Who doesn’t want to play on a screen with sky-high contrast, super-saturated colors and zippy pixel response? That’s what you get with an OLED display. But it’s not all fun and games, as I discovered after spending a couple weeks with an OLED-equipped Alienware m15.
The configuration we went hands-on with isn’t available to buy: you can only get this model with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q, not the 2070 as we tested. With the same screen, that model will run you $2,700; the OLED screen is a $200 upgrade over the base model.
The only manufacturer of OLED laptop panels is Samsung, and it only makes one panel at the moment. So every laptop with an OLED display uses the same panel. However, the implementation makes a big difference, so all laptop OLED screens do not perform the same. This one incorporates EyeSafe’s blue-light reduction technology, which accounts for the somewhat low white point, but didn’t induce any noticeable color shifts otherwise.
Let’s start with the rhapsodizing. The initial visual impact while gaming? Wow. The dark blacks make everything else pop, and nonphotorealistic graphics with saturated colors get dialed up to 11. The bright red scanners in Beholder 2‘s dreary brown, gray and black world seem even more chilling, while the other intensified splashes of color add contrapuntal surrealism. It pepped up Sinking City‘s relatively flat tonality almost enough to overlook its myriad flaws.
And staring at the OLED screen was great for working. Even with the brightness set as low as 50%, the technology’s naturally high contrast makes working on a typical web screen (Google docs, in this case) for hours a lot easier on the eyes than most laptop displays.
The contrast compensates for its relatively low typical brightness. While it hit a peak of about 519 nits, that was only for a 2% window in the center of the screen; full screen brightness tested at a maximum of about 492 nits. Those are with the system brightness set to 100%, though, which you really don’t want to leave it on, especially if you’re looking at a lot of white screens. You can always jack it up as desired for gaming.
It’s actually more color accurate at lower brightness levels as well, set somewhere between 60 and 70%. The white point’s a little low (6038K) and the skin tones look meh in video, but it’s better than many displays with average delta E values below 4 on almost all counts (color, luminance and saturation tests).
At about 70% system brightness, a comfortable level which doesn’t blow out your eyeballs while working, it has a typical full-screen brightness of about 195 nits. That doesn’t look quite as good on a normal IPS display because of the lower contrast.
Where the sidewalk ends
First, there’s the execution. The biggest issue is that the m15 doesn’t support HDR in games or wide-color gamut in applications. I’m still waiting to hear back from Dell about why.
It’s possible that’s just a glitch, because the monitor reports itself as HDR capable but the integrated graphics driver thinks otherwise; it’s possible that’s caused by the operating system reporting incorrect specs to the driver.
The screen does seem to meet the bare minimum HDR specs as required by VESA’s DisplayHDR 400 True Black specification, including wide color gamut coverage — in testing, it covered 106% of UHDA-P3, which is huge. That’s because it’s able to push the unsaturated primaries beyond the gamut’s edges.
And its minimum black effectively measures as true black (i.e., 0 nits). I didn’t measure how long it could sustain its peak brightness, but it did overshoot the enough to compensate for any instability; in other words, its 492 nits peak in a 10% window was high enough that even though it started to drop immediately it would have taken a long time to drop below the 400 nit minimum.
Even so, though it supports Windows HDR for streaming video, it’s nearly impossible to tell if it’s actually applying the setting. All video has more presence because of the native contrast, though.
But there are other gaming-related expectations you need to manage as well.
OLED 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 system is fast, but not fast enough for consistent 60fps 4K gameplay (likely true even with the RTX 2080), 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.
Windows’ color management is awful, and it doesn’t seem to know how to handle OLED screens. I could rant — and I will, elsewhere — but in this case, the implications for gaming boil down to gamma (how a system maps requested color brightness values to the capabilities of a display), which resulted in deep grays visually clipping to black on the m15.
While the gamma measured 2.1 (slightly lower than the OS-expected 2.2, which it hits at a lower brightness level), the overall value obscures the flatness of the curve in the shadows, which isn’t a problem with non-OLED displays that don’t get down to zero black.
Nor does it help that for the few games that do have gamma controls, many of the interfaces makes it nearly impossible to adjust properly because they provide no useful visual guidelines.
The clipped blacks didn’t hurt too much in the moody-environment games I played except one — Sea of Solitude — which admittedly has the aforementioned awful gamma controls. To see the dark-gray-on-black monsters and Kay, the protaganist, required boosting the gamma, but that washed out the otherwise beautiful colors and bright flares.
Then there are the general drawbacks. OLED pixels emit light rather than using a backlight, which means it takes more power to hit a particular level of brightness, and the tradeoffs for that are battery life, heat, image retention and lifespan.
Combined with driving a power-hungry 4K screen, that can potentially put a big dent in your unplugged time. Compared to the m15 we tested with a 144Hz HD display and GTX 1070, battery life dropped 1.1 hours (22%), from 6.6 to 5.5, though I really expected the difference to be more dramatic. So there’s that.
But our streaming video test don’t reflect how a predominantly white background affects battery life. When writing this in Google docs, with its all-white screen (even at 70% brightness), the m15’s battery lasted a mere three hours — even with all the battery saving options maxxed out. Still, not that unusual for a gaming laptop.
And even with panel self-refresh turned off in the Intel driver, there’s still periodic flicker, at least while working on an all white screen.
So the bottom line is, at least for the moment, gamers won’t see a lot of benefits from OLED on this gaming system, unless all you care about are the blackest blacks you’ll ever see, which gives even a dim display terrific contrast, and a wide gamut with saturation dialed up to 11.
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