Hands-on: TechRestore’s matte-screen MacBook Pro service

With the introduction of the 17-inch unibody MacBook Pro at January's Macworld Expo, Apple has moved almost its entire portable product line over to glossy screens. I say “almost” because the 17-inch model is available with an optional ($50) “anti-glare” option—not an actual matte screen, it would seem, but some sort of a screen treatment to cut down on the glare.

My feelings on glossy displays are well known—I despise them. My family actually owns a glossy-screen iMac (it’s the kids’ computer), and when I need to use it, I try to do so via screen sharing from my Mac Pro just to avoid the reflections. I also owned a first-generation MacBook for six months, but I simply couldn’t adjust to life with the glossy screen, so I replaced it with a pre-unibody 15-inch MacBook Pro with a lovely matte screen.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, Apple’s switch to glossy-only screens in its laptop line appeared to be the end of the line for new Mac laptops in my home. (I’m not interested in a 17-inch laptop, so the anti-glare version of the new machine is out.) But then I visited the TechRestore booth at Macworld Expo to check out its matte-screen replacement program for the 15-inch MacBook Pro. (TechRestore currently modifies only the new 15-inch model, but the company has confirmed that it will soon have a replacement program available for the MacBook, too. So if you’re a fan of Apple’s smallest full-featured—OK, except for FireWire—laptop, but not of glossy screens, you’ll soon have a solution available.)

As detailed in my initial write-up, the end result looked quite good, at least at first glance. So after Expo, we decided to send one of our new MacBook Pros to TechRestore to get some hands-on time with a converted machine.

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The conversion process

TechRestore doesn’t simply apply a matte finish to the existing MacBook Pro’s screen. Instead, the company removes the entire screen, along with its surrounding bezel and glass cover. In its place, TechRestore installs a new matte screen surrounded by a custom-made, flat-black, plastic bezel. The company does not cover the new screen with glass or plastic; it’s left exposed, just as the screen was on any older-generation MacBook or MacBook Pro.

Replacing the screen on a MacBook Pro sounds like a costly proposition, and while it’s not cheap, the service is not as costly as I would have guessed: The procedure costs $200, plus shipping. To put that $200 figure in perspective, some Google searching found 15-inch LCD panels (bare, generic models) for $195 to $250. Add in the cost of a custom bezel and installation labor, and $200 seems like a relative bargain. (Part of the reason the process is relatively inexpensive is that TechRestore keeps your glossy screen and bezel to use in its Mac repair business. TechRestore says the replacement display has the same specs as Apple's original.)

The replacement process is surprisingly fast: approximately 24 hours (weekends excluded) plus shipping time. In other words, the total time and cost depends on your choice of shipping options, which range from free (you pay to ship to TechRestore; the company returns the laptop via three-day ground service) to $99 (TechRestore sends you a box, and the machine travels both directions via overnight delivery).

After Macworld Lab received the converted MacBook Pro, it sent me both the modified machine and a stock unibody MacBook Pro with which to compare it. I also added my prior-generation LED-backlit MacBook Pro to the comparison group, mainly to see how the TechRestore matte screen compared to Apple's last stock matte screen.

Hands on with the “MatteBook Pro”

So how’d things turn out? In short, very well. The TechRestore-modified MacBook Pro looks basically perfect, and the matte screen is everything I expected. The modification work is essentially invisible (there are a couple of minor damage spots on the bezel that you really have to look to find), and the screen mechanism works just as it does on the stock machine.

Below are more details on everything from the build quality to warranty issues.

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A matte-screened unibody MacBook Pro

Build quality: If you saw the stock and modified unibody machines sitting side-by-side from anywhere more than a foot or so away, it’d be difficult to tell them apart. From that distance, the modified machine (shown at right) looks basically stock, with a couple exception: On the modified machine, the bezel is flat-black plastic instead of glass, and you won’t see the words MacBook Pro on the bottom of the bezel.

When you get closer to the machines—a lot closer—the differences become more apparent. The stock machine has a layer of glass covering the entire screen, so it’s completely flat. The modified machine is built like all previous-generation Mac laptops in that the screen is glass-free and sits inside the surrounding bezel, so there’s a slight ridge where the screen meets the bezel. As with those previous-generation machines, the screen "gives" a bit if you press directly on it—this is not the best machine to put somewhere where little fingers are likely to poke and prod. On the other hand, the replacement screen shouldn’t be any more susceptible to casual damage than older MacBook Pros were, as the technology is basically the same.

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Signs of modification
It’s not until you get really close that you can see evidence of the actual screen replacement process. Replacing the screen in a MacBook Pro isn’t a trivial exercise, and our test unit has some very minor damage on the bezel and the interior of the screen frame. The top photo at right shows a minor tool mark near the built-in iSight camera; the bottom photo shows similar damage in the lower-right corner of the screen/case assembly.

Although the pictures look pretty bad, I need to stress the very minor nature of these damages: I didn’t even notice them until I looked over the bezel with a flashlight at very close range. The close-up photography and strong light make things look much worse than they really are. In natural light, and at natural viewing distances, these blemishes are basically invisible.

Weight: A side benefit of the conversion is that the TechRestore machine weighs less than the stock MacBook Pro due to the removal of all that glass. According to the official UPS shipping scale in my wife’s office, the modified MacBook Pro checks in at 5.2 pounds, versus 5.5 pounds for the stock unit—a weight savings of roughly five ounces. A five-ounce weight savings may not sound like much, but it’s noticeable; for example, it's about the same weight as a hard-drive-based iPod Classic.

Not only is the modified machine lighter than its glass-encased relative, it’s also lighter than my own matte-screened, previous-generation MacBook Pro, which checks in at 5.4 pounds on that same scale.

Screen structure: One of the concerns expressed by readers of my original write-up on this modification related to the strength of the modified MacBook Pro’s screen assembly. The fear was that, given how thin the screen is on the new MacBook Pros, the removal of the glass would lead to a very flimsy structure. To see if this was true or not, I (carefully) flexed the screen on both MacBook Pros, twisting (ever-so-gently) the top corners of each screen. I also did the same thing to my previous-generation MacBook Pro, which has a no-glass matte screen in a much thicker assembly.

For obvious reasons, I didn’t test to the point of failure, but applied just enough force to get a sense of how much (or little) the screen assembly flexes. I was expecting the glass-screened MacBook Pro to have the stiffest screen, and it did. It flexed very little when tested, thanks to the full-coverage glass.

Surprisingly, the second-stiffest screen was found on the modified MacBook Pro. Despite the thinness of the screen/bezel package, it actually flexed less than the screen on my older MacBook Pro, despite the latter machine’s thicker top assembly.

I also opened and closed the lid on the modified MacBook Pro many times, checking for any alignment issues, noise, or other signs of trouble. The result? No issues at all; mechanically, the modified screen works just as well as the original. More honestly, I think it actually works better than the stock machine, as the lighter screen makes the machine less top heavy.

Image quality: If you’ve seen an older matte-screen MacBook Pro, you’ve got a rough idea of what you’ll get in a TechRestore-modified unibody MacBook Pro. However, when you place those two models side-by-side, using the same color-calibration and brightness settings, the TechRestore screen is notably brighter. In short, the screen is wonderful; the increased brightness is really noticeable and makes anything with a white background look much better.

The new matte screen is not, however, as bright as the stock (glossy-screen) unibody MacBook Pro, which clearly has the brightest screen. Below is a composite image I created that attempts to demonstrate the differences. Note that I’ve tweaked the color and brightness of the sections to make the final composite more representative of what I actually saw on each Mac. While not perfect—my personal MacBook Pro isn’t as dark as it appears to be, for instance—this image does provide a good sense of the differences between the three machines.

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From left to right: Standard unibody MacBook Pro, TechRestore MacBook Pro, and a prior-generation matte MacBook Pro

Matte vs. Glossy: What you can’t see in the above image, of course, are any reflections in the stock MacBook Pro’s screen. In a fully-darkened room, or in a location where I can completely control the lighting (such as the one in which I took the above photo), the glossy MacBook Pro’s screen is a clear winner—the colors are incredible, and the screen’s overall brightness makes it a joy to work with.

But I can’t easily control the lighting everywhere I want to use a laptop. The TechRestore MacBook Pro really shines, so to speak, in those locations where I’ve got no control over lighting. As with my current MacBook Pro, I can use the TechRestore screen in pretty much any environment without concern for where the lights may be located.

The image below—click it for a much larger version—shows the two machines side-by-side, with the TechRestore version on the left and the stock machine on the right.

Left-hand images: TechRestore-modified MacBook Pro; right-hand images: stock unibody MacBook Pro.

This image was, to the best of my ability, not staged to maximize reflections. I placed each machine in the same spot on my desk—the spot where my own MacBook Pro often sits, and marked the corner positions with tape so I could easily swap machines. I set each Mac to the same brightness level and screen angle, and used a tripod so the camera wouldn’t move between shots.

The color levels in the above image are definitely wrong (I’m no professional photographer), but I think it’s clear how different the two screens are. Note the glare from the light that sits behind my work environment; it’s very annoyingly-bright on both the glossy-screen shots, a muted glare on the dark matte screen, and nearly invisible on the light matte screen. Also notice the reflection from the camera and tripod in the dark glossy image.

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The iSight video light glares without its glass cover.

The iSight camera light: One of the more surprising differences between the two machines became apparent only when I tested iChat’s video-chat feature. As you’re probably aware, a bright, green LED illuminates when the built-in camera is in use.

On the stock MacBook Pro, the glass bezel does a great job of “muting” this light. On the modified MacBook Pro, however, there’s no glass, so you get the full power of the LED—and it’s quite bright, as you can see in the photo at right. If this machine were mine to keep, I’d probably tape or glue a small square of tinted plastic over the light, just to dim it down a bit.

Warranty concerns

So what about the warranty on a shiny new MacBook Pro, should you elect to send it through TechRestore’s modification program? Given the extensive surgery performed by TechRestore, you may think that’s the end of your warranty. However, according to the company, the only portion of the machine modified is the screen assembly itself, which is then covered by TechRestore’s warranty.

But what about the rest of the machine? Given that TechRestore doesn’t touch the internals of the Mac, warranty work on the rest of the machine—say a failed logic board or hard drive—shouldn’t be affected. However, if you attempt to have your machine serviced and Apple declines due to the modified screen, TechRestore is willing to help. Its Web site states:

In the unlikely event that you have a problem getting warranty service on your laptop after we perform any repair or upgrade, simply give us a call so we can provide you with assistance. We are here to help.

When I asked Shannon Jean of TechRestore to explain this statement, he told me that if a customer were to have an issue, the company would do whatever it could to “make it right” for the customer. That’s reassuring for those contemplating modifying a brand-new $2,500 notebook computer. Also reassuring: TechRestore has been modifying laptops since 1994, and the company claims to have never had a manufacturer decline warranty service due to its modifications.

Updated to add: When contacted about the small damaged area on the MacBook Pro, TechRestore had this to say: “We always work with our customers to fix any issues - it’s why we have such a good reputation. If someone’s not happy, we go out of our way to resolve problems to everyone’s satisfaction.”

However, if you’re still a bit nervous about your machine, TechRestore plans to offer additional peace of mind in the form of an optional two-year extended warranty that will cover the entire machine.

Final thoughts

I’ve had the TechRestore “MatteBook Pro” in my hands for about six days now, and have been using it extensively during that time. So far, I haven’t had anything even resembling a mechanical issue with the modified screen, or with any other aspect of the machine.

In operation, of course, the TechRestore machine performs just like the stock MacBook Pro. That’s because, in all regards other than the screen, it is a stock MacBook Pro. This was my first extensive experience with the new unibody MacBook Pro, and I’ve come away impressed. I thought my current MacBook Pro felt pretty solid, but compared to the new machine, it seems to have the rigidity of wet sponge—the new unibody design is really that much stiffer. Performance is also excellent, and the machine feels much peppier than my current MacBook Pro.

The quality of the TechRestore installation was very good—not perfect, but with only a couple of minor flaws that don’t stand out in typical use. Although the screen is more flexible than that of the stock unibody MacBook Pro, it’s more solid than that of the prior-generation MacBook Pro, and it doesn’t come across as "flimsy" in any way. The fact that the laptop is also five ounces lighter is an added bonus.

In short, after spending roughly a week with the TechRestore modified “MatteBook Pro,” I would have no concerns about using this modified machine on a daily basis. In fact, this machine really feels like the machine Apple should have introduced—or at least made available as an option—for those of us who prefer matte to glossy screens.

Are there any downsides? There’s the cost, of course, along with some possible warranty concerns. But if you’re a matte screen aficionado, and you’ve been lamenting the lack of such screens on the new 15-inch MacBook Pro, TechRestore’s screen replacement program is an option worth serious consideration. Perhaps the best compliment I can give to this matte marvel is that, as the end of my time approaches with the machine, I’m trying to think of creative ways for it to get “lost” before I have to return it to Macworld Lab!

While I still hold out hope for an official Apple solution—and one that offers a true matte screen, not just an “anti-glare” option—TechRestore’s screen replacement program means that I can now once again contemplate the purchase of a new MacBook Pro.

Updated at 4:40 p.m. on Feb 4, 2009

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