You may have heard about the strange aspect ratio that Google’s new Pixel C tablet uses—1.41:1, or the square root of 2 to 1. But you may not realize just how unique that makes the tablet—or why.
First of all, here’s another interesting fact you may not know about LCD panels—the picture element that makes an LCD screen, like a cathode ray tube made an old-style CRT set. The fact is, they’re basically commodity parts, like screws or washers. A computer monitor or tablet might have the exact same brand and configuration of panel as a HDTV or laptop. There are only about five manufacturers of LCD panels in the world, and any device with an LCD, no matter how big or small, gets its panels from one of them. (This is what made it so easy for LCD panel manufacturers to collude and fix the price of their panels during the early 2000s.)
You might recall that in the early 2000s, the aspect ratio of most computer monitors was 16:10 (otherwise known as 5:8, or 1.6:1), but now it’s rare to find any monitor that isn’t 16:9 (1.78:1). That’s because high-definition TV grew into widespread popularity over those years, and 16:9 panels were suddenly in much more demand as everyone bought a new widescreen TV. Since TVs and computer monitors use the same panels, economy of scale made it a lot cheaper to make 16:9 monitors since they were already making so many 16:9 TVs.
16:10 didn’t entirely go away, though. Because it was better for portrait-mode reading, and tablets saw use in both orientations, it became the form factor of choice for a lot of small screens like tablets and smartphones, too. Google’s Nexus 7 tablets used it, for example, and Amazon uses the 16:10 aspect ratio for its new Fire tablets, too. Though for the first really popular tablet, the iPad, Apple chose to stick with a 4:3 (1.33:1) ratio, simply because it worked better to have a wider display in portrait mode and a taller display in landscape for productivity uses.
Even though 16:9 is the standard aspect ratio for widescreen television, 16:10 has one important benefit when it comes to viewing a variety of video content. It represents a compromise between 16:9 widescreen and the 4:3 “academy ratio” of standard-definition TV and movies. You might have to put up with black bars at the top and bottom of a widescreen TV picture, but it means the black bars to the left and right of narrow-screen content will be narrower, too. This could be important to Amazon, which has plenty of both shapes of content in its Amazon Prime video streaming service. It also means that the portrait-mode will be wider, and hence better for reading.
And that brings us back to the Pixel C’s 1.41:1 screen, which is itself a sort of compromise between 1.33:1 and 1.6:1. As Wired tells us, not only is it better for portrait-mode reading, and roughly the same proportion as an A4 (ISO 216) sheet of paper, it also has a specific property that’s important for Marshmallow’s new split-screen feature. If you divide the screen in half at the midpoint of its longer side, it becomes two smaller screens with the same aspect ratio. Divide those two smaller screens along their longer side, and you get four 1.41:1 screens—and so on.
1.41:1 is a lot closer to 1.33:1 than 1.78:1, so it will feature thicker black bars for widescreen content than for narrow-screen—but given that the tablet seems to be a Microsoft Surface clone, I expect that media consumption was meant as a secondary use, and Google had office productivity in mind instead. But given that Android has not historically been the easiest OS to use for productivity, it remains to be seen how well that will work out.
Of course, 1.41:1 is not a size LCD manufacturers are used to making—but Google isn’t exactly a small manufacturer itself, so it’ll have its own economy of scale even just from that one tablet. In fact, it’s not all that hard to cut out any aspect ratio of LCD display you want, as long as you know what size it is. It’s simply a matter of sawing up the big sheets of glass into the size of panel you need for your particular screen. (This even works for trimming already-manufactured LCDs down to size, too.)
And given that Google tends to see its tablets not just as products in and of themselves but also as reference designs for other Android tablet manufacturers, plus given the usefulness of that aspect ratio to Marshmallow’s screen-split feature, I suspect that the Pixel C may be far from the last 1.41:1 tablet design we see in the next few years. Might Google be planning another Nexus tablet down the road with a 1.41:1 screen shape?
Regardless, those LCD manufacturers might as well get used to cutting screens in that shape, because something tells me it will be around for a while.