Flava Flav was at CES last week to promote Soul headphones, but if everyone's favorite clock-wearing bard had been keeping his eye on the PC space, he'd be compelled to rap about the sorry state of notebook displays and declare them a joke. While 10-inch tablets like the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime TF700 rock 1920 x 1200 displays and 4.5-inch phones like the Sony Xperia Ion offer 1280 x 720, most of the latest Ultrabooks remain stuck at the same lame 1366 x 768 resolution the vast majority of notebooks have had for the past couple of years.
The worst thing that ever happened to notebook users occurred in 2009, when panel makers found out they could save on manufacturing costs by changing the standard panel aspect ratio from 16:10 to 16:9. This resulted in OEMs switching their notebook displays from 1280 x 800 or 1440 x 900 to the now-ubiquitous 1366 x 768 resolution we see today on most notebooks with 15-inch or smaller screens. Only Apple resisted the siren's song of lower prices and continues to use 1440 x 900 panels on its 13-inch MacBook Air.
Though this 1366 x 768 standard offers a little more horizontal space than its 1280 x 800 predecessors, vertical space is what matters most when you're editing a document, viewing a web page or managing your inbox. Losing 32 to 132 pixels of space means more scrolling and less content visible above the fold. Also, as screen sizes creep up to 13.3, 14.1 and even 15.6-inches with this resolution, users are stuck with very low pixel densities of 118, 111 or even 100 PPI (pixels-per-inch).
The lower a screen's PPI, the bigger each dot on the screen appears, making it too easy for the human eye to notice that the entire picture is made up of dots. That large dot effect may look cool on a Lichtenstein painting, but on a computer screen, you want lots of tiny pixels to make images look sharp and natural.
Mobile device makers seem to get it. We're now seeing tablets with PPIs as high as 224 and phones like the LG Spectrum with PPIs well over 300. Over two years ago, Apple introduced the iPhone 4, which has a 3.5-inch, 960 x 640 panel the company calls a "retina display" because it claims the screen's 326 PPI is higher than the human eye can distinguish. While Apple's claims about how many PPI the human eye can see are debatable (some say up to 500 or 600 PPI is noticeable), the importance of a sharp image is not.
So why are notebook makers wearing the late crown? Even the latest Ultrabooks, including the Acer Aspire S5, Dell XPS 13 and HP Folio 13 are all saddled with 1366 x 768 displays. You could spend over $1,000 on a notebook and get the same work area you'll see on a $400 Black Friday special. If pressed, notebook OEMs place the blame on panel manufacturers for charging too much or producing too few panels with higher resolutions. Considering that you'll soon be able to buy the Eee Pad Transformer Prime TF700 and its 1920 x 1200 10-inch screen for just $599, this excuse doesn't pass the smell test. Someone needs to step up for the users.
Another pitiful pretext for sticking with 1366 on notebooks is that some users find the sharper text on high-res screens too small for their aging eyes. However, small fonts are why DJ Billy G and his Microsoft posse invented the Windows control panel and why every browser coded since 1995 has a zoom function. You can take advantage of your notebook's increased pixel density while still making the letters as big or as small as you want.
The good news is that we've seen a few premium products sporting the much sharper 1600 x 900 panel in the 13- and 14-inch form factors, including the ASUS ZenBook UX31, the upcoming Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, 14-inch HP Envy 14 Spectre and the Q2-launching Lenovo ThinkPad Edge S430. However, these are the exception rather than the rule. 1600 x 900 should be the minimum acceptable resolution for any notebook that's bigger than 10-inches, with more systems emulating the Sony VAIO Z and its 13.3-inch 1920 x 1080 display.
Unfortunately, the way things are going, we can expect the average notebook screen to remain fixed at 1366. Seeing this lame situation, Flava Flav would surely opine:
Now, notebooks switched to 1366 x 768 a long time ago.
My screen had more space three years ago.
Don't you see how late OEMs are reactin'?
They never upgrade their displays; they don't wanna
So roll that scroll wheel. Your finger's a goner.
OEMs keep selling notebooks with lame 1366 screens anyway.
While 10-inch tablets rock a full 1920 x 1200 display
If your document's on the line, you'll be scrolling a lot today
Scrolling carpal tunnel will put you in a stretcher
Does your tablet show more of your sites? Yeah, you betcha.
Ultrabooks are the kings of pixel amputation
So check out this messed up situation.
High-priced 13-inchers have low PPI.
118 pixels per inch is too dull for my eye.
Tablets' res goes up while notebooks stay down.
1366 is a joke in your town.
PC OEMs wear the late crown 1366 is a joke!
Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and content of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.