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Are laptops with a 16:9 aspect ratio on their way out?

Back in the day (until around 2003), every PC display was produced in the almost-square 4:3 aspect ratio. Not coincidentally, that’s the same aspect ratio of old-school TVs. At the time, when multitasking wasn’t really a thing and nobody watched video on their PCs, 4:3 was a perfectly acceptable ratio.

Things changed, though, as users began to multitask by placing windows side-by-side — hence, the 16:10 aspect ratio was introduced to create a wider display that was more conducive to multiple windows. A number of PC makers (most notably, Apple) adopted the new ratio, at least initially. However, a funny thing happened — TVs started transitioning to 16:9, a wider aspect ratio that’s not as tall as 16:10 and has become the standard ever since (in spite of the fact that theatrical films are released in 21:9). PC makers followed.

Since around 2010, almost all PC displays — including laptop displays — have migrated to the same 16:9 aspect ratio, and Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) has become the standard resolution (with higher resolutions, such as 4K UHD at 3,840 x 2,160, becoming increasingly common). There have been notable exceptions, namely Apple, whose MacBook line runs at 16:10, and Microsoft with its Surface line that’s adopted a very tall 3:2 aspect ratio across the board. But for the most part, if you buy a laptop today, it’s going to have a 16:9 display.

Now, that’s changing.

So, what’s wrong with 16:9?

There’s no doubt that watching video, at least TV programming and most streaming video, is great at 16:9. Video fits the display perfectly with no letterboxing (black bars across the top) for standard Full HD and 4K content. Theatrical movies that run at 21:9 have letterboxing (unless they’re reformatted for 16:9, losing the content to each side) and standard definition (SD) 4:3 content has pillarboxing (black bars across the sides).

What’s not so great at 16:9 is productivity, simply because the display is too short to show enough content. Sure, you can place two windows side by side — say, a Word document and a website for source material — but you’re going to be doing more scrolling. That’s where a taller aspect ratio, say 16:10 or 3:2, comes in handy. It lets you see more vertical content at once, which is particularly important for web content that tends to be formatted for vertical scrolling.

It’s likely safe to say that users by and large don’t like 16:9, except when they’re watching video. Buy a 15-inch 4K laptop and you’ll have sufficient real estate for running multiple windows, but any smaller panel or lower resolution will feel cramped.

16:10 and 3:2 to the rescue

As we mentioned earlier, Microsoft adopted the outlier 3:2 aspect ratio on its Surface line, and every model produced today — including the Surface Pro, the Surface Book, the Surface Laptop, and the Surface Studio — use the very tall ratio. That should come as no surprise given Microsoft’s focus on productivity. Given that Surface devices also have generally high resolutions, you can fit a lot of vertical information into two windows side-by-side, and that can greatly enhance a productivity workflow.

As we also mentioned earlier, Apple has been using the 16:10 aspect ratio seemingly forever. That’s taller than 16:9 and wider than 3:2, making for a nice compromise. You get more vertical space to work with, as well as more horizontal space, and 16:9 video fits better, with less distracting letterboxing.

Another important aspect (no pun intended) of 16:10 and 3:2 aspect ratios is that they work better in tablet mode on today’s increasingly common 2-in-1 laptops. A 16:9 aspect ratio makes for a very tall surface that’s not very similar to a standard 8.5- x 11-inch piece of paper, and so inking and drawing on a 16:9 display in portrait mode isn’t as comfortable. Things improve with 16:10 and are almost perfected at 3:2, which is roughly the same dimensions as paper.

Finally, as 16:9 display bezels — and laptop chassis — get smaller, there’s less room for batteries, thermal design, and even a keyboard deck for comfortable typing. Laptops with 16:10 and 3:2 aspect ratios can have small bezels but maintain more space — after all, laptops today are small enough that shaving a few millimeters here and there doesn’t add much but can detract from a laptop’s overall design.

How long will 16:9 last?

The good news is that more manufacturers are adopting the 16:10 aspect ratio, while a few (Huawei stands out with its Matebook line) are following Microsoft’s lead and adopting 3:2. Perhaps most notable is Dell, which has switched both of its 13-inch XPS laptops, the XPS 13 2-in-1 and the 2020 XPS 13 clamshell, to 16:10. Acer has joined Microsoft and Huawei in producing a 3:2 laptop, specifically a new version of its 13-inch Swift 3.

Does this mean that other manufacturers will follow? Not necessarily, although we suspect it does. There’s very little to recommend 16:9 over 16:10 in particular — even 4K video remains pleasant to watch on a 16:10 screen at 3,840 x 2,400, with only minimal letterboxing.

The question is: How long it will take for a transition away from 16:9? The answer is likely rather complicated, but certain facts are obvious. First, there’s an entire display industry geared up to make 16:9 displays in all sorts of resolutions and using all sorts of technologies, including new AMOLED displays that adorn some of our favorite premium laptops. Retooling for 16:10 and 3:2 will take time. And manufacturers will need to make significant design changes to every new laptop they produce.

Consider HP, which recently released or announced new versions of its excellent Spectre x360 13 and Spectre x360 15. Both versions sport the latest in tiny bezels, up-to-date components, and gorgeous designs. But their displays, while offering a range of options from low-power panels to stunning AMOLED screens, remain at 16:9. That means at least a year’s wait for one of the largest PC manufacturers to make the switch to a different aspect ratio. And the same is true for Lenovo, which is also stuck at 16:9.

Time will tell if and when 16:9 shuffles off this mortal coil. There are a bunch of moving parts and disparate parties that will need to come together to make it happen. In the meantime, if you want a laptop with a 16:10 or 3:2 aspect ratio, then your choices are getting better every day.

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