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Lawsuit over color screens falls into gray area

Is Apple lying to its customers?

When the news broke last week that two California men had filed a class action lawsuit against Apple accusing the company of knowingly using inferior LCD screens in its MacBook and MacBook Pro model computers, it touched off a fierce debate among Mac users.

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At issue are Apple's advertised claims that the MacBook line supports "millions of colors" and offers "a nuanced view simply unavailable on other portables."

The plaintiffs say that their experience (and that of many other MacBook customers, liberally quoted from Web forums in the lawsuit) falls far short of Apple's claims. They cite complaints of "sparkly" and "grainy" displays that show banding in color gradients. They further allege that Apple is well aware of the issue and refuses to acknowledge or fix it, instead hoping "to enrich itself with the money it thus saves."

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Could it be true that Apple has maliciously schemed to dupe its loyal customers to reap big profits? Or are these California dudes just a couple of hard-to-please troublemakers, as some in the Mac community are saying?

It's true that the MacBooks and MacBook Pros use "6-bit" LCD panels instead of "8-bit" panels. The difference is that 8-bit can display 16.7 million colors, while 6-bit can only display 262,144 colors. But, and this is a very big but, a bit of tech magic called "dithering" can manipulate the pixels on the screen in such a way as to trick the eye into seeing far more colors – 16.2 million, in fact, providing Apple an arguable claim to "millions" of colors.

According to experts, the human eye can distinguish at best 10 million colors, so the dithering trick works well enough for most people. In general only those doing serious color work on their computers, such as professional photographers and graphic artists, need 8-bit capabilities.

Although many critics on Web forums have chastised Apple's use of 6-bit displays, particularly in its MacBook Pros, all laptops, including all those made by rival PC manufacturers and sold with Microsoft's Windows, use 6-bit displays. As far as I've been able to determine, a laptop with an 8-bit capable display has never been available at any price.

If the two men who filed the lawsuit were as serious about the quality of their displays as they claim, they should have researched the subject before they bought a laptop for professional work.

I'm also suspicious of the screen problems the men allege. I've owned a MacBook for nearly a year and have encountered none of the issues described in the lawsuit. I even put it side by side with my brand-new 21-inch Samsung 215TW LCD (purchased for my desktop Mac) and detected no dramatic discrepancy in color depth quality, though the Samsung is clearly much brighter and has a phenomenal viewing angle (178 degrees!). I discovered the hard way that 8-bit panels are tough to find even in standalone LCDs, because the 6-bit panels are cheaper and have faster "response times," which is regarded as better for gaming and viewing video.

A May 23 post on the MacinTouch Web site has me thinking that the real issue is not 6-bit versus 8-bit LCDs, but a bad batch of LCDs that got into Apple's supply chain. In his post, Rich Cruse says he had a MacBook that suffered from the display issues described in the California lawsuit. He took the machine to his local Apple Store, which replaced the screen. He reported that his repaired MacBook is "bright and crisp with realistic colors."

So the problem appears real enough, though not universal as the lawsuit implies. Perhaps the most legitimate beef in the lawsuit is that Apple has blown off many of those who have complained about their bad displays, not something we Mac users expect of a company with a top-notch reputation for customer satisfaction.

As for the core of the lawsuit -- the allegations that Apple makes claims its laptops don't meet -- the uncomfortable fact is that no matter how petty it seems, those claims at best stretch the truth. Apple should come clean on this one, and should do right by those customers unlucky enough to have bought Mac laptops with bad LCDs.

If Apple loses the suit, it (and, presumably, all other laptop manufacturers) will still be allowed to advertise 6-bit screens as capable of "millions" of colors, but will be required to include a qualifying phrase, such as "with dithering" to distinguish them from 8-bit screens. Participants in the lawsuit will end up with little more than an Apple Store coupon worth $20-$25. The lawyers will collect enough money to buy many, many large, expensive 8-bit LCDs.

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