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Notebook PCs are rapidly moving toward a future filled with more pixels and more screen real estate, thanks to the unexpectedly rapid proliferation of widescreen displays.

Once fairly rare beasts, widescreen notebooks—notebooks with screens that have an aspect ratio of 16:9 or 16:10, as opposed to the 4:3 of standard screens, and are thus wider and able to display more information—have rapidly been increasing in numbers of late.

Now, having begun out-shipping notebooks with standard screens for the first time in the first half of 2006, widescreen portables are set to take over nearly 100 percent of the market by 2008, said a new forecast by market researcher IDC, based in Framingham, Mass.

The shift, originally expected to be more gradual and less complete, has been accelerating in recent months, due in large part to efforts by screen manufacturers. Widescreen panels are more efficient to produce, and manufacturers are making quick reductions in pricing.

Subsequent adoption by notebook makers has driven the crossover in unit shipments and is powering the overall trend, according to IDC. Although the transition comes more from the manufacturing side, some customers have begun asking for the wider screens as well, because of their greater screen real estate.

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“This is a manufacturing-driven trend. It’s more of a push by the industry, rather than a pull by consumers” and businesses, said the report’s author, IDC Senior Research Analyst Richard Shim, in San Mateo, Calif. “I’m hearing that for 14-inch and 15-inch panel sizes, the wide screens are cheaper than standard screens.”

IDC says the momentum is there for almost 100 percent of notebooks to be widescreen by 2008. The forecast differs from one IDC made last October, when the firm predicted that by 2009, more than 80 percent of notebooks will offer widescreen displays with some holdouts, such as 15-inch panels. Instead, standard 14.x-inch panels are expected to begin being phased out in 2006, with 15.x-inch and 12.x-inch panels beginning to disappear in 2007.

Many consumers are choosing widescreen systems for their entertainment value. Businesses tend to standardize on systems for a long period of time, so they often lag when it comes to adopting new technologies for most employees.

There are also still some corporate users who believe the wider screens might distort their specialized applications. However, Shim said, “That’s just not the case. It’s a pretty common misconception and it’s making adoption in the commercial market slower” than for the consumer space, he said.

However, Shim said, because of the benefits of wider screens, even businesses are expected to make the jump.

Buyers stand to gain from the ability of widescreen notebooks to present more data—whether that means showing documents side by side or displaying a DVD movie without the black bars on the top and bottom of a screen—as well as the wider and shorter notebook chassis designs the screens inspire.

Wider screens add more area without raising the height of an open notebook, which can lead to more comfortable operation. The somewhat wider, but shorter, widescreen panels also make for a wider chassis, which grants more room for keyboards and also means that notebooks fit better on airline tray tables, for example.

PC makers are also working to move customers along to widescreens.

Dell and Hewlett-Packard, the world’s two largest PC makers, began moving toward widescreens for business notebooks earlier in 2006.

Dell rolled out a new line of Latitude business notebooks with widescreen panels. However, the company continues to offer standard-aspect ratio notebooks in its Latitude line.

HP has executed a similar strategy with its HP Compaq Business notebooks this year as well.

Lenovo Group, the third-largest PC maker, which markets the well-known ThinkPad, has been slower to move to widescreens. However, the company offers the ThinkPad Z Series, which comes with either a 14.1-inch or 15.4-inch widescreen. Lenovo’s ThinkPad T Series, however, still offers standard aspect ratio 14-inch and 15-inch screens.

Despite their rapid adoption, widescreens aren’t expected to bring about moves toward larger panels in notebooks. Even though several 20-inch widescreen notebooks have arrived this year, the more familiar 14.x-inch, 15.x-inch and 17.x-inch screen sizes available today will remain the most popular for some time to come, Shim said.

Larger-screen machines, which come with 19-inch or 20-inch displays, will increase in numbers to reach several million unit shipments per year by 2010, but will continue to make up only a relatively small part of the market, Shim said. Large-screen notebooks will find a niche as desktop replacements, serving as mobile workstations for workers or doubling as televisions for consumers.

“It’s still kind of a battle between 19 and 20 [inches]. One size is going to win, basically. One size is going to supplant the other,” Shim said.

One thing IDC expects to see increase is pixel resolutions, so that more pixels are packed into a given area. Whereas today’s high-end widescreens offer resolutions such as WXGA, which generally means 1,400 by 1,050 pixels, the WSXGA+ format, which offers 1,680 by 1,050 pixels, will become widespread by 2010, IDC predicted.

“Right now, you still have to pay a premium for higher resolutions,” Shim said. With time, however, he said, the higher resolutions will fall into wider use.

Microsoft’s Windows Vista, for one, may help move the market. The forthcoming update to Microsoft’s Windows operating system is designed to handle higher resolutions more effectively by showing smaller images more clearly, Microsoft has said.

Thus, eventually, most business workers can expect to receive a 14-inch or 15.4-inch widescreen notebook. Engineers or accountants, who require graphics muscle or room for spreadsheets, might receive 17-inch widescreens in the near term, and 19-inch or 20-inch widescreens in the long term. Frequent travelers, meanwhile, are likely to receive smaller machines with 12-inch wide screens.

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