Goodbye and good riddance to the 16:9 aspect ratio

One of the biggest trends coming out of this year’s CES wasn’t something people will necessarily notice at first glance unless they look closely. After enduring years of cramped, “widescreen” laptop displays, it looks like we’re finally starting to say goodbye to the 16:9 aspect ratio.

Here’s the new Dell Latitude 9420.
Image: Dell

An aspect ratio is the ratio of a display’s width to a display’s height (in that order). For example, a screen with a resolution of 500 x 500 would have an aspect ratio of 1:1. Think of it like simplifying a fraction: a 1080p screen has a resolution of 1920 x 1080, which divides down to 16:9.

The aspect ratios you’ll typically see on laptops are 16:9, 3:2, 16:10 (which, for whatever reason, is called 16:10 rather than 8:5), and (occasionally) 4:3. 16:9 is the most common option and also the one with the lowest amount of vertical space relative to its horizontal space.

The Acer Aspire 5 open from the front.

Here’s a 16:9 Acer Aspire 5.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The Surface Book 3 is a powerful, portable desktop PC.

And here’s a 3:2 Surface Book 3. See the difference?
Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

If you have a modern Windows laptop, there’s a good chance your screen is 16:9. If you have a gaming laptop, its panel is almost certainly 16:9. (It’s unusual to find high refresh-rate panels with other proportions.) There are some notable exceptions: Microsoft’s Surface products have been 3:2 for quite some time, while Dell’s last few XPS 13 models and Apple’s MacBooks are already 16:10. But traditionally, Windows laptops like these have been few and far between.

16:9 screens are cramped — at least compared to other options. I usually can’t comfortably work in multiple windows side by side without zooming out or doing a ton of vertical scrolling, and when I’m multitasking in Chrome, the tabs get tiny very quickly. If you’re used to using a 16:9 screen and you try a 16:10 or 3:2 display of the same size, you probably won’t want to go back. You just have a lot more room, and it’s a much more efficient use of screen space.

But this CES showed that 16:10 and 3:2 displays are inching closer to the mainstream. These are some of the biggest laptops announced at the show that are offering non-16:9 display options:

  • HP Elite Folio (1920 x 1280, 3:2)
  • Dell Latitude 9420 2-in-1 (2560 x 1600, 16:10)
  • Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 (2560 x 1600, 16:10)
  • Lenovo Legion 7 and Legion 5 Pro (2560 x 1600, 16:10)
  • LG Gram 17 and Gram 16 (2650 x 1600, 16:10)
  • Lenovo IdeaPad 5 Pro (2560 x 1600, 16:10)
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga (2256 x 1504, 3:2)
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 and X1 Yoga Gen 6 (up to 3840 x 2400, 16:10)
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X12 Detachable (1920 x 1280, 3:2)
  • Asus ROG Flow X13 (up to 3840 x 2400, 16:10)

That doesn’t mean there are no 16:9 displays left — plenty of laptops still use it, and probably will for the foreseeable future. And some of these devices, like the LG Grams, were 16:10 already.

But it’s significant that a large number of the flagships we’ll be seeing in the first half of 2021 will be either 16:10 or 3:2. In fact, when you include MSI’s 16:10 Summit E13 Flip and Razer’s 16:10 Razer Book 13 (both of which were announced prior to CES), I can’t think of a mainstream consumer laptop company that isn’t now selling a non-16:9 flagship-level machine. It’s clear that companies across the board are moving toward laptops with taller aspect ratios, and I fully expect to see more of them in the years to come.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Detachable in laptop mode, angled to the left side.

Here’s the X1 Detachable (currently attached).
Image: Lenovo

Again, this may seem like a boring change. But it will make a big difference in the lives of this year’s laptop buyers, particularly people shopping for a work-from-home device. I switched from a 16:9 laptop to a 3:2 Surface Book 2 back in 2017, and it was one of the best purchasing decisions I’ve ever made. If you’re using a 16:9 screen now and are looking to upgrade this year, I encourage you to give one of these new devices a shot. You won’t want to go back.

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