There is an an ongoing argument I’ve been having about the benefits of a matte screen coating compared to the new-fangled shiny versions. It’s raised plenty of passionate debate, with most people seeming to prefer the matte finish.
I’m intrigued by this whole debate, not only because both sides are so vehement, but because both sides are wrong. And before you start throwing rotten tomatoes at me, I’ll explain my view clearly.
Let’s start with the fundamentals. If there’s no ambient light in the room, it matters not one jot whether the screen is coated with a shiny reflective coating or has a matte finish. The light comes forward through the glass and into the room. The problem is how we deal with the ambient light and, worse still, the light that might fall directly upon the surface of the display – from direct sunlight, for example.
Now for the dive into geometry. Let’s assume I have a glowing parrot sat on my shoulder, if only so I can say “Aaaaarrrggggh” in a convincing fashion. The parrot is emitting light in all directions, and some of it will land upon the screen.
With a matte screen, this light is smeared over the front of the display. If we have a shiny finish, we get a sharp reflection of the parrot. The majority view seems to be that the sharp reflection is a bad thing, and that a matte finish is preferable. I disagree, and here’s why.
Consider the reflection: the parrot actually appears to be behind the screen. It’s like a mirror – the reflected parrot will appear to be the same distance “behind” the screen as the real parrot is sitting in front of it.
The eye is a wonderful thing, but it’s hugely non-linear, and does very weird things. Worse still, it’s hooked up to a supercomputer whose programming is barely understood, despite the best efforts of science. However, we have millions of years of Darwinism to fall back on. The eye, or rather the eye/brain combination, is extremely good at judging many things. We’re programmed to recognise healthy skin tones, for example. This comes from a basic primeval need to know whether someone is ill or not, and a good test of this is how their face looks. So we can say someone appears “under the weather” or “a bit peaky” because we’re deeply programmed to understand this.
Our perception of depth
The same is true of perception of depth. Our eye/brain combination is incredibly powerful at separating items based upon depth of field and the location of an item within it. This is why 3D cinema and TV is so objectionable to many people: they’re super-tuned to how depth perception really works.
Let’s go back to our parrot. It appears at a distance behind the screen, but we’re focusing on the desired image, which is our Excel spreadsheet in the plane of the screen glass. We can separate this out very easily.
Now look at a matte screen. We don’t get a reflection of our trusty parrot, but the light from the parrot is smeared across the surface of the screen because of the effect of the matte coating. This places the light in the same plane as the desired Excel image. Our eyes can’t compensate by applying depth cues, because it’s all in the same plane.
Ambient light is the enemy
This is why shiny screens are better than matte – they’re closer to what actually happens in nature, and our eye/brain supercomputer is happier working with this than a light smear.
Now, this doesn’t help when you’re sat on the 13:20 from Bondi, and the sun is streaming through the window and landing on the screen of your iPad. But the truth is that nothing will help you in that scenario. You’ve just overloaded the display with incoming light, and it’s going to be a mess whatever you do. The only solution is to reduce the ambient light: close a curtain, move away from the window, go and sit in the toilet.
That’s why a professional high-end monitor, such as the stunning, self-calibrating Eizo ColorEdge CG275W, has a hood around the screen, blocking reflections and ambient light falling onto it. And this is a matte screen!
Ambient light, whether filtering into a room or directly projected, is the enemy. If you work in an environment where the sun falls directly onto your screen, then move desks. If this isn’t possible, close the blinds and reduce the light levels. Overhead fluorescent tubes are the root of so many evils, but once you have your lighting under control, allow nature to work as your monitor manufacturer intended. Matte simply isn’t as good as reflective.
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