Mirror Displays

Image of a Macbook Pro with a Retina display showing how badly it reflects

When I previously wrote about the Retina display in the new Macbook Pro I was so excited that I forgot to even check whether the display reflects light [1]. A TFT display with a mirrored surface apparently permits more intense color which is generally a good thing. It also makes it easier to clean the surface which is really important for phones and tablets. The down-side of a mirrored surface on a display is that it can reflect whatever else is in the area.

This generally isn’t a problem in an office as you can usually adjust the angle of the monitor and the background lighting to avoid the worst problems. It’s also not a serious problem for a hand-held device as it’s usually easy to hold it at an angle such that you don’t have light from anything particularly bright reflecting.

But my experience of laptop use includes using them anywhere at any time. I’ve done a lot of coding on all forms of public transport in all weather conditions. Doing that with a Thinkpad which has a matte surface on it’s screen is often difficult but almost always possible. Doing that on a system with a mirrored display really isn’t possible. The above photo of a 15″ Macbook Pro model MD103X/A was taken at a Myer store which was specifically designed to make the computers look their best. The overall lighting wasn’t particularly bright so that the background didn’t reflect too much and the individual lights were diffuse to avoid dazzling point reflections. But even so the lights can be clearly seen. Note that the photo was taken with a Samsung Galaxy S, far from the best possible camera.

If I was buying a laptop that would only ever be used in the more northern parts of Europe or if I was buying a laptop to use only at home and at the office then I might consider a mirror display. But as I mostly use my laptop in mainland Australia including trips to tropical parts of Australia and I use it in all manner of locations a mirror display isn’t going to work for me.

This isn’t necessarily a bad decision by Apple designers. My observation of Macbook use includes lots of people using them only in offices and homes. Of the serious geeks who describe their laptop as My Precious hardly anyone has a Macbook while Thinkpads seem quite popular in that market segment. I don’t think that it’s just the matte screen that attracts serious geeks to the Thinkpad, but it does seem like part of a series of design decisions (which include the past tradition of supporting hard drive removal without tools and the option of a second hard drive for RAID-1) that make Thinkpads more suitable for geeks than Macbooks. While the new tradition in Apple design of gluing things together so they can never be repaired, recycled, or even have their battery replaced seems part of a pattern that goes against geek use. Even when Apple products are technically superior in some ways their catering to the less technical buyers makes them unsuitable to people like me.

Maybe the ability to use a Macbook as a shaving mirror could be handy, but I’d rather grow a beard and use a Thinkpad.

7 comments to Mirror Displays

  • I always get matte displays. Maybe idiots think ‘oooh, it’s shiny!!!’ and so they sell more mirrored displays.

  • etbe

    Sam: One rumor I heard was that mirrored displays sell well due to corporate buyers who place orders without turning systems on. I doubt that rumor, but it’s an amusing concept.

    Jeremy: But the problem is that they work as mirrors!

  • Jan Hudec

    I’d like to express very strong disagreement with statement that “this generally isn’t a problem in an office”. If you have sun shining into the room, there is usually no way to place the monitor to avoid reflections.


    A glossy screen is an absolute deal-breaker for me.
    I don’t care if it has more pixels! Surprising that Apple with their supposed artistic user-base would go for gloss.

  • ecc

    The new ThinkPad X1 Carbon seems better than the MacBook Air along most dimensions, but the battery and memory are also sealed in.

  • etbe

    Jan: I agree that it’s possible to have a badly designed office. But generally in an office you have the option to move desks, partially obscure windows, and replace the light globes/tubes with different power ones to change the lighting.

    Sam: Regarding your first link, it’s interesting that they claim that glossy is better outdoors. I find matte to be better outdoors for any device that’s too big to be held at an angle to avoid reflections.

    As for your second link, I agree that making everything glossy is a bad idea. Glossy boxes scratch and start looking bad sooner. Also they are more slippery which is bad for a phone.

    ecc: I don’t mind RAM being sealed in. Soldering on the RAM saves a reasonable amount of space and if the system is designed well there won’t be a great need to upgrade it. But changing a battery isn’t an uncommon thing and changing a hard drive is also a good option.

    If I had an older Thinkpad and I found myself lost in the wilderness I could take out the hard drive, abandon the Thinkpad, and then hike back to civilisation. I won’t carry a Thinkpad if my life depends on my hiking ability but I would like to take my storage!