Data Shows Clueless Consumers Favor 15-inch Notebooks, Ruining Market

Notebook buyers, what are you thinking? We all know that the main benefit of a notebook over a desktop is its portability, yet new sales stats from Q2 show that most of you are buying giant, heavy clunkers. As a result, PC makers continue to churn out 15-inch machines no one needs, making more attractive 13- and 14-inch notebooks practically endangered.

This morning, I met with reps from MSI who told us that they no longer plan to release their highly-anticipated 13-inch X360 notebook in the U.S., because consumers just aren't buying ultraportables. Instead the company told us that they are focused on the more popular 15.6-inch form factor. They're not alone.

Just look at this preliminary data that the folks at DisplaySearch extracted for us from the Q2'10 Quarterly Advanced Notebook PC, Module, and Tablet Shipment and Forecast Report. As you can see, 15-inch notebooks remain the most popular size and ultraportables from 11 to 13 inches make up less than 12 percent of the North American market. According to DisplaySearch, even the 8.7 percent share of 13-inch notebooks is deceptively high, because more than 60-percent of 13-inch systems sold in North America are MacBooks.

Europe has an even bigger appetite for large screens, while Asia is the only region that buys more 14-inch systems than 15-inchers. We haven't posted them here, but the prior five quarters have similar percentages, with the exception of the iPad, which only began shipping at the end of Q1 2010.

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Screen SizeNorth AmericaEuropeAsiaWorldwide
9.7" (iPad)12%2.1%0.8%4.4%
All Others0.8%0.8%0.3%0.6%

If we could exclude secondary devices such as netbooks and tablets from these lists (everything 10-inches and below), the 15-inch category would loom even larger. Yet, despite the ubiquity of this size, it provides the worst of all notebook experiences, as it's not large enough to enable high-res gaming or multimedia playback, nor is it small enough to go everywhere.

Big, Bulky, and Short on Endurance

Battery life is one area in which 15-inch notebooks clearly fall short. In our last year of testing at LAPTOP, the average 15-inch notebook got only 225 minutes of battery life. Compare that to 11-inch systems, which averaged 364 minutes, 12-inchers that endured for 322 minutes, or 13-inch ultraportables which lasted a full 338 minutes. Even 14-inch notebooks lasted an average of 264 minutes, two thirds of an hour longer than their clunky counterparts.

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Screen SizeBattery Life (hours)

It goes without saying that 15-inch notebooks weigh more than those with smaller screens. If you're looking to carry a laptop around all day, you really want it to weight 5 pounds or less. The average 15-inch notebook we've reviewed in the past 12 months has weighed 6 pounds, with none lighter than 5.2. By contrast, the average 14-inch notebook weighed only 5.1 pounds, with the lightest weighing only 3.8 pounds. The 13-inch notebooks averaged 4.4 pounds, while 12- and 11-inchers averaged just 3.5 pounds.

Worse still, you're not getting any significant benefit from having a larger display panel since the typical 15-inch notebook has the same 1366 x 768- pixel resolution that comes standard on 11 to 14- inch systems as well. In fact, having the same amount of pixels in a larger area makes the picture less sharp, kind of like watching standard def programming on a large screen TV.

Making the Wrong Resolution

In the past two years, panel-makers have forced vendors to switch from 16:10 aspect ratio screens to 16:9 screens that are cheaper to manufacture. "You can cut a 15.4-inch panel on a 16:10 aspect ratio 15 times; you can cut a 15.6-inch panel on the 16:9 aspect ratio 18 times. So on the same piece of glass, [you get] 18 panels versus 15 panels," said said John Jacobs, Director of Notebook PC Market Research for DisplaySearch. "Your cost drops substantially, and in times of shortage, you're increasing your throughput without really having to do a whole heck of a lot in terms of cost."

Unfortunately, this new aspect ratio is worse for user productivity, because it prioritizes horizontal over vertical screen real estate. Back in 2008, PC magazine Editor-in-Chief Lance Ulanoff warned that the move to 16:9 screens is bad for users because "most of our computing and content consumption on the PC is a top-down experience. We read stories that way. Web pages are designed to put as much 'above the fold' (or above the end of the screen) as possible. Most photos are still in 4:3 format, so a shallower screen means you have to view the images at a somewhat diminished size."

According to DisplaySearch, the transition to 16:9 is nearly complete. Preliminary worldwide sales data for Q2 of 2010 show that 55 percent of notebooks have 1366 x 768-pixel resolution while only 13.7 percent have the older 1280 x 800 standard. None of the other resolutions, except for the netbook standard 1024 x 600, make up even 10 percent of the market on their own.

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Screen ResolutionQ2 2010
800 x 4800%
1024 x 5760.1%
1024 x 60016.1%
1024 x 7684.6%
1200 x 9000%
1280 x 7680%
1280 x 80013.7%
1366 x 76855.5%
1400 x 10500%
1440 x 9001.8%
1600 x 7680.1%
1600 x 9006.2%
1600 x 12000%
1680 x 9450.2%
1680 x 10500.3%
1920 x 10801.1%
1920 x 12000.4%
1280 x 7200%

Jacobs explained that over the past 10 years most notebook screens have clustered around a common resolution to make manufacturing easier. "It went from 1024 x 768 to 1280 x 800 and now it's 1366 x 768, so it's just from a 4:3 to a 16:10 to a 16:9 aspect ratio. It's really nothing more than that. There's also integration of components so you can use the same driver ICs on a 15.4 as a 14.1 if you're driving the same resolution. It's in the best interest of commoditization and keeping costs down for the panel makers to have a lot of the same resolution," he

Couldn't vendors just standardize on a higher 16:9 resolution like 1600 x 900 instead of the productivity-stealing 1366 x 768? Just like the switch to 16:9, it's all about the money. Jacobs explained that building screens with a higher pixel density raises costs and that, thus far, very few users are demanding the added real estate, outside of niche groups like graphic designers and gamers.

Why You Buy 15-inch Notebooks

So why are people still buying clunky 15-inch notebooks, and whose fault is it? Both notebook vendors and the panel manufacturers they buy their displays from certainly deserve some of the blame, because they've been pricing 15-inch systems so aggressively while building them only with the same native resolution as smaller models.

"It's more about bang for your buck, and if you look at price trends . . . you'll see that on Black Friday, the $499 and $399 boxes are all 15-wide boxes. They're not in the 14-inch class," Jacobs said. He also noted that panel makers have a lot of influence over the cost of systems because they manufacture more 15-inch panels and price them aggressively.

Because they aren't receiving all the information they need, consumers are the real force behind the popularity of 15-inch notebooks. Many users don't even think they need portability. We know that 60-percent of netbooks never leave the home, so we can only imagine how rarely consumer notebooks make it out. And because the family computer is now a notebook that travels around the house more than the globe, many consumers wrongly assume that they don't need long battery life or light weight. They just don't realize that, even on the couch, it's inconvenient to be chained to an outlet or to use a system that's too bulky to prop on your lap.

Still others take the puzzling position that bigger is always better. As both consumers and businesses replace desktops with notebooks, they opt for 15-inch screens because the larger panel and chassis seem more similar to the experience they're used to. Unfortunately, many of them don't realize that they aren't gaining any screen real estate by purchasing this class of notebook. If you want a large screen system, either get a 17- or 18-inch notebook that has full HD resolution or, better yet, spend $150 on an external monitor you can use when your notebook is on your desk. If you want a mainstream system, go for the lighter 14-inch variety.

While 14-inch notebooks have the same CPUs as their 15-inch counterparts, 11 to 13-inch ultraportables present another challenge because they usually have low-voltage processors. Buyers see a less-sexy CPU on a smaller system's spec sheet and run the other way. However, many low-voltage systems pack a lot of punch (see the MacBook Pro 13, the ASUS U33Jc, or the Alienware M11x), and even those with slower processors are more than adequate for the average of consumer or business user.

Because they see 15-inch notebooks on sale, users also assume that smaller systems are too expensive, but that just isn't true. Today, you can get a high quality consumer ultraportable like the 13-inch Toshiba Satellite T235 for under $600, which lasts more than 6 hours on a charge.

To be fair, there are some legitimate reasons to buy a 15-inch system. Many times, vendors only manufacture the notebook you want in this form factor. For example, there's no 13 or 14-inch Alienware gaming machine. Other times, the 15-inch version of a notebook offers added features that you just can't get in a smaller size, such as 3D support, a numeric keypad, Blu-ray, or maybe even a higher resolution panel. Finally, some users with poor eye sight prefer the lower pixel density of a 1366x768 panel. However, all of these reasons don't account for  the lopsided sales numbers we're seeing.

The Consequences

Unfortunately, MSI is just the latest vendor that is pulling away from the ultraporable market. We've talked to other vendors off the record who told us that they too are moving away from systems smaller than 14 inches. Lenovo also recently confirmed that it's pulling the plug on the 13-inch ThinkPad X300 series (my favorite ultraportable of all-time), which leaves only one 13-inch ThinkPad: the low-powered Edge 13.

The power to end the tyranny of clunky, low-res 15-inch notebooks rests in your wallet. If more consumers and businesses purchase ultraportables, lightweight 14-inchers, or 15-inch systems that have high-res screens that take advantage of their size, notebook vendors will step up their game as well.

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.