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  • Matte Screens: I Still Don’t Get It!

    December 11th, 2008

    This is the controversy that has continued to fester ever since Apple ditched matte screens and embraced 100% glossy on the updated MacBook Pro lineup several weeks ago. At one time, you had a choice, at least on some models, of matte or glossy. But things have changed, and not necessarily for the better.

    Except for the 17-inch MacBook Pro, largely a carryover from the previous model with minor changes, there is no option to get one of these products with Apple’s “Anti-Glare Display.” It’s either glossy or nothing.

    Now as a practical matter, glossy can be a really good thing for most of you. Pictures appear sharper, brighter, and colors more saturated. Suddenly your Mac’s LCD display takes on some of the positive characteristics of a plasma TV.

    And, no, this isn’t just a summary of the reviews I’ve read. It represents my personal experience, as owner of MacBook Pros with and without glossy displays. Indeed, I’m writing this column on the one with the glossy display (the other was sold months ago), and I’ve never felt any reason to regret my purchase decision.

    However, the reflections can be the deal breaker for some. I realize that, for the vast majority of Apple’s customers, glossy is good news. Your eyes and your mind can usually tune out most disturbing reflections, or you just turn the screen in a slightly different direction. Sure, it may not be quite as easy with the 24-inch iMac or the new 24-inch LED display, but compromises in positioning are usually possible.

    Now about the folks for whom glossy is a distraction: Maybe that’s also one of the reasons why LCD high definition TVs, usually with matte screens, have become far more popular than plasma despite the latter’s superior picture. Well, there is the fact that plasma can also consume a lot more electricity, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the deciding factor at the checkout counter.

    In order to get a leg up on the competition, the makers of plasma TVs are incorporating various types of anti-glare coverings for their screens. My Panasonic has one, although I can still see reflections when the lights are on in our master bedroom, or the sun is streaking through the blinds. But, again, this is not a serious disturbance.

    But why is Apple going in this direction? I suspect their sales figures show that glossy has gained far more traction in the models where matte was also offered. So finally they decided it wasn’t worth the bother, since building and stocking extra configurations increases manufacturing costs.

    The current economic situation, however, could change things unpredictably for Apple. Early holiday sales reports appear to indicate that they are still doing surprisingly well, despite the sharply constrained budgets encountered by potential customers. Maybe they’re just buying the cheaper models; I don’t pretend to know.

    For 2009, however, a significant downturn could ultimately force Apple to change direction in some ways. Take the cheap PC that Apple has heretofore rejected. They could substantially redesign the Mac mini, provide more powerful chips and larger hard drives inside, and perhaps reduce the price to $499 for the entry-level configuration.

    Then there’s the netbook. Industry analysts are talking of rapidly growing sales in this product segment, if only because people can’t afford standard note-books, so they’re willing to compromise with a smaller screen, slower processor, tinier hard drive and perhaps fewer add-ons.

    Apple, however, doesn’t believe in compromise. Even when they build a relatively low-cost product, it has the spit and polish of their expensive gear. The $49 iPod shuffle maintains the company’s reputation for elegant design and reasonably solid build quality.

    An Apple netbook would not simply be a small, cheap note-book. I think that’s pretty clear, because that particular choice doesn’t represent any real effort at product innovation. Instead, I wonder if Apple wouldn’t consider building a grown-up iPod touch with similar chips, but sporting a regular hard drive, a much larger screen and perhaps a conventional keyboard to accompany the touch screen.

    Such a product wouldn’t cost $399, which is a fairly normal price for a netbook. I’d expect something closer to $599, but that’s still far less than the legacy white MacBook, which lists for $999. More to the point, it would offer most of the advantages of the iPod touch plus the improved productivity afforded by the regular keyboard and additional screen real estate.

    Is this what Apple is planning? More to the point, is there any possibility for an Apple netbook-style device in time for Macworld Expo 2009?

    Well, it’s pretty clear to me that Apple already has netbook designs in their test labs, and would probably be able to give the green light for actual production with a few week’s advance notice, assuming there’s proper preparation on the manufacturing side of the ledger.

    It may even be possible that the marketing campaign has already been devised, the TV ads taped, and the manuals printed and sitting in a warehouse ready to package with the shipping products.

    Will it happen? More to the point, if you can be assured of one thing, it’s that the screen will definitely be glossy.

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