Addressing common problems with LCD displays

LCD monitors can suffer from stuck pixels, broken pixels, and residual image problems that can be irritating to have on your screen. Here are some approaches to fixing these problems if they occur.

Unlike older cathode ray tube (CRT) displays that scan an electron beam over a phosphor screen to create light, LCD displays are composed of a fixed grid of tricolor pixels that change transparency based on a range of voltage levels provided by the monitor's controller. Without a voltage the pixel is opaque and blocks the screen's backlight from transferring through it, and when a full voltage is applied then the pixel allows full transmittance of the backlight. When this is done over the entire pixel grid in patterns, then you see those patterns on the screen.

At a very basic level, the way pixels work is a voltage change alters the pixel to allow more or less light through. When there is no voltage, no light is let through (darker), and when the voltage is at its maximum level then 100 percent of the light is allowed to pass through (brighter). By supplying intermediate voltages the computer adjusts the pixel's transmittance levels for its three color components, to display various combined colors and intensities.

This pixel-based setup for LCD monitors provides many advantages over CRT displays, but does have potential drawbacks arising from the fact that the image is dependent on millions of independent electrical components as opposed to a single scanning beam, so if faults occur in these components then the display output can be affected. The resulting problems include stuck or dead pixels, as well as a residual image effect.

Fixing stuck pixels
One of the more common problems with LCD displays is the potential for stuck or broken pixels, where the pixel either does not receive a voltage and remains black, or does not respond to voltage changes and stays at a set luminance level. Sometimes this can happen for individual pixels, suggesting a problem with the pixel itself, or it can happen to groups of pixels, suggesting the possibility of problems with the display's controller or a defect in a portion of the pixel grid.

LCD Repair interface
A tool like LCD Repair will help you isolate and fix stuck pixels by presenting different colors and patterns onscreen.

When stuck or broken pixels occur, there are a couple of things you can try in order to fix the problem. One is to apply a small amount of pressure to the pixel when turning the display on or off, which can sometimes help stimulate the electronics to work properly. Unfortunately, Apple's glass-covered glossy displays prevent this from working on modern Mac systems.

The alternative to using pressure is to exercise the pixel's electronics by using a program that displays quick-changing patterns on the screen and thereby rapidly switches the pixels on and off. Three such programs that will work on the Mac are the following:

Do keep in mind that fixing stuck or dead pixels can be a hit-or-miss process, so do not be surprised if a broken pixel does not come back to life.

Fixing LCD residual images
LCD monitors can also be affected by another problem called "transient persistence" that is reminiscent of CRT burn-in. Classic burn-in would happen because the phosphor coating on the screen would get depleted by the persistent bombardment of electrons from the CRT, resulting in the inability of those sections of the display to convert the electron beam to visible light. This meant that if you kept a specific pattern showing on the screen then over time it could become a permanent residual image on the display that would show even when the display was turned off. This was a reason why screensavers were developed--to keep the wear on the screen's phosphor coating as even as possible.

The physical burn-in of displays is no longer an issue now that LCD displays have taken over, but while transient image persistence is not a physical burn of the device, it is an alteration of the pixel response to voltage changes (usually temporary) that prevents pixels from getting as bright as others on the screen.

Similar to CRT burn-in, LCD image persistence generally happens after you have displayed a pattern of intense colors on screen; however, unlike CRT burn-in, LCD persistence can sometimes set in after only a few hours of displaying the image, as opposed to the weeks or even months that it can take for burn to set in on a CRT monitor. Additionally, unlike CRT burn-in, image persistence can often be reversed.

What happens with LCD monitors is the affected pixels have lost their ability to respond to the full range of voltages that the display gives them, resulting in a limited range of colors that can be output. This can happen if the pixel is acting like a capacitor and is retaining a residual charge, or if it is not able to reach the level of luminance that is desired when given a specific voltage. Either way, the pixel is not able to reach its full range of possible intensities.

Unlike stuck or dead pixels that may benefit from having the monitor turned on and off rapidly to produce rapid voltage changes, image persistence will benefit from a lengthy stretching of the pixel's range. Therefore, instead of using tools like JScreenFix to run random patterns over the affected screen area, you might instead place a pure white window (such as an empty TextEdit window, or what you get using the "White" option in the LCD Repair tool listed above) over the affected area for a few hours or even a few days if necessary. Doing this will force those pixels to be fully on, and over time their intensities may increase to be the same as the surrounding pixels.

Likewise, try turning off the pixels fully by shutting down the display for a long period of time or placing a pure black texture over the affected area (see the LCD Repair tool listed above for this option as well). This will turn the pixels completely off and allow residual voltage in them to drain slowly over time.

Beyond pixels
So far we have discussed pixel-based problems with LCD displays, but the system's backlight can also suffer some common problems that include the backlight randomly blinking off, not turning on, or only illuminating part of the screen.

Using a flashlight as a backlight
Shining a light through the Apple Logo on MacBook systems will show rendered text and graphics if the backlight, and only the backlight, is not working. Notice that reflected light on the right of the display reveals some graphical elements as well (click for larger view). fiendie

When the display fully cuts out and does not show any light, one possibility could be that your computer is not properly communicating with the display, or the display's controllers or power supply are not working properly. If this occurs, try connecting the display to another system. But if power LEDs and other indicator lights turn off when the backlight goes out, then it may be your display's power supply is failing.

If only the backlight is malfunctioning, then the LCD panel itself should still be working just fine and should be rendering the text and images of your computer's output. To test for this, use a bright flashlight and shine it on your screen at an angle in an area where you expect images and text to be (such as the Dock or menu bar). On Apple's laptop systems, you can shine the flashlight through the Apple logo on the back to illuminate the screen on the front and better detect text and images that way.

If shining an alternative light source on the display causes graphical content to show up, then either the backlight or some component involved in controlling it (such as the power inverter for it) have failed and will likely need to be replaced, especially if you cannot rectify the problem by restarting the system, resetting PRAM and SMC, or otherwise toggling different hardware and software settings on your system.

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About the author

    Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.


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