Why Your Next Laptop Could Have an OLED Screen

New displays fix OLED’s flaws without sacrificing strengths

Key Takeaways

  • OLED displays have made strides in efficiency that lead to better battery life.
  • Lower pricing means OLED is now competitive with 4K LED screens.
  • Dell’s XPS 13 will be a test for technology viability in small, light laptops.
A Dell XPS 13 Laptop with OLED display.

Dell

Your next laptop could have an OLED display, and you’re going to love it.

OLED displays are superior to the LCDs in most laptops, but short battery life and high pricing have kept them out of small, portable PCs. Dell’s latest XPS 13 could change that. It has a 3,456 x 2,160 OLED and promises a contrast ratio of 100,000:1, nearly a hundred times better than a typical LCD laptop display.

This isn’t Dell’s first go at OLED. Alienware, which Dell owns, introduced a short-lived OLED variant of the Alienware 13. I reviewed that model in 2016. The display was stunning, but had a downside: terrible battery life. Now, Dell thinks it’s solved OLED’s efficiency problem, and the XPS 13 will serve as proof.

"We’ve finally got to that point where the OLED can be close to as efficient as a regular LED backlight system, which is one of the reasons we shifted and said 'now it’s ready for mainstream usage,'" said Randall Heaton, Dell’s product manager of XPS notebooks.

OLED Efficiency Is There

Battery life is an issue at the heart of OLED display technology, which fundamentally differs from the LED-backlit display in your current laptop or computer monitor. An LED display’s backlight is always on, even when the screen is entirely dark.

OLED, however, is self-emissive, meaning each pixel produces its own light. A perfectly dark pixel creates no light and uses (almost) no power. Sounds efficient, right? But there’s a problem. It turns out OLED consumes more power than LED when displaying a white screen or bright, high-saturation colors.

"LCD and OLED are different in the middle-grey level content. And most of the content you’re viewing is in that middle grey."

"OLEDs aren’t as efficient in showing white, but they are much more efficient in showing black," said Heaton. That means an OLED screen can outlast an LED when you're watching a movie or using dark-mode applications.

However, Heaton says "efficiencies have improved" in newer OLED screens, reducing the gap between LED and OLED when displaying bright images.

The XPS 13 OLED claims to hit at least eight hours of battery life in most situations, and over twice that in the least demanding workloads. That’s despite a modest 52 watt-hour battery, nearly half the size of the battery in Dell’s XPS 15 OLED.

When It Comes to Quality, OLED is King

Dell’s XPS 13 OLED will deliver a significant leap in image quality over the optional 4K LED panel. "It’s a much nicer experience as far as getting contrast in there for much nicer pictures," said Heaton.

The specifications are favorable. The XPS 13 OLED has a sky-high contrast ratio and can display an extensive range of colors. Yet this is only part of the story. Jongseo Lee, a display technologist at Dell, stressed the real-world benefit is more significant than the numbers suggest.

A Dell XPS 13 laptop with an OLED display.

Dell

"If you have the same color gamut and compare LCD against OLED, they might both claim the same coverage," said Lee. "But, LCD and OLED are different in the middle-grey level content. And most of the content you’re viewing is in that middle grey."

His point is this: nearly everything we view on a laptop, whether it’s a movie, Word document, or webpage, doesn’t push the maximum or minimum brightness possible. Most fall somewhere in the "middle grey" between those extremes. That’s where OLED outperforms.

Having tested OLED laptops in the past, I can confirm Lee’s point with experience. OLED’s contrast and color are clearly superior to LED in everyday use. It’s hard to go back once you see the difference for yourself. 

The Final Hurdle? Price

Dell’s XPS 13 OLED hopes to match its 4K LED cousin’s battery life while delivering far superior image quality. Yet, one final hurdle stands between OLEDs and adoption in mainstream laptops: price.

"It’s never been an inexpensive solution," said Randall. "Between that and the battery life impacts, that’s why you haven’t seen it as widespread."

"We’ve finally got to that point where the OLED can be close to as efficient as a regular LED backlight system..."

Randall says panel manufacturers, such as Samsung, have successfully lowered prices over the past two years. The XPS 13 OLED will be a $300 upgrade over the base touchscreen. That’s not cheap, but it ties the 4K LED panel, which is also a $300 upgrade.

If this trend continues, laptop makers will have little reason to stick with LED in high-resolution laptop displays, opening the gates for adoption in a broader selection of PC laptops.

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