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Monitor Aspect Ratios – Beyond 16:9, iPad to the rescue?

PC displays have evolved from bulky CRT to superslim LED-backlit LCD units, but the resolution hasn't really improved over the years – in fact, with the monitor aspect ratio shenanigans by the panel vendors pushing 16:9 movie screens to everyone just to save a few cents, it, and the associated productivity, has effectively decreased. Will user's complaints and developments like iPad 3 2048×1536 4:3 screen change the situation?

VR-Zone regularly reports on new monitor announcements, at least those that seem interesting from the point of features or unique looks. However, over the past year or so, the new products in this category – and I'm talking computer monitors, not TV sets – have become very uniform in one aspect: the aspect ratio, pun intended. Whether consumer or professional, large or small, they all have that HDTV or DVD proportioned 16:9 sizing.

Since the IBM PS/2 series 25 years ago, most PC monitor resolutions were in 4:3 format – from 640×480 VGA to 800×600 EVGA, 1024×768 XGA (the same resolution is now standard on the first two Apple iPad resolutions) as well as 1600×1200 UXGA and, in rare cases, 2048×1536 QXGA. The 5:4 aspect ratio 1280×1024 SXGA was one notable exception, inherited from early workstation markets where it appeared first around 1984, together with the very first 2-D 'GPU', the NEC 7220 – yes, that far! That particular resolution was, though, dominant on general purpose PCs some 5 years ago,

Everything seemed to be fine when using these aspect ratios on a typical PC. The application menu bars & buttons were on the top, the system menu bar on the bottom, and what remains of the available screen real estate was there for you to edit your document page. at most, one full 'page down' scroll was enough to fully switch between and properly see either upper and lower half of the page, without multiple scroll steps needed.

Then came the 'golden ratio' proportioned 16:10 monitors, already sized pixel-wise to support the then up-and-coming HD formats. From the 1280×800 and 1440×900 sizes often seen in notebooks, to a very odd yet common 1680×1050 size which somehow doesn't have anything in common with any PC or TV resolution, to the widely popular 1920×1200, aka Wide UXGA or WUXGA.

The problem with the lower end of these resolutions was that, now, the vertical component of the screen would have 'shrunk' yet the existing menu bars and buttons on the top and bottom still consumed the same pixel space. So, there was even less for the visible document – or web page – space, requiring more scrolling during the work. On the high end like WUXGA 24-inch or 26-inch monitors, though, the benefit of this 16:10 ratio was that you could very comfortably see TWO pages side by side, in perfect size almost matching the real A4 paper – without ANY scrolling required whatsoever! Until today, for such document, Web, spreadsheet, CAD or, yes, multimedia, editing – these monitors are unmatched as a solution. And, their larger brethren, like the 30-inch 2560×1600 monitors from the likes of Apple or Dell, captured even the gamer's hearts with the huge screen real estate too.

Do keep in mind that WUXGA monitors exist in the consumer market for some 12 years already, and that even since then they also provided probably the best way to watch or edit 16:9 1080i/p HD content since you would always have extra space for titles, buttons or controls without blocking the video content visibility. For the QuadHD content or super high-res CAD, photo or document work, there was a solution a decade ago, the IBM T221, which, in a compact 22-inch format, provided stunning 3840×2400, or call it QWUXGA, resolution, in 2002 !

I had the honour to have this monitor in my home for a few months, and the troubles of connecting four DVI connectors – yes, four – from one GPU to drive it at 41 Hz, and complex Nvidia Quadro driver setups to make it all work, were worth it, when the on screen PDF looked like freshly printed on colour laser printer, and 3-D CAD walkthroughs could distinguish every window on every building in a whole city model back then. Unfortunately, neither IBM nor the Taiwanese who took over Japan IDTECH plant where this monitor was manufactured, ever continued its development – so it still awaits another supported to produce something along this line, maybe in the same 30-inch format like the current Apple and Dell hi-res monitors.

Let's hop to today: what we have now are computer monitors with aspect ratios and resolutions identical to TV sets; the over elongated 16:9 movie watcher's format and either 1366×768 or 1920×1080 resolution. Wait a moment – even if we just count the pixels, we all had better resolutions on most PC monitors even a decade ago! After all, 1280×1024 has more pixels than 1366×768, and also arranged in much more useful proportion from a typical computer user's point of view – 5:4 or 4:3 aspect leaves you with MUCH more useful document viewing and editing space. Same applies for the 1920×1080, where cutting the vertical resolution makes the screen just unsuitable enough for full 2-page document or web page viewing or editing. The extra scrolling steps just destroy the whole idea or seamless, productive work experience.

Now, since some 15 months ago, I spoke to both computer and display vendors, and even panel guys on shows like Computex or Taiwan Display expo. The arguments were silly, like "ohh we have to save a few cents by cutting all panels, TV and computers, the same" or, from a HP notebook top exec at one recent conference, "we cannot influence the panel vendors, but must take what they give us"! No wonder a company like that, without guts, is selling off its PC business.


With the advent of hi-res smartphones and tablets with a variety of aspect ratios and resolutions, a bit of the excitement at possible developments and usage models. At the same time, the advent of 4K camera recording for super high-res movie content, and associated QuadHD resolution capability, helps redefine the borders of the high end too.

First, there was appearance of a new format, 3:2, brought by iPhone 4 960×640 resolution. This is actually quite a nice format to scale up on tablets and even laptops, being not so bulky as 4:3, yet even more usable than thr 16:10, not to mention the irritating 16:9 screens. doubling the resolution on each axis produces a 1920×1280 display, which not only handles the FullHD well with spare room on top and bottom for extra content, but also, when pivoted to vertical position or used as vertical tablet, lets you play 1280×720 or 720p HD content on top of the screen, with most of the bottom still free to view a 1280 pixel wide full web page in a squarish window with most of the page visible without having to scroll. 3:2 1920×1280 could be a very nice desktop monitor resolution as well.

Second, with the advent of updated DisplayPort and HDMI versions able to handle 3840×2400 or even higher resolutions over a single cable, it makes sense to look at 27+ inch class of monitors supporting such resolutions and keeping the useful 16:10 format. In fact, to accomodate 4K video recording display and editing, a 4096×2560 10 megapixel monitor in 30-inch size can be a reality now. Of course, such a screen could also display two pages of a document at high-end colour laser printer-like quality.

The next step for the community is to gather critical mass and demand getting back the desired aspect ratio for the computer users, not movie watchers – LCD TV sets are there for movies and TV, and a bit of extra cost on the monitor for proper productivity is a small sacrifice when looking at mainstream and high end segments. At the same time, use the momentum to finally get the long overdue screen resolution quantum leap, which is awaiting in the wings since the beginning of this century.

The fact is: computers are not TV sets or cinemas, and most PC users use the PC for computer work, not movie watching, most of the time. And, most of the content they work with, whether documents, spreadsheets, or web pages, is either vertical or, in some cases, squarish shaped. So, widescreen monitors make NO SENSE AT ALL for the PC community. Does few cents savings for cheaper cutting justify billions of dollars  of wasted productivity time by hundreds of millions of PC users worldwide?

Maybe the PC vendors need to take a page from Apple's behaviour book. They take what they want and tell the component vendor accordingly. The 13-inch Macbook Air still has a nice 16:10 1440×900 display, while the 17-inch Pro has 1920×1200 one. And, the iPad keeps the 4:3 aspect ratio – from the current 1024×768 to the expected 2048×1536 in the next model. Now, wouldn't it be a shame that a 10-inch tablet has a better and, aspect ratio wise, more useful display than the high end PC? Think about that…

Nebojsa Novakovic
In the spare time over the past two decades, editor and writer of high-end computer hardware and design features and analysis for European and US media and analyst houses. Reviews of high end hardware are my specialty for 28 years already.

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