Humanity has landed a probe on a comet traveling 80,000 mph and flown past a dwarf planet three billion miles away. So why can’t we make a damn laptop screen that lets you work outside in the sun?
It shouldn’t be that hard. Tablets and phones have generally the same display tech and are so much more usable in bright sunlight. So what gives?
It’s a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the day—before 2006, according to this fine historical document—laptops had those squishy LCD screens that would leave psychedelic trails when you’d run your finger over them. Beyond that trippy side effect, the screens had one big benefit: Matte that were seemingly resistant to glare.
Those days are gone. Pick up any laptop and odds are it’s got a glossy screen. Apple dropped the matte screen option from the MacBook Pro in 2013, and people were none too pleased. But according to Dr. Raymond Soneira, founder and president of display-testing and -calibration company DisplayMate Technologies, matte screens have their own problems.
“The matte surface finish is more easily damaged, it costs more to manufacture and apply it, and manufacturing and marketing two separate sub-models is more complicated and costly,” Soneira says. “There are also sales and marketing issues: Matte screens look slightly cloudy and less attractive in a store with low ambient lighting… Matte screens can reflect light from a wider range of viewing angles than glossy mirror-like screens, so sometimes they can make matters worse.”
Still, a highly reflective screen isn’t the only thing that makes working outside a bear. Soneira says his company’s tests found consistently have lower peak luminance than smartphone and tablet screens because they’re primarily designed to be used indoors. Of course, you can jack up the brightness, but that plays hell with battery life. To conserve juice, many laptops automatically dim the screen when they’re unplugged—and if you’re working outside, you’re probably going to be unplugged.
There’s also the fact that matte can cost more. “Glossy screens are the byproduct of manufacturers cutting corners and not adding the matte finish to the display,” says Andrew Serenyi of NuShield, which creates anti-glare screens. “[Cost] is the reason [manufacturers] originally eliminated the anti-glare coating and now refer to the devices as [having] high-definition displays.” NuShield’s DayVue film can be placed over your screen and makes your screen readable in direct sunlight, even if you’re wearing polarized sunglasses. The film basically works against the nature of your glare-prone screen by canceling out reflecting light but still letting enough through so you can, you know, see it. It also fights blueish light so that it’s readable when you’re wearing sunglasses; otherwise, things can get too dark.
While this is one solution, it doesn’t explain why you can use your phone outside just fine, but your laptop is a no-go. Although laptop screens, phone screens, and tablet screens typically are LCDs, there are some key differences in how they’re put together. Laptops often have a gap between the display panel and the glass covering it, something that can increase reflectivity, Soneira says. High-end smartphones and tablets typically bond the glass to the display, making them less mirror-like.
But let’s imagine a laptop and a smartphone with identical screen properties beyond size. The mobile device would still be more readable, simply because it’s smaller.
“You can easily reorient a smartphone or tablet and also yourself to reduce ambient light reflections,” Soneira says. “That is generally not as easily done for laptops because they are meant to be placed on a table or desk. Smartphones work best with glossy screens because you hold them close to your face, so they are often in your shadow and your face is generally dimly illuminated. That strategy doesn’t work for laptops.”
Rest assured, there are ways to see your laptop screen better in the sun without wearing an absolutely ridiculous headsock thing. Soneira says inverting text to white-on-black improves readability in bright ambient light, as does using contrasty colors like red for text and graphics. There are a few products out there that provide on-the-go protection, they aren’t exactly portable. Or attractive.
But the future is full of newfangled technologies that should help: Quantum-dot displays that use a wider color gamut to boost contrast, slightly curved screens that eliminate reflections from the sides, and new anti-reflective screen coatings based on the properties of a moth’s eyes.
None of this is mainstream just yet. Until then, you’ll just need to find a place to type in the shade.