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The pixel (a word invented from "picture element") is the basic unit of programmable color on a computer display or in a computer image. Think of it as a logical - rather than a physical - unit. The physical size of a pixel depends on how you've set the resolution for the display screen. If you've set the display to its maximum resolution, the physical size of a pixel will equal the physical size of the dot pitch (let's just call it the dot size) of the display. If, however, you've set the resolution to something less than the maximum resolution, a pixel will be larger than the physical size of the screen's dot (that is, a pixel will use more than one dot).

The specific color that a pixel describes is some blend of three components of the color spectrum - RGB. Up to three bytes of data are allocated for specifying a pixel's color, one byte for each major color component. A true color or 24-bit color system uses all three bytes. However, many color display systems use only one byte (limiting the display to 256 different colors).

A bitmap is a file that indicates a color for each pixel along the horizontal axis or row (called the x coordinate) and a color for each pixel along the vertical axis (called the y coordinate). A Graphics Interchange Format file, for example, contains a bitmap of an image (along with other data).

Screen image sharpness is sometimes expressed as dpi (dots per inch). (In this usage, the term dot means pixel, not dot as in dot pitch.) Dots per inch is determined by both the physical screen size and the resolution setting. A given image will have lower resolution - fewer dots per inch - on a larger screen as the same data is spread out over a larger physical area. On the same size screen, the image will have lower resolution if the resolution setting is made lower - resetting from 800 by 600 pixels per horizontal and vertical line to 640 by 480 means fewer dots per inch on the screen and an image that is less sharp. (On the other hand, individual image elements such as text will be larger in size.)

Pixel replaced an earlier contraction of picture element, pel.

This was last updated in July 2015

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