Why 78 Percent of Laptop Screens Suck
In the past few years, we've seen laptops get faster, lighter and a bit cheaper, but unfortunately the majority of them still have the same ugly, low-res screens they had four or five years ago. According to analyst firm NPD, in 2015, 78 percent of all laptops sold had displays with 1366 x 768 resolution or lower. In this day and age, manufacturers shouldn't even make a laptop with less than a 1920 x 1080 screen, and as a consumer, you should make every effort not to buy one.
Unfortunately, PC vendors are counting on your ignorance. They market their grainy 1366 x 768 screens as "HD," which is technically correct but very confusing. You wouldn't call a one-story house a high-rise, so we shouldn't label a 1366 display as "high definition," when it's the lowest resolution you can get. When shopping, you need to look for a model with a display that's at least "full HD," which is also known as 1080p, or 1920 x 1080. Even sharper screens are often labeled as 4K / Ultra HD (3840 x 2160), 2K / QHD (2560 x 1440) or are just listed by their pixel count.
Why 1366 Is a Joke
Underneath the hood, any flat panel display is like a giant Lite-Brite, but instead of pegs, you have pixels. The fewer pixels you have, the more likely you are to notice that all your images are made of dots, a feeling that really takes away from the experience of looking at everything from the text in Microsoft Word to the moving images on YouTube.
According to Raymond Soneira, the president of screen-testing company DisplayMate, you need a panel with at least 172 pixels per inch (PPI) to ensure that you can't make out the dots from 20 inches away, a typical laptop viewing distance. A 15.6-inch laptop with a 1366 x 768 display has a PPI of just 100, which means that photographs will look like pointillist paintings and text may remind you of the characters on a dot-matrix printout. Laptops with 14.1-inch, 13.3-inch and 11.6-inch screens are only a little sharper at this resolution, with PPIs of 111, 118 and 135, respectively.
Even worse, a 1366 x 768 display doesn't provide enough screen real estate for reading Web pages, editing documents or multitasking. On some online articles, you can't even see past the headline on a low-res screen. Looking at the New York Times home page at both resolutions, the 1920 x 1080 screen has 10 more lines of text on it. So, if you're going to get a laptop with a low-res screen, you better start practicing your two-finger swipes.
Most applications and Web pages need around 1,000 pixels of horizontal space to show their content. With only 1366 pixels of space, you can't fit two full-size applications on the screen at once, without scrolling horizontally or having them overlap each other. However, with 1920 pixels, you have just enough space to stack two windows side-by-side (2048 or 2560 would be even better). Only when you can compose an email in one window while looking at Web page in the other can you truly multitask.
Not Enough Progress
Back in 2012, I wrote a column entitled "Note to Notebook Makers: 1366 is a joke," and sadly, today, we're still hearing the same stale punchline. According to NPD, in 2012, 82 percent of laptops sold had low-res displays, only 4 percent higher than today. Most of that paltry growth comes from the 2-in-1 category, a market that didn't exist four years ago, where about half of all laptops have high-res panels. In 2015, 83 percent of traditional clamshell laptops were still saddled with low-res displays, 1 percent more than in 2012, and the average cost of a high-res laptop actually went up, from $625 to $754.
NPD Analyst Stephen Baker says that 1366 x 768 displays are so common, because manufacturers want to save money. "Windows PCs are still a volume business where price is extremely important," he told me. "The fastest growing price segment in Windows notebooks is under $300 . . . and, at those prices, compromises have to be made.”
We have no idea what the cost difference is between a 1366 panel and 1080p one, but when you're making thousands of PCs, even a $10 difference in the BOM (Bill of Materials) cost adds up. However, most mainstream smartphones and standalone monitors already come with 1080p or higher displays.
Least Expensive 1080p Laptops
Though 1080p resolution laptops are still way overpriced as a group, you can find a few at budget prices if you look hard enough. Chromebooks such as Toshiba's Chromebook 2 and HP's Chromebook 14 offer 1920 x 1080 displays for under $300, while some of their competitors do so for under $400.
Inexpensive Windows laptops with 1080p are a rare breed, but not unheard of. Asus offers the F555LA, a 15-inch laptop with a Core i3 CPU and a 1920 x 1080 display, for just $375. Lenovo's IdeaPad 500 and IdeaPad 300 are both available for under $500 with 1080p displays. HP offers that resolution on its Pavilion 15z for $439, while Acer packs a high-res display onto its $550 Aspire E 15.
What You Can Do
At one point in PC history, you had to pay extra to get a laptop with Wi-Fi. Now, you can't find a new system with worse than an 802.11n radio and most support the latest 802.11ac standard. If Dell or Lenovo tried to sell an Ethernet-only laptop today, it probably wouldn't sell a single unit.
Just as we expect our laptops to have modern Wi-Fi, we should demand that they have high- resolution screens. Next time you're shopping for a laptop, getting one with 1920 x 1080 pixels or higher should be at or near the top of your list of priorities. If you have to pay a little extra or skimp on other components to get 1080p, you have to do it. Your laptop's screen is its most important feature.
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