Matte vs. Glossy Debate Heats Up: Are Glossy Displays a Health Hazard?

Apple (s aapl) first began shipping notebooks with glossy displays in May 2006 with the release of the first-generation MacBooks, which were only available with glossy, and as a no-cost option on MacBook Pros. In mid-2007, glossy “behind glass” displays were also made standard on the aluminum iMac line with no matte option. With the release of Apple’s unibody MacBooks and MacBook Pros last October, Apple ceased shipping any computers with matte screens. The Apple 24″ Cinema Display is also glossy-only, although Cupertino has relented to the extent of offering an anti-glare coating option on the 17″ MacBook Pro’s display for $50 extra.

But not everyone is happy about these developments. In fact, there are even reports that suggest use of glossy screens could increase the risk of health issues down the road.

Some Not Happy With Glossy

Contra-glossy display blogger macmatte demands that Apple restore a matte screen option for iMacs and all MacBook/Pro models, contending that this is an issue that won’t die down with passage of time.

CNET’s Dan Ackerman has the lack of a matte display option leading his list of five remaining MacBook Pro deficiencies following the recent WWDC upgrades.

Eye Strain?

Macmatte argues that glare from glossy screens causes eye strain for many people, and says matte screens solve this eye health issue. He claims that the physiology of the human eye causes some to be more prone to eyestrain when staring for hours at reflective surfaces, although others are not bothered.

He thinks Apple’s rationale for dropping matte displays are flawed, that notwithstanding Steve Jobs assertion that most people prefer glossy, a Google search for “matte glossy polls MacBook” suggests that around 40 percent prefer matte. I’m not sure how accurate the metrics derived from a meta-composite of Google search info would be, but there’s no disputing that a sizable proportion of laptop users do prefer matte displays.

Nearly Everyone Used To Use Glossy

Personally, it’s a non-issue for me. I can be quite happy with either matte, which my first dozen years of Mac laptops all had, or the glossy display on my 13″ unibody MacBook. After four months, I haven’t noticed any eyestrain. I’m also constrained to observe that up until the wholesale switch to LCD/TFT flat-screen monitors began about a decade ago, only laptop users had matte displays and virtually everyone else used glassy, glossy-surfaced CRT monitors that usually had curved screen surfaces to boot. I actually did experience eyestrain from using CRT desktop monitors that I found happily disappeared when I switched to using a laptop in 2006, but I’m not noticing any issues with the glossy MacBook display after four months use. Perhaps it’s the flatness rather than the “matte-ness” (or lack of) that’s key for me.

Macmatte suggests that if Apple finds it unprofitable to offer two types of screens, perhaps they could charge a premium for a matte option (which they already do with the 17″ MacBook Pro’s sort-of “matte” screen option). Indeed, there seems to be little logical reason not to offer a similar choice to 13″ and 15″ MacBook Pro and iMac users except that I suspect the stumbling block is not so much cost as increased inventory management and stocking complexity. The workaround for that would be to offer matte as a build-to-order option.

Are Glossy Computer Screens Really A Health Hazard?

Interestingly, macmatte gets some scientific validation for his contentions from academics Down Under. The Queensland University of Technology at Brisbane, Australia, has posted a page on its Health and Safety web site with considerations for Apple Macintosh and other glass or high-gloss monitor screen users, warning that glossy displays could cause operators to adopt “awkward postures” when viewing the screen that may in turn lead to injury.

The university suggests users of high-gloss monitor screens should assess the area where the laptop or monitor will be used to ensure that sources of reflections and glare are eliminated or minimized to reduce potential for injury based on the following points:

  • The amount of time that the monitor will be used during a workday. If the screen is only used for short stretches, some of the control options may not be necessary, while if the monitor is being used frequently or continuously, potential for injury increases and should be managed.
  • Place the monitor so that the glossy screen is at a 90 degree angle to overhead lighting to minimize glare and reflection; and/or adjust the monitor screen tilt slightly so reflections from both internal and external sources are minimized. It’s also suggested that venetian blinds or shades be closed to reduce glare and reflections from windows.
  • Adjusting the screen contrast to a low brightness setting can help increase readability for the user.
  • Consider positioning the glossy monitor on another section of the desktop where it won’t be affected by reflections and/or glare.
  • Consider consultation with a building lighting engineer to determine if overhead lighting can be modified, such as by removing fluorescent tubes, while still providing adequate light levels.

The university also suggests considering the purchase of other types of computers or monitors that offer matte screens, and has posted further information on recommended use of screen based equipment.

What do you think? Are you bothered by glossy displays, love ’em, or have no particular preference?