Laptops: Now the Big Picture


By Stephen H. Wildstrom

TECH & YOU PODCAST

If you have cruised the laptop aisle of an electronics store lately, you've probably noticed that nearly all the models on display sport wide screens like those on large-screen televisions. But if you work for a corporation or in government, you're not likely to see a wide-screen model around the office. Do consumers know something corporations don't?

They sure do. Over the past couple of years wide-screen displays ranging from 14 in. to 17 in. have come to account for the great majority of laptops sold in the retail market, which includes consumers and many small businesses. But when it comes to the enterprise, the three big makers of business laptops, Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Lenovo (LNVGY), say that most information technology buyers won't even consider wide-screen designs.

FUTURE OF COMPUTING. The reasons are murky. Part of it seems to be the resistance to change that corporate IT managers show in all sorts of decisions. Part seems to be based on the assumption that the only thing wide screens are good for is playing DVDs -- and corporate laptops are for work, not fun.

I was converted to the virtues of wide screens when I began using Apple PowerBooks. These were among the first popular models with screens whose width is 1.6 times their height, versus 1.25 times for a conventional display.

For the past couple of weeks I have been using a ThinkPad Z60t -- priced at $1,099 and up -- a design that I think should be the future of computing for mobile executives. It's especially appealing with the optional built-in radio for Verizon Wireless's speedy, $40-a-month BroadbandAccess service. But because of the corporate disdain for wide screens, Lenovo is pitching the Z60t to small and midsize businesses.

NOT JUST FOR MOVIES. The Z60t features a 14-in. wide-screen display. Unlike the screens on most consumer-oriented notebooks, it has a helpful antiglare coating that's optimized for text and graphics rather than video. The computer weighs 4.6 lb., about 5 oz. less than the corporate workhorse T-series ThinkPad. Its 1-in. thickness is the same as the T's, but it's about an inch wider and an inch shallower front to back.

The wide-screen design provides several advantages. For one, less depth translates into a lower profile when open. So when you're flying, the Z60t sits comfortably on a coach tray table, while the taller T (or a competitor such as a Dell Latitude D610 or an HP Compaq nc6200) barely fits. The screen offers more than 90% of the viewing area of the 14.1-in. standard display of a T-series. And the Z60t screen is a lot bigger than that of an airplane-friendly ultralight with a 12.1-in. standard display. As a bonus, the extra width allows for a no-compromises full-size keyboard.

Working with the wide-screen display has convinced me that it's not just for movies. Compared with a standard screen, less of a typical page is visible without vertical scrolling. But the width makes it much easier to work with two windows side by side. I find it convenient, for example, to keep my e-mail open in one window with a word processor document or a Web page open next to it.

NO GOING BACK. A wide screen also offers room for one of the increasingly popular sidebar programs, such as Google Desktop. You quickly see the efficiency of a horizontal layout. And, of course, it's a big advantage for wide spreadsheets.

I expect that the corporate antipathy toward wide screens will eventually break down. As panel makers crank them out in greater volume, prices will come down -- and price is something corporate IT departments understand.

By the middle of next year I think the workhorse corporate notebook will come with a 14-in. or 15-in. wide-screen display. And there will be 12.1-in. wide screens for laptops weighing less than three pounds. You may find the changes a little odd at first, but once you get used to wide screens, there's no going back.

Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at techandyou@businessweek.com


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