Consumers see red over dead pixels

Little pixel problems can cause big headaches, depending on how a gadget manufacturer handles the defect. Image: RIP dead pixels

You've just blown $2,000 on a sexy new flat-panel TV, and it thinks there should be a little black pimple in the middle of Tom Cruise's face.

Good luck getting it fixed. That black spot is a dead pixel, a malfunctioning electronic dot among the millions that make up a typical display. And manufacturers of TV sets, notebook computers, desktop PC displays and other devices equipped with LCD screens vary widely in their policies on rectifying them.

"This is one of the things nobody ever wants to talk about in the industry," said Paul Semenza, an analyst at research company iSuppli. "The reality is that there are a lot of (screens) that aren't quite up to snuff floating around, and they end up somewhere."


What's new:
A pixel is a pixel--unless it's a bum pixel that renders images on your beautiful new flat-panel display less-than-perfect.

Bottom line:
Manufacturers of TV sets, notebook computers, desktop PC displays and other devices vary widely in their dead-pixel policies. But some consumer advocates say a zero-tolerance policy would serve customers best.

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Sometimes they end up in your new notebook, as San Francisco engineer Rik Wehbring discovered a few years ago. The screen on his new Dell laptop turned out to a have a dead pixel.

Under Dell's policy, which considers a screen defective only if it has six or more faulty pixels, Wehbring didn't have a problem. To Wehbring's eyes, he did.

"It was definitely an annoyance," he said. "When it's your monitor and you're sitting 18 inches away, you definitely notice it."

Wehbring said Dell customer service told him he could send the screen in for repair, but he'd get a refurbished unit, and those were allowed to have as many as seven bum pixels. Instead, he took advantage of the company's 30-day return policy and sent back his laptop, later using the refund to gamble on another Dell. The screen on the new laptop was fine, but the initial experience left a bitter aftertaste.

"The real issue is truth and language--broken is broken," he said. "They were trying to tell me I was silly for believing a dead pixel is a bad thing."

Dell spokeswoman Mary Fad said the company developed its dead-pixel policy to be brief and comprehensible to customers. But Dell can be flexible in interpreting it, she said, realizing that some dead pixels are more aggravating than others. "It's something that's a little subjective," she said. "We try to work with customers on a case-by-case basis."

Dead pixels are the result of flaws in the glass sheets that go into displays. Inevitable glitches in the manufacturing process mean that some pixels don't illuminate properly--or at all. Display manufacturers can avoid most defects by scrapping bad sections of a glass sheet, but a few bad pixels usually crop up in other areas.

John Jacobs, an analyst at research firm DisplaySearch, said the prevalence of bad pixels in consumer devices tends to change with the display market. When supplies are tight, gadget makers

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