PC Display Ratios Other Than 16:9 Creep Toward the Mainstream

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If you’ve been secretly hoping that the 16:9 display standard would die a terrible death for 15 years or so, we have good news. While it remains the most common aspect ratio by far, there are reasons to think the laptop industry might be willing to consider other ratios going forward.

16:9 never managed to completely take over the market. Microsoft and Apple both offer alternatives to 16:9 — Microsoft has 3:2 with the Surface while Apple uses 16:10 on its MacBook laptops. Even with these exceptions, however, the majority of the market has been 16:9. Several laptops introduced at CES, however, suggest manufacturers are rethinking this paradigm. Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and LG all showed machines that featured both 16:10 and 3:2.

How’d 16:9 Win, Anyway?

In a word: Economics. As 16:9 panel production ramped up, companies minimized costs and maximized yield by standardizing monitors and televisions on the same aspect ratio. This is back in the 2006 – 2009 period, when HDTV adoption is really taking off and laptop ASPs are still headed downwards. It didn’t take long for 4:3, 5:4, and 16:10 to almost entirely fall by the wayside.

Microsoft’s various Surface devices use a 3:2 ratio instead of 16:9.

There’s a myth that Silicon Valley or technology in general always promotes the best, most-efficient solution. 16:9 is an example of how this isn’t true. If OEMs had been attempting to balance cost, content viewing, and using a laptop for everything but content viewing, they would have kept the 16:10 display standard. While the two are nearly identical, 16:10 gives you an additional vertical resolution to work with and makes it easier to code, write, or edit spreadsheets. The tiny letterbox introduced when watching 16:9 content on a 16:10 display is virtually unnoticeable. There was no end-user advantage to swapping away from 16:10. It just made laptop panels cheaper.

Today, we’re starting to see more options to choose from. Lower-end systems in the PC space are pretty firmly 16:9, but as the Verge points out, most of the major manufacturers now have flagships that aren’t 16:9 machines. This is an improvement for a host of reasons. 3:2 on a laptop is fabulous for productivity. The extra vertical height does a lot to make the monitor feel roomy, and the letterboxing during 16:9 content, while larger than you’d get with 16:10, still isn’t much to write home about.

People who really like 16:9 but would like just a bit more vertical space benefit from 16:10. If you aren’t sure how to tell them apart: 1920×1080 is a 16:9 resolution, while the 16:10 equivalent is 1920×1200. Instead of 2560×1440 (16:9), we use 2560×1600. 4K panels shift from 3840×2160 to 3840×2400.

What’s less clear is whether these features will come to lower-end hardware. It’s easy to imagine a future in which most hardware remains 16:9, but higher-end systems go 16:10 or 3:2. If you love 16:9 and mostly watch movies, you might not benefit from a different aspect ratio, but everyone who disliked the resolution should know that for the first time in probably a decade, there’s going to be some real options on the table.

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