Where are the good laptop screens?

It's been a source of frustration recently, especially given the recent rash of ultrabooks, that vendors still insist on shipping low quality screens with their notebooks. So where are the good ones?

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
5 min read

It's been a source of frustration recently, especially given the recent rash of ultrabooks, that vendors still insist on shipping low quality screens with their notebooks.

Vertical viewing angles in particular are awful, and gloss screens make working on the go a vexing experience thanks to reflection. How is it that we can get 10-inch IPS panels in tablets that cost less than AU$400, 23-inch IPS desktop monitors that cost less than AU$300, but can't get those screens in typical laptop sizes? How did we get here? Is there a way out?

Twisted nematic thematic

First, a little theory. There are three major types of LCD panels: Twisted Nematic (TN), Vertical Alignment (VA) and In-Plane Switching (IPS). There are several subcategories under each with varying implementation, levels of quality, cost and prefixed letters, but the basic properties for each remain the same.

TN panels are to be found absolutely everywhere in laptops. They're the cheapest by far to implement, and have a few tell-tale properties: they have next to no input lag for one (see the boxout).

Input lag

Input lag is the time it takes the screen to update after the user has performed an action — say, the moving of a mouse. It occurs when the image sent by the video card hits the monitor, and post-processing is applied before that image is displayed to the screen, whether it be for better colours, contrast or what have you. Twitch gamers are the most likely to notice it, and even though it's only a few milliseconds, for the competitive it's enough to turn them right off.

A lower colour reproduction ability is also the hallmark of the TN panel, as is poor vertical viewing angles. Pricier laptops tend to use higher quality TN panels that do a better job at hiding this deficiency, but jump down to the sub-AU$1000 mark, and you'll begin to notice that no matter how you adjust your screen, the colour at the top looks different to the colour at the bottom.

VA is known for its deep blacks and better colour reproduction. When viewed from non-optimal angles, rather than shifting colours it tends to lessen the contrast of the screen, creating a washed out, white type of effect.

Once upon a time it bore the reputation of suffering the most input lag due to excess image filtering, although this seems to be the relic of a bygone era with BenQ's screens in particular showing no such problems.

It's got several sub categories (MVA, PVA, S-PVA, it goes on), all implementing the tech in a slightly different way. While it was an excellent compromise for those looking for a richer graphical experience and wider viewing angles than TN for many years, the introduction of low-cost IPS panels has greatly reduced VA's market share. While it may have been implemented in a laptop somewhere at some stage, we've never seen one.

Until the last few years, IPS was comparatively expensive. It offers the best colour reproduction of the lot, generally has acceptable input lag and great viewing angles. The blacks aren't as good as VA, though, and without the use of a polarising filter (a rarity) you can often spot a white sheen across a black screen. The introduction of cheaper eIPS panels now means you can get a 23-inch IPS monitor for AU$270. Until the point where OLED or something else like it takes over, IPS is the best LCD technology we've got. There's a reason companies have gone out of their way to advertise it on tablets, although admittedly Apple had to stir that particular pot first.

So where are they?

If you want an IPS screen in a laptop now, you pretty much have to go the mobile workstation route. That means some rather expensive laptops, with the screen only a small part of the massive premium such machines demand.

But what about cheaper machines? We asked Dell, Asus and HP for some answers. Two of them got back to us.

Here's what Asus had to say about the matter:

· The feature of IPS models in mainstream notebooks (priced at sub-$1000) is rarely a feature people look for first, as it will be performance + screen size.

· Successful yield rate of an IPS panel is a less than a TN panel. Thus increasing the overall price of production, which will reflect in the final RRP.

· IPS panels consume a little bit more power, thus affecting battery life.

· Visibility/privacy, large viewing angle = everyone would see what you are doing. Not everyone's cup of tea, (think of a library or cafe location).

· The TN panel performance is good enough for notebook usage for majority of people.

While we don't buy the privacy point (horizontal viewing angles aren't so bad on TN that you can't read over someone's shoulder), the rest seems quite pragmatic. Let's cross reference with Dell's response.

Dell include IPS panels on our precision workstation notebooks in the 15.6-inch and 17-inch space, this is combined with an RGB backlight to deliver superior colours and viewing experience.

The definitive answer is limited availability of IPS panel in the mainstream sizes (11-15 inches) due to limited end-user demand and cost to produce. The usability of a notebook where the mainstream user sits in front of one small screen is not as compelling as a larger screen or tablet, which would be used [at] different angles or in the case of larger monitors multi-displays.

Of course, this changes for higher-end mainstream users interested in photography, graphic design, content creator who demand superior colour accuracy, high viewing angles — therefore we have included this technology into the Dell precision notebook range.

Equally pragmatic, and huge kudos for both companies for being on the level.

So the reasoning is pretty simple: not enough people demand IPS screens in their laptops to justify the investment needed in order to reach the economies of scale required to roll-out the technology universally.

Or in more direct form with punctuation: you don't want it, so you don't get it. The only way this will change is if more people demand it, or like the iPad, a competitor makes it a marketing dot point that gets them attention.

I'd imagine laptop speakers are part of the same school of thinking — just not enough people care to justify putting in decent quality cones (Dell's JBL and Asus' Bang and Olufsen deals are the exception to the rule). For the most part, we get a rash of software suites instead that do their best to push new life into a sad pair of 1.5W speakers along with an audio brand's logo. I find it odd that companies can justify the cost of a logo saying they've got good sound, over actually having good sound. But that's marketing for you.

Want an unblemished, impressive multimedia laptop experience? Then you'll be paying a premium for some time yet.