Gloss on, Gloss off

There has been a lot of comments about the glossy finish in the new MacBooks, many of them link John Siracusa’s article approvingly.

This is a reminder why a Mac fanboy like myself hates Mac zealotry: “Reflections! Glare! These are not good things!”

Why hast thou forsaken me?

Siracusa asks, “Why did Apple go glossy?” He postulates it may be because it is cheaper than matte-finish displays, though he has no proof that that spraying a anti-glare coating on the computer actually adds to the BOM. Because of this, he decries this as another example of Apple pandering to idiot PC consumers.

“Apple, Apple, lama sabachthani?”

Siracusa answered his own question in the second paragraph when he observed: “Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any PC laptops with non-glossy screens at your local Best Buy or Circuit City.”

Why can’t Mac people lose a little their holier-than thou “People are idiots” attitude? It’s exactly that reason that the “Switchers” campaign failed.1

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. Would sales be hurt if Apple didn’t have glossy finish?
  2. Does the glossy finish help distinguish “pro” and “consumer” lines?

And maybe you will lose some of your facetious wit: “GlossBook” (Haha! did that take 10 seconds for you to think up or did you pick that shit up in some blog somewhere?)

First, do no harm

Look, I dislike the glossy finish. I work in an office environment and there is fluorescent tube lighting everywhere which means it is impossible to be anywhere without direct lighting. That’s the first principle in any photography lighting class. My notebook replaces my desktop computer for everything from programming to making presentations to photography. I can’t afford to making strange head fakes all day in order to read my monitor.

Last I checked, the MacBook is a consumer notebook.

Let’s lose a little of the solipsism and realize that what I desire doesn’t apply. If the consumer is buying a notebook to use at home, probably in the dark, then the sharpness and saturation of these displays is actually probably the best thing for them.

To the first question, the answer is an emphatic, “Yes!”

Even Siracusa notes that, “When the glossy screens first started to appear in Best Buy and CompUSA, the contrast with their non-glossy brethren was striking. Walking into the laptop aisle, your eye was immediately drawn to the glossy displays…In “shopping mode,” this is all people see. Shiny, saturated, sharp.”

The MacBook competes against these computers as part of the shopping experience. Duh!

I’m surprised that Siracusa thinks this is limited to consumer electronics. Last time I walked down the aisle of the produce section of my grocery store, I noticed that the the apples there have a gloss coating to make them more appealing!

Glossing over the real reason…

The first question also answers the second with an emphatic, “Yes!” but I want to look at this closer.

First, Apple was in an interesting conundrum with the move to Intel and the MacBook, one failed to be noticed by nearly everyone.

Traditionally, Apple used processing power to distinguish the consumer and professional notebooks. I mispredicted the release of the MacBook by a few months because of that. Here is the money quote from that article: “I guess the answer lies in that Apple must be deliberately waiting until sales of the MacBook Pro taper off. I would have thought that if they put only Core Solos in the iBooks, it would have been enough, but it would seem Apple must have figured that the Core Solo/Core Duo is not enough of a gap for the MacBook sales not eat into sales of the pro model.”

I misunderstood the market. Apple could not introduce a Core Solo MacBook because it would be compared to Windows notebooks and been found lacking. The processor is the first comparison a consumer makes!2

So market pressure forces Apple to include an equally powerful microprocessor in their consumer and professional notebooks.

But then you have the interesting conundrum I mentioned: How do you get pros to buy the professional model where your margins are better?

Market segmentation

The solution is so obvious that I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it: Professionals are going to be replacing their desktop with a notebook.

So Apple is using graphics and monitor size to make that distinction:

Let us look at the main differences between the MacBook Pro and MacBook:

  1. Price. The pro model costs almost twice as much.
  2. Screen size. The pro model comes in 15.5″ and 17″; the consumer model has a 13.3″ display
  3. Video performance. The pro model has a high performance notebook graphics chip with dedicated video RAM; the consumer one uses integrated graphics.
  4. Consumer gloss: The pro model has an anti-glare coating, with gloss as a build to order option; the consumer one comes only with the gloss finish
  5. Amenities: The pro model has a lit keyboard, an expansion slot and does dual DVI output; the consumer one requires the purchase of an adapter use an external monitor.
  6. The pro model is aluminum, the consumer is in glossy white or matte black (a premium for the black).

Look at how all these features fit the story we have created:

  1. Tax breaks and writeoffs mean that the professional can afford to pay a premium.
  2. Graphics professionals need large screen real-estate. BTW, this means that you shouldn’t bother waiting for a 12″ MacBook Pro.
  3. Most software used by graphics professionals now recommend high performance graphics. Features such as CoreImage and CoreVideo take advantage of it, Aperture practically requires it, etc. Plus, it isn’t something you can upgrade later.
  4. A pro works in the aforementioned office environment where the glare caused by direct reflections of fluorescent lighting and windows is highly annoying. If it isn’t a big deal they (and only they) get the option to have it either way. BTW, don’t you think giving the customer an option like this would be more expensive than any money saved by taking this off?
  5. Instead of looking at what amenities that distinguish them, let’s look at the previous “pro” features that they now bundle with the consumer model: slot loaded drives, mag safe power connector, magnetic latches, monitor spanning(!), Gigabit ethernet, digital video (DVI), latest wireless. Look how artificial and trivial most of those differences were!
  6. The premium for the black MacBook is your “12″ Intel Powerbook.” Deal.

Instead of panning the glossy finish as another concession to the “PC users are idiots” world that they believe in. Mac fans should be applauding Apple for the glossy coating as another way to bring brand distinction between two models.

Let’s face it, if you can afford to waste the time to whine about the glossy finish in the new MacBooks, you can afford to pay for a MacBook Pro with a matte finish.

I know that statement applies to me.

1 Note that the new ad campaign is not the same as the Switcher campaign. Instead of implicitly calling their future customers idiots for buying a PC, they personify the PC and tease it lightheartedly.
2 I agree with a lot of John Siracusa’s writing as you can see here, here and here. But as I asked hypothetically in those articles: “What sort of spec fits on those 3×5 index cards at Best Buy?” If it is a computer, the first line item is going to be the processor make and speed.

2 thoughts on “Gloss on, Gloss off

  1. I have a MacBook Pro with the glossy screen, and I’ve been doubting my decision ever since I made it.

    So far, I haven’t had any trouble with reflections distracting me. Most artificial light sources don’t seem to outshine the screen. Natural light can be trouble, but I (unfortunately) don’t work in environments with a lot of natural light.

    Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far, but I’ve been happy with the glossy screen.

  2. Chris,

    We have two people with MacBooks (and glossy screens) here at work. I went up to one of them and talked to her. She loves her MacBook’s screen.

    The thing I noticed is she tilts her MacBook way up. This way it isn’t reflecting the window. From where she sits, there are only two glare spots on her LCD panel (from the fluorescent lighting).

    One interesting thing to think about is that glare reflection, by definition, is polarized. I wonder if you could eliminate it with a pair of sunglasses.

    Another thing I don’t see mentioned is that the surface of the trackpad on the black notebooks feels different. I wonder how long that will last until it gets rubbed smooth.

    I noticed that there is a new preference in the Keyboard and Mouse preference pane that allows you to make a control click using a “chord” (two fingers on the trackpad while clicking). This is a welcome advance along the lines to something I alluded to earlier.

    Take care,


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