iPad raises questions about laptop display options


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Over the past few years we’ve seen the laptop industry go completely widescreen. At one time the industry was 4:3 but then, after a quick stop at 16:10, manufacturers moved on to the now-standard 16:9 size. Consumers tend to prefer the widescreen layout–it makes computers shorter, give room for full-sized keyboards, and it makes screens more HD friendly–but IT staffers and many businesses have been resistant to the change. The lost height means software formatted for 1280×1024 (or some other arcane resolution) gets cut off and tall applications, like spreadsheets, are harder to work with. Laptop manufacturers have shifted the blame to the LCD makers, usually saying that the availability isn’t there for 4:3 displays any more… basically “Face it, the industry is changing.” Many also note that demand is changing as well, and only niche users (a small but vocal group) still want 4:3 displays.
And then comes Apple with their iPad. This device which was make for consuming media has a 4:3 display that runs at 1024×768. If that wasn’t enough, Apple went with a high-quality IPS panel. Isn’t that interesting?
So the supply is clearly there. Laptops, specifically business-focused ones, don’t sell in the quantities that Apple has sold iPads, and they most certainly do not move 450,000 units in a week.
So if the supply is there, maybe it’s the demand that’s holding up our 4:3 laptops? This seems questionable as well, after all, those people complaining about the lack of 4:3 offerings aren’t Joe Consumer, they are often IT buyers who purchase dozens to hundreds of computers at once. And they aren’t buying them because they are curmudgeons who hate widescreen, it’s because these are what their users want or need.
So what’s left? The holdup could be due to cost. The aspect ratio of the display affects the entire chassis of the computer so it could be prohibitively expensive to offer both 16:9 and 4:3 options. (For the record Lenovo offered both a widescreen and a 4:3 layout with their ThinkPad T61, and that didn’t seem to be a complete disaster for the company.)
It’s possible that the cost per unit would be pricey as well, though Apple is selling a 9.7-inch IPS display in the iPad for $499, so this may or may not be the case (it would probably depend on Apple’s volume pricing and similar factors).
Lenovo is one of the few companies to talk openly about this issue, and covered it on their blog about a year ago. The post has up some good points, but the commenters have their observations as well. One of them brings up what the whole situation probably boils down to:
Bottom line is: we–the 4:3/IPS-loving crowd–are a minority, and Lenovo is a business. It’s their primary job to make profit. And for a while, there was enough profit in manufacturing 4:3 notebooks (I’m thinking of the T61) alongside 16:10 notebooks–but not so anymore, firstly, because the cost of IPS and 4:3 panels has gone up (less demand), and because less people are adamant about wanting them…
Long story short–most people just don’t care. If their display shows something and it doesn’t look too bad, they are happy.
[As an end note, I wanted to point out that simple economics tell us that if it would be profitable to offer a 4:3 display on a laptop someone would still be doing it. I'm not trying to say that there is some sort of anti-4:3 conspiracy going one from the widescreen industrial complex. Rather, maybe it is possible, but at slimmer profit margins and no one is doing it because their isn't enough pressure, or because none of their competitors are doing it. With display upgrades usually topping the $100 mark for a simple jump in resolution or coating, it seems like someone would have be making 4:3 available.]
So what do you think? Should we as consumers be pushing harder on the aspect ratio situation? Is comparing the iPad display and a laptop display simply an apples-to-oranges situation? Do you have any insights into the display world that we should know about? I’d love to hear some feedback on this someone with some insider knowledge on the industry.