To try to wrap my head around the good, bad and ugly of kitting out your laptop with a 4K OLED screen — yes, there is some ugly — I spent some quality time with three-equipped laptops, the , and HP Spectre x360 15 (the latest design is a bigger version of the ). As an upgrade when you’re contemplating buying a laptop, it can be a tricky decision. Those brighter-than-bright colors and deep blacks are alluring, and if you just care about lots of colors and contrast, it’s a no-brainer if you can afford it.
Generally, it will add $150-$300 to the price, depending upon what the step-down option is. The Razer Blade, for example only offers the OLED touchscreen for its 4K option, for $300, and the configuration beneath it has a 1080p 240Hz display. The HP Spectre x360 15, however, can be configured with a run-of-the-mill 4K touchscreen. For that, the OLED step-up is only $150.
It’s a low enough amount that it inspires serious consideration, but high enough that it’s not a no-brainer. And 15-inch OLED models are a lot more common now than they were when 13-inchers like thedebuted in 2016.
Why OLED screens are great
Since OLED produces primary colors by running electricity through organic compounds rather than layers of various materials, the colors have tighter spectral responses. The primaries can hit higher saturations, which means they can more easily produce a lot more colors. Fewer layers — because of the lack of a backlight — means thinner screens too.
And because an OLED pixel can be completely off, it can produce effectively perfect blacks, and a glowing pixel next to a black one bleeds less light, which would make the black look lighter. That means you get higher contrast. With a backlight, at best you can turn off zones of LEDs to get better blacks and control light bleed — a technology called— and it’s never quite as contrasty.
Varying the backlight also increases the time it takes to change a pixel’s brightness, and the bigger the difference between the brightness of side-by-side pixels, the longer it takes. That lag, called “response time” is important for gaming, where pixel states need to change as fast as possible to prevent blurring where you don’t want it.
OLED’s response time is as close to instantaneous as you can get with current technologies, though it’s still subject to moving picture response time blur. To get even closer with an LCD you have to use TN (twisted nematic), which otherwise is a real drop in quality over other options, such as the more common IPS (in-plane switching).
But a laptop faces some significant drawbacks that a TV or phone doesn’t. Such as:
- Since it can individually control pixel brightness values, OLED is more power efficient overall than LCD for mixed content. But for a mostly white screen, like when you’re shopping on white-background Amazon or working in white-background background Google docs, firing up all those OLED pixels to a comparable brightness takes a lot more power. It does make them easier on the eyes, though, despite the battery life hit.
- TVs and phones don’t have to run Windows, either. Their displays are tightly integrated with the software and the best ones are factory calibrated with selectable color profiles. Microsoft doesn’t require custom color profiles for monitors, and most end up with the Generic PnP profile, which makes assumptions that don’t necessarily apply to OLED. So no matter how accurate the screen is — and OLED can be very, very accurate — if a video says to the graphics subsystem “give me a saturated red,” the default profile shouts back, “You want red? I’LL SHOW YOU RED!!!” It doesn’t know how to optimally map the broader range of colors properly or how to not crush all the detail in the dark shadows.
- While OLED has a fast response time, the screens only come in 4K, so you run into the fixed 60Hz refresh-rate limit. Depending upon the games you play, ugly frame-rate sync artifacts like tearing and stutter may overshadow the OLED’s pleasing pop and fast pixel response times. The RTX 2080-based systems are fast, but not fast enough for consistent 60fps 4K gameplay, and if you drop to a lower resolution for better frame rates, you’ll need to use software-based vsync or cap the frame rate to get best results.
- Then there’s the HDR question: does it or doesn’t it? Unfortunately, Windows HDR is still a crapshoot. You flip a software switch and, depending upon your monitor’s capabilities, it puts the system into a mode that “understands” streaming HDR video, HDR-capable games and wide-color-gamut-supporting applications. But it’s a black box — most of the time you can’t tell if it’s actually working for HDR content. You know it’s enabled because the display blanks for a few seconds, the system interface’s brightness drops dramatically and all the colors look desaturated. Windows has to do that because it swaps in a different tonal response curve that accommodates HDR, cramming everything else into a small section. As a result, some HDR content looks better, but some looks worse than the comparable standard-definition-color playback on an LCD.
The HP and the Razer both fully support Windows HDR — by “fully,” I mean they send the “yes” flag to the OS for supporting streaming video, gaming and wide color gamut — while the Alienware only does streaming.
The same, but different
The only manufacturer of OLED laptop panels is Samsung, and it only makes one panel at the moment. There’s some variation across the executions, though not as much as I expected. Unsurprisingly, all three displays cover the same gamut: over 100% of, with the primaries reaching well beyond the edges. They also had good gray-scale tracking with the screen set to 100% and 70% brightness levels. That’s the ability to maintain a consistent white point across grays, and one of the most important factors when looking for a color-accurate display.
Though the panel is technically capable of reaching a maximum brightness of 600 nits, that doesn’t mean the manufacturer has to drive it that high — that’s one of the ways executions can vary. And in this case only Razer did so; Alienware hit 510 nits and HP 470. Those are only for 1% of the screen in the latter two (about 1.3 square inches) and 2% for the Razer (about 2.6 square inches). 10% is the standard, and there the Razer hit 572 nits while the other two maintained a steady 470 nits.
For full-screen — you know, when you’re doing laptoppy things — they all settled in the 380-400 range. But at 70% brightness, which I consider a good working level, it was closer to 200-230. While that’s the same as newer LCD screens, that brightness looks a lot better on OLED because of the contrast.
I’ve already written about, but have one follow-up comment. I said that it incorporates . I finally got a chance to run some spectral analyses to compare it to the other screens, and… the spectral power density looks identical to the Razer (I think the HP’s coating changes its spectral characteristics slightly). It turns out that the screen probably already incorporates Samsung’s reduced blue-light emission technology.
HP Spectre x360 15
I think some of the differences in the HP’s screen performance — slightly less bright with a warmer white point than the other two — stem from the antiglare coating. The screen also has a visible dither-like pattern on white, which appears on other models, but is a little more pronounced on this model. And viewed from the side, the coating also produces faint rainbows.
But that coating makes looking at the screen a lot more pleasant than the mirror-like surface of the Razer. The battery life is also relatively good (for a 4K laptop), lasting 8.6 hours. Our tests don’t use a lot of white screens, however.
The opportunity to watch videos side-by-side on the OLED and non-OLED HPs was educational: I learned the non-OLED display was a lot better than I thought. Standard definition video looked more saturated and contrasty on the OLED, but it also crushed the blacks and pushed reds to a disturbing degree. Skin tones were not great.
HDR video streaming as SDR to the LCD sometimes looked better than the same content streaming as HDR to the OLED, which had muddy shadows.
Though the laptop supports HDR for games, the. (Though HDR by itself shouldn’t impact performance, it usually comes with some other visual baggage that does.) But the dark blacks and bright colors pep up any game, as long as you don’t need to search the shadows.
Our evaluation unit also gave me some trouble. At times its sleep mode is closer to a coma. The screen goes dark and the only way to poke it back to life is to hard shutdown (by holding the power button) and reboot.
It also hated my powered CalDigit Thunderbolt dock, entering an endless cycle of “I recognize the mouse, I don’t recognize the mouse” ad nauseam. Also for the keyboard. Somehow, it stopped recognizing its own power adapter while attached to the dock. Normally I’d suspect the hub, but I’ve never had an issue with it attached to a previous generation of the same laptop.
Razer Blade Advanced
The Blade also comes with a touchscreen version of the OLED display, which is novel for a gaming system (though more common than it used to be). While it pushed the brightness higher than the other laptops, it also had an odd gamma curve that reminded me of film’s with a knee and a shoulder, as if it’s intended to bring out more detail in the highlights, but less in the shadows.
That, and the high brightness, is probably why it doesn’t result in as compressed a tonal range as the HP in HDR mode when you’re not viewing HDR content. Still, though, I had trouble getting any HDR with really bright zones to look good. It just doesn’t map gracefully to the lower brightness.
Plus, it was kind of hard to see the shadows or appreciate the blacks, because the screen is so reflective. I couldn’t find an angle where I wasn’t staring at the overhead lights or myself (even in the dark).
However, the Razer also seemed to get “stuck” halfway between HDR and SDR modes when switching back and forth, in that HDR video would occasionally look like it was crushed into the smaller SDR space — low brightness, desaturated colors and whites clipped to gray.
Games, of course, look great. But the lights in HDR mode that look searing in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on a 1,000-nit display, didn’t sear quite as much.
As as aside, the power cord for the laptop is horrible. I like that it’s got a heavy duty wrap, but it’s so stiff that it’s impossible to get it out of the way — despite the connector that lets it lie behind the system.