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What is VGA?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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VGA (Video Graphics Array) is a basic standard for color resolution in computer monitors that, today, represents the lowest common denominator for compatibility. For example, when a computer boots into the Microsoft™ Windows™ operating system, the opening splash screen or Windows logo is presented in VGA mode using a palette of 32 colors and a resolution of 640 x 480. Once the system is fully loaded, the video card’s device driver takes over at a higher resolution.

In the early days of computers, monitors were originally monochrome or two-color. This was followed by IBM’s Color Graphics Adapter (CGA) in 1981 that boasted a 4-bit palette of 8 colors and a maximum resolution of 640 x 280. The adapter was standard in the new IBM personal computer line, known as the IBM PC.

In 1984 IBM introduced an upgraded video card. The Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA) built on the previous standard by doubling the color palette to 16 colors at a resolution of 640 x 350. This video card coincided with the new IBM PC Advanced Technology line, better known as the IBM PC-AT, or simply, “an AT.” The AT had specific motherboard technology and configuration parameters that became an ad-hoc standard for clones, whose motherboard footprints and cases were deemed “ATs” because they conformed to the IBM standard.

In 1987 IMB introduced VGA, which manufacturers adopted en masse. This led to the longstanding tradition of VGA being the “base” or “fall back” display standard of video hardware. Every modern graphics adapter or card is capable of displaying the VGA mode, but will only do so if the proper device driver is not present or cannot be located; if it has been purposely disabled; or if the operating system cannot find a better driver. In Windows operating systems, booting into Safe Mode will display VGA, as unnecessary device drivers are not loaded in this case.

IBM did replace VGA in 1990 with XGA (eXtended Graphics Array), but by this time the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) had released a similar standard referred to as Super VGA (SVGA). XGA was capable of 65,536 colors at a resolution of 800 x 600, or 256 colors at 1024 x 768, similar to early SVGA standards. Accordingly, Super XGA (SXGA), Ultra XGA (UXGA) and Quad XGA (QXGA) followed, along with many others.

Display standards evolved rapidly from this point forward with many grouped under the general heading of “SVGA.” Widescreen flavors feature a “W” in front of the display acronym, such as “WXGA.” Just as video cards have a maximum resolution, so do computer monitors. When purchasing a card or monitor, be sure the highest standards of each device are compatible.

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Discussion Comments
By rory0576 — On Apr 09, 2012

I just bought a mini projector to attach to my Dell 1545 laptop and upon installation I keep getting an error message that says "No SubVGA driver found". Does this mean I have to go purchase the driver to download? This was supposed to be an easy installation and it's been anything but that. Anyone have any advice.

By Pimiento — On Jul 23, 2010

@win199 - As far as cable connections go, you can find a vast array at local electronics stores. A VGA to RCA cable and a DVI to VGA cable are just two of many. In addition to that, you can also find a VGA cable connector should you need one. If you're not familiar with any of those cables, there is a bonus in shopping in stores that provide them as many associates can tell you the ideal use of said cables.

By win199 — On Jul 23, 2010

@ellaesans - I think many people often have this misconception that VGA is stuck at nothing but 640x480 as MrPolitic99 pointed out earlier. Aside from all of that, there are several different options to simply enhance your resolution and display, such as the VGA to HDMI cable many electronics stores now provide.

By ellaesans — On Jul 23, 2010

@MrPolitic99 - Agreed. I definitely agree with your angle on this and think that most people don't understand that aspect about VGA - even though there are several different options of resolutions. It seems almost silly that society as a whole would refer to just one specific increment and not just say that there are several different varieties. I think, however, to save this article it was pointing out the typical boot up settings for the Windows OS and the fact that it's logo comes up with said settings already preset.

By MrPolitic99 — On Jul 14, 2010

It seems that referring to VGA as a specific display resolution size is an archaic use of the term. Because of recent and more advance digital display technologies, VGA is most often seen next to a specific type of display port on monitors and computers.

This 15-pin connection, labeled VGA, is capable of carrying a video signal at a variety of resolutions, not just 640x480.

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