The tale of the backwards computer display market

Sometimes logic doesn’t prevail

IF YOU’VE BEEN using computers for a few years, then you’ll most likely know that we’ve moved from 4:3 or 5:4 aspect ratio CRTs to 4:3 LCDs to 16:10 LCDs to finally end up with 16:9 LCDs being the most common type of LCD screen available. That in itself might not be an issue for many, but why in the name of all things unholy have we ended up with lower screen resolutions today than what we had a decade ago?

So here we are in the year of 2010, using computers that are faster than ever, notebooks are starting to replace desktops as the most popular choice for consumers and we’re living in a world of HD and 3D. But hang on a second, is HD really what it’s cracked up to be, or is it just clever marketing? Considering how much every other technology related to computers has evolved over the last decade, you’d think that by now everyone would have super high resolution screens where you couldn’t make out the pixels in the display and everything would look life-like, well, sadly we’re quite far away from that day by the looks of things.

So what happened with the monitor industry? Well, for one, they don’t really care about what people want, instead they make what they can make the largest profit out of and then market it in a way that people buy into the hype. There aren’t that many people that miss CRT monitors today, despite some gamers and those in need of adjustable screen resolution are still hanging on to a technology that has more than overstayed its welcome. The problem with LCD displays is that unless you use them at their native resolution, you get a fuzzy, unclear picture, or huge black borders, something no-one’s really willing to live with. As for gamers, well, they complain about response time and something called ghosting, but that’s a different matter entirely.

CRT screens came in all shapes, sizes and most importantly, resolutions. An entry level 15-inch CRT didn’t do much more than 1024×768, although some better models managed an eye straining 1280×1024. By moving to a 17 or a 19-inch CRT, 1280×1024 was comfortable enough to use at a high enough refresh rate to avoid flicker and this is also where most consumers stopped due to cost. At the 20 or 21-inch size 1600×1200 was a fairly standard resolution and some of the really large 24-inch CRTs managed an eye watering 2048×1536.

The move from CRT to LCD displays actually happened quite quickly and one of the big selling points of LCD screens was the space saved on everyone’s desk. This was one of the biggest driving forces for offices to get rid of CRT monitors, although this was often paired with the notion that LCD screens are more power efficient than CRTs. Early LCD screens only managed 800×600 or 1024×768 resolution, but once we achieved 1280×1024 it was the standard resolution for 17 and 19-inch LCDs and the price came down to an affordable level, the CRT market pretty much dried up and blew away. Of course there were larger LCDs at this time that managed 1600×1200 pixels, but this is pretty much where the 4:3 LCDs topped out.

At about the same time that this happened, widescreen TVs started to take off, more so in Europe and Asia at the early stage, as the US didn’t really have any widescreen CRT TVs.  This was long before the HD “revolution” took place, but this lead to an acceptance that widescreen was better than square screen, especially for movies. As soon as we started to see widescreen Plasma and LCD TVs, monitor manufacturers started moving their 4:3 LCDs to the 16:10 format. TVs were on the other hand using the 16:9 format, as it was a manufacturing compromise that was made to allow for cinema type movies to fit nicely without too-large black borders at the top and bottom of the screen. 16:9 is also known as 1.78:1 and cinema movies are usually either 2.35:1 or 1.85:1.  The latter almost fills the entire screen on a 16:9 display.

So what does this have to do with computer screens? Well, 16:9 gained popularity, in no small part thanks to DVD killing off VHS. The resolution of widescreen TVs went from HD, i.e. somewhere between 1280×720 and 1366×768 depending on model, to Full HD, i.e. 1920×1080 as the manufacturers pushed consumers into upgrading to the next new and better thing. And this is where it went all wrong in the computer display market. The panel makers realised that they could cut more panels out of a single sheet of glass if they cut them at the 16:9 aspect ratio rather than 16:10 and more panels out of a single sheet meant less waste for them which in turn meant more profit per sheet of glass.

Standard 16:10 screen resolutions were 1280×800, 1440×900, 1680×1050 and 1920×1200, of which the latter two were the most popular on desktop systems, with most notebooks being stuck at 1280×800, although all four resolutions were available on notebooks as well. Fast forward to today and you’ll have a hard time finding an affordable 16:10 screen and for whatever reason, we’ve also gone backwards in type of available desktop real-estate. Standard 16:9 resolutions are 1366×768, 1600×900 and 1920×1080 and of course 1024×576/600 if you count netbook size screens. This doesn’t make any kind of sense at all, why would anyone want a lower resolution screen?

Well, it’s really not that hard to understand why people are accepting this, as with the help of some clever branding, the display manufacturers have managed to trick consumers into thinking that 16:9 is better than 16:10. Most people aren’t aware of the screen resolution they’re using and even fewer customers know the difference between the aspect ratios. Terms like widescreen, Full HD and more recently 3D seems to be what sells, not common sense that computer screens and TVs have nothing in common apart from the fact that they’re both capable of displaying a picture.

A few companies have tried to move outside of the more established standard resolutions and Samsung made an affordable 16:9 panel with 2048×1152 resolution that Acer, Dell and Samsung all put into a single display model each, but it didn’t prove to particularly popular as it wasn’t marketed as being anything out of the ordinary despite the benefit of being able to display two 1024 pixel wide documents side by side. For those with deep pockets options such as 2560×1440 is also available, but so far only on a handful of display measuring 27-inches and often costing $1000 or more. A couple of companies are still producing even more prohibitively expensive 30-inch panels with 2560×1600 resolution, but that’s where it stops today.

The next big jump in display technology is set to be 4K or 4096×2304 pixels, again a 16:9 format, but considering that this is intended for broadcast TV sometime in the future, time will tell if this is a format we’ll see on computer screens or not. Phillips has a 21:9 TV in the market for those that want extreme widescreen, but this is hardly practical for most computer applications. We don’t really have a clear picture of where the computer display market will head next, but we know that we’re not alone in disliking 16:9 aspect ratio computer screens, not because of the aspect ratio itself, but because of the lower resolution. Oh, there’s 3D of course, but we’ll save that for another rant.

Browsing the web on a widescreen display means a lot more scrolling than on a screen with a higher vertical pixel count and although 4:3 is in theory the best format for web pages, a widescreen display makes more sense in terms of how human vision works, as we have better peripheral vision than up/down. This is possibly one reason as to why multi-display setups have become popular, but then you end up with the problem of screen bezels which in itself is an annoyance that many won’t put up with.

It’s funny how the humble D-sub connector has been able to offer higher resolutions than the digital interfaces for such a long time, although dual-link DVI sort of solved this problem. We’re still at the early days of the DisplayPort standard which could, at least in theory, finally abolish all the other display interfaces. However, the problem here is that in some parts of the world, displays with a digital interface carry higher import duties than displays with an analogue interface.

If it’s not the panel makers focusing on profit over usability, then it’s government regulation that hold display technology advances back. Although in all fairness, it seems like the display manufacturers themselves aren’t exactly in a hurry to bring out new technologies, as what we have is good enough, or at least that seems to be the excuse. As much as we understand that there is a certain cost involved in making a display, it doesn’t make sense that no matter if you buy a 21.5-inch screen or even a 27-inch screen in most cases, you’re stuck at the same dreadful 1920×1080 resolution with a D-sub and DVI port as the standard connectivity options, although some premium models might throw in an HDMI port for good measure.

It’s actually surprising that in a market that’s developing so quickly as the computer market, there also seems to be such an utter and total unwillingness to change and move to smarter and better technology. One excuse why TN panels became the major technology for LCD panels is that it’s cheaper to manufacture, despite clear disadvantages such as poor colour uniformity and mainly poor viewing angles, especially when you’re looking up and down the screen. Yet very few manufacturers appear to try to reduce the cost of manufacturing superior technologies such as IPS or MVA, both of which are far superior to the TN technology.

On top of that, we just don’t get the crazy with glossy displays. Not only is a notebook with a glossy display entirely useless when used outdoors, in a windowed office or any other natural light condition.  The glossy display doesn’t actually help improve the image quality with the one exception of watching movies or pictures on the screen indoors under the right light conditions. It’s possibly the daftest addition to have ever made it out of a display manufacturers R&D lab and we’d urge each and every manufacturer of notebooks to stop using these panels, as no-one likes them.

One advancement that has been made and which is actually thanks to the current 3D hype is 120Hz LCD panels for computer screens. The refresh rate of LCD screens has been locked at 60Hz since the early days of LCDs, but because an LCD screen doesn’t flicker, it really hasn’t been an issue. However, the 120Hz technology really looks a lot better, especially when it comes to fast moving graphics on the screen. LED backlight is also making some inroads, again mostly as a more power efficient alternative to CFL’s, but a good LED backlight solution will make for a very vibrant looking screen compared to one with CFL backlight.

At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a move away from 16:9 panels, no matter what consumers actually want or not. Hopefully something better will come along with some new advancement in technology, although it feels like we’re a long way away from that to happen. On a positive note, there seems to have been a small revival of 16:10 screens from some manufacturers, but they tend to be priced at a premium and target business usage rather than being general computer displays. Hopefully we’ll see a shift towards higher resolution displays as well, but again, nothing that we’ve seen seems to indicate this, so for those of you that own a screen you like that isn’t 16:9, treat it well and make it last as long as possible, as you might not be able to find a replacement for it.S|A

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