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?