Can you not see your laptop’s screen in a bright room, or do you think the colors on your desktop computer’s display look dull and lifeless? Maybe you chose the wrong type of display coating.

You have a choice between glossy and matte displays when you buy a laptop or computer monitor. They’re similar, but the differences matter.

How They’re Similar

Glossy and matte displays use the same LCD panels. The only real difference between these two types of displays is the coating applied to the screen. In controlled situations, glossy and matte displays will look fairly similar.

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This similarity is why there’s such a great debate between the two. Manufacturers can’t settle on one best coating, and different users prefer different coatings based on what they want out of a screen. You have a choice between screens with different coatings when buying a computer monitor or laptop.

Glossy vs. Matte Displays

Glossy displays have more vivid color and contrast. Colors appear more intense and saturated, while blacks appear deeper. However, light shining on the display can cause extremely noticeable reflections. Sunlight is the worst case scenario — either direct sunlight outside or even just sunlight coming in through a window. Reflections can make a glossy display basically unusable in direct sunlight.

Matte screens have an anti-glare coating applied to them, so they’re much better at preventing reflections. It’s easier to see a matte screen in a bright room, whether you’re dealing with sunlight or just intense light from overhead fluorescent light bulbs in an office. The downside is that this coating makes colors appear a bit more dull.

Glossy displays tend to look better in stores where there are no bright lights to cause glare, but you may want a matte display if you plan on using the display in a bright room. Matte displays may counteract glare much better, but that doesn’t really matter if you’re never going to use it in a bright area.

In the below image, you can clearly see the difference — both in color and glare — between a matte Dell display on the left and a glossy Apple display on the right. Bear in mind that these are different monitors using different panels, so you can’t make a direct comparison. Not all of the difference in color is down to the matte or glossy coating, but it’s still instructive.

So Which Should You Buy?

If you’re buying a monitor for a desktop computer and you always use its display in a room that isn’t extremely bright, you’ll probably want a glossy display for the more vibrant colors.

If you’re buying a laptop and might want to use it outdoors or in a bright room on sunny days, you’ll probably want a matte display. Even a matte display isn’t perfect here — in direct sunlight, you’re going to get some glare. It’s just less extreme on a matte display.

On the other hand, maybe you’re buying a desktop computer monitor for a bright room, whether it’s for a desk that gets direct sunlight or an office with bright overhead fluorescent light bulbs. You’ll probably want a matte display to reduce the glare.

You may also be buying a laptop that you intend on using indoors and out of direct sunlight, so you may prefer a glossy display with more intense colors versus the matte display and its anti-glare coating.

Let’s be honest — it’s tough to know exactly how you plan on using a display for its entire lifetime, especially if it’s a laptop. Maybe you want a matte display for the increased flexibility, or maybe you want a glossy display for the more vibrant colors. Either way it’s a trade-off.

In the photo below, bear in mind that the display on the left is on an older laptop, so you can’t directly compare the displays. The differences are due to much more than a glossy or matte coating.

A Difficult Decision

There’s no end to this back-and-forth weighing of positives and negatives. It goes on and on, and it’s all a matter of personal preference and how you plan on using the display. There’s no one clear answer for everyone. If you think about it, you may find that there’s not even a clear answer for you.

If it were possible to flip a switch and change a display’s coating from glossy to matte, we’d probably switch between glossy and matte depending on the situation we found ourselves in. Sadly, it’s not — we have to pick one. (You can buy anti-glare screen films for some glossy displays, but you’re probably better off just getting a matte display in the first place if you’re going to do that.)

There’s not much you can do here besides look at displays in person, but even that won’t help much because the glossy display will look better in an electronics store where reflections and glare aren’t a factor. Actually using the different types of displays in your day to day life is the best way to really know what you want — and, even then, you may prefer different types of displays in different situations.

A few people even claim to prefer the colors on a matte display, saying that they’re too vivid on a glossy display. These people may just be used to matte displays, but they still have a real personal preference. This is a complicated choice.

Image Credit: William Hook on Flickr, Patrick on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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