Apple's color-blind MacBook marketing

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Over the weekend I heard about the class-action lawsuit being filed against Apple by two MacBook users who complain that their Apple laptops were falsely advertised as supporting “millions of colors,” when in fact they only display approximately 262,000 colors.

Color is not my best subject. I’m slightly red-green colorblind, which in my case means that I have trouble differentiating between certain subtle gradations in green, and have difficulty identifying very faint pinks — they look white or gray.

Moreover, I really enjoy my MacBook’s display. I’ve found that the glossy display ends up providing much deeper blacks than the non-reflective display on my old laptop, and the MacBook’s powerful backlighting means that I can once again work on my laptop in direct sunlight, which I never really could manage with my PowerBook.

But when I heard about this issue, the first thing I did was check the stats on my own MacBook. And what I found was that my laptop uses an LG Electronics LP133WX1 -TLA1 display. According to the LG Philips LCD web site, that display is a 6-bit display capable of displaying 262,144 colors.

In my year-plus of using a MacBook, I’ve never noticed any problem with the colors it has displayed. For all I know, my color-blind eyes aren’t even capable of detecting more than 262,144 colors, at least not in a meaningful way.

But here’s the thing: Apple’s tech specs page for the MacBook says, very clearly, that my laptop’s display is “a 13.3-inch (diagonal) glossy widescreen TFT display with support for millions of colors.” And my Display control panel claims that I can choose a color range of “256 Colors,” “Thousands,” or “Millions.”

I may not be able to tell a blue sweater from a green sweater (true story!), or appreciate the beauty of the subtle pink blossoms on a cherry tree. But I do know this: 262,144 is substantially less than “millions.”

According to one article I found, this is standard industry practice — that 6-bit displays are often referred to as supporting 16.2 or 16 million colors, even though the display can’t actually display those extra colors without dithering. (Dithering is a process by which dots of closely-related colors are placed next to each other in a pattern that the human eye merges together, giving the appearance of a different color.)

But being an standard industry practice doesn’t mean it’s right. Of course the manufacturers of 6-bit displays would want to claim that their products could display 16 million colors instead of 262,000. I’d like to claim that buying a copy of Macworld’s Apple TV Superguide will cure gout, too — but it won’t. (Sorry, Macworld readers who suffer from gout.)

A lot of Apple’s customers are (unlike me) extremely color-sensitive design and graphics professionals. Even if it turns out that the display industry’s standard practice is legitimate, Apple owes it to those customers to more completely disclose what they’re getting when they buy an Apple computer or display.

Let’s hope that this situation makes Apple see the light — all 16 million odd colors of it.

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