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.