Glossy displays, and why they suck


Categories: GeekStuff

So the new MacBook Pro line is out, and they added a “Retina” model, meaning one with really high pixel resolution; it’s 2880x1800, which is to say, it’s a pixel-doubled 1440x900 display. VERY impressive. The color fidelity is gorgeous. The pixels are tiny, which is a good thing.

And it has a shiny, mirror-like, surface. Apple proudly brags that it is “75” less reflective than previous glossy displays – but it is still “100” more reflective than a non-reflective display surface. Which is sort of a problem, because reflections in displays suck. And yes, to those about to throw that 75% number back at me – I have gone to an Apple store and looked at the display. The reflections are strong enough that I could easily read text in it. (Well, as easy as reading mirrored writing gets.)

Glossy displays are a great example of the disparity between purchase decisions and usage decisions. See, glossy displays look really nice in the store. The blacks look really black, because ambient light isn’t being scattered by the matte surface. The whites really pop, because none of the light is being scattered by the matte surface.

But once you try to actually use one for a while, spending real time trying to observe, not “how the screen looks”, but “the data being presented on the screen”, you discover a problem: Glossy displays reflect the environment really well. And those reflections may be very faint compared to the display, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see them. Your eyes are carefully tuned to pick up subtle differences in brightness, to pick out lines and shapes that are only partially visible. If you didn’t come from a long line of people who were good at seeing things that were only partially visible, you wouldn’t come from anywhere.

What this means is that reflective displays cause eyestrain. Furthermore, people unconsciously move around trying to avoid the glare and reflections, and this means they end up sitting in awkward and uncomfortable positions, and end up with cramps and sore backs and all sorts of other problems.

PC vendors fell for this too, but unlike Apple, PC vendors observe what their customers say about products. When they noticed that people were willing to pay a premium for non-glossy displays, and consistently preferred them (polling shows about 70% of users prefer matte displays, compared to 15% who prefer glossy; 15% don’t care), they did something radical: They started making non-glossy displays. In large numbers. Last time I checked a computer store, the laptops were about 50-50 glossy and matte, and the matte laptops had people looking at them. Monitors, likewise, come in both varieties again, with all the expensive ones being matte displays.

Meanwhile, Apple ships their flagship display, the 27” Thunderbolt display, not just as a glossy display, but as a glossy display with a glass cover in front of it. To make it glossier. People report that it’s much more usable with the cover taken off, but even so, forum-goers consistently advise people considering that display to get the Dell U2711 instead – it’s the same display panel, but not glossy.

I have no idea what Apple’s problem is at this point. It’s one thing for the iPhone and iPad, where the displays have to be durable and scratch-proof, to have glass display panels. There is a technical merit to glass there which at least partially compensates for the loss in legibility. But for laptops?

Apple offers a matte display as an added-price option in exactly one model of machine, the larger MacBook Pro. It can be gotten only when coupled with a higher-res display, which also costs extra. That’s it. Want their flagship 27” monitor? It’s highly reflective. Their top-of-the-line new laptop? Also highly reflective.

I don’t get it.

Comments [archived]

From: Dave Leppik
Date: 2012-06-15 15:08:46 -0500

Clearly you’ve never been stuck in the middle of nowhere on a sunny day with nothing but an Apple device. These glossy displays are a real life-saver when it comes to signaling rescue planes.

From: seebs
Date: 2012-06-15 17:53:21 -0500

You know, that explanation makes more sense than mine, which is that Apple’s display hardware is all under the control of someone with a vampire phobia.

From: Amy
Date: 2012-06-16 07:00:32 -0500

We need this to get into mass production.