As part of The Verge’s international team, I’m used to a certain amount of teasing about my work setup. While colleagues in Slack dissect the pros and cons of using 30-inch external monitors in vertical orientation, or bemoan the fact that Apple and LG’s 5K UltraFine display isn’t shipping to Japan yet, I sit here with perhaps the simplest workstation I can get away with: a single 2013 MacBook Air. I have no external monitors, no second-screen tablets, and do all my work on a 13-inch display that hasn’t changed since 2010. And, until recently, I was happy. Until I tried a laptop with an OLED screen.
A coffee spill had put my MacBook Air out of commission
The laptop in question is a ThinkPad X1 Yoga, lent to me by my colleague Tom Warren after his review last month. My much-loved Air had been subject to an unfortunate run-in with a sleepy morning and a cup of coffee two weeks earlier, and had been taken away to an Apple store to await repairs. (I imagine this is like the behind-the-scenes parts of Westworld, but with Apple employees in surgical aprons hosing down mistreated MacBooks instead of mangled robots.) When Tom handed over the X1, I thought it looked pretty similar. Sure it was matte black rather than dull silver, but it was about the same size as the Air, the same weight, and had the same sort of chiclet keyboard. Plus ça change, I thought, and then I turned it on.
Now, there wasn’t a blinding flash of OLED-powered light that dropped me to my knees, but there’s no mistaking the fact that the X1 has a superlative screen. As Tom put it in his review: “That OLED display is without a doubt the star of the show here. It’s probably the main reason you’d buy the X1 Yoga, and it’s by far the best laptop screen I’ve ever used.” It makes the X1 expensive (starting $1,869) and tramples all over its battery life (I got six hours on average without a power cable and head-to-head tests show OLED drains battery faster than LCD), but boy is it vivid.
I mean, going from the Air to the X1 wasn’t just an upgrade, it was an entirely new computing experience. It was like I’d been dragged out of Plato’s cave, and instead of seeing mere shadows of the internet flickering in the half light, I was now exposed to the thing itself. Colors popped off the screen, photographs took on new life, and I began to really see web design; noticing when old, low-res icons were still in use, or when UI elements didn’t fit in with the rest of a site’s layout. (This turned out to be an issue with Windows 10, too, where I’d stumble upon antiquated bits of OS design leftover from XP, and that stuck out like ruins in the middle of a city.) And while I’d never noticed anything wrong with the Air’s screen during my years of use, after switching to the X1 I realized it had blurred my computing experience; applying a soft-focus filter to my window onto the web.
The question is, what am I going to do now? My Air has returned from the shop and Tom needs to send the X1 back to Lenovo, but I don’t know if I want to go back to that second-rate screen. Sure, I know that after a couple of weeks I won’t even notice the change (and the Air is, in many others ways, my ideal computer), but now I know how good a display can look, it’s always going to nag me. I’ll hear doubts in my ear whispering, “Oooo, but how do you know you’ve got the right color balance on this photo here,” and “Planet Earth II looks like dirt to you because you use a dirt computer.”
Unfortunately, I think I have to start saving for something better.