Hollis Johnson OLED is better. We’ve learned this with phones, we’re seeing it with TVs, and after spending several weeks with Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Yoga, I’m convinced it’s the case with laptops too.
Wait, what is OLED?
Let’s take a step back. OLED, short for “organic light-emitting diode,” is a type of display technology. It differs from the more widely used LCD (liquid crystal display) tech by creating light within every individual pixel that makes up its picture, instead of requiring a separate backlighting system.
This means it can produce perfectly dark blacks — rather than trying to cover up a backlight behind the scenes, and inevitably letting some light through, it simply shuts the appropriate pixels off. The result is an infinite contrast ratio — i.e., the difference between a display’s darkest blacks and brightest whites.
And that, in turn, means an OLED panel can produce more a vivid, realistic picture. If you’ve ever put a Galaxy S7 and an iPhone 7 side-by-side, you’ve seen the difference: Apple’s LCD displays are excellent for what they are, but Samsung’s just pops more. It’s more engrossing. It’s thinner, too.
Now, I’m simplifying. Improved backlighting tech, wider color gamuts, and HDR have helped the best LCD displays catch up a bit. But stuff like that isn’t exclusive to LCD. Judged straight up, the contrast difference is great enough to make OLED superior. View it on a bigger screen, and it’s hard to go back.
It’s just gorgeous
Which brings us back to the ThinkPad X1 Yoga. I reviewed the non-OLED version over the summer, so if you’re interested in how the whole package works, go there.
Hollis Johnson To sum: It’s got a terrific keyboard, a conservative but comfortable design, and perfectly solid performance. Its battery life is fine, and it doesn’t have any USB-C ports, but it’s thin and light enough, and I love its fully rotatable screen. It is a dependable Windows laptop that successfully walks the line between business- and travel-friendly.
You could say that about a few notebooks, though. What puts the ThinkPad X1 Yoga in the VIP section is that OLED display. Right now, it’s one of three laptops to adopt the tech, along with the Alienware 13 and HP Spectre x360t.
And man, is it gorgeous. It produces a huge array of array of colors, and those colors are consistently deep, clear, and full. They can also get very bright. And again, black tones are pitch dark.
It’s hard to convey just how pleasing this is without having you see it yourself. Everything, from the pitch in a game of FIFA to the icons in Windows 10’s start menu, looks more alive. Any time I’d start a movie, I felt compelled to make it full-screen, if only to soak in the added vividity. Oftentimes, I found myself choosing to stream video on the 14-inch Yoga instead of my TV. This is a genuine step forward for laptops as a category.
The technical challenges of OLED
Despite that, OLED isn’t perfect. Take viewing angles, for instance: OLED screens are generally better at staying legible when you aren’t looking at them dead-on, and that’s the case here. But the Yoga’s display is prone to color shifting — you’ll still see everything, but it’ll take on a more bluish, washed out tone, neutering the advantage.
Hollis Johnson Beyond that, while the Yoga’s screen can get very bright with colors, it’s dimmer when white tones dominate the screen. In general, whites are just a bit dirtier than I’d prefer by default. And while the colors here are gorgeous, they’re a bit oversaturated out of the box. This is a truly excellent display for media and entertainment, but that’s definitely the point here — those with more professional needs will have to mess around a bit.
The other issue with OLED is burn-in. If you leave a certain image on an OLED screen for too long — say, the icons in Windows 10’s task bar — you run the risk of that image being retained on, or “burned into,” the screen over time. This isn’t a problem unique to OLED, but it’s a threat to its longevity. This forces companies like Lenovo and Alienware to take extra software measures to prevent it, and add further provisions to their warranty programs.
To wit: Lenovo pre-loads a bunch of different color modes and screen dimming settings onto the Yoga to help. They’re fairly comprehensive. You can dig into nerdy things like blue point and gamma to fine-tune colors, and you can make it so the task bar or inactive windows automatically dim to save energy and stave off burn-in.
But they don’t tidy up everything. I had numerous instances where colors would shift as I was using certain apps. In the Opera browser, for example, the entire white balance would momentarily get darker whenever Lenovo’s all-black caps lock icon appeared onscreen.
There are other examples, but between this and the fact that Microsoft doesn’t have its own set of color correction settings, there’s a nagging sense that Windows isn’t totally built for OLED today.
The structural challenges of OLED laptops
There are reasons for that, though. While OLED is becoming standard on high-end smartphones, the state of OLED on laptops appears to be in flux.
Lenovo, Alienware, and HP each announced their forays into OLED computing last January at CES 2016. There are just under two months until CES 2017. Not one OLED laptop has launched in between.
Hollis Johnson The three that do exist have experienced or continue to experience intermittent supply shortages. As of this writing, Lenovo lists the OLED Yoga as sold out. HP recently refresh its laptop lineup for the fall, but left its OLED Spectre out of the design and specs updates. Alienware did update its OLED model earlier in November, but it hasn’t been immune to issues either.
According to Linn Huang, research director at analyst firm IDC, it mostly comes down to the cost of manufacturing, which is especially important at a time when PC sales remain on a prolonged, steady decline. The panels just aren’t there.
“The short answer is that it’s going to take quite some time to ramp up OLED production and supply,” Huang says. “Currently, market economics aren’t in favor of large-sized OLED screens because of the short supply. I’d estimate that OLED panels roughly add 20-30% to the shopper-facing price today for notebooks, and this is all occurring against the backdrop of a PC market that continues to drive towards the low end.”
Indeed, all three of today’s OLED laptops cost roughly $250 more than an LCD model with comparable specs. Despite its relatively common Core i5 processor, the OLED Yoga I reviewed starts at nearly $1,700. The new OLED Alienware 13 starts at $1,749, while the already-dated OLED Spectre goes for $1,349. This is not cheap.
Hollis Johnson Alienware boss Frank Azor says demand for the OLED Alienware 13 has been high despite those costs, but admits that its supplier — Samsung, which also supplied Lenovo — hasn’t found a comfortable return rate on its OLED laptop display production just yet.
“This thing has been really popular, and unfortunately, it’s not yielding, I would say, as high as everyone had hoped,” Azor says.
Nevertheless, Azor says it’s still early days, and that the OLED supply line is “improving.”
A hangup to a better laptop future
Does that mean OLED laptops will one day become the norm? “Not any time soon,” Huang says. “The incumbent, LCD, has a few advantages, not the least of which is massive manufacturing scale. The premium between OLED and LCD should remain high over the next several years, and LCDs should continue to occupy the lion’s share of the notebook market.”
“I see OLED notebooks gradually gaining modest traction in the next several years but still on the outskirts of the mainstream segment,” he says. “Instead, OLED could be a spec that serves as the line of demarcation between the mainstream and the premium end of the notebook market. That will likely be its norm in my mind.”
Still, whether the PC industry decides OLED isn’t worth the technical and manufacturing headaches, or if it just becomes a hallmark for the high-end, there’s little doubt that it’s a gorgeous, and genuinely different, selling point for laptops like the Yoga today.