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How to Choose the Right Laptop

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. 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.

Razer Blade 15 Advanced Model (OLED version)Razer Blade 15 Advanced Model (OLED version)

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 “truer” 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 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.

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 2020, 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.

Asus ZenBook Pro DuoAsus ZenBook Pro Duo (the upper screen is an OLED)

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 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, 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.

Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED XBGigabyte Aero 15 OLED XB

Also consider some of the nuances to that. This being 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. 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.

Dell XPS 15 (7590)OLED-equipped Dell XPS 15 (7590)

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 panel, 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.) 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 10’s 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.

Alienware m15 R2 (2019 version with OLED screen)Alienware m15 R2 (2019 version with OLED screen)

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 fairly small. The early 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 in the last year, but manufacturers are, for now, reserving it for their top-end, premium models. Given the price of OLED, and the panels so far being tied to 4K native resolutions, this makes sense.

Lenovo ThinkPad P1 Gen 2 OLED Lenovo ThinkPad P1 Gen 2 OLED Workstation

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.

HP Spectre x360 15 (2019 AMOLED version)HP Spectre x360 15 (2019 AMOLED version)

Gaming-specific laptops like the Razer Blade 15 and Alienware m15 R2, for example, also get those same benefits. Any high-end laptops capable of gaming usually have parts equal to or better than most desktop replacements (though the latter can have better CPUs), so they can do most of the same tasks.

Like we explained earlier, though, 4K OLED screens’ current 60Hz-maximum refresh rate has consequences for gaming more than other tasks. Buying a gaming-specific laptop knowing you’re locking yourself out of high refresh rates is something to consider carefully, though you probably won’t mind unless you’re a competitive esports hound. High-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.

So, Which OLED Laptop Should I Buy?

The main, clear upside to OLED screens is how stellar they look. That alone may well be worth the money to you—though, as we’ve explained, OLED poses clear costs in dollars and more abstract ones. These panels are not for everyone, and paying well into four figures for a laptop with one is an investment.

It will be a while until OLEDs make it a wider range of laptops and the cost comes down, but for now, they’re a joy to behold and we’re glad they’re here. If your budget can swing it, check out our recommendations and reviews for all of the OLED-bearing laptops that PC Labs has tested to date.

Where To Buy

  • Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED XB

    Pros: Spectacular AMOLED screen
    Excessive CPU and GPU power
    Bling-tastic RGB backlit keyboard
    Full array of ports

    Cons: 16GB of RAM and 512GB SSD instead of 32GB and 1TB
    Ho-hum webcam placement
    Audible cooling fans

    Bottom Line: A ravishing OLED display and all-new eight-core Core i7 and GeForce RTX 2070 Super components make Gigabyte’s 15.6-inch Aero 15 status symbol a top choice for creative pros.

    Read Review

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