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The Headline Syndrome

The web is buzzing with reports of Apple foisting substandard displays on consumers. That's what the headlines say at any rate.


Dave Gately and Fred Greaves filed a class action against Apple in the Superior Court of the State of California County of San Diego 3 May 2007, accusing the Cupertino company of deceptive advertising.

At issue was Apple's claim their notebook screens supported 'millions of colours' and offered a 'nuanced view simply unavailable on other portables'.

The inference has been that Apple have suddenly begun delivering 'substandard' displays.

262,144

While there have been issues with earlier screens supplied with Apple's MacBook and MacBook Pro models and while there seems to be something going on with Apple's method of compensatory 'dithering', the number of colours actually physically supported by notebook screens regardless of make has been constant for some time.

It's 262,144.

262,144 colours represents 18-bit rather than 24-bit colours or 6-bit RGB channels. 262,144 colours is still a lot of colours. It's not enough for Dave Gately and Fred Greaves but many graphics professionals don't use their notebooks for precision work anyway. Many photographers take their notebooks in the field only to check the basics before returning to the studio.

24-bit colour is an arbitrary standard based on using one byte data for each of the red, green, and blue values. On some computer systems it's almost part of the architecture. Some standards such as Kodak's Photo CD use more. Using 6-bit colour channels speeds up rendition. Some systems such as OS X compensate for the missing two bits with one or more method of dithering.

But the story of the Gately-Greaves class action hit the web and everyone went ballistic - and hysteric. And no one bothered to read beneath the headlines.

Other Allegations

The class action is serious business: on paper Apple are guilty of several things cited in the complaint and may very well be found guilty by the court. But one thing they're not guilty of is cutting back on the number of colours.

Demanding Apple return millions of colours to notebook owners isn't going to work because Apple never took them away. Apple never offered those millions of colours and the other notebook OEMs never have either.

This is not to say MacBook and MacBook Pro purchasers haven't had their share of complaints about the displays: earlier screens from Chi Mei and Samsung have been lacklustre; Apple stores and resellers have tacitly accepted complaints about the displays and replaced them without protest. And today the notebooks come with a better screen supplied by AUO.

But the issues seem to disappear when running Windows XP - relegating the issue not to the hardware but to the software.

Apple are still in lots of trouble: as the class action complaint points out, they've been aware of the issues for a long time and typically taken to unleashing their 'forum nannies' in an attempt to bury the bad publicity rather than just taking things to task and solving them.

But that has little to do with what Apple notebook users can expect today: although those with older screens are reportedly frustrated by Apple's supposed refusal to give them the new and better AUO screens, no one was skimped on the number of colours and current purchasers shouldn't have any need at all to complain.

Which would have been clear from the beginning if people hadn't been bitten by the Headline Syndrome.

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