Is 1920x1080 the new 1366x768?

One of the stories that came out of this year's CES is a classic good news/bad news sort of scenario for PC users.

The good news is that PC displays are finally shedding the bonds of the nearly ubiquitous 1366x768 resolution and lousy TN panels that have plagued them for several years now. We saw a host of new Windows 8-based laptops, tablets, and all-in-one PCs in various locations across Vegas last week, and the vast majority of them sported 1920x1080 displays based on IPS panels. They were sharper, bolder, and brighter than the displays they replace—and a great many of them support multitouch input, as well.

I couldn't be happier about that part of this tale. After years of folks like us grumping about the awful state of PC displays, it seems the industry has decided to shift en masse to a much better standard, and one can't help but root for these superior displays to infiltrate as much of the PC market as possible.

And yet... there's bad news here, too. The problem is that 1080p displays appear to be settling in as the new standard across a broad swath of systems of different types and sizes. For instance, we saw 1080p displays on an 11.6" AMD-based tablet, on a 13.3" Samsung laptop, and on a larger 15.6" Samsung laptop.

Uh oh.

On the 11.6" tablet, a 1080p display looks to be quite interesting. The pixel density doesn't quite rival the iPad, but text crispness and clarity does, thanks to an assist from Microsoft's ClearType sub-pixel anti-aliasing tech. As the display size rises, though, the pixel density of a 1080p display drops, to the point where it's not nearly as impressive in a 15.6" laptop.

If, indeed, PC makers are simply trading 1366x768 for 1080p, as we fear, then this trend is a decidedly mixed blessing. Yes, it's positive progress, but it's not exactly what you'd want to see. We'd be much better off if PC makers were targeting a common—and relatively high—pixel density, or something close to it, instead of the same resolution regardless of display size.

That need is especially strongly felt since Windows 8's support for high-PPI displays is pretty limited and seems to target ultra-dense panels almost exclusively. Sadly, Win8 doesn't offer the sort of flexibility and near-independence from display PPI that Apple built into OS X to support its Retina MacBooks. That failure will be compounded if 1080p becomes the de facto standard and PPI is dictated on a sliding scale by display size, as it has been during the 1366x768 years.

Yes, price constraints will play a factor in these things, as they always do. Still, ultimately, it only makes sense for larger systems to adopt higher resolution displays, since larger systems and enclosures tend to offer larger thermal envelopes and more room for GPU power under the hood. We'd sure like to see PC makers operate with an awareness that 1080p in an 11.6" tablet is nice but in a 15.6" laptop is an iffy compromise. If they simply settle on 1080p and go back to sleep for three or four more years, they're likely to see laptop sales continue to decline as cheaper laptops and tablets with higher PPIs soak up consumers' dollars instead.

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