Glossy screens on the rise--whether you like it or not

Following a trend with laptop screens, TV manufacturers are opting for reflective rather than matte screens--making it harder to find a TV that's easy to view in a well-lit room.

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Expertise Over 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping advice Credentials
  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
3 min read

Reflective versus matte TV screens
A tale of two screens: The TV on the left has a glossy/reflective screen, whereas the one on the right has a matte screen. Sarah Tew/CNET

For the record: I hate reflective screens.

In the past, I've written about how I hate them on laptops. And, judging from the reader comments, many of you hate them as well. Unfortunately, it seems like our pleas are falling on deaf ears. Matte screens are becoming harder to find on laptops: you usually have to search out "business" models, which are sometimes lean on consumer-friendly features and pricing. So, if you're not in a totally darkened environment, you're left staring at your own reflection in the screen, instead of at your work.

Now the trend is extending to TVs, as well. Once upon a time, plasma screens had reflective glass, while LCD screens had matte finishes. But as LCD continues to take market share from plasma, the LCD TV manufacturers are struggling to distinguish their products from one another in the marketplace. And with the spec sheets becoming ever more identical--1080p resolution, LED backlighting, 240Hz refresh rate, zillion-to-one contrast ratio--design becomes more important than ever. In addition to ever thinner panels, shiny, glossy, highly reflective screens are becoming the norm in LCD land.

The cynic in me still thinks the manufacturers really prefer the glossy reflective screens because they "pop" on the showroom floor at Best Buy--shoppers eyes are drawn to shiny baubles, even if they're $3,000 big-screen TVs. But, to be fair, the glossy screens aren't entirely cosmetic. Manufacturers claim that the glossy screens preserve black levels by focusing the reflections rather than scattering them in a more diffuse pattern. So, you'll see the light from a window will only take up that much space on the screen, instead of having the larger discolored white blob you'd see on a matte screen.

While that's certainly true, the fact is that I find the diffuse matte reflection to be much less objectionable than seeing a mirror image of my living room staring back at me. On the example above, note the reflection on the screen on the left completely obscures Maggie Gyllenhaal's image; the same window reflection on the upper corner of the TV on the right is, to my eye, much easier to tolerate.

Apple MacBook screen selector
Apple offers a choice between reflective and non-glossy screens--but only on certain models. Apple/screenshot by John P. Falcone

The simple solution here would be for the manufacturers to offer two versions of their product: a matte screen version and a reflective (glossy) version. Apple, for instance, lets users special-order a matte screen on 15- and 17-inch versions of the MacBook Pro for an extra $50. And Samsung's galaxy of models often uses a small model number change (such as the matte LNB630 series versus the glossy LNB650 series) to delineate matte vs. reflective screens. Unfortunately, those choices don't extend up and down the product lines: you can't get the 13-inch MacBook Pro with a matte screen option, and Samsung's premium high-end LED-backlit TVs (such as the Series 7 and 8 models) are only available in one, glossy-screen version.

For now, matte screen lovers still have some good choices. But those options look likely to shrink. It appears, for instance, that LG and Sony will be adopting reflective screens across the bulk of their big-screen product line in 2010. In other words, matte-screen lovers like me are going to have to begin searching out some good blackout curtains, just so we can watch TV without being distracted.

What do you think? Do you prefer matte screens, reflective screens, or do you have no preference? Share your thoughts below.