The momentum for OLED laptops and tablet PCs has faded

Shipments of OLED laptops have been hit with delays, and display makers are not showing interest in making panels

Dell's Alienware 13 with OLED screen

Dell's Alienware 13 with OLED screen has a better contrast ratio and refresh rate than regular LED screens.

Credit: Dell

Innovative laptops and tablet PCs with snazzy OLED screens took CES by storm back in January. The sleek devices promised sharper colors while providing longer battery life.

Five months later, that early momentum seems to have come to a screeching halt. OLED screens aren't reaching laptops and tablets as quickly as they are reaching large-screen TVs, mobile devices, and wearables.

Shipment issues have also plagued laptops and 2-in-1s with OLEDs, and display makers have shown little interest in pursuing OLED panels for PC devices.

Dell's Alienware 13 gaming laptop with an OLED screen, which was supposed to ship in April, is finally available starting at $1,299. Delays have hit Lenovo's 14-inch ThinkPad X1 Yoga, which is listed as "coming soon." Lenovo did not provide a reason for the delay.

HP recently started shipping its Spectre x360 Convertible Laptop with a 13.3-inch OLED screen, at the end of the "spring" time period when the company said it would ship it. Samsung's Galaxy TabPro S was the first device shown at CES out of the gate, with the 13.3-inch OLED 2-in-1 shipping in March.

Since CES, no PC maker has announced a significant product with an OLED screen. Most laptops and tablets screens deliver adequate performance with LED backlighting, and there are issues with OLEDs that need to be resolved, said David Hsieh, senior director of displays at IHS DisplaySearch.

Like in TVs, OLED is expected to ultimately replace LED in laptops and tablets. OLEDs don't have lighting back-panels, which makes them thinner and more power efficient than LEDs. A thin layer of organic material emits light when current passes through, while LED is a voltage-driven display with a backlight.

The OLED panels are thinner, which makes devices sleeker. OLED offers better response times and contrast ratios.

The current OLED laptop market is aimed at gamers and multimedia workers.

"These markets care a lot about the design form factor and specifications. It takes a longer time for the PC [makers] to work on it," Hsieh said.

HP, for one, doesn't have immediate plans to introduce OLED screens across a wide range of products unless there's an application for it, Mike Nash, the company's vice president of the customer experience and portfolio strategy, said back in a January interview.

Despite the power and size advantages, some issues need to be resolved before OLED appeals to PC makers. OLED PCs are selling at a premium as the panels are still not being mass-produced, Hsieh said.

An OLED PC isn't worth a premium, however, if used only for Web surfing. The OLED benefits kick in when brighter colors are shown, which is when it uses less energy than LED. The power benefits of OLED over LED are negligible in static color backgrounds.

Installing OLED panels in laptops also isn't as easy as installing LED screens, which are well tuned to current PC making techniques.

"The basic principle of the signal-driving schemes are different. So it takes some special consideration when designing OLED into a laptop system," Hsieh said.

There are also OLED burn-in issues that display makers are trying to resolve, Hsieh said. Images tend to stick on the screen for a little while after it is turned off, which could hurt the life of a display.

There's also little interest from top display makers Samsung and LG in building OLED for laptops and hybrids. Samsung is the only OLED supplier to PC makers and is making a small number of panels tuned for PC devices. The company is expected to start making OLED laptop panels in larger volumes in the third quarter, Hsieh said.

A Samsung spokeswoman said the company "is consistently focusing on all types of applications for its OLED displays including laptops."

LG is betting its future on OLED and is investing millions of dollars in factories. But OLED is a bigger priority for big-screen TVs, and small-screen devices like wearables and mobile devices.

OLED is not a priority for laptops or hybrids because there isn't a viable market yet, the company said in an earnings call in late April. LG will start making panels depending on the market response, but didn't provide a timeline.