As someone who has closely watched the laptop industry for a decade, I’m astounded by the current state of laptop displays. This isn’t where I thought we’d be 6 years after I left PowerNotebooks. To understand what I’m talking about, let’s look at the laptop world of 2005 and compare to today.
- Average price: $1000 est.
- Windows XP is the only OS
- Glossy screens are starting to show up everywhere because it’s what manufacturers think we want… oooo shiny.
- All screens use TN panels. Good enough, but relatively low viewing angles.
- The 4:3 screen’s days are numbered while the 16:10 widescreen form factor is taking over
- Common 15″ screen resolutions:
1280×1024 (4:3 SXGA — the cheapest laptops only)
1400×1050 (4:3 SXGA+ — the most common resolution)
1600×1200 (4:3 UXGA — nearly all Dell 15″ laptops could be upgraded to this resolution along with many tier 2/3 laptop manufacturers’. Most common resolution for 17″ laptops)
1280×800 (16:10 WSXGA — cheapest laptops and most common)
1600×1050 (16:10 WSXGA+ — very common upgrade, especially on Dell. I think every Dell widescreen laptop supported this resolution)
1920×1200 (16:10 WUXGA — Several laptops Dell sold could get this resolution and with a few tier 3 manufacturers. Not terribly common outside of 17″ laptops)
- You could get 1400×1050 on a 14″ screen but very rarely 1600×1050
Now the reason the x1050 resolutions were most common were because it was the highest resolution you could fit on a 15″ screen and still have readable text for the vast majority of users at the native resolution. If you didn’t use a screen at the native resolution, the sharpness of the screen suffered noticeably. You bought a laptop based on what resolution you wanted.
- Average price: $500 est.
- Windows 7 has completely taken over from Vista and XP. With Vista/7, increased screen resolution doesn’t hurt (seriously, look at this) because the size of widgets/icons/text can be rendered independently of the screen resolution and thereby made larger to compensate. So we could have extremely high resolution displays.
- Glossy screens are everywhere. Dell has figured out that not everyone wants a glossy screen, and many (most?) of their upgraded screens specifically say they are not glossy.
- Screens still use TN panels so quality has not improved except in the $2000 range you can get one or two laptops with IPS or MVA displays.
- LED-backlit screens have replaced CFL backlit screens. This results in a brighter display, thinner/lighter lid, and better battery life.
- High Definition is dominant in the home theater and that has trickled into laptop displays. 16:9 displays have displaced 16:10.
- Most common laptop resolutions:
1366×768 (“720p” or “HD”– The resolution of every display from 11″ to 14″ and nearly every display at 15″ and even 16″)
1600×900 (“900p” or “HD+” — The most common 17″ resolution and very rarely available on 15/16″ displays)
1920×1080 (1080p or “Full HD” — Quite a few 17″ laptops and the occasional high end Dell or other manufacturer 15/16″ laptop)
And to throw insult to injury, the most common 3.5-4.5″ smartphone LCD resolution is 720×480. That has roughly 3x the pixel density of the typical 14-15″ 720p laptop display.
In case you’re wondering, lower resolutions limit how much information can be displayed on the screen at one time. A higher resolution screen can make everything smaller. The advantage of Windows 7/Vista is that you can control how much smaller or if it gets smaller at all. So a higher resolution is always better now where it used to be “get the highest resolution you can stand/afford”.
But now instead of SXGA+ screen price only about $50 more than SXGA screens, 5 years later, we have to get a much higher end laptop to get a 1080p display and there’s very little in between. Even Dell, which has traditionally offered just about everything to every laptop, is holding the 1080p screens back for their Studio and XPS lines, and even then you might have to go with a higher end configuration. It’s actually getting worse.
And on top of that, we now have an OS that can handle extreme resolutions very well, but we no longer have the displays to match. It’s absurd to me to think that 11″ netbooks have the same resolution as nearly all 15″ laptops even though they have about half of the screen area.
The result is that I’m now looking at 13-14″ laptops heavily. If a 13″ laptop has the same resolution as a 15″ laptop, why get the 15″ laptop? Previously, I’d gotten 15.6″ WSXGA+ screens because that was the largest screen I could handle toting around and the largest resolution I could handle on that screen. Even 1600×900 sounds like something I’d rather run on a 14″ screen and adjust Windows 7 dpi as needed… but I’ve never seen a 1600×900 14″ laptop.
This isn’t what I imagined when Vista’s high DPI settings arrived.
There is reason for optimism, though.
- Apple has started pushing high DPI on the iPhone 4 with the “retina display.”
- Apple has started pushing IPS (amazing screen quality) on the iPad and iPhone 4.
- Tech companies often copy Apple since Apple has great sales and push innovative form factors and technology.
- Windows 7 high DPI is still there.
- Eventually, it could become like the megapixel race again since 15″ laptop displays are hovering around 110 dpi while the iPhone 4 is at 300 dpi.
- Dell’s bringing back matte screens and promoting them over glossy screens could be the beginning of a manufacturer turn against glossy screens.
It’s hard to say it will happen soon but here’s hoping.