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OLED laptop screens are worth it -- for some

In some cases you can get an OLED display for just a little more than other options, but if you have to pay more it's not a no-brainer.

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Asus ZenBook Pro Duo

Sarah Tew/CNET

Manufacturers are all over the place when it comes to OLED price premiums; the price bump can range from $150 on an Alienware m15 or HP Spectre x360 to about $700 on a Dell XPS 15; that's because an OLED display sometimes only comes on a slightly higher configuration, so you end up paying more than you otherwise would have. And while some are only available on the higher-end models, like Razer's GeForce RTX 2080- or Quadro RTX 5000-equipped Blades, you can get OLED on Lenovo's  GTX 1650-based ThinkPad X1 Extreme and the Gigabyte Aero 15 with a GTX 1660 Ti.

So sometimes it's a low enough amount that it inspires serious consideration, but can also be high enough that it's not a no-brainer. And 15-inch OLED models are a lot more common now than they were when 13-inchers like the Alienware 13 R3 debuted in 2016, which means prices should come down. Most major manufacturers have at least one OLED configuration option in their stable.

The TL;DR: If the extra bucks are within your budget, then OLED's high contrast can make working easier on your eyes, especially if you're in bright environments. And the saturated colors are definitely pleasing to look at. But if the model you want only has an OLED option that will require spending more than you'd like just for higher contrast and brighter colors, for creative work, or specifically to watch HDR content, then you probably have some more research ahead of you. A good IPS display can be equally satisfying.

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Why OLED screens are great

Since OLED produces primary colors by running electricity through organic compounds rather than layers of various materials, the colors have tighter spectral responses. The primaries can hit higher saturations, which means they can more easily produce a lot more colors. Fewer layers -- because of the lack of a backlight -- means thinner screens too.

razer-oled-spectral-power-distribution

The spectral power distribution of the Razer Blade Advanced's OLED screen. Measured with CalMAN 5 Ultimate by SpectraCal and a Konica Minolta CS-2000 spectroradiometer. Pointy is good for color accuracy.

Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

And because an OLED pixel can be completely off, it can produce effectively perfect blacks, and a glowing pixel next to a black one bleeds less light, which would make the black look lighter. That means you get higher contrast. With a backlight, at best you can turn off zones of LEDs to get better blacks and control light bleed -- a technology called local dimming -- and it's never quite as contrasty. 

Varying the backlight also increases the time it takes to change a pixel's brightness, and the bigger the difference between the brightness of side-by-side pixels, the longer it takes. That lag, called "response time" is important for gaming, where pixel states need to change as fast as possible to prevent blurring where you don't want it. 

OLED's response time is as close to instantaneous as you can get with current technologies, though it's still subject to moving picture response time blur. To get even closer with an LCD you have to use TN (twisted nematic), which otherwise is a real drop in quality over other options, such as the more common IPS (in-plane switching). 

And why they're not so great

A laptop faces some significant drawbacks that a TV or phone doesn't. Such as:

  • Battery life: Since it can individually control pixel brightness values, OLED is more power efficient overall than LCD for mixed content. But for a mostly white screen, like when you're shopping on white-background Amazon or working in white-background background Google docs, firing up all those OLED pixels to a comparable brightness takes a lot more power. It does make them easier on the eyes, though, despite the battery life hit.
  • Windows: TVs and phones don't have to run Windows, either. Their displays are tightly integrated with the software and the best ones are factory calibrated with selectable color profiles. Microsoft doesn't require custom color profiles for monitors, and most end up with the Generic PnP profile, which makes assumptions that don't necessarily apply to OLED. So no matter how accurate the screen is -- and OLED can be very, very accurate -- if a video says to the graphics subsystem "give me a saturated red," the default profile shouts back, "You want red? I'LL SHOW YOU RED!!!" It doesn't know how to optimally map the broader range of colors properly or how to not crush all the detail in the dark shadows.
  • Gaming: While OLED has a fast response time, the screens only come in 4K, so you run into a fixed 60Hz refresh-rate limit; 4K laptop displays have just starting reaching refresh rates of 120Hz, but none in OLED. Depending upon the games you play, ugly frame-rate sync artifacts like tearing and stutter may overshadow the OLED's pleasing pop and fast pixel response times. RTX 2080-based systems are fast, but not fast enough for consistent 60fps 4K gameplay, And if you drop to a lower resolution for better frame rates, you'll need to use software-based vsync or cap the frame rate to get best results.

But, it's great for HDR, right? RIGHT?

If you're contemplating an OLED display because you want to watch high dynamic range content on your laptop, well, buckle up.

On one hand, OLED displays have a native wide-color gamut that covers 100% of the Apple-popularized P3 color space, necessary for decent HDR viewing and currently the de facto broadest color coverage generally available. But that's only one piece of the HDR equation, which also includes:

  • Luminance -- how bright the screen or at least a small portion of the screen can physically get as well as how bright it can get with power management settings
  • Tone mapping curve -- how the HDR content's brightness range is mapped to the narrower brightness range of the screen
  • display drivers and color management -- these inform the operating system about the capabilities of the screen and how to best map the colors of the content to the screen, along with the internal metadata stored in the display
  • Windows' interface for HDR-related settings
  • DRM and IP -- digital rights management and business-model driven intellectual property protections define what you can or can't stream in 4K and/or HDR, and not all DRM schemes are supported by Windows and vice versa
  • DirectX -- Windows' graphics programming interface, which ties all the previous pieces together

Viewing HDR content and playing games in HDR on your laptop requires that all those pieces fit together seamlessly. Under Windows, that means it takes some fiddling at best and defies solution at worst -- and not just for OLED. But in a laptop, OLED screens can't get very bright: The maximum I've measured has been just under 600 nits (the rated peak the panel is capable of), but most are under 500 nits; that's notably lower than OLED TVs.

Furthermore, given the variables listed above, simply using OLED technology isn't a sufficient condition for HDR support; at the very least, the manufacturer also has to flag to DirectX that it supports the necessary basic tone-mapping algorithm (HDR10). Without that, you don't get the Windows HDR options in the Display settings.

So, for example, some laptops fully support Windows HDR -- by "fully," I mean they send the "yes" flag to the OS for supporting streaming video, gaming and wide color gamut -- while some only support it for streaming.

The same, but different

The only manufacturer of OLED laptop panels is Samsung, and it only makes one panel at the moment. There's some variation across the executions, though not as much as I expected. Unsurprisingly, all displays cover the same gamut: over 100% of D65 P3, with the primaries (the colors at the vertices of the triangle which roughly defines the color space) reaching well beyond the edges. They also have good gray-scale tracking -- that's the ability to maintain a consistent white point across grays, and one of the most important factors when looking for a color-accurate display -- though not as good in the very dark areas.

While Samsung's panel is technically capable of reaching a maximum brightness of 600 nits, that doesn't mean the manufacturer has to drive it that high -- that's one of the ways executions can vary. For full-screen use -- you know, when you're doing laptoppy things -- they all settle around in the 380-400 nit range. But at 70% brightness, which I consider a good working level, it's closer to 200-230. While that's the same as newer LCD screens, that brightness looks a lot better on OLED because of the contrast.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Though not as robust as the color management of a mobile workstation, which generally has profiles stored in hardware, it's one of the broader systems I've seen in a prosumer laptop. For example, it comes with a Pantone-certified software profile for print work, plus four color temperature software-calibration profiles (D5800, D6000, D6500 and D6800), which you can swap among via the ControlCenter rather than using Windows' system. Oddly, the Native profile it loads is sRGB rather than just a full-monitor gamut, which is what "native" usually means in this context. 

As tested (using Portrait Displays' Calman 5 Ultimate and an X-Rite i1Display Pro), the display is very accurate for a nonpro screen. It covers 100% of DCI-P3 and about 93% of the Adobe RGB color gamuts, all the white points come within 250K of their targets, gamma is very consistently close to 2.2 above 20% gray (OLED gamma has a discontinuity roughly below 20% because it has different shadow-detail characteristics than monitors with less perfect blacks, for which a gamma of 2.2 became standard) and the gray scale is reasonably neutral. For colors, it's very accurate at maximum brightness -- I was told it was calibrated to 100% brightness for Adobe RGB and it might be even better at lower brightness levels -- and with just a little tweaking could probably hit anyone's accuracy threshold.

It hit a peak brightness of over 600 nits for a 10% window in HDR mode, though most often that will be closer to about 415 nits, and full-screen maximum brightness for normal work is around 350 nits.  Read our Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED review.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

 The Asus' OLED screen is Pantone Validated  -- it comes with two undocumented software profiles -- and uses the same Samsung panel as all the current models. It's slightly dimmer than the others at a peak full-screen brightness of about 356 nits, but offers the same full P3 gamut coverage -- only 93% of Adobe RGB, though. (It's listed as DisplayHDR 500 True Black compliant, so I'm not entirely confident of my peak brightness result of 416 nits for a 10% window. Consider my results a work in progress.) I think it uses the same touch overlay as the HP Spectre x360, because it has the same grainy look up close, and like that system it supports Windows HDR for everything. Asus' recommended brightness when working on battery is 40%, which is definitely too dim.  Read our Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I think some of the differences in the HP's screen performance -- slightly less bright with a warmer white point than the other two -- stem from the antiglare coating. The screen also has a visible dither-like pattern on white, which appears on other models, but is a little more pronounced on this model. And viewed from the side, the coating also produces faint rainbows.

But that coating makes looking at the screen a lot more pleasant than the mirror-like surface of the Razer. The battery life is also relatively good (for a 4K laptop), lasting 8.6 hours. Our tests don't use a lot of white screens, however.

The opportunity to watch videos side-by-side on the OLED and non-OLED HPs was educational: I learned the non-OLED display was a lot better than I thought. Standard definition video looked more saturated and contrasty on the OLED, but it also crushed the blacks and pushed reds to a disturbing degree. Skin tones were not great. 

HDR video streaming as SDR to the LCD sometimes looked better than the same content streaming as HDR to the OLED, which had muddy shadows.

Though the laptop supports HDR for games, the MX150 can't really run any games that support HDR. (Though HDR by itself shouldn't impact performance, it usually comes with some other visual baggage that does.) But the dark blacks and bright colors pep up any game, as long as you don't need to search the shadows. Read more.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Blade also comes with a touchscreen version of the OLED display, which is novel for a gaming system (though more common than it used to be). While it pushed the brightness higher than the other laptops, it also had an odd gamma curve that reminded me of film's with a knee and a shoulder, as if it's intended to bring out more detail in the highlights, but less in the shadows.

That, and the high brightness, is probably why it doesn't result in as compressed a tonal range as the HP in HDR mode when you're not viewing HDR content. Still, though, I had trouble getting any HDR with really bright zones to look good. It just doesn't map gracefully to the lower brightness. 

Plus, it was kind of hard to see the shadows or appreciate the blacks, because the screen is so reflective. I couldn't find an angle where I wasn't staring at the overhead lights or myself (even in the dark).

However, the Razer also seemed to get "stuck" halfway between HDR and SDR modes when switching back and forth, in that HDR video would occasionally look like it was crushed into the smaller SDR space -- low brightness, desaturated colors and whites clipped to gray.

Games, of course, look great. But the lights in HDR mode that look searing in Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice on a 1,000-nit display, didn't sear quite as much. Read our Razer Blade 15 Advanced review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I tested the OLED display for the m15 on an old model before the latest generation design was available. You can read my impressions about it, but because so much of the display's performance depends on implementation, I don't consider those final. Read more.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The model of the XPS 15 I tested delivered good general-purpose performance -- it wasn't terribly color accurate and only came with a single general color profile, but Dell tends to reserve its color-accurate options for its professional Precision models. For full-screen (i.e., everyday) work, it gets decently bright at around 400 nits. Read more.