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Why 2021 was a turning point for the quality of laptop displays

Laptops with bright, colorful, and accurate screens are no longer a luxury.

While laptop displays have been improving for several years now, with new technologies like OLED panels becoming increasingly popular, 2021 saw a ramp-up in quality like none in recent memory.

It’s not just about fancy new panel technology, either. Even common IPS displays are improving, something I’ve noticed on recent laptops that I’ve reviewed and that makes lower-quality displays stand out even more.

OLED is everywhere

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Asus ZenBook 13 OLED brought OLED technology to an extremely well-made and fast laptop for under $1,000, albeit in just a 16:9 Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) resolution. No longer was OLED only for premium laptops, and both productivity and creative workers had a laptop they could use to get their work done without breaking the bank.

Since then, Asus has introduced the first Windows tablet with an OLED display, the VivoBook 13 Slate, and a slew of other OLED-enabled laptops, including the ZenBook 14X OLED. Not to be outdone, Lenovo released the $500 IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook that brought OLED to an affordable Chrome OS tablet. And Dell introduced new OLED versions of the XPS 13 and XPS 15, both of which utilize 16:10 displays in a 3.5K (3,456 x 2,160) resolution. OLED displays (outside of the ZenBook 13) had previously been 4K only.

In every case, OLED displays provide extremely wide colors, 95% of AdobeRGB or higher, and 100% of sRGB, with astronomical contrast ratios that produce inky blacks. They’re the best displays you can buy for creative work, and they take media consumption to an entirely different level thanks to laptops with Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) support. OLED changed the game in laptop displays, and in 2021, they became more available and more affordable than ever before.

It’s not just OLED

The screen of the 2021 MacBook Pro.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Samsung’s QLED technology made its way to laptops in 2020, so that’s not a 2021 innovation. But there are now more QLED laptops available than ever, and it’s another option for creative types thanks to wide and accurate colors and deep contrast. We’re not sure how QLED will compete with OLED in upcoming laptops, but we don’t expect it to disappear.

Apple wasn’t going to be left out, either. It brought its Liquid Retina XDR mini-LED displays to the new MacBook Pro 14 and MacBook Pro 16, offering extreme brightness, colors that rival OLED and QLED, and the same level of deep contrast. MacBooks always had great displays for creative professionals, but the new display technology just made them better.

Another innovation that made substantial headway in 2021 was higher refresh rates on non-gaming laptops. Sure, you’ve been able to buy gaming machines with higher than the old-school 60Hz for years (although even gaming laptops have higher refresh rates than ever). But now, you can select from a growing number of laptops that have 90Hz or 120Hz refresh rates, and thus enjoy smoother animations and less motion blur when moving windows and other on-screen objects around. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio run at 120Hz, as do the new MacBooks, while the Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 7i Pro offers a 90Hz refresh rate — and that’s just a small sample of machines.

I’d be remiss if I were to leave out the move toward taller displays, which hit its stride in 2021. Today, it seems odd to review a laptop with a 16:9 display rather than 16:10 or 3:2. And it’s not just odd; it’s downright disappointing. Taller displays are so much more comfortable to use for everything but consuming media, which works just fine with some letterboxing at the top and bottom. I’ll be happy when I never review another 16:9 laptop, and I think that day’s arriving sooner rather than later.

Even IPS has taken a step forward

Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 7i Pro sitting on a table.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

A more subtle change that I’ve noticed in several recent reviews is that even IPS displays have moved forward in quality. There was a time when there were three levels of IPS display quality. Low-end displays offered narrower colors at around 50% of AdobeRGB and 65% of sRGB, with color accuracy at a DeltaE of 2.0 or more. Contrast ratios came in at well under the 1,000:1 that we consider good enough for blacks to be true black and not gray. Average premium displays were at around 72% of AdobeRGB and 95% of sRGB, with accuracy between 1.0 and 2.0 and contrast closer to 1,000:1. And then high-quality displays aimed at creative professionals came in at 90% of AdobeRGB or more and 100% of sRGB, with color accuracy of less than 1.0 (where it’s considered excellent) and contrast of 1,250:1 or better. For the most part, display quality tracked with laptop price.

Now, I’m seeing more displays with between 80% and 90% of AdobeRGB and 100% sRGB, with less than 1.0 color accuracy (or very close to it) and contrast at greater than 1,000:1. Again, it’s a subtle shift, but those displays are good enough for creative work, and they tend to be offered on less expensive laptops. You no longer must shell out the cash for a 4K display on a Dell XPS 15, for example, as you can get this kind of performance from a lower-priced IPS panel. You can spend hundreds less and get a high-res 2.8K (2,880 x 1,800), 16:10 IPS display with good enough colors and contrast for creative tasks, and an even better experience for productivity workflows.

I also see the “premium” tier of laptop display showing up on more midrange machines. There’s the Asus ZenBook 13 OLED, of course, that has the best display at under $1,000. HP’s Pavilion Aero 13 is another midrange laptop with a premium-level display. Perhaps most importantly, it’s rare that a midrange or higher laptop has an inferior display, with Samsung’s Galaxy Book being one example.

There’s still work to be done

I suspect, and hope, that we’ll continue to see more midrange and even budget laptops with higher-quality displays. Premium laptop displays will continue to get better, with wider and more accurate colors and higher contrast that push them into creator territory. And the best technologies like OLED, QLED, and mini-LED will find their way into more laptops and more affordable options. But no matter how it turns out, 2021 was a year when the laptop display got better, and it was a refreshing sight.

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Mark Coppock
Mark has been a geek since MS-DOS gave way to Windows and the PalmPilot was a thing. He’s translated his love for…
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