What is up with widescreens?

I’m in the market for a new laptop and have been trying to find something that fits my preferences. It turns out that finding something that really does is going to be very hard because of a single reason: nearly all laptops currently being produced have a widescreen display. What is up with these widescreens?

Really, the only argument in favor of them – that makes sense to a user – is that they fit the form factor of your keyboard. The keyboard on a laptop requires minimum space to be usable as a decent desktop replacement. Combined with the need to keep the laptop as small and as light as possible, you end up with something roughly the aspect ratio of a widescreen.

Many arguments in favor of widescreen are misleading. You may have heard that widescreen matches our natural field of vision more closely, but this is simply untrue. In fact, our natural FoV is about 200 degrees horizontal and 135 vertical at the extremes. The binocular field is even narrower, further reducing the aspect ratio of the visible area. A 50mm lens for a 35mm camera is considered to be close to natural vision, offering an angle of view of about 47 degrees. Whatever measure you take, the aspect ratio usually ends up closer to 4:3 than it does to 16:9. 16:10 and 4:3 are both close to the maximum field of view, but that ignores the rest of the argument. Which, incidentally, is why most IMAX movies are shot at 4:3.

Why then, are movies shown in widescreen? I would suppose this has to do with the way we live and look around us. Looking from left to right is far more common than looking up and down, since most of the stuff we want to look at is on the ground. This works well in a movie theatre, since the screen is enormous and will fill the better part of your field of vision, especially horizontally. With a laptop, not so. The screen is so small to begin with, that you’d have to put your face right in front of the screen to start to feel the need to pan your head around (I will agree that having a widescreen desktop display makes sense, if it is large enough, but I was talking about laptops here).

Of course there is a far simpler answer to the question. If I offer you a laptop at $900 with a 15.1″ screen and another with the exact same specs with a 17″ screen for the same $900, which one do you pick? The 17″, right? Wrong. Let’s do the math: the 17″ widescreen measures 14.8″ x 8.3″, for a total surface of 123.5 square inches. The 15.1″ measures 13.6″ x 10.2″, for a total surface of 138.72 square inches. These are common screen sizes in the high end of either type of screen.

Same goes with the resolutions. 1280×800 = 1024000 pixels and 1440×900 = 1296000 pixels. Whereas 1280×1024 = 1310720 pixels. Higher resolutions are available, but very expensive so I’m not considering them, although the same applies.

So what’s the answer then? Well, a laptop with a widescreen of x” is cheaper to produce than a laptop with a regular 4:3 of x”. Laptop manufacturers usually do tell you the size in inches on the diagonal, but they don’t advertise the number of pixels, let alone the actual screen surface. People like high numbers, so widescreen latops are more popular because of the larger screens, that are actually smaller…

To put a final nail in the coffin of the widescreen: what do you really use it for? If the answer is “watch movies”, I’m done; then you actually do need a widescreen to avoid a letterbox. But in most cases the answer will be “browse the web”, “create documents”, “play games” or “develop software”.

Web pages are designed to scroll vertically, not horizontally. So, getting a few extra vertical lines would make sense. Score one for 4:3. Documents are generally A4 or Letter format and most documents are designed to be viewed in portrait, not landscape. Score another for 4:3. Games want to immerse you and even though laptops generally aren’t the best choice in that respect, you would want to match the human field of view (see above). Score yet another for 4:3. Software development generally improves with more desktop real estate. I would say that a preference here is hard to express though widescreen might be slightly better if you lack multiple screens and the number of pixels would be the same for each. But since 4:3 generally has more pixels and most software developers I know use more than one screen, I’m going to leave this one undecided.

My conclusion: we’re buying widescreen laptops because this allows the manufacturers to put larger numbers in their ads, making it impossible for the 4:3 models to compete. We’re buying widescreens because we all like movies and believe that that is what we’ll be using the laptop for, even though most of us spend a lot more time working, checking our mail or eBay or watching YouTube video’s (which are 4:3!)

What I really need, if I think about it, has all but disappeared from the market and I may just end up buying a widescreen because of all the other specs it has to live up to. But I don’t have to like it.

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Jaap van der Velde

I live and breathe software, love games and spent many a vacation touring Europe on my motorcycle. Currently diving, riding, hopefully flying and gaining perspective around Oz.

2 thoughts on “What is up with widescreens?”

  1. That’s exactly why, when shopping for a flat panel for the first time to replace my aging CRT, I went by the numbers. I know this article was specifically about laptop screens, and you did concede that for desktops it makes sense, but I would go even further and say I’d rather have a 4:3 CRT at 19″ for a desktop if we’re comparing an upper maximum of 1600×1200 for the CRT, and say, 1680×1050 for a 22″ 16:10 LCD.

    When shopping in the stores, it was infuriating that the sales associates kept trying to push the fact that it was so much bigger when they asked what I was replacing. I had to actually pull out my cell phone’s calculator and do the math in front of them to show how foolish it was to pay $300 for 156000 fewer pixels than I already had. Some of them still didn’t get it.

    I finally found something I was happy with in the Dell E248WFP which has a native resolution of 1920×1200, which is 384000 more pixels than my old CRT max resolution. I’m still very happy with the purchase.

    There is however one issue concerning gaming that does put any wide aspect ratio at any (reasonable) resolution above a 4:3 resolution. That has to do simply with the way things are rendered. It isn’t true of all games, some older ones for example. But for almost all modern games, especially First Person Shooters, this holds true.

    A wide screen aspect ratio gives you peripheral vision. You actually see /more/ than your opponents. This is because the engine won’t chop off the top and bottom of the render to make it fit the screen, it will in fact render more at the sides to make it fit. Again, this isn’t true with all older games, a few of them will in fact chop the top. But if that isn’t happening, then you will have a slight advantage by way of viewable angle over those who don’t have a wide aspect.

    Someone out there (not you Grismar, I know you know better;) might say “Well, why not just add more screen along the vertical, and keep the peripheral advantage?” That’s a reasonable question on the face of it, but it has to do with the way the rendering engine works. If you add more screen real estate along the vertical, you’re right back to a 4:3 ratio. The engine isn’t going to just show you more of the world along the top and the bottom. Instead it’s going to go back to rendering for a 4:3 ratio. You’ll have more pixels, and thus more resolution in the render, but not more viewable area within the game environment. Short of hacking your video drivers (which will get you punk-busted most likely), I don’t know of a way to force this.

  2. Another point I would make against myself, would be that a game requires some desktop real estate to put the HUD. By putting it to the left and right of the scene, a roughly 4:3 area is still available for an immersive view. But going you your argument, I could re-reverse on myself and state that the real estate at top and bottom of the screen would then be ideal for HUD-elements.

    Your point is well taken though, widescreen support from an FPS will give you a slight advantage when playing a 4:3 player, unless the game supports setting resolutions manually -or- supports setting the FoV yourself. Some games do, Quake derivatives most notably.

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