OLED has made the Leap to Large Screens — and it’s Glorious

on July 29, 2016

Every few years, a new technology makes the leap from the test labs to real-world products and, once you’ve used it, you can’t imagine ever going back. Recent examples include the move from 3G to 4G and the shift from spinning hard drives to solid state drives. I recently began testing Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X1 Yoga and it contains one of those technology leaps: A stunningly gorgeous 14-inch organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screen.

I’ve covered display technology for the better part of the last 20 years and so am not particularly easy to impress. But the OLED screen on this new Lenovo convertible is amazing. The blacks are so black it is hard to tell where the screen ends and the black bezel begins. That deep black means the well-saturated colors really pop, too. But not in the garish way they do when, for example, you view an LCD television with the settings cranked up in a retail setting. Everything just looks right. And now that I’ve seen this screen, I can’t unsee it. Which means all of my old LCD notebooks and tablets, of which there are many, are starting to look, shall we say, a little bit underwhelming.

The Rise of OLED

Anybody that follows display technology knows OLED has been “coming soon” for years. In fact, I remember seeing Sony’s first “production” OLED TV at CES around 2007. That product, the XEL-1, cost a small fortune and offered an 11-inch, 960 x 540 resolution screen and it looked great. Like most display technologies, however, progress from that product to where we are today took notably more time than the industry predicted it would. Various production challenges, ongoing issues with image burn in, lifespan, and color balance shifts, all kept causing delays in the broad rollout of the technology. In the meantime, traditional LCDs just kept getting better.

Versions of OLED technology first started appearing in smartphones years ago (my first Android, the 2010 HTC Droid Incredible, had one). In the last few years, the technology has also shown up on wearables and virtual reality head-mounted displays. Now manufacturers appear to have sorted out the issues that had prevented them from appearing in large-screen devices such as notebooks and televisions. While OLED-based smartphones look great, it is on these larger products the technology really shines. Today, there are a handful of large-screen OLED products being shipped. In addition to the Lenovo I’m testing, HP offers a 13.3″ OLED in its HP Spectre X360 convertible; Dell offers a 13.3″ OLED in its Alienware gaming notebook, and LG is shipping a range of televisions.

In addition to the amazing blacks, OLEDs offer other benefits. Chief among them is the fact they work without a back light, which means they can be notably more power efficient and thinner than conventional LCDs. Other advantages of the technology include better off-axis viewing and fast response times. The nature of OLEDs also means vendors can produce them on flexible substrates, which means it is the go-to technology for curved displays (Samsung uses the technology in its high-end phones, including the Galaxy S7 Edge, which features a curved screen).

High Cost, Supply Constraints

While a wider range of new OLED-based products is shipping now, as with all new technologies, they come with a notable price premium. For notebooks, the issue is complicated by the larger panel size and smaller volumes versus smartphones. For example, the OLED version of the Lenovo X1 Yoga carries a roughly $200 price premium over a similarly configured, comparable resolution LCD screen (Note: it’s worth it). Right now, the number of display vendors that can produce OLEDs is small. Samsung is the major producer of screens for phones, tablets, wearables, VR HMDs and notebooks, producing the vast majority of the industry’s output. At present, LG is the only company mass-producing large OLED screens for televisions.

Rumors suggest that at least one version of Apple’s 2017 iPhone will feature an OLED screen. Even a high-end, high-priced version of the iPhone would require a huge increase in OLED panel production from the industry. Numerous manufacturers are moving to try to make this happen right now, but it won’t be easy or inexpensive to do.

As for me, I’m now a full-fledged OLED fanboy. I’ve been planning to replace our aging 1080P LCD television and was set to pull the trigger on a nice 4K LCD (I still regret missing out on Pioneer’s KURO plasmas years ago). Then I saw LG’s OLED TVs. Needless to say, my purchase is on hold while I wait for LG’s prices to come down a bit. I figure I’ve been waiting since I saw that Sony back in 2007, so I can wait a little bit longer.