I’ve tested three years of mini-LED gaming laptops

I’ve tested three years of mini-LED gaming laptops

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Screens on gaming laptops have come a long way over the past few years. Well, that’s the easy thing to say when you look at the specs we have today. A few years ago, most laptops shipped with basic IPS panels, which sometimes featured a particularly fast refresh rate. Now, you’ll typically find mini-LED and OLED options, all with fast refresh rates, low response times, and incredible HDR.

But how far have laptop screens really come? I tested three laptops from the last three years, all equipped with a mini-LED display, to compare what we have today with what was available just a few years ago. From the numbers, not much has changed, but when it comes to actually using these displays, it’s clear that mini-LED has come a long way in a short time.

Three years of mini-LED laptops

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Let’s talk about laptops. All three come from Asus: a Scar 18 from 2024, a Scar 16 from 2023, and a Flow X16 from 2022. They’re different sizes and have very different specs, but performance isn’t what’s important here . What’s important is that all three laptops come with a 1600p, mini-LED display and all fall under the Asus ROG Nebula HDR brand. They all look great, and if you didn’t have them side by side to compare, you’d probably stop there.

At first glance, the 2022 Flow X16 is actually more impressive, mainly due to the fact that it’s the only screen with a glossy coating. The lack of a matte finish makes it smelt like it has more brightness and contrast. But that feeling ends as soon as you see actual content. Playing through some HDR demos, the Scar 18 2024 not only looked much brighter, but colors looked much more vibrant. You don’t need to do any tests to observe that difference with the naked eye.

As far as specs go, there’s really only one thing that makes that difference: fade zones. With mini-LED, the idea is that you can stack more LED areas to locally control the lighting, getting closer to what you see in panel technology like OLED. The more zones the better, giving you more granular control of brightness across the screen. From a high level, the area count is the most significant jump we’ve seen in mini-LED gaming laptops in three years.

The number of zones does matter, but not in the way you might assume.

The 2022 Flow X16 has 512 zones, while the 2023 Scar 16 doubles that to 1,024 zones. Scar 18 2024 is even higher at 2,304 areas. If you go and see what the local fade zones are doing, you will likely see that the “blooming” problem is one that more zones can help overcome. Each lighting area covers a certain number of pixels, and if something doesn’t fit well within these boundaries, you’ll see some light spilling where it shouldn’t – this is also known as blooming. A higher zone number minimizes this effect, so you (hopefully) don’t notice it. In theory, it is.

But as I found out in my testing, that conventional wisdom didn’t work as I expected. It’s not that the number of zones doesn’t matter – it’s that the result of “more zones” produced a much different end effect than I would have assumed. Blooms simply aren’t an issue here, proving once again how a linear, spec-focused way of thinking can mislead purchasing decisions.

From the numbers

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Why is there no blooming effect? I expected to see a gradual improvement in the lack of bloom, but like many numbers on spec sheets, that progress isn’t that simple. As it turns out, with such small screens and such a high number of initial zones, all three screens already handle the problem really well. It’s very hard to spot any flourishes between the three screens, even side-by-side. In a blind test, it would be completely impossible to tell the difference.

So while blooming wasn’t an issue, increasing the fade zones creates a tangible and noticeable increase in HDR performance. The three screens handled lighting in very different ways, again due to the drastic difference in the amount of areas. The 2022 Flow X16 seemed to hit a certain wall where, in order to preserve some color, the brightness dropped. The screen wasn’t dimming at all, but it gave that impression.

Let me give an example. I made a website in HDR with a YouTube video and I moved my mouse cursor from the white YouTube page to a black video and the cursor went from a perfect white to a somewhat muted gray. With the zone count and overall brightness lower, it looked like the 2022’s display was limiting the brightness output in a high-contrast scenario to reduce the blooming effect.

This effect disappeared on the 2023 display as well as the 2024 display. In all three displays, the biggest thing I noticed was how the color balance and brightness interacted. Both the 2022 and 2023 models felt like they hit that wall, turning white to gray and limiting screen output to preserve color. The 2024 model didn’t, as it offered plenty of brightness regardless of what content was on screen.

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Interestingly, the difference in how displays handle brightness and color hasn’t always played out in objective testing. For color coverage, they are essentially the same. The 2022 and 2023 screens achieved 100% of DCI-P3 and 90% and 89% of AdobeRGB respectively, while the 2024 model achieved 99% of DCI-P3 and 89% of AdobeRGB. Color accuracy was also very similar. The 2022 model reached the 1.2, the 2023 the 1.1 and the 2024 also the 1.2.

This did not surprise me. What was really shocking was how close the lighting was. In HDR for a 1% window, the 2022 model managed 1,024 nits, the 2023 model managed 936 nits, and the 2024 model managed 1,178 nits. Of course, the 2024 model is the brightest, but the brightness level I saw looking at the screens certainly seemed much higher than the difference of about 150 nits.

By objective metrics, these three screens aren’t all that different. They have nearly identical color coverage and accuracy, and very similar brightness and contrast results. However, the experience couldn’t be more different, which is what made comparing these screens side-by-side so bright. Nowhere was this more evident than when comparing how the screens handle games.

A difference in experience

I recorded the same scene Cyberpunk 2077, and first adjusted all three to identical HDR settings. However, this resulted in some very “off” visuals, so I went about tweaking the HDR settings until each screen looked good to give each a fair shake.

As mentioned, I immediately noticed the lack of blooming on all three screens. But in very complex scenes, that zone count really started to make a difference.

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Between the 2023 model (right) and the 2024 (left), you can see how the shadowed corner is much darker on the 2024 model. By the numbers, all three screens are capable of strong black levels, but the number area high at 2024 allows the screen to transition into lower light areas much more beautifully.

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

It’s a similar story with highlights. You can see the fire reflecting off the road in the image above, but the 2024 model has a lot more depth. Again, it’s those areas at work. More localized lighting control allows for much more precision when dealing with very complex lighting situations. The overall contrast of these displays is similar, but those smaller areas of localized contrast couldn’t be more different.

Once again, 2024 was also brighter. The metrics are similar when looking at peak brightness for a static window, but the 2024 model can handle very bright and very dark nearby areas much better. In grainy scenes, the 2023 and 2022 models seem to limit overall brightness to reduce the blooming effect, making brightness less impressive and colors less vivid.

It’s easy to look at the mini-LED innovation over the past few years and assume that something like a bloom is an improvement. The higher number of zones is the critical factor for the improvement of these displays, but this number does not explain the difference when the displays are actually used. By placing them side by side, you can see just how far mini-LED has come – and regardless of what the objective metrics say, how visuals have improved as a result.

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