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Your next laptop will have an awesome display. Here’s why

The new Dell XPS 13 is one of our favorite laptops thanks to its long battery life. It lasted nearly ten hours in our Peacekeeper web browsing test, even with a pixel-dense 3,200 x 1,800 display, beating systems from 2014 with ease.

Intel’s efficient new fifth-generation Core chips are part of the reason for the XPS 13’s excellent life, of course, but some of the credit goes to a power-sipping display technology known as Indium-Gallium-Zinc-Oxide (IGZO). IGZO seems certain to crush the older generation of LCD display in 2015.

But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. A swarm of new display technologies will appear in 2015 and 2016, and some will reach products that you plan on purchasing. So what new display technology can you look forward to in 2015?

How display technologies work

Before we dive into why these new display technologies are awesome, it’s important to talk about what they are. Otherwise, IZGO and its contemporaries may not make much sense.

Backplanes under a microscope appear as a web of multi-colored microcircuits. And you can find them everywhere.

Modern displays revolve around two components; the pixels and the backplane. The pixels are used to create an image, but the backplane is what controls the pixels, shooting electrical signals to turn them on or off. IGZO is a backplane, so it’s built to tell pixels what to do.

Backplanes under a microscope appear as a web of multi-colored microcircuits. And you can find them everywhere. Almost all modern displays have a backplane. What makes them so ubiquitous are two characteristics; conductivity and transparency.

The more efficiently a backplane conducts electricity, the less power consumed when changing an image on the screen. Additionally, because the backplane rests between the light source and the pixels, the more transparent it is, the less power the backlight consumes.

A trio of brand new backplanes

IGZO represents the first major leap in backplane technology in years. Built under license by Samsung, Sharp and other companies, IGZO backplanes conduct electricity more efficiently than previous technology. Additionally, it’s more transparent, which means the backlight doesn’t need to be as powerful to create an equivalent level of perceived brightness. That results in less power draw.

IZGO is already available in notebooks like the Dell XPS 13 and Razer Blade, but it’s not the only new option. LTPS screens are the Cadillac of backplanes. They conduct electrons rapidly and have greater transparency than the older stuff. Their energy efficiency even beats out IGZO.

LTPS has been around longer than most other backplane technologies, but because of its high cost, it hasn’t caught on. Its complex manufacturing process also causes some problems, as it doesn’t scale to large sizes well. That means it will be a long time before it appears in larger displays, although smaller laptop displays are probably no more than a few years away.

The penultimate backplane is Metal Oxide (MO), which is best known as CBRITE MO, named after the company responsible for its development. CBRITE offers even better conductivity than IGZO and LTPS with the same transparency. Because it can move electrons around so rapidly, MO backplane technology can refresh screens at twice the rate of a regular backplane. That opens the door to extremely responsive panels at up to 4K resolution.

And there’s another advantage: it’s inexpensive compared to LTPS and offers better electron-mobility (or conductivity) performance than IGZO. CBRITE is very new, however, so it probably won’t appear in retail laptops for several years.

A panel of pixels

While backplanes are a big deal, they’re only half of the recipe that leads to better display technology. The kind of pixels, aka panel, used in your laptop make a big difference in image quality, power consumption and daylight readability. Backplanes mostly account for energy efficiency.

Remember that display technology and backplanes are generally independent of one another. Manufacturers try to combine various displays with backplane technologies. Since all display types use backplanes to carry signals to individual pixels, mixing and matching backplanes with various pixel technologies can result in screens that provide better visual quality and lower battery drain.

Next generation Micro-Electrical-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)

MEMS first bounced into markets inside of Qualcomm’s Toq smartwatch. While it offered anemic power consumption and daylight readability, its cost meant it couldn’t scale in size to accommodate laptops, monitors, and other larger devices. Still, the technology is interesting, and beginning to mature.

Displays based on MEMS aren’t like LCD technology. Instead of pushing white light through a red-green-blue filter, MEMS uses a mechanical shuttering system and a multicolored backlight. It completely dispenses with the liquid crystal matrix of most flat-panel displays. This contributes to its efficiency because liquid crystals work by blocking some light, which reduces overall efficiency. Sharp has announced a new MEMS-based tablet with an IGZO backplane.

Qualcomm TOQ face

To date, only a handful of devices incorporate MEMS technology. One example: Qualcomm’s Mirasol e-paper screen technology. At the heart of Mirasol lies MEMS, which enables daylight readability and extremely long battery life.

While MEMS enables long battery life and daylight readability, it does not possess the same color accuracy as LCD displays. In addition, it has difficulty scaling to the high resolutions consumers expect in modern devices. Companies like Sharp have incrementally improved on the tech, but even so, its use in a laptop is probably a ways off. And given its expense, it might only find a home in rugged laptops, such as those produced by Panasonic, Dell and Lenovo.

Quantum Dots on a laptop?

The newest field in display technology, Quantum Dots, offers outrageous color accuracy and excellent power consumption. It achieves its color accuracy with near-atomic level phosphor-like dots, for generating color. Each quantum dot within the screen, when hit with a backlight, emits a different color within the RGB spectrum. Because they’re so small, multiple dots in close proximity can represent a wider range of colors.

ASUS Zenbook NX500 laptop mainfulloffset1
Bill Robertson/Digital Trends

Quantum Dots can produce a wider range of colors when hit with a special blue LED backlight, compared to regular LCDs. This property makes it ideal for reaching a very wide color gamut without increasing power consumption. Color accuracy is excellent as well – almost perfect, in fact, with the best implementations.

Related: How Quantum Dots are changing LCD televisions

The only laptop in production using Quantum Dot technology is the Asus Zenbook NX500, which retails for an astounding $2,600. That’s about $800 more than most other high-end gaming laptops. In its defense, its display is truly outstanding, out-performing not just competing laptops but many desktop monitors, as well. Still, most users will have a hard time justifying the cost, so it’ll likely be rare until the price is reduced.

Transflective (TF) Displays

TF displays do not represent a dramatic departure from standard LCD screens. They include all the same components. The main difference: TF screens don’t need a backlight to show black and white images, like e-paper. Unlike e-paper, TF screens can flip on a backlight and display full-color, in addition to video. The biggest disadvantage of TF is the fact its colors in backlight mode appear slightly washed out.

The most well-known transflective laptop display hails from the now-defunct Pixel Qi. Fortunately, after Pixel Qi’s insolvency, its portfolio of patents got snapped up by the legendary John Gilmore. According to reports, the technology is now freely available, under a special license. This suggests screens based on Pixel Qi’s technology may soon enter development.

Pixel Qi display (outdoors)

And, in fact, a technology similar to Pixel Qi is already in production from Japan Display Incorporated (JDI). JDI just announced a new kind of screen technology which combines a form of reflective display, known as Memory-in-Pixel (MIP) with an LTPS backplane. In theory, an LTPS backplanes should offset the contrast and color accuracy associated with reflective screens. Fused together, an MIPS + LTPS display could offer record-breaking power efficiency.

What about OLED?

You’ve probably heard of OLED. Now available for extremely expensive luxury televisions, like the LG 65EC9700 (the best TV we’ve ever seen), and also witness in some mobile devices, the technology remains foreign to laptops and even desktop monitors. That’s a shame, because OLED offers excellent contrast. Unlike a normal LCD, which has a backlight that shines through a liquid-crystal matrix, OLEDs are made up of pixels that glows when charge is applied. This means inactive pixels are an extremely deep, “true” black. And a laptop-class screen can hit 8K resolution!

LG EF9500 Flat 4K OLED

On the downside, OLED displays suffer from a large number of shortcomings that make them less suitable for laptops or monitors. First, OLED cells burn out in relatively short order. Second, as they decay, frequently displayed images will remain on the screen – which is known as “ghosting.” Third, OLED technology costs more than LCD.

Manufacturers are working on these issues, and have arguably conquered most. For example, the Alienware 13 will soon have a 3,200 x 1,800 OLED display. We’re eager to test it, to see if the screen holds up in the real world.

Panel Self Refresh (PSR)

One of the most interesting technologies in the pipe is Panel Self-Refresh (PSR). Most laptop displays refresh at around 60Hz – that means your computer’s hardware redraws the screen around 60 times a second. This sucks a lot of power.

PSR takes the work off the graphics processor, allowing the screen to maintain its image without additional redrawing. Instead of redrawing, PSR offloads screen-state information to a small amount of RAM, provided there’s a still image on screen. The technology reduces power consumption by up to 85 percent. This translates into around an hour of additional battery life. Unfortunately, few manufacturers implement PSR, even when they possess systems capable of using the technology.

LG claims this technique shaves around 26 percent from power consumption. HP, on the other hand, claims PSR can compete with IGZO’s 56 percent reduction in power consumption. Some of the early figures bear HP’s press releases out. The just-announced PSR-equipped Spectre x360 Ultrabook gets 12.5 hours of battery life on a 56 WHr battery, putting it on par with the Dell XPS 13. If the official figures are correct, of course.

Hp Spectre X360 Laptop

Panel Self Refresh bears some resemblance to Japan Display’s Memory In Pixel (MIP) technology. The difference is that MIP places a small amount of RAM in each subpixel, which can record an on or off state. This method provides tremendous power savings and versatility, but unfortunately costs an arm and a leg. Don’t expect to see it in anything other than tiny watch-faces.

So what’s next?

If a manufacturer combines IGZO with PSR, the battery performance should be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

In the short-term, the two display technologies to watch out for are IGZO and PSR. Both IGZO and PSR are available right now and without a huge mark-up in prices. While PSR brings with it lower power consumption, IGZO ups the ante by also offering improved screen quality. Keep in mind that these technologies don’t exist independent of one another. Some manufacturers have already combined IGZO with PSR, such as the Dell XPS 13 (both the 2015 and 2016 editions).

Over the next couple years, OLED screens will play a big role in chopping down display power consumption, while at the same time improving image quality and daylight readability. The future looks bright – and efficient!