Portable computers are dominated by their displays; this has been true since the Osborne 40 lb ‘portable computer’ that came out in the 1980s, and is still true today – though current laptop displays make that 320 x 240 pixel green screen CRT look like the dinosaur it is.
Display technology for laptops is still advancing; the screens are getting higher resolution, they’re getting brighter, and they’re using less power. In the last two years, compact fluorescent backlights have been largely replaced with LED backlights, and there are now initiatives out there to make digital backlighting more responsive – being able to set the intensity of the backlight to any of 256 brightness settings on a pixel by pixel basis promises a revolution in contrast ratios and power management.
However, the most exciting laptop display technology to come out might be the OLED laptop. OLEDs (or Organic Light Emitting Diodes) won’t need a backlight at all, the actual pixels will emit light when activated. They also promise the same contrast benefits of the dynamic LED backlighting displays, and smaller, tunable pixel sizes, giving faster response speeds and lower power consumption.
How important a consideration is power consumption for an OLED laptop? Well, every laptop manufacturer is trying to hit the sweet spot between performance, battery life, weight, and cost. Right now, the leader in that area is Intel, with its Atom and ULV series of notebook processors, which have taken the average watts needed for the CPU and slashed them by about two thirds to three quarters.
Later this year, Intel plans to do the same with its onboard graphics chipsets, furthering the battery life gain while reducing costs for manufacturing. All of this is well and good – but the CPU and graphics controllers are less than a quarter of the amount of power that a laptop display needs, and this is where OLED laptops are going to shine. (Increased battery life is one of the reasons why OLED displays are making their presence known in things other than laptops – like camcorders, cell phones and video players).
Currently, OLED displays are in their infancy; OLED laptops as they currently exist are primarily demonstration models, and there’s not a lot of direct hands on usage data on them. One of the barriers to entry for an OLED laptop display is that OLED displays don’t last as long as traditional displays do; they start to have problems after 2,000 hours of operation, which would be somewhere around 10 to 15 months of usual use. All of the major OLED vendors are trying to solve this problem, because the display technology promises better contrast ratios and about a 50% reduction in power draw.
Once that problem is solved, expect OLED displays to supplant the current LCD+backlight displays in short order, with a complete transition in the market place in about five to six months.