Laptop Monitors Suck (compared to what used to be available)

I recently bought a new laptop. It wasn't the one that I wanted, but the one that I wanted doesn't exist.

I bought my last laptop in 2004. It was an IBM Thinkpad T42p. At the time it was the best laptop you could get. In some ways it still is. It is still going strong, but it is starting to be less useful for what I need. I need a multi-core, 64 bit, more RAM laptop for my current purposes. But I am holding out for one that is as good as my T42p. Let me explain.

The screen resolution on the T42p is 1600x1200. Two common screen resolutions for laptops now are 1366x768 and 1600x900. The 1600x1200 of the T42p screen has 1,920,000 pixels. The number of pixels for the more common resolutions are 1366x768=1,049,088 and 1600x900=1,440,000. So these resolutions are clearly inferior in that there is less information on the screen.

There are, however, a few laptops with 1920x1080 resolutions available (I've been staring hard at the Lenovo W520). That is 2,073,600 pixels. Okay! Finally a laptop with more pixels than my seven year old laptop. So I should get it, yeah? I'll come back to that...but let me rant about the 16:9 ratio for a bit. The new laptops use a 16:9 screen ratio rather than a 4:3 ratio of a few years ago. This is a marketing gimmick by the LCD manufacturers.

Explanation: Suppose that there was a screen with the same 1,920,000 pixels of my T42p, but had a 16:9 ratio instead of a 4:3 ratio. To have a 16:9 screen resolution with that number of pixels would be approximately 1847x1039 (1919033 pixels). However, screens are commonly measured in diagonal inches. 1600x1200 has a diagonal of 2000 pixels. But 1847x1039 has a diagonal resolution of 2119 pixels. So by using the 16:9 ratio, the manufacturers get an increase of 6% advertised diagonal size without having to add any additional pixels to the LCD! Thus a 16" monitor becomes a 17" monitor without adding any additional pixels, just changing the shape.

The 16:9 ratio is better for viewing movies, but I don't view movies on my laptop. My laptop is for getting work done. So now let me explain why 16:9 ratios suck for work screens. If I'm coding, I want to see as much code as I can. The more lines of code I can see, the happier I am. My current coding convention is that a line of code is no longer than 100 characters. So any screen that is wider than that is useless to me. But taller is very useful, because I see more lines of code.

So that screen that is 1920x1080 is actually less useful to me than the 1600x1200 screen of my T42p because of the change in vertical resolution. I see only 90% of the lines of code that I saw before, even though I have more pixels on the screen.

There are a few laptops that do 1920x1200, but they aren't really laptops. They are luggable integrated desktops. A laptop that weighs more than 9 pounds isn't really portable. I had a Dell Inspiron many years ago that weighed in at 9 pounds. Hauling it around the country was a real test. I didn't think that 3 pounds would make a difference, but it really does.

So what I want in a laptop is my T42p (with its 1600x1200 resolution), except with four cores and 16 gig of ram, weighing in under 6 pounds. It doesn't exist. If some manufacturer (Lenovo?) wants to make one, I'll bet I'm not the only person who would buy one.


  1. AnonymousJune 16, 2011

    "The new laptops use a 16:9 screen ratio rather than a 4:3 ratio of a few years ago. This is a marketing gimmick by the LCD manufacturers"

    No,it's not. Back then I used to think the same thing. I was adament that I would NEVER buy a laptop with a 16:9 screen because you don't get much verticle space. Then a friend bought one and I measured it's verticle space compared to my old Toshibas 4:3 verticle space. When looking at them it was clear that the new 16:9 screen clearly had less verticle space. Then I looked at the measurements. They were both the same. It was an opticle illusion ! If you then realize that the new screen is the 4:3 screen stretched horizontally you understand that your are getting MORE space not less. Your eyes just need to get used to the new aspect ratio. I would never go back to a 4:3 screen.

    The 1920x1080 resolution comes from the High Definition specification. If you want to watch a movie encoded in the 1920x1080 format the best picture will be realized on a 1920x1080 screen because of the sampling rate used for the film. With a 1920x1080 screen you will get a one to one pixel mapping and no scaling or interpolating will need to be done. That's why the best "entertainment" laptops have 1920x1080 screens. It's also why the 16:9 aspect ratio has taken over.

    Let's never go back !

  2. AnonymousJuly 14, 2011

    "Then I looked at the measurements. They were both the same. It was an opticle illusion ! If you then realize that the new screen is the 4:3 screen stretched horizontally you understand that your are getting MORE space not less. Your eyes just need to get used to the new aspect ratio. I would never go back to a 4:3 screen."

    Haha, no it doesn't work that way. You do in fact lose pixels vertically when switching from 16:10 or 4:3 to a 16:9 format. If you get a higher resolution as compared to the previous display you had then it might be possible you didn't lose any screen space vertically.

    It's insane really that people are buying into the whole "16:9 is better" bs. And it's sad for us other folks that the retailers are not offering 16:10 or 4:3 alternatives.

    I work with graphics and it's similar to coding in the way that I also need a lot of vertical screen space to work efficiently. ¨

    99% of all computer programs are designed to work well with more vertical space. Just look at any web page basically. We browse them top to bottom. If we had browsed them side to side then things might have been different.

  3. To the first commenter, I'm not sure exactly what you're measuring vertically (inches? pixels?) but even on the previous-generation laptops (like my Dell D600 laptop or ThinkPad T60p with a 1400x1050 SXGA+ 4:3 resolution) had more vertical space and definitely more total pixels. Even 1280x1024 has more total pixels and is easier to use from a productivity or websurfing standpoint.

    Why did manufacturers downgrade to 1366x768 from SXGA+? Because widescreen TV's were becoming more affordable and popular with HD programming on cable, and it was cheaper to make and not too hard to fool the average consumer with a "cinema-like" widescreen laptop. I've watched all of one movie on a laptop, and it's definitely not better than watching it on a bigger TV or a movie theater.

    Why anyone would want a widescreen laptop over a standard screen is beyond me unless you're looking to watch movies on it. I don't watch movies at work, and I don't need to watch them on a laptop at home. Websites are typically longer vertically than horizontally, so it doesn't make any more sense to surf the web on a widescreen. The only benefit I see with a widescreen laptop is spreadsheets, but then you gain maybe one or two columns and lose at least three rows. Why do people keep buying these crappy resolution laptops? Because they're bedazzled by the "movie experience" on a laptop... which is pointless unless you're using it on a plane, which may or may not be allowed. Even hotel rooms tend to have movies, even if they're not as cheap. Regardless, SXGA+ had more vertical space, and even if you think widescreen eliminates those black bars at the top and bottom, maybe you've noticed a lot of movies still have them even on widescreen.

    Even today most new laptops are 1366x768, which is pathetic from a productivity standpoint. I think you're an idiot if you're buying a productivity machine because of it's nice movie theater-like screen... unless your job is to watch movies.