Since around 2009, laptops have used a 16:9 aspect ratio that’s significantly wider than it is tall. This trend away from the almost square 4:3 aspect ratio that laptops previously employed mimicked a similar move in TVs. The shift from 4:3 standard definition (SD) content in TV shows and movies to 16:9 high definition (HD) content prompted laptop manufacturers to follow suit, prioritizing viewing media on laptops over other uses.
What’s better about taller displays?
If you want to watch video content on your laptop, then a 16:9 aspect ratio is the cleanest solution. Any other aspect ratio requires letterboxing, that is, black bands above and below the video to accommodate the different image size. Not only is it an unsightly solution, but the video size is reduced. 4:3 was particularly bad in this respect, although note that 4:3 content displayed on a 16:9 display has letterboxing to each side.
And so, for anyone who watches a lot of video content on their laptop, 16:9 is a great aspect ratio. Buy a business laptop with a 13.3-inch 16:9 display, and every inch is available for displaying modern media content.
The downside, though, is that most informational content that we consume is vertical. Word processing documents and websites, for example, can be quite long and don’t fit on a single page. A taller display — and there are two taller aspect ratios used in laptop displays, 16:10 and 3:2 — can show more of this information, requiring less scrolling and allowing the user to keep more information visible at one time. That’s a real boon to productivity.
If you’re the typical productivity user who does more work on your laptop than watching media, then a 16:9 display simply isn’t as functional. You’re far better off with a 16:10 or 3:2 display.
Another advantage to a taller display is that it creates a larger space underneath the keyboard. That allows for larger palm rests and, even better, larger touchpads. The HP Spectre x360 14 (call for availability), for example, significantly increased the size of its touchpad over the 13-inch version thanks to its much taller 13.5-inch 3:2 display.
What’s wrong with taller laptop displays?
That’s not to say that taller displays are perfect. As mentioned above, watching a video on a 16:10 or 3:2 display requires letterboxing and reduces the size of the video relative to the screen size.
Depending on the resolution of the display, particularly with the taller aspect ratio of the two, 3:2, it might not be possible to see an ultra-high-definition (UHD) or 4K image, or one with a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160. Depending on the resolution, you might be limited to just a Full HD+ (1,920 x 1,280) or some resolution other than actual 4K.
For example, the HP Spectre x360 14 has a 3,000 x 2,000 resolution. If you play a 4K video, say on Netflix, then you actually get a letterboxed 2,560 x 1,440 video on the HP. The same is true on the Microsoft Surface Book 3 13, which has the same resolution. If you want to watch a true 4K video on either of these machines, then you’ll need to use an external monitor.
If someone releases a laptop with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a much higher resolution, then 4K might be possible. 16:10 displays are closer to 16:9 in resolution, with the same horizontal resolution and extra vertical lines. The Dell XPS 13, for example, is available with a 13.3-inch 16:10 display with a 4K+ 3,840 x 2,400 resolution. It can display a true 4K video with the extra vertical lines of resolution letterboxed on top and bottom.
An exception to the rule of taller displays being better for informational content is the spreadsheet. These can be wider than they are tall, meaning that you’ll get more horizontal spreadsheet information on a 16:9 display. If you primarily work in spreadsheets, then a taller display may not be right for you.
Who’s making laptops with taller displays?
The simplest answer is: almost everyone. Most laptop manufacturers are now producing laptops with either 16:10 or 3:2 displays, and the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show was full of examples. If it’s a laptop aimed at productivity rather than gaming, then chances are it will have a taller display. You can still buy laptops with 16:9 displays, but they’re becoming far less common outside of the gaming market.
Apple has been using 16:10 aspect ratio displays in their MacBooks forever. And Microsoft introduced the 3:2 aspect ratio in its Surface Pro 3, and has since produced all its laptops and 2-in-1s in this format. And so taller displays aren’t exactly new — rather, they’re being rolled out to more laptops and likely will take over completely from 16:9 at some point.
Whether you want a 16:10 or a 3:2 display comes down to how large you want your laptop to be. Machines with 3:2 displays are deeper, or taller depending on how you look at it, and so they can’t fit into quite the same size chassis. That all depends on how large the display is, of course. The Spectre x360 14’s display is not only in the taller 3:2 aspect ratio, but it’s also slightly larger than the XPS 13’s display at 13.5 inches versus 13.4 inches. So, the Specter is a slightly larger machine.
Is a taller laptop display for you?
If you care more about productivity work than watching videos, then once you use a taller display, you’ll likely never want to go back to 16:9. The extra vertical space and the larger palm rests and touchpads are just too nice to give up. Your bigger decision comes down to which format — 16:10 or 3:2 — to choose, and one suggestion is to go with 16:10 if you want both a taller display and the more likely ability to watch 4K video. If 4K video doesn’t matter to you, though, then 3:2 provides the best mix of extra screen real estate and the largest palm rests and touchpads.