Laptops with brilliant, ink-black OLED screens have arrived. Are the benefits that come with OLED display technology worth the premium?
In terms of sock-it-to-my-eyeballs innovation, few core technologies can match the history and consistency of new screen tech to wow us. From CRT to LCD, from VGA resolution to 4K (and soon enough on to 8K), a procession of steadily more stunning TV and computer screens has marched through our homes over the years. Which brings us to one of the most recent advances: OLED.
OLED screen technology has been the latest big feature in modern television sets, offering stunning colors, deep blacks, and amazing overall picture quality. It’s also shown up on late-model high-profile smartphones from Apple and Samsung. So, very big screens and very small screens have seen the advance of OLED, but the ones in the middle, in laptops and on desktops? Not so much…until now.
The technology is finally hitting laptop displays in a modest stream, and 2021 was the year that OLED finally gained laptop momentum, based on some OLED-panel manufacturing trends that gained steam during the year. The considerations are a bit different on the laptop side, however. While you want TVs to look as good as possible for movies and broadcast programming, the usage case varies from that of a computer. PCs are designed not just for content consumption but for content creation, and laptops have to worry about that pesky necessity, battery life. All of these change the ways screen technology needs to work with the product, which leads me to the question I’d like to answer: Should you buy an OLED laptop? Let’s dig in.
What Is OLED, Anyway?
To answer that, I’ll start by getting into the details of OLED screens, and what advantages they are meant to bring. For starters, the acronym OLED stands for “organic light-emitting diode”; more on that in a moment. The short explanation is that OLED technology is similar to traditional LED technology—the same concept of light-emitting diodes—but rather than the screen producing light using only semiconductors, organic molecules are employed (putting the “O” in OLED). The end result is brighter screens with more vibrant color, hence the appeal of using it in TVs and computers. Generally speaking, OLEDs also tend to use less power, all else being equal.
If you’re interested, here’s a slightly more technical explanation. The various kinds of LCD screens—the kinds you’ve gotten used to in most laptops and TVs over the past decade—whether, TFT, VA, or other technologies, all share a similar base concept. They use a white LED backlight source that pushes light through filters. That light is gated at the pixel level by liquid crystals in various states and orientations, which blocks or tints the light to generate pixels of the desired color. In simple terms, OLED screens use a different display paradigm: an organic compound that is self-emissive in terms of light, allowing each pixel in the panel to produce its own light when current is applied.
That’s the main difference from LCD screens, and what enables them to produce extra-brilliant colors and deep blacks. Notably, OLEDs offer “truer” blacks than other mainstream screen technologies can when showing a dark or totally black image. When an LCD panel is displaying black, light is still being pushed behind the pixels in play, but they are shuttered to present to your eyes as dark space. In OLED screens, the individual pixels on the portions of the screen showing black are truly displaying nothing, so there’s no light leakage from the back to dilute the darkness. This, in turn, provides better contrast and deeper blacks than simply filtering out an ever-present LED backlight.
All of this also allows a panel to be more efficient, and thus thinner. That doesn’t come into play with laptops as dramatically as with OLED TVs; many OLED TVs are nearly razor-thin.
Should You Buy an OLED Laptop?
Of course, this beauty comes at a price. OLED laptop configurations are more expensive than traditional display options, and the OLED screen option will often be included only in the priciest variant in a laptop family. Part of this cost-boosting is that this new wave of laptop OLED panels—all manufactured by Samsung at this point—are mostly, but not all, 4K-resolution screens, upping the price further by requiring appropriate supporting components. That’s another reason why OLED is usually in the top-most model of a given laptop family. A 4K native resolution and cutting-edge screen technology represent the most premium version of any given machine. (That started to change in the latter half of 2021, with some lower-resolution 13.3-inch OLED panels hitting the market in machines like the Lenovo Ideapad Duet 5 Chromebook.)
If you’re interested in an OLED display but unsure whether you can justify it, you could base your decision on the simple fact that they’re incredible to look at, for the reasons described above. OLED is not strictly necessary, but then, neither is 4K resolution, and many tech features start as luxuries before becoming standard. If you’re buying a new panel in 2022, adopting a technology that is only poised to become more popular is a solid decision, and most OLED panels we’ve seen look superb. If you want to buy a screen just because it makes watching videos, playing games, and even staring at your desktop look amazing, we can’t argue with that. But whether or not the added cost is worth it is up to you and your budget.
Specific types of users should consider some more granular pros and cons, though. Gamers will enjoy eye-popping visuals, and the fantasy and sci-fi settings of many titles are ideal for both deep blacks and vibrant colors. However, virtually no laptop hardware is equipped to play in 4K at 60 frames per second, so most gamers will have to tune down the resolution to 1440p or 1080p. That’s not the end of the world, since you can still view other content in 4K, but you are paying extra for 4K resolution to get OLED because the two are intertwined in many laptops so far. Not playing at your laptop’s native resolution may feel like a waste to some, but as it stands, that could be a cost of attaining an OLED panel.
There’s also the issue of refresh rate. An increasing share of modern gaming laptops are launching with 120Hz, 144Hz, or even 240Hz displays to show more frames per second in competitive games. This first wave of 4K OLED panels are locked at 60Hz (90Hz panels are starting to gain momentum), and going higher in the future will only cost more money. A 60Hz refresh rate is a fine fit for AAA titles where appearance is more important than frames, but many gamers play both big-budget blockbusters and the hottest battle royale or MOBA. It’s another tradeoff you’ll have to make for picture quality, as good as it is.
Also consider some of the nuances to that. At 4K, it takes a tip-top GPU to push frame rates in excess of 60 frames per second (fps), in any case, at 4K and high detail settings with many modern AAA titles. In practical fact, if you’re playing the Far Crys and Battlefields of the world, and even if you have a GeForce RTX 2070 or RTX 2080 GPU, you can’t expect to hit 120fps or 144fps at 4K and high detail settings, anyway. Even 2021’s GeForce RTX 30 Series laptop GPUs are hard pressed. So the 60Hz refresh rate of the screen won’t matter as much.
The 60Hz limit is more an issue if you’re an aficionado of older games, or of less-demanding but highly competitive esports titles (CS:GO, Fortnite, Apex Legends) in which maximum frame rates are life-and-death matters. For those kinds of games, an OLED will have you leaving frames on the floor, unless you land one of the very new 90Hz models.
Meanwhile, OLED also has different considerations for creative professionals. Your work will look stellar onscreen, but the jury is out, to an extent, on color-spectrum coverage and color accuracy. Different OLED-laptop manufacturers make different claims about which color gamuts get full coverage, despite the laptops being built around the same Samsung panels, and we’ve had trouble getting consistent color-accuracy results so far using our existing test equipment. (Note that Pantone validation is an aspect of a few machines so far, notably several models from Gigabyte, including the Aero 15 OLED XB and Aero 15 OLED XC.) Part of that is the fact that this is still an emerging field, and the makers of both the testing hardware and calibration software are still adapting to OLED screens showing up in laptops, as are we.
Largely, the color coverage and accuracy is and should be good enough for most casual and prosumer use cases, but the uncertainty around consistent testing methods, at the moment, leaves us unable to fully endorse OLED to exacting creative professionals for now. (That’s not a condemnation, just a caveat.) That said, if you know how to tune and calibrate displays for professional work, you should be able to tune the OLED to better results than out-of-the-box settings.
Beyond the display, for our general laptop buying advice, including what components to look for given your needs and budget, check out our roundup of best overall laptops, as well as our guide to the best gaming laptops.
How Does OLED Affect Laptop Battery Life?
As explained previously, when an OLED screen is displaying black on some or all of the screen, the pixels on those portions of the display are turned completely off. Because of that, the screen should use less power when showing black-dominant images, or videos with more black segments. This also holds true even if the scene or image is not completely black, just dark, because the pixels are still using less power.
To leverage this OLED trait, we’ve found that most OLED-laptop makers are shipping their systems with Windows’ Dark mode turned on, so no more juice than necessary is spent displaying your windows, folders, and taskbar. In our reviews of the first bunch of OLED laptops we received at PC Labs, we tested the impact of both OLED screens and Dark mode on battery life.
You can visit the individual reviews for more details—particularly those for the Razer Blade 15 and the Dell XPS 15 (7590)—but the takeaway is that Dark mode could be the chocolate to OLED’s peanut butter. Using it delivered a noticeable improvement to battery life in our tests. OLED really does use up more juice displaying white pixels, and even pumping up the brightness to the max in Dark mode has much less of an impact than it does with white screens. Using Dark mode and watching videos with a lot of black or dark scenes could add up to hours of additional battery life. (Hello, Game of Thrones reruns!) Generally, OLED is a power saver, and this aspect only adds to the potential savings.
It may feel like overkill to think you have to monitor how much black or dark space is being displayed on your screen at any one time, but we wouldn’t obsess over it. Generally, with OLED, keeping Dark mode on (or switching to it when you’re going to be using your system off the charger) should make difference enough. But you may want to keep that desktop wallpaper dark, too!
What Kinds of OLED Laptops Can I Buy?
For now, the field of laptops with OLED screens is small versus the whole field of laptops. The relative handful we have tested here is promising, and a little varied, but not as varied as the larger laptop market. OLED options have been entering more product lines over the last year (we saw the first OLED Chromebooks, for example, in 2021), but manufacturers are, for now, mostly reserving OLED panels for their top-end, premium models. Given the price of OLED, and most of the panels so far being tied to 4K native resolutions, this makes sense.
Which leads us to the exact types of laptops we’ve seen so far. Generally, they have been high-end desktop-replacement laptops with optional OLED screens, as well as powerful gaming machines. The former—laptops like the Dell XPS 15 (7590) and the HP Spectre x360 15 convertible—are perhaps a better fit. These jack-of-all-trades laptops may have you watching 4K streaming videos, looking at photos, and maybe doing some content-creation work, depending on the components. Entry-level discrete graphics is an option in some of these laptops, which ought to enable some light OLED gaming at resolutions below 4K. Everything you’re doing benefits from OLED, without many downsides other than the price.
OLED screens in gaming-specific laptops are more the exception than the norm. They usually appear as an add-on option, but more recently manufacturers have opted for super-high-refresh displays over OLED for gaming laptops. Razer and Alienware, for example, have opted for 300Hz displays in their premium flagship gaming laptops, leaving OLED for other models or removing them as an option altogether. As we explained earlier, 4K OLED screens’ current 60Hz or 90Hz maximum refresh rate means “true” high-refresh OLED screens are not possible at the moment. If you do still see the option offered in a gaming laptop you’re considering, knowing you’re locking yourself out of high refresh rates is a tough call (though only more competitive multiplayer gamers are likely to care). Higher-refresh OLED panels should come to laptops eventually, as they exist in other products. But right now, that limitation is something for PC gamers to consider mindfully about OLED.