefore it is important for you to be aware of your target resolution and aspect ratio during planning so you can create all your original content at a consistent size and ratio that will display correctly on your target.
  2. If you must scale your screencast, then make sure at the very least you keep the aspect ratio consistent from recording to export. If you are targeting 4:3, record at 4:3. If 16:9, record at 16:9.
    • For example if you have a Keynote presentation at 640px x 480px (a 4:3 ratio) that you want to record and display as a video on your website that has a width of 500px, then you should export your video at 500 x 375 (500 divided by 1.333 = 375) to keep the same ratio size.
    • If your monitor doesn’t allow you to record at your target aspect ratio/resolution, then use the Canvas Size adjuster in ScreenFlow to change the aspect ratio of your screen in post production, so when you export, you’ll be exporting the proper aspect ratio.
  3. Keep in mind, also, the larger the resolution, the bigger the file size. So don’t automatically assume that a higher resolution screen recording is going to be better for all situations. If you only need to display at 480 x 360 then recording a video at 1024×768 will only inflate the size of your file. Reduce your screen resolution and you’ll be able to also get your file sizes down.

One person I know records his videos in 1280×720 and exports in 960×540. For him, this offers a high quality “master” copy, that then exports with a nice balance of quality, readability and screen size for his target displays. You may have a different size that works best for you – but it will depend on where your videos are displayed and for what audience. Test out some different sizes and see what works for you.

Common resolutions

Here are some commonly seen 4:3 resolutions (generally standard definition):

  • 1024×768
  • 800×600
  • 640 x 480
  • 480 x 360
  • 320×240

And some common 16:9 resolutions (known as wide-screen, and generally high definition):

  • 1920×1080
  • 1280 x 720
  • 1024×576
  • 960×540
  • 800×450
  • 640×360
  • 512×288
  • 480×270

 

  • The 9.7″ iPad display has a screen resolution of 1024×768 pixels
  • The iPhone 4 is 960×640
  • Standard resolution for DVD format is 720 x 486
  • Wide screen DVD format is 864 x 486
  • Online video (like YouTube) displays well at several resolutions, but one that works well for me is 1280×720

What screen resolution and aspect ratio do you find works best for your screencasts?


36 Responses to “Choosing the best screen resolution for your screencasts”

  • 1 Veit Says:

    Good overview, Lynn! Thanks.

    We always record in 720p. The main reason for this is that we do not know at the time of recording what resolution our clients require. Some customers upload their copies to Vimeo and let their customers watch videos as a small embed, while at the same time, they might take the 720p version into meetings to project full-screen. They look to us to tell them what the best resolution is.

    Why then 720p? Since most projectors and monitors support a 16:9 aspect ratio, most TVs sold are 16:9 and all video services support 16:9 as well, it is a very safe bet. We could record in 1080p, but it’s overkill, not only due to file size, but you shouldn’t need that much screen real-estate to showcase what you need your customers to see. On the other hand, 480p does not give us enough pixels to record. Like in photography, video software typically does a better job downscaling than upscaling, so a larger size like 720p works best for us.

    Veit

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    Thanks Veit. It’s very helpful to hear how others are doing things, and why. Thanks for sharing.

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    Logan Reply:

    I uploaded a video onto Youtube and the resolution on that video is horrible. I guess ScreenFlow wasn’t recording in the resolution I wanted? So my question is, how on Earth do I change the resolution ScreenFlow records in?

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    You need to change the resolution of your screen that you’re recoding. You can do this in Settings/Displays

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  • 2 Ian Roberts Says:

    Also don’t forget that ScreenFlow is awesome at smooth pans and zooms, and also zoomed call-outs. I make screencasts of software that needs to run on a big display, so I record full screen and then zoom in to the areas I’m talking about. This lets the software look like it’s going to when the user runs it, but lets me focus their attention where I want it.
    For example, http://in-spire.pnnl.gov/videos/IN-SPIRE_Time.html

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    Yes, great point Ian. If one does want to record at a high resolution, it helps to be able to zoom in on details to help the audience (no matter what display they are watching on) to see what’s happening.
    thanks

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  • 3 Mel Aclaro Says:

    Nice article, Lynn. Like the previous two commenters, I too record at 720p. And, for much the same reasons. It’s the most flexible for presentation purposes, maintains visual clarity as it’s scaled down and gives me flexibility to leverage the zoom / pan features to give focus to areas I want to highlight. As for file sizes, while definitely a consideration — especially if you’re self-hosting videos — I find that hosted platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, AWS/Cloudfront and others do a good job of managing the bitrates as they deliver the video stream to users.

    Glad to contribute this comment to a great article. Thanks again.

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    Thanks Mel, it’s great to hear how pros like you are doing it.
    I appreciate you taking the time to share.

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  • 4 Bakari Says:

    Thanks for this information. Very useful.

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  • 5 JJ Says:

    Thanks for this — I needed it.

    Mind helping me get to a solution quicker? My goal is to show my PowerPoint/Keynote presentations on my website and an iPad for training purposes.

    What recording and export resolution would you recommend as the best compromise?

    Now, if we wanted to throw mobile phones in the mix…liket the iPhone and Android devices, would this change your answer? Or is this too much of a compromise that you’ll really have to sacrifice one end of the range?

    Thanks in advance!

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  • 6 Lynn Elliott Says:

    Well, there’s never one right answer. I would start by testing some different scenarios:

    First I would record and export at the iPad resolution (1024×768), and see how that looks on your website. Then take a look at that on your mobile. If that looks OK on your mobile phone, great. But chances are you’ll want to export the mobile phone one separately using the iPhone preset for sizing. I wouldn’t recommend recording at a lower resolution than that, because you’ll start to get fuzzy when you increase the size to 1024x768 for the iPad.

    If you know you’re going to be viewing this on an iPhone, then be aware of the small details when you are recording & editing. For example, on a large screen you may be able to see your mouse navigate to a button, but in this case you may want to emphasize that by doing a “Call Out” to momentarily enlarge the area around your mouse.

    Hope that helps.
    Lynn

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  • 7 JJ Says:

    Thanks for the quick reply Lynn!

    A few quick follows ups to make sure I get it.

    1. When you say “record” at 1024x768, you mean set my my monitor resolution to 1024x768 right? (I use a MacBook Pro whose native res is 1680x1050.)

    2. I assume you suggested starting at the iPad res because for the most part, that should be fine on the web (speaking in general terms of course.)

    3. Just from whatever limited sample set you have, do you find that folks who need to optimize for web/iPad “generally” start with 1024x768? I can fine tune later, but it helps to have a fairly solid starting point.

    Thanks again Lynn! Really enjoy using SF!

    Best,
    JJ

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    Hi JJ,
    Yes, that’s correct: I suggest you start by setting your monitor resolution to 1024x768, and recording and exporting your screencast at that resolution. Since the iPad is less flexible in terms of displaying and viewing, that’s why I would suggest starting with that and then using that file also on the web (which is more flexible in how you can display your video).

    I’m not sure what most folks are doing (and it would be interesting to hear if someone wants to chime in.) A couple of people commented above that they record everything in 1280x720. But since that’s a 16:9 format, that might not be optimal for iPad viewing (which is 4:3 size)if that’s a priority for you.

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  • 8 JJ Says:

    Thanks Lynn! That makes a lot of sense. I’ll do that then. I can then iterate on a more robust solution, if needed.

    You saved me a ton of time and pain!

    Best,
    JJ

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    No problem. And do report back, and let us know your findings. Good luck :)

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  • 9 Frank Lowney Says:

    I’ve been doing a lot of video work targeting the iBooks.app where 640x480 (SD) seems to be the most versatile format. (See: http://frank-lowney.blogspot.com/2011/04/standard-definition-video-in-epub.html for a longish discussion of the whys and wherefores of that).

    Many of those videos are of Keynote presentations that mix the narration with video clips and text with typical presentation effects. So I use 1024x768 for Keynote because that’s a 4:3 SD ratio. In post. I set the screen area to twice that (2048x1536) because I work on a 30″ Cinema Display and that helps me see details I might otherwise miss. Then, I output to iPod dimensions which are 640x480, also 4:3 SD. The iPod present also assures the right MPEG-4 profile and bitrate for widest compatibility with mobile devices.

    So, the rules of thumb here are 1) the final output should be 1:1 of the recording or downsampled (never upsample) and 2) retain the aspect ratio throughout the workflow.

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    Thanks Frank. I love to hear all the interesting things you’re doing :)

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  • 10 EQ Says:

    If I want to output at 1280x720, but the closest my (mac) monitor will get is 1280x800, what should the workflow be? I still want to be able to see the entire screen in the final video, ideally without letterboxing. Love the article, BTW -- very helpful and informative.
    Thanks,
    EQ

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    My advice would be to record your screen at 1280x800. Then in post production crop your canvas to 1280x720. This will remove 80 pixels from the too/bottom of your screencast, so when you’re recording be aware of that and set your windows up accordingly.

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  • 11 Sam O. Says:

    Great article and comments.

    I have a 24″ screen that has optimal resolution of 1920x1200 but also does 1280x800. I actually just purchased this screen because I need to do a bunch of iPad demos and commercials. Most of our work will be distributed in 720p. The issue is that the iPad in portrait is 768X1024. I can’t go down to 1280x800 as i won’t be able to get the full iPad in portrait. For this project I actually only need the iPad screen, I don’t need the desktop nor any part of the Simulator.

    Whats the best way to proceed? What should I do to optimize for 720p?

    Thanks,
    Sam

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  • 12 Mat del Says:

    Hi Lynn,

    Very interesting article.
    I came across it looking for an answer to a simple(?) question:
    How will a 1280 webpage be seen on an Ipad?
    The website I am designing will benefit greatly from a 1280 design instead of 1024 and the target audience is wealthy people with large monitors, but also Ipads. Ipad 2 resolution is 1024, but perhaps it will automatically scale the 1280 website instead of introducing a horrible horizontal scroll bar?
    I have an Ipad2 myself and a 1280 website looked perfectly fine on it, but I am not sure how or why.

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    HI Matt,
    I am not a web designer, so there are probably others out there that can answer that more intelligently than I. But here’s a discussion on the Apple Forum you might find helpful: https://discussions.apple.com/thread/2798419?start=0&tstart=0

    The optimal resolutions/aspect ratios for iPads (from their specs) are:

    iPad (3): 2048-by-1536-pixel resolution at 264 pixels per inch (ppi)
    iPad 2: 1024-by-768-pixel resolution at 132 pixels per inch (ppi)

    The iPad is going to scale your site to its width and keep it 100% of its width (whether you’re holding it horizontally or vertically). So if you’re viewing a 1280 wide site on your 1024 iPad, I would expect the picture to look fine, because the scaling is minimal. It may not look as good on the iPad 3. But what I believe you need to pay the most attention to are the images on your website -- they need to be higher resolution to accomodate the super high resolution of the iPad 3

    Here’s another interesting article that talks about that: http://blog.easelsolutions.com/2012/03/ipad-retina-and-web-design/

    Good luck, and let us know what you learn!

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  • 13 Kat Says:

    THANK YOU for this overview. I was recently asked by one of my clients to handle some video for him. I know very little about things like proper resolutions and such… but this article helped explain it! I can understand much better now, and the comments have been a help, as well.

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    You’re welcome!

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  • 14 Zach Says:

    Finally! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched for this exact information and come up dry. I’ve even tried to conduct my own research only to become frustrated and confused. The table is priceless.

    This is the definitive article on this topic. Well done and Thank you, sir.

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  • 15 Fred Campbell Says:

    I reckon that 16 x 9 format is the way to go for aspect ratio, the iPhone, iPad, iMacs and TVs are all going this way -- widescreen. Also from a design point of view, it’s also pretty close to the Golden Ratio which has fascinated artists, mathematicians and architects for over 2000 years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio

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    morfi Reply:

    16:10 is closer to golden ratio, It would be better and it feels better, the problem is that HD is too known right now.

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  • 16 Adam Says:

    I have a Macbook Pro (2009) and when I try to change my resolution to 1280×720 pixels it’s not showing in the list of options. How do I get around this?

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  • 17 Marlie Says:

    If I am trying to zoom in super close to the “File” menu for example, so that “File” almost fills the entire screen (16:9) and remains in clear, HD quality what resolution do I need to start at? I am totally new to screen casts, but I need to figure out how to make a zoom with absolutely no pixelating issues in 16:9 aspect ratio. Help?

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  • 18 cheri Says:

    I have to create a video on my Mac Air that will be projected onto a large pull down screen in a meeting room. Last time it was a disaster…too dark and blurry. What do I need to set the resolution to in order to prepare for this big room projection from the mac?

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    HI Cheri,
    First: Start by changing the resolution of your Mac Air to the highest it can be (ideally something equal to or greater than 1280x800), and try recording your screencast using that resolution. If the video you’re creating is comprised of other video clips that you’re editing together, make sure all your video clips are high resolution also (1280x800 or 1280x720 at the minimum). In ScreenFlow 4, you can open a new empty document and set the canvas size to 1080p or 720p, then start adding screencasts and video clips to that -- making sure everything you add is the same resolution as your document

    Second: Test! When you first start creating your video (you have the size, and maybe some clips compiled), do a quick sample screencast (if you’re planning on including a screencast in your video). Then export the whole draft project, and project it. How does it look? You always want to test your content on the final device on which it will be viewed, if possible. That way you can balance the need for high resolution and close ups or zoom-ins to emphasize details that may be too small to read.

    Good luck!

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  • 19 Mark Says:

    I’m embedding some video into an ebook (epub) and plan a 480 x 360 resolution. What bitrate should I be using?

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    Lynn Elliott Reply:

    It really depends on your content. It’s best to test it with your content. You should be able to arrive at a sweet spot between the lowest bit rate possible (i.e low file size) that doesn’t start noticeably degrading your quality. Start with the default for your export setting, and try to half it, and see what the quality is. Then go from there, incrementally increasing until you get a good compromise.

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  • 20 tim Says:

    hi is there a way to record online vids at fullscreen without losing the proportion of the way people are when its played on tv? i record direct to dvd & have tried comp programs like RVC but dont turn out proportianate. i use svideo or vgavid adapter. why cant it record to disc & look just like the same proportions of video playing online? no matter what about graphic properties, i put lowest res, changed horizont vertical position. i just want it to look the same proportions as if i were recording a cable tv program to a disc, cuz every time comp vid has thinner people & their limbs , it looks different. thanks

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  • 21 Malcolm McIntosh Says:

    Hello.
    This is not a comment but a request for help.
    Can you give me a link to where I can post a question regarding audio artifacts.
    I am trialling your product and the video is excellent but the stereo audio is letting it down.
    Hope you can help and thank you.
    Malcolm McIntosh
    P,S. System is Win 7, 64 bit.

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  • 22 Mark Says:

    Very very very good article

    Thank you

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