Population data represent an essential component in studies focusing on human–nature interrelationships, disaster risk assessment and environmental health. Several recent efforts have produced global- and continental-extent gridded population data which are becoming increasingly popular among various research communities. However, these data products, which are of very different characteristics and based on different modeling assumptions, have never been systematically reviewed and compared, which may impede their appropriate use. This article fills this gap and presents, compares and discusses a set of large-scale (global and continental) gridded datasets representing population counts or densities. It focuses on data properties, methodological approaches and relative quality aspects that are important to fully understand the characteristics of the data with regard to the intended uses. Written by the data producers and members of the user community, through the lens of the “fitness for use” concept, the aim of this paper is to provide potential data users with the knowledge base needed to make informed decisions about the appropriateness of the data products available in relation to the target application and for critical analysis.