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The Widescreen Laptop Conspiracy

For the past six to eight weeks, I’ve been on the lookout for a new laptop. Now, I know that I have high standards, but I can’t believe that some of the things that I really want in a laptop are no longer available. About a year ago, my old Dell Inspiron 8100 was about to bite the dust. It was 6 years old, overheated frequently, one of the two batteries I had was essentially a short circuit, and did I mention it was six years old?

One of the main reasons I bought that laptop was that it went well with my 20″ LCD monitor. They both had the same resolution, and 1600×1200 resolution on a 15″ screen really isn’t that bad once you’re used to it. In fact, when you get used to it it’s very hard to go to anything else. The middle of last year, I broke down and bought a new laptop. I was a little bit concerned that the screen resolution wasn’t quite what I was used to, but it was a widescreen monitor. Apple didn’t make anything else for their 15″ MacBook Pro series, so that’s what I went with.

I’ve been using this thing for just shy of a year now, and I have to be honest: I have some pretty major gripes about this laptop, which I’ll cover in a different article. Don’t get me wrong, the raw power and the light weight of the MacBook Pro are great. But using BootCamp isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. More on that later.

So here were the criteria that I put forth for my new laptop:

  • Dual core is a must. Don’t care whether it’s Core 2 Duo or Athlon X2. Either would work fine.
  • I want 2GB of RAM. This shouldn’t be hard to do, although I would prefer a single 1GB RAM chip installed so I could buy the additional RAM at a reasonable price.
  • 15″ screen. It can be 15.0″, 15.1″, or 15.4″. I don’t really care. I don’t want 14″ because the screen is too small, and I don’t want 17″ because they’re too heavy. Neither of those would fit well into my laptop bag and I don’t care to blow another $60 on another laptop bag.
  • 1600×1200 resolution. Having been running my Macbook Pro at 1440×900 for the nine months, I can’t tell you how much I miss that extra 300 pixels at the bottom of the screen. I’m not a fan of widescreen, so I’d prefer not to have WUXGA.
  • 7200 RPM main hard drive. Doesn’t need to be large. 60GB would probably work fine. I use an external 80GB USB drive to house VMWare images and the system performs better with VMWare running on a separate drive.
  • Must be reasonably light weight. I’m somewhat willing to compromise on this. I know I won’t find anything as light as the Macbook, but the 1600×1200 resolution is more important.

I didn’t think that these requirements were too much to ask. My current search for a new laptop has run the gauntlet of every reputable notebook maker I could find. I’ve looked at Dell, HP, Alienware, Prostar, Sony, Toshiba, Gateway, etc… It turns out that finding a laptop with a screen resolution of 1600×1200 these days is close to impossible. Since I bought my last laptop back in the year 2000, the 1600×1200 screen resolution has become less common rather than more common. The ONLY laptop I’ve found that meets that criteria is a Panasonic Toughbook 51 from NexTag.com and it’s really not what I’m looking for. Everything else has been widescreen, which as I said before, isn’t something I particularly care for.

Part of the reason laptop manufacturers no longer make UXGA screens is that widescreen laptops are cheaper to manufacture because the screens have less screen real estate overall. It’s hard to quantify this without having two LCD’s that are nearly identical to compare, so as an example we’ll use Dell’s 20″ 2007FP monitor and compare it to the Dell 20″ 2007FPW because excepting the screen resolution, they are virtually identical. The first thing you notice is that the 2007FP retails for $449 while the 2007FPW retails for $399. Comparing the screen resolutions, we have 1600×1200 and 1680×1050. So what? That’s basically the same, right?

Actually, they’re not. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist here. Just do the math. 1600×1200=1,920,000 pixels while 1680×1050=1,764,000 pixels. That’s nearly a 9% difference in screen real estate for the “same 20 inch screen” yet the retail cost increase is roughly 12.5%. But nobody pays retail for these things, right? After all, Dell runs deals every week in an effort to top your local supermarket in the number of deals they give you. Current sale prices are $384 and $359, respectively. Voila! You’re getting a better deal by buying the 4:3 format screen as opposed to the widescreen based on raw percentages. With computer margins as thin as they are, laptop manufacturers are being squeezed to save money anywhere they can. Going back to our widescreen laptop problem, using widescreen monitors on their laptops is how they shave dollars off the cost.

If you look at LCD monitors larger than 20″ from Dell, you’ll find that all of them are widescreen and it’s not possible to get one larger than 20″ with the 4:3 format. One rumor I read from a laptop forum last fall was that there were production problems making UXGA screens, but I suspect that’s not the case. They were making 15″ monitors with 1600×1200 resolution 7 years ago so unless someone deleted a hard drive that had some important information on how to do it, they still have the technology to do it. If there were supply problems, laptop makers would get it resolved. If you go to Pricewatch.com and look for UXGA notebooks, there’s only one on the entire site.

You also might think that these are laptops, so their video cards aren’t up to par but that’s not true either. Again, laptop makers were selling UXGA screens on laptops 7 years ago so technology has only gotten better. Besides, my Macbook Pro supports an external connection to a 2560×1600 monitor!!! I never did real well at Calculus, but something tells me that’s a much larger number than 1600×1200.

So we know that it’s still technically possible to make UXGA notebooks; what bothers me is that they’ve stopped making them. What’s even more mystifying is why more developers and CAD engineers aren’t complaining. There are a few people commenting on the lack of high screen resolutions for higher end laptops on the Dell IdeaStorm website, but not enough to make a difference. In a world where mobility has become more and more important, laptop vendors are responding with 17″ laptops with WUXGA screens. Let me make one thing clear to laptop makers.

For software development purposes, or dare I say most business purposes, widescreen sucks.

Are we clear on that? Now, I realize that widescreen has a place in the world. People in the accounting department use spreadsheets for which widescreen could be useful to see more columns of their financial statements. Home users would certainly want to be able to watch movies on their laptops. But isn’t it entirely possible that having more vertical screen real estate would be just as important as horizontal real estate? Indeed it would. I like ketchup on my burgers. On my cheesecake, not so much. I love widescreen for movies. For writing code… not so much. Everything has a place, and widescreen does not have a place on my laptop.

The astute reader will point out that there are many 15″ notebooks out there that feature 1920×1200 LCD’s. To this, I will refer you to my previous point: that widescreen sucks for software development and most business purposes. Somehow, writing a design document in letterbox format doesn’t appeal to me and I don’t remember the last time I had a single line of code that was so long that I needed a widescreen monitor to see it all. The problem with widescreen is that you are sacrificing height for width, when for software development purposes, the opposite is what you need. I need to see more lines of code, not less. The only conceivable benefit of a widescreen would be to have multiple windows open, and 1920 pixels just isn’t enough to have multiple software development applications open side by side. Anyone who’s ever used Visual Studio would know this. Heck, when I’m using Viso Enterprise Architect on my desktop, I use two 20″ monitors to get me 3200×1200 and shift all of the tabbed windows onto my other monitor. Guess what? I still wish I had more vertical real estate. I’m tempted to move to 4 monitors in order to get it.

It’s an unfortunate reality that over the past few years, the push for widescreen televisions has carried over so much into laptops. It’s as if laptops are suddenly no longer used for anything else except watching movies. Let’s think about this for a minute. What percentage of time that you use your laptop are you watching movies vs. doing something where widescreen really doesn’t help? I think I’ve watched a grand total of 3 movies on my widescreen laptop in the last 9 months. To me, that in no way justifies a complete transition to widescreen laptops.

As applications move from the desktop to the web, browser based applications will become more and more prevalent. If you’re a web application developer, widescreen is a terrible waste of otherwise good screen real estate. There’s a limit to the width of the web pages that you design because you have to be sure that the majority of people will be able to see everything horizontally without scrolling right and left. The standard 4:3 format seems like a better fit for not only the developers, but for the web application users as well. What’s worse is the fact that our option to choose widescreen or standard format is being eliminated entirely. We no longer have a choice, as illustrated by the fact that there is only one high resolution laptop left on the market.

I blame Apple for part of this transition. For years, widescreen has been the only format available for their computers. They’ve morphed their company into something of a media mogul with the iPod and iTunes. With the recent release of AppleTV, they’re poised to enter the video market after dominating the audio market. Somehow, that translates into hundreds of lemming companies yanking standard format laptops from the shelves and replacing them with widescreen. Is there a good reason? I don’t think so, but lets take a closer look.

What are the real arguments for widescreen? As I mentioned before, you can fit more columns on a screen in Excel. Ooh. A whole 3 extra columns and 30 less rows. Yea, I’m not excited about that, either.

How about the fact that using a laptop on a plane is a little bit easier because the laptop isn’t as deep and fits better onto the tray table. That’s a good reason. Of course, since it’s wider, you no longer have room for soda and peanuts. What, no peanuts? Just soda I guess. I’ll hold it and type one handed because my laptop is too wide to actually set my soda down.

Yep. That sucks too, and it’s a legitimate problem for those of you who haven’t had the ‘pleasure’ of this problem.

What about watching movies? Ah yes. The proverbial golden hammer. In my eyes, that’s something of a lame excuse given that business class laptops are meant for well… business purposes and I don’t know anyone running a business that makes money from watching movies. For all you widescreen fanatics out there complaining about “artists rights“, feel free to chime in on this at any time. Artists rights have nothing to do with the screen. It has to do with the format of the medium (that being VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, HDDVD, etc). If you want to watch a movie, get a TV, a PSP, or a portable DVD player. Let the rest of us get our laptops with screen sizes and resolutions that actually help us do our jobs.

I can’t think of any particularly good reasons to have widescreen LCD’s on laptops or to make them generally unavailable on larger LCD’s that are intended as desktop monitors, so I pose this simple innocuous question. What good is widescreen on a laptop? Anyone?

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{ 129 comments… add one }

  • Kaur Kuut January 8, 2011, 10:00 am

    In my opinion widescreen rocks for coding.
    With widescreen I can have file/class explorers open on the side while still having plenty of space left for actual code writing. The last thing I want is to limit myself to 80 character long lines or some other such historic bullshit.

  • Graeme January 9, 2011, 12:42 am

    I recently tried a widescreen desktop (my fathers – I would not have bought one) and it was not as bad as I expected.

    I used KDE with a vertical panel and put everything I could on the side (I use Firefox with tree style tabs on my laptop anyway).

    The main problem is that people are mislead into thinking a 20″ widescreen is the same size as a 20″ 4:3

  • Ken-wa January 14, 2011, 9:29 pm

    It’s not widescreen that sucks — it’s shortscreen. A.k.a., TVscreen. “Diagonal” is a complete BS metric. I don’t care how much wider your screen is; if it has fewer pixels vertically, IT IS WORSE. But TV manufacturers successfully brainwashed the nonthinking masses into worshipping the diagonal. So, as you predicted in this article almost 4 years ago, all I could afford to replace a blown Dell 1600 x 1200 CRT monitor with was 1080p PLUS video card…MINUS the ability to work on more than 80% as much vertical document. Total BS…I should have gone used CRT.

    The worst thing is, there is absolutely no choice. There are 2 orders of magnitude more TVs consumed than portable computers, and TV users are still impressed by moving from 486 analog vertical lines to 1080p. Even if ALL notebook users banded together and demanded taller screens, they would NEVER get them. Unless they were willing to pay 10X more for “custom” LCDs…which they’re not. So the best you can do is get the most vertical pixels you can afford.

    I was somewhat impressed that while the latest (early 2011) MacBook & MacBook Pro 13.3″ are only up to 1280 vertical, the MacBook Air 11″ is up to 1366; the MacBook Air 13″ & MacBook Pro 15″ to 1440; and the MacBook Pro 17″ to 1920. Not as bad as in 2007.

  • David January 15, 2011, 3:07 am

    I really don’t like this continued trend toward more width. The old 17″ and 19″ 1280×1024 displays were great for documents and if you needed more screen real estate you could place two side by side. Using two 16:9 displays side by side is ridiculous because of the amount of desk space and head turning required.

    At work I’ve created an almost square display area by placing an LCD on a pile of books so it sits above my MBP screen. It’s still far from optimal because the two have different dot pitches and because neither screen is really tall enough to display a full page at a readable font size. With an ever increasing number of dots per inch without resolution independence everything on the screen keeps getting smaller and harder to read. I now find myself opening Word docs at 150% magnification so I can read them comfortably.

    The new iPhone managed to double the pixel density without making everything half the size so it looks like we may finally be reaching the point where extra dots on a screen can be used simply for sharpness and not continued miniaturization. Within this decade the same thing should come to full size computer screens and desktop operating systems. I’m really looking forward to it.

  • James Katt January 15, 2011, 4:36 pm

    If you are complaining that 1920×1200 displays are too wide, when what you want is 1600×1200, then the solution is to reconfigure the screen display so that your 1920×1200 display will show 1600×1200 pixes.

    Doing this is easy on a Macbook Pro 17″ laptop.

    But then, why do you want to lose the screen real estate? That makes no sense.

  • Mike Taber January 15, 2011, 5:01 pm

    James, please read the article instead of just the first paragraph and I think it will make more sense.

  • K Shea January 21, 2011, 9:00 am

    Glad it’s not just me who shares your annoyance about widescreen monitors, or more specifically the impact on the vertical pixel count. I share your pain.

    The only good thing is that it saved me several hundred quid on a near impulse buy last year. Still, can’t put it off forever as my current laptop is going to die at some point :-(

  • Angelo February 7, 2011, 2:26 pm

    * sigh * 2011 and things have just gone from bad to worse. I haven’t seen any “square” monitors in a long time now (laptop or otherwise) for sale. It’s sad really. I realize that for the current video formats people want widescreen, but it’s not conducive to the web and scrolling. For those of us who use our computers for things other than media boxes, it’s a pain.

  • Angelo February 7, 2011, 2:42 pm

    I’d also like to point out that with a lot of the dell wide-screens, you can reorient them so you are using the screen the “long way” instead of wide. I haven’t tried this yet due to space constraints at my work desk, but I often wondered if this would be better or not.

  • pierrelarsen February 18, 2011, 5:01 am

    Brother, I share your opinion. Widescreen sucks for most serious computer use.

    Unless they are gigantic monitors with higher than HD resolution.

    I now have two HP 24 inch 1920×1200 monitors (w2448hc) side by side but rotated to vertical position. It took a bit of time to get used to as they are tall. But I have lots of vertical space. Of course HP no longer produces this monitor. The new ones are all 1920×1080 and don’t rotate (are probably also too narrow to make it interesting)

    Moving to my laptop always sucks. I miss the 4:3 format.

    Only my iPad has gotten it right. The new widescreen tablets are a joke in my opinion – unless you use them solely for games and movies. I like to browse, write and read in portrait mode and the iPad screen has the minimum horizontal size for browsing.

    BTW. Have you noticed how most operating systems from Apple, Google (android), Windows etc. per default use more precious horizontal space for status bars and such? It is preposterous.

    We are forced to watch cyberspace through narrow slits :-( Maybe I will start to only write one line programs…

  • OldMarine March 24, 2011, 2:39 am

    I too work for a living on a laptop. Please I have gotten my kids a laptop for games and movies. Now I have to make a living. I bought a used dell D820 for the 1920×1200. 1600×1200 was what I really wanted. When my old ViewSonic CRT that I use with it goes I am sunk.

  • Mohan May 21, 2011, 1:51 am

    I completely agree, widescreen is useless for all purposes except watching movies. I don’t quite agree with the spread sheets argument either. I have used excel in my old computers and never felt that a widescreen will be better.

  • homeuser July 22, 2011, 1:26 pm

    What a pain. I was quite looking forward to upgrading my recently-dead computer until I realised you can only get “shortscreen” nowadays. Now I’m looking for a repair shop.

    Have any of you programmers on this site considered developing a new internet browser with all the commands down the side? There could be a big market…

  • why no choice July 26, 2011, 6:17 am

    I have just got a business laptop from Toshiba to replace my previous tosbhsiba laoptop… which I really liked. I have had to buy widescreen… no choice available dispite it being a fairly premium machine. I am not doing coding or anything so exotic. I want to mainly use boring old word documents, the sort that are printed out on to A4. The sort which I imagine many business people who buy business lap tops will want to work on regularly, sometimes for long periods. The sort that DO NOT FIT WELL on to widescreen. Not only am I forced to by widescreen I am then forced to have almost half of the screen unused for the majority of the time (websites usually also leave a nice border eiter side )… yet I still have to lug these unused pixels arround. Won’t someone pls sort out this insanity!

  • Russell August 18, 2011, 3:42 am

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Its insanely annoying to constantly have to work in the bloody header area of any page. Apple nailed it with the ipad (again) – guess what ? a device designed to complement its intended use.
    I got handed a shiny new HP DV6 with a 1366×768 res screen.
    It almost met the wall in the setup phase let alone use on the web and in the real world.
    Manufacturers need to know that some of us don’t just use these devices to watch home movies on.
    Solution? an old flickering 23inch HP monitor turned portrait is a happier user experience than spending my life scrolling.

  • jun August 29, 2011, 12:48 pm

    i too am very disappointed with the way these laptops look nowadays. I was out shopping for a new laptop for my son … looking for a screen display of 17″ but seeing the 17.3″ widescreen was a terrible sight! I went to computer websites hoping i could find the old type of display (with lots of vertical space!)… but to my horror, everything was on widescreen! I am very very frustrated …. i don’t mind paying extra for that vertical space but where to look for one ? Are we going backwards or what? i am trying to convince my son to go for a desktop (although, here again, widescreen is prevalent) … these manufacturers should read reviews and comments from people …

  • quux November 6, 2011, 1:33 am

    Thanks for this article.

    Does anyone have any solid information as to why the whole industry changed to widescreen with less vertical pixels? Usually it is economics or some manufacturing and/or materials process optimization which drives these things. It would really be nice to know the ‘root cause’ for this as fact rather than theory.

    Because if we know the facts, maybe we can do something about it. Theories are only good for whining with!

  • Mike Taber November 6, 2011, 10:23 am

    I certainly don’t have concrete information. But I don’t see any other reasonable explanation aside from the economics and an overall trend towards consumer devices, rather than business devices. IT departments are being asked to support more and more consumer devices these days.

  • Freaky November 17, 2011, 2:44 pm

    These !@#$!%!#$ manufactorers need to get it into their heads my computer is for WORKING. Their BS but when watching movie arguments should be shoved where the sun don’t shine. If I want to watch a movie I’ll use my TV and yes widescreen is fine for *televisions*. When it comes to working however vertical space is about equally important to horizontal space. Which is why 4:3 does so well. Currently running a 1400×1050 laptop. Try replacing that… You can either get 1600×900 loosing not only 150 vertical lines but also a drop in total pixels. Since a certain horizontal portion isn’t even really usefully usable that means loosing even more pixels.

    The best you can do on 15″ w/o loosing vertical lines is 1920×1080. But at 15″… that’s rather small letters and increase letter size voids the additional pixels. Not to mention it’s quite hard to find FHD 15,6″ at certain brands…

    So let me repeat, since repeating works. My computer is NOT, I repeat IS NOT a television nor should you (manufactorers) want it to be.

  • Freaky November 17, 2011, 2:49 pm

    @quux, you want the truth? Very simple, 15,6 diagonally at 4:3 is more surface than it is at widescreen. Yet when there still were 4:3 screens the same diagonal 4:3 (with larger surface and thus more material) cost the same as it’s widescreen diagonal equivalent.

    Hence, more profit. That and the BS argument (invented to refrain from stating the more profit argument) that people want to watch movies on their PC’s without having black bars… Yes, obviously something I do >=95% of time.

  • Freaky November 17, 2011, 2:51 pm

    Eh this site should replace greater than and less than signs with the proper HTML encodings…

  • Richard Hull December 27, 2011, 9:58 am

    I completely agree – the shift towards widescreens is decidedly a STEP BACKWARD for people who actually use their computers to do work… thanks for the article!

  • Steve April 9, 2012, 4:04 pm

    I agree, but its not just the width that the problem. Its the silly belief that High Resolution is always better than low resolution for everything. Most content can be easily scaled in Windows 7 and modern browsers to compensate for high pixel density, but the system fonts and menu bars not so flexible. I have tried the 125% system zoom that has been buried in Windows since Windows XP. It work great until you find that drop-down menus don’t display correctly or fonts bleed out of tables.

    I found a tool that really helps shop for a new computer or monitor.
    Its the PPI/DotPitch calculator on the web.

    URLs are probly not permitted here – so perform this search
    “Display PPI (Pixels Per Inch) Calculator”

    By using the calculator on a few differenct montors, I found that I can’t tolerate a PPI (pixels per inch) of more than 102 for my office and web browsing work. After hours of research I bought 2 Thinkpads today with 15.4″ 1280 x 900 screen. These have a PPI of 98.02. I had to go back 2 model years to find computers with a PPI of less than 100.

  • Greg Vincent June 1, 2012, 7:37 pm

    I find myself much in agreement with most of the comments on this site. I never really gave the matter much thought until recently; but, with experience, I have realised that the 4.3 display on my old laptop is much better for me – especially when I am working – than the newer displays. Recently viewing a small more recent laptop, I also found that the screen was actually too bright. In fact, it was rather like staring straight into a light bulb. And with regard to dimensions, I think that it is important for manufacturers to understand that even non-widescreen displays are still much wider than they are high. When you further factor in that status bars / tool bars are always at the top and bottom (but, obviously, never on the side) of a display, it becomes clear that they are suffiently ‘wide’ anyway. There really is no need for them to be any wider!

  • Tracy June 15, 2012, 3:08 am

    A 5:4 monitor in portrait orientation is the closest approximation to the 8 1/2 x 11 document aspect ratio. Therefore, it would be the most comfortable and efficient display for working with documents and most computing applications (web, spreadsheets, and on… and on…). This doesn’t work for laptops, but 4:3 is the standard that should be returned by the manufacturers. It is not appropriate to pump up DPI to squash information onto a short screen. Side by side windows don’t help with documents either. Paper documents are generated on single-sided paper in portrait orientation and would only be converted/transposed to two-columns in landscape orientation before final printing.

    Please sign the following petition to restore a standard option for 4:3 laptop display aspects:
    http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/BringBack43Laptops/

  • Heidi June 18, 2012, 6:58 pm

    I thought your conspiracy was that widescreen laptops aren’t available to real people anymore! I need widescreen for typesetting. I travel extensively and my wonderful 18.5″ widescreen laptop is on its last legs. It’s important that I be able to see a 2 page layout and read the fine print at the same time. I can’t find anything to replace my laptop now and it’s a big problem.

  • Mike Taber June 18, 2012, 9:15 pm

    You have an 18.5″ laptop? How much does that thing weigh?? :) I gave in to widescreen last year and have a 13″ Macbook Air with 1440×900 resolution and good power, but it only weighs 3 lbs. In my mind, if it weighs more than 12 lbs, it’s not a laptop. It’s an anchor.

  • Ragnar July 30, 2012, 3:55 pm

    I am glad to find that I am not the only person going crazy over the lack of 4:3 laptop screens. I got one of the last ones in 2008, a Fujitsu Lifebook with 1400 x 1050. Perfect for 2 x A4, and I seldom watch movies on the computer. I usually change computers every 3 years as they get too slow, but this time I had to buy a huge SSD to keep it from clogging. For me a 17″ to get vertical space is not an option as it is too heavy and will not fit into an airplane seat where I do a lot of computer work. So I guess we need to get the pc companies to realize that lots of people are putting back their purchase of new computers because there are no 4:3 available. Fujitsu just released their 2012 models, but only widescreen. Any ideas? The petition link above did not work.

  • Mike Taber July 30, 2012, 4:40 pm

    I didn’t build the petition you see above, so I’m not sure what’s going on with that link.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that the PC manufacturers care. They are looking at their bottom lines, not the uneducated masses who don’t realize that the second number times the first is the number they should be focused on. Unfortunately, Apple is now turning that on its head with the Retina display and somewhat incorrectly touting that number as the one to achieve.

    There are a lot more pixels, but that doesn’t translate to screen resolution. The manufacturers are interested in one thing. Cash. In some ways, I can’t say I blame them. If the uneducated masses want something, you’d have to be sort of an idiot to insist that they’re wrong and try to sell them something that the majority of them don’t want.

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