If you’ve tried to buy a nice Windows laptop in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve agonized over display resolutions.
Buy a laptop with a 4K display, and you’ll get a picture so sharp that individual pixels become indiscernible, but both battery life and performance will suffer as a result. Get a 1080p laptop instead, and you’ll get more battery life at the expense of that glorious picture.
There is, of course, a middle ground in the form of 1440p (2560x1440) displays, also known as QHD. You just wouldn’t know it from today’s selection of laptops. Even though 1440p hits the sweet spot between a crisp picture and long battery life, most laptops instead make you choose between extremes.
We asked some PC makers why, and the answers were illuminating. In short, 4K TV marketing has blinded laptop shoppers to the benefits of 1440p displays, so display manufacturers and laptop makers seldom bother to produce them. There is, however, some hope that this might change over the next few years, especially as PC screens come in different shapes and sizes that look less like your TV.
4K laptops: Mostly for marketing
Tom Butler, Lenovo’s executive director of commercial portfolio and product management, said the prevalence of 1080p laptops (also known as Full HD or FHD) is easy to explain. Panels with 1920x1080 resolution are inexpensive, look decent on smaller screens, and are battery-efficient. IT departments also appreciate 1080p because it generally works with any application, with no scaling issues. That makes it a safe bet for the commercial laptop market.
“FHD, that’s the easy one,” Butler said in an interview. “That has become the industry sweet spot.”
But as laptop makers have moved into higher resolutions, they’ve gravitated toward 3840x2160, or 4K resolution, skipping over anything in between. That’s largely because of the hype that TV manufacturers have created around 4K. “The TV industry has really trained consumers to look for 4K,” Butler said.
The problem is that 4K displays affect laptops in a way that users don’t experience with 4K TVs. “TVs aren’t bound by battery life,” Butler pointed out. Compared to 1080p, 4K panels have four times as many pixels. Lighting them up requires much more powerful backlighting. The laptop’s processor also has to work harder to render images with all those extra pixels.
The results are clear: In review after review, we’ve found that 4K displays create a serious drag on battery life. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon 7th Gen, for instance, lasted just 6 hours and 9 minutes in our battery rundown test with a 4K display. The previous version of the X1 Carbon, with a 1080p display, lasted 8 hours and 48 minutes in the same test. In terms of advertised battery life, Lenovo’s Yoga C940 14 promises 15 hours with a 1080p display, and just 10 hours with 4K. (In real-world use, you can expect battery life to be roughly cut in half.)
PCWorld has also found that Intel’s integrated graphics can struggle with 4K displays, making otherwise nice laptops like the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 exhibit jumpy scrolling and choppy animations. Discrete graphics cards do a better job, but they put an even bigger strain on battery life. Most laptop graphics cards can’t really handle 4K gaming anyway.
Despite those deficiencies, display manufacturers have focused more on 4K than other middle-ground resolutions, such as 1440p. While 1440p panels are still less expensive to produce than 4K ones, the cost difference isn’t so great that PC makers are willing to sacrifice 4K’s marketing benefits.
“You’re basically jumping into a premium tier panel, and then once you’re there, you’re like, ‘hey, for a little bit more of a jump, I’m at a 4K, which is sort of a market-recognized resolution,’” Butler said.
That’s not to say 4K is worthless in laptops. Stefan Peana, the CTO for display engineering at Dell Technologies, pointed out that most content exists in 1080p or 4K, so for content creators, the latter resolution might make sense.
“Interestingly, QHD was actually quite popular in laptops many years ago until television became big on 4K,” Peana said via email. “We see a trend in content creators preferring to work on 4K panels and most consumers finding 1080p sufficient for their daily content consumption needs.”
Still, it’s reasonable to wonder how many creative types are working on 4K content using a device like Dell’s XPS 13, a thin-and-light laptop with a 13-inch screen and integrated graphics. For those kinds of machines, might it make sense to offer a crisper display resolution without 4K’s trade-offs? Peana allowed for the possibility.
“While demand for QHD displays is relatively low, there is a niche group of consumers we’re seeing with interest in QHD laptop panels because of better power consumption and lower pricing as compared to 4K laptops,” Peana said. “This mid-ground between high-resolution quality and battery life may make QHD an appealing option to those customers who do not require best-in-class displays.”
Changes on the horizon
Lenovo’s Tom Butler is more willing to bet that laptop displays will hit a sweet spot between 1080p and 4K. In the coming years, he foresees a shift away from laptops with the same widescreen 16:9 aspect ratios used by televisions. Taller aspect ratios such as 16:10 or 3:2 give users more space for editing documents and browsing the web.
“Most of us are not just sitting there consuming content all day,” Butler said. “We’re actually working. We’re creating, or we’re editing, or reviewing, so the extra real estate is welcomed.”
That push, in turn, may open the door to resolutions other than 4K. Once laptops break out of the widescreen paradigm, Butler said, “you won’t have this gravitational pull to perhaps over-indexing on the resolution.”
We’re already seeing some laptops do this. Microsoft, for instance, has rejected 4K in its Surface lineup, whose displays all use 3:2 aspect ratios. The 12.3-inch Surface Pro 7 has a resolution of 2736x1824, while its 13.5-inch Surface Book 3 has a resolution of 3000x2000. Meanwhile, Apple’s MacBooks use a 16:10 aspect ratio, and the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro both have resolutions of 2560x1600, hovering between 1080p and 4K.
Other PC makers may still face challenges stepping back from 4K. As Butler noted, coming up with savvy marketing terms that customers will remember, akin to Apple’s “Retina Display” branding, isn’t easy. “I think part of the challenge is, Lenovo can come out with a brand name, HP can come out with something different, Dell can come out with something different,” he said.
Still, he’s optimistic that within within one to three years, sub-4K resolutions will become more popular. Despite what PC makers might say about the benefits of 4K, the truth is that they’re not happy with just mimicking the shape and resolution of televisions. They’re starting to push manufacturers to produce panels in more shapes and sizes.
“The PC manufacturers kind of went kicking and screaming from 16:10 to 16:9,” Butler said. “So we like the fact that the aperture’s reopening.”