/ Technology

Why are gadgets so ******* shiny!?

Magpie on iPhone 4

Do tech manufactures think we’re magpies? Phones, tablets, laptops, cameras – their screens are buffed up to shine like the sun. But when will they learn that we don’t want our own grisly reflections staring back at us?

Think of the last gadget you bought – a sexy new smartphone, a lovely little laptop, a delightful digital camera?

I’ll bet you that its screen is as black and shiny as an ant’s abdomen that’s recently been put through a car wash and then rubbed in shoe polish.

Manipulating these gadgets in bright sunlight is thus almost impossible. And though Britain’s weather doesn’t make this as problematic as if you were on the French Riviera, even the dimmest light can lead to our eyes gawking back.

Shimmering thingamajigs

Shiny screens are so frustrating that it’s one of the inspirations for our digital camera viewfinders campaign. Of the 1,667 people we asked, 70% said they struggled to use an LCD camera screen in bright daylight.

My beloved, but burnished, Panasonix Lumix TZ7 camera looks like it wants to be the centrepiece of a sparse and mirrored post-modern flat. This made it almost impossible to see the photos I was trying to take of the strangely clean streets of Singapore.

Its LCD screen is so shiny that if I were to be stranded on a deserted island I’d be able to use its reflectiveness to send Morse code SOS messages to ensure my rescue.

Then there’s my Sony Vaio laptop. Its paltry two-hour battery life already makes handling it outside a grim experience. But add its shining beacon of a 15-inch screen and it’s not too long until I have to trudge back inside.

Shiny, shiny iPhone

And who could forget Apple? Steve Jobs is the gate keeper to the world of shiny, as commenter Dragilex mused over in our iPad 2 Conversation:

‘Humans like shiny stuff, simple as. iPad 2 – definitely shinier than the iPad and possibly the shiniest thing available today. What does it cost? Who cares, did I not mention how super shiny and slick it is?’

Now, although his comment was more about metaphorical shininess, it wasn’t long until someone picked up on the literal glossiness of Apple’s wares:

‘For me the iPad is too shiny! Slightest bit of light overhead […] and you can’t read the flipping screen! That’s why I bought a Kindle to read ebooks on, rather than an iPad,’ complained Ruth.

Ruth is quite right to mention ebook readers – they’re one of the only gadgets to utilise matte screens. Not only is this wise, it’s essential, as people like to read while they’re lying on the beach. Yet, why is it presumed that all our other gadgets will be used on a cloudy day?

Do you prefer matte or glossy screens?

But perhaps we only have ourselves to blame? Maybe matte gadgets won’t sell like hotcakes? As Charlie Brooker alleged in his recent How TV Ruined Your Life series:

‘Having been conditioned to surrender our attention to the lone glowing screen, suddenly we’re surrounded by thousands of the shimmering f***s. It’s like invasion of the gleaming rectangles. Pop a screen in our eye line and, no matter what we’re doing, we’re hopelessly drawn to the light. Never mind apes, we must be descended from moths.’

Magpies, moths, whatever obsessed creature we’ve mutated into, it’s about time that manufacturers forced us to go cold turkey and made our gadgets less shiny.

What type of screen do you prefer?

Matte (89%, 1,491 Votes)

Glossy (11%, 178 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,667

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Apple are more interested in visual impact than practical considerations. Why else would they continue to hide all the USB ports on the back of iMacs.

Most of the time I get on fine with the shiny screens on Apple computers and laptops because I rarely use them where reflections would be a problem. I can understand why Apple and other manufacturers are cursed when models are not available with a non-reflective screen and the only option is to stick a non-reflective film over the screen. The shiny screen is one factor putting me off buying an iPad, which is something I would want to use in the car and when out and about.

Whereas Apple laptop screens are glass and can be kept immaculate by polishing to remove finger marks, many laptops have a glossy screen that is slightly rippled, presumably because it is made of plastic rather than glass. I can’t get too excited about whether the screen is matt or glossy, but if it is glossy it must be perfectly flat or I’m definitely not interested.

It might be worth having a Which? campaign to encourage manufacturers to offer matt screen alternatives for their glossy devices, along the same lines as the campaign to bring back viewfinders on compact cameras.

Patrick – I’m sure you are right about customers being attracted to shiny screens.

Apple came in for a lot of criticism when they replaced matt screens with shiny screens. It would be very interesting to know about the relative popularity of both versions, where the option exists.

The much higher brightness of the recent MacBook Pro models (compared with the earlier PowerBook with its matt screen) helps to offset the problems of using the laptop with its highly reflective screen in bright conditions.

damien says:
14 March 2011

I replaced my nearly 5 year old IBM T43 with an Acer 3820TG this year.

The screen of the IBM was absolutely gorgeous – a matt screen with a huge viewing angle.

5 years on, the screen of the 3820TG is shiny, with a poor viewing angle, and its main asset is that it is brighter than that of the IBM.

I would have expected that the tech would have improved in the last 5 years, but it appears to have gone backwards.

My guess is that the shiny screens are cheaper to make than a matt screen.

Kris Lipscombe says:
14 March 2011

My Toshiba laptop has a shiny screen and it’s terrible, particular if I sit in the wrong place I just can’t see the screen with the sun hitting it. However my new Samsung N150 netbook has a matte screen and it’s so much easier to see, plus a far better viewing angle. However, it does show up dust a lot more easily.

Like Patrick, I’m surprised by the viewing angle problem. Viewing angles are generally better on newer computers, but there are exceptions to every rule.

Timothy Ryan says:
14 March 2011

To be honest, I had no idea matte screens even existed for computers. Continuing the honesty, if a company made a point of advertising the matte screen of their device I would most definitely consider it above one that didn’t. I’ve been scratching my head ever since reading about the Kindle as to why other devices couldn’t have similar screens (I figured, apparently erroneously, it had something to do with displaying colour).

I doubt any downsides inherent with matte screens could dampen my enthusiasm for being able to use my devices in the light.

A lack of a viewfinder on digital cameras also has prevented me from buying anything other than a DSLR – there’s no way I would buy something for taking pictures when I couldn’t see the picture I’m taking in the light (I haven’t bought one, but I’ve sure been frustrated by using them).

But that’s just me, I guess.

Valerie says:
15 March 2011

I can remember when I first had a computer at work – back in the 90s. My eyesight wasn’t marvellous, and siting it in a room with two large windows where I had the least reflection from the screen resulted in me having to use my left hand for the mouse – which I do to this day. It infuriates my poor husband, who sometimes has to use my desktop, but is used to a laptop, or, under protest, using his right hand for the mouse – if he has to – a double whammy for him!

Now I have joined your forum for bringing back viewfinders for small digital cameras – have had to ditch one I bought less than a year ago, because I could rarely see my subject in sunny weather.
I have a ‘bridge’ camera now, which at least gives the user the option to use an electronic viewfinder – an unwelcome extra expense, but a bonus for me!

More power to your elbow on this one, Which.

At Tenerife with my iPad at the moment and cannot read a book outdoors or even in the hotel lobby because of the light. I have given up when sunbathing and just listen to my music. Much to my wifes amusement as she sits with her kindle reading away and listening to her music, mumbling about the cost of an iPad and the fact you can’t use it when the sun shines..

I should have known better as I always bring my Minolta Dimage Z6 out on hols, why, because it has a view finder and the screen is useless in bright light.

Francisson says:
15 March 2011

Customers can buy only what manufacturers produce. If no one’s making matt screens we can’t buy them, can we? Personally I hate these glossy, glassy, glittering reflective surfaces, but I’m putting up with one because when I bought a new laptop not long ago I found no choice, though I tried hard enough! It’s surely just a fashion fad, to encourage the weak-minded to change their hardware to keep up with the Joneses.

Roger Waterfall says:
16 March 2011

Francisson has given a second reason why a major brand should now change to matt screens.
As well as selling new products released with matt screens to us practical people, the fashionistas would ‘change their hardware to keep up with the Jones’, a win win situation for sales.
We all know what would happen then. once one major brand changed, the rest would follow like sheep as they always do.

My Sony T2XP was stolen last year. The only reason why I haven’t yet replaced it, is that I haven’t found a lightweight, fully featured laptop with a matte screen. None of those I have looked at have matched the quality of the five year old Sony.
Are manufacturers encouraged by reviewers who enthuse about style more than the practicalities. They rarely mention the high gloss screen.

Adam says:
17 March 2011

I’m not posting this to be inflammatory – it really is a genuine question – do photographers and photo lovers generally prefer glossy prints to matte ones? If so, why? Maybe in there lies the reason manufacurers – and consumers – have chosen glossy screens over matte ones.

Personally, I’ve never found myself in a situation I couldn’t use my iPad screen – probably because summer holidays are camping on the south coast, and if the sun’s out, the kids won’t give me the time to read a book (“You’re in goal, Dad”). On the other hand, to read at night with no light on, it’s superb.

Fred says:
17 March 2011

Until a few years ago, all Mac laptops had matte screens. Then we had the glossy revolution, driven in theory by the idea that they were better for watching video due to crisper colours- never mind those of us that actually use a laptop to write things we want to read. There were quite a lot of people who complained, especially as even Apple’s monitors went glossy. Now there is the beginnings of the pendulum swinging back with some models having the choice (at extra cost) of matte displays but the default version is still glossy across the product range. Personally I find glossy screens very tiring to use and I haven’t bought an Apple monitor since this nonsense began. for the smaller devices, phones, ipads, there is always a stick on matte film but it’s not perfect.

I am typing this on a Mac (not a laptop so reflection not generally a problem) but I am irritated by the screens on my Nokia phone and my Panasonic camera becoming unviewable in bright light.
I was interested by Adam’s question as to whether people prefer a printed photograph to be matte or glossy. Before I owned a digital camera, I sometimes chose matte, and sometimes glossy, though most of the most recent photos seem to be glossy. After just a brief look, I think that the glossy finish tends to give a crisper and livelier look to the pictures. So perhaps the desire for higher resolutions with sharper detail plus more intense colour has led to the almost universal adoption of shiny screens for all displays of visual media. The Kindle is only displaying black text on a light background (I assume) and can thus afford to use a matte screen.
The question that hasn’t been raised so far here is whether a matte screen would actually give as sharp and lively a viewing experience as a glossy one. Has the research been done on whether this is scientifically or optically the case, or are there further psychological effects of glossiness as well as its capacity to grab our attention?

Damn Young says:
17 July 2011

You people just don’t get it.
They are shiny so that we can use them as emergency shaving mirrors.
Come on you guys, how many of you can truly say you have never shaved using a CD as a makeshift mirror?
Motorola even branded my mobile as the ‘mirror’, due to it having a mirror on its outside.

H k says:
5 August 2016

I bought a Fujitu laptop Lifebook A series with a Matt screen and I totally love it. No more difficulty trying to use it when the sun is shining through the window behind me.