Widescreen screens are catching on, and for creating on the move, a widescreen laptop could make your work easier.

There's a new angle in screens these days – wide angle. You can choose a wide-angle flat-panel monitor to grace your desktop, or a wide-aspect flat-panel LCD TV for your living room or to hang on the boardroom wall. And now, three years after Apple introduced the first widescreen laptop, widescreen notebook PCs are really coming into fashion.

The standard, squarish laptop screen has a width-to-height ratio that's usually expressed as 4:3 or 1.3:1, about the same as a television set. In contrast, a wide screen is more rectangular, with a ratio of 16:10 or 1.6:1. The wider shape permits you to keep more documents on screen at once so you can avoid having to toggle through them. You can also comparison-shop easily at two Web sites positioned side-by-side, for example, or you can see more of the data in a large spreadsheet.

But a bigger display area is not the only benefit that widescreen laptops provide. They usually have larger keyboards than their standard counterparts offer; some 17-inch widescreen units even include a separate numerical keypad, which number crunchers find very handy.

We examined seven recent widescreen notebooks, including a 14.1-inch models from Compaq; two 15.4-inch units, from Dell, and HP; and a humongous 17-inch laptop from Fujitsu. Though we enjoyed seeing more on each screen, we found that users do have to make a few compromises. For example, the wide screens make the units a bit more difficult to tote.

Widescreen notebooks don't make great out-of-the-box gaming machines, because of their wide aspect ratio. However, you may be able to avoid a stretched picture by using some games' command-line settings or your video card options to switch the aspect ratio to 16:10. If you plan to show projector presentations prepared on a widescreen laptop, be careful. You'll need either to create the presentation in a standard resolution or to set the correct aspect ratio on the projector.

Unless you come across a DVD recorded at an aspect ratio of 1.6:1 or 1.78:1 (as opposed to the 1.85:1-to-2.35:1 range that Hollywood prefers), a wide screen won't spare you from the letterbox effect when watching movies either. On the bright side, though, a letterboxed DVD movie plays larger overall and is easy to watch on a wide screen because the screen's dimensions approximate the shape of the picture more accurately.

A wider share

Thanks to the widescreen LCD television boom, widescreen laptops should be in abundant supply for the near future, according to John Jacobs, director of notebook market research at flat-panel market research and consulting company DisplaySearch. Large glass producers such as Samsung and LG Philips are ramping up their production primarily to accommodate the TV market, but plenty of material remains for widescreen laptop manufacturers, too. It doesn't hurt that wide screens are less expensive to produce than standard portable screens because they waste less LCD motherglass.

After a slow start, widescreen laptops have begun to steal some sales from their standard-screen-size relatives. According to Jacobs, widescreen notebooks accounted for only 7.5 per cent of worldwide sales in the fourth quarter of 2003, but a year later, they claimed almost 20 per cent of all laptop sales. The 15.4-inch laptop is the best-selling size, garnering about 22 per cent of overall widescreen sales, followed (in order of popularity) by 17-inch, 14.1- and 14-inch, and 12.1-inch models. Even so, currently you can expect to pay a premium for a widescreen laptop, according to Ken Dulaney of Gartner Research.

Though hard market numbers are scarce, currently more consumers than business buyers are embracing wide screens. "Consumers tend to accept them as full-fledged entertainment centres, especially the 17-inch wide screen," says Dulaney. "For example, a student takes one of these to their dorm and they have a TV and almost everything else they need to keep themselves occupied outside of studying."

Dulaney believes that notebooks with standard, conventional screens won't disappear any time soon – especially not in the corporate world, where no-frills portables have traditionally enjoyed considerable popularity – at least among bosses.

Hip to be wide

Judging from our tests, laptops with wider-than-average screens have no particular disadvantage compared with standard laptops, unless you count the difficulty of balancing a widescreen unit on your lap or finding a carrying case that fits perfectly.

And unless you opt for a gargantuan 17-inch widescreen notebook, which can easily surpass 10 pounds, weight should not be a big concern, either. The average weight of the seven wide screens in our group (not including the 17-incher) was just 6.1 pounds.

Widescreen notebooks come with the same types of laptop processors and connections as their regular-size counterparts. The ones we reviewed run the gamut of portables, but our favourites of the group are both HP models: the Compaq Presario V2000, which carries a 14.1-inch screen; and the HP Compaq NC8230, which has a 15.4-inch screen.

We liked almost everything about the Compaq Presario V2000. In fact, we think that it would make the ideal laptop for travel. The V2000's convenient slanted keyboard is easy to type on, and you can connect the machine to HP's Xb2000, an excellent multimedia docking station that's equipped with speakers and a drive bay. Its 6.1-pound weight, 5.8-hour battery life, and compact screen perfectly suit it for hitting the road.

A 14.1-inch wide screen is as broad from side to side as a standard 15-inch display and yet it's shorter than a standard 14.1-inch screen, making the Compaq easier to open in tight spaces, such as on an airplane tray table. The V2000's native resolution of 1280 by 768 is just right for squeezing in extra details or documents while keeping icons easily readable.

Going wider

Wide screens measuring 15.4 inches or more put you at risk of invading your neighbour's airplane tray table. On the positive side, they offer higher resolutions (up to 1,920-x-1200 pixels) and impressive width – the same as you'd get with a standard 17-inch laptop's screen. The height is a little less than that of a standard-width 15-inch notebook's screen.

Of the two 15.4-inch widescreen models we looked at, we liked the HP Compaq NC8230 best. Its native resolution of 1,680-x-1,050 fits in plenty for you to view, and its five-plus hours of battery life would carry you through a cross-country flight. Besides offering comfortable dual pointing devices (a touchpad and an easy-to-guide nub), it supports pleasant typing. Travellers will appreciate the unit's 6.3-pound weight and its presentation button for getting talks off to a smooth start.

Unfortunately, keyboard or pointing-device shortcomings plagued the other three 15.4-inch wide screens we looked at. The Dell Inspiron 6000 has a lot to offer: It has the sharpest, most detailed screen of the entire group, with a stunning native resolution of 1,920-x-1,200, making it ideal for seeing more spreadsheet columns or tiled documents. It also has an attractive and accessible case, and over five hours of battery life. We're not sure, however, that we could coexist long-term with the Inspiron 6000's excessively stiff keyboard: We had to type quite forcefully to make sure that we didn't leave the spacebar and other keys undepressed.

Widescreen entertainers

17-inch widescreen laptops are for people who want maximum-size screens. Many 17-inchers, such as the Fujitsu N6010 in our group, include a built-in TV tuner. The striking, tritone, 10.2-pound N6010 comes with a blue-hued Media Center-like application that lets you watch, pause, and record live TV and view DVDs without booting Windows. A short coaxial cable adaptor is included, along with RCA and S-Video-in ports to hook up peripherals such as a CD player or a camcorder. The keyboard, which has a separate numerical keypad, is very comfortable to type on. The huge screen is beautiful and easy to read, thanks to its native resolution of 1,400-x-900 pixels.

Fujitsu's multimedia software, Instant MyMedia, has a few neat features. One is called Browse, which creates thumbnails of all the TV stations the notebook has found, showing freeze frames of the live picture. You can view them before deciding which station to watch. The N6010 may have the best speakers of any laptop we've reviewed, too. They're loud and booming, perfect for TV or movies, both of which look good on the 17-inch screen.

So, are you vertically or horizontally inclined? If most of your work consists of word processing and other vertical documents, a widescreen notebook may not be ideal for you. However, if seeing more at once horizontally and toggling less between windows appeals to you, a wide screen would be a great investment.

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