When you're looking for a laptop (or any type of screen), one of the things you should look at is the screen resolution. Some people care more about the size of the screen, but to me, it's both the size and the resolution that are important. The more pixels on the screen, the more stuff you can see at once.
While shopping recently for a laptop, I kept coming back to the question of: "Will the display resolution at this screen size be too big or small for me to read comfortably?" My current monitor has a nice size, and I wanted to be able to compare my monitor with the laptops out there. Of course, I can't take my monitor everywhere to compare.
This led me to the idea of looking at the DPI, or "Dots Per Inch". DPI measures how many dots (pixels) there are in 1 inch across or down on the screen. Because this measurement is specifically tied to a physical measurement, you can be sure that no matter what the resolution of the screen is, the DPI will tell you exactly how it will look.
I calculated the DPI for many common screen sizes at common resolutions, allowing a very direct comparison of DPI for these different screens. Here are the charts, broken down by aspect ratio (and you thought that learning the pythagorean theorem and all about sine/cosine/tangents was useless!):
Some of those size/resolution combinations don't exist (you'll probably never be able to get a 12.1" screen with a resolution of 2560x1600).
OK, how do you use these charts?
One thing that many people worry about is if "things will be too small" on the monitor. It's true that the higher the resolution and DPI (bigger numbers), the smaller pictures and fonts will be on the screen. However, you can adjust the font settings to compensate for this on the Display control panel, using "Large fonts", or you can specify what DPI you have. This can make some of the Windows UI look out of proportion, though I hear that in Vista this should not happen. The advantage of doing this is that you will see much better resolution with photos, and fonts will also display more clearly (kind of like using cleartype). Many programs (like MS Office, Firefox) also have a "zoom" feature, that lets you make the fonts look bigger on the screen without changing how big they will be when printed.
Some notes on DPI:
If there are other sizes or resolutions you'd like to see added, let me know.