Most manufacturers and retailers don't warn consumers about the possibility of bum pixels.

Share story

Josh Slade loves his new Apple laptop computer. He does, that is, when the speck in the center of the monitor isn’t driving him nuts.

“It bothers me like a fly on the screen would,” said Slade, 22, a computer consultant in Syracuse, N.Y.

That irksome dot is a dead pixel, one defective electronic pinpoint of light among the myriad that make up the liquid crystal displays in laptop screens, flat-panel monitors and flat-panel TVs.

Most manufacturers and retailers don’t warn consumers about the possibility of bum pixels, and few will fix or replace a new screen that comes with “just” one or two. Most require at least three and some 10 or more, depending on the locations, type and screen size.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Manufacturers argue that it’s difficult to make perfect LCDs.

Each of the 786,432 pixels in a typical 15-inch display, for example, is made of three tiny lights, each with its own transistor. Flaws in any of those 2.36 million transistors can cause a pixel to not light up (a black dot) or to remain constantly lit in a single color (a bright dot). Such defects, however, aren’t apparent until late in the manufacturing process, so scrapping bad displays is expensive, said Paul Semenza, vice president of display and consumer research for iSuppli, a market research company headquartered in El Segundo, Calif.

To keep costs down, manufacturers don’t scrap screens that meet a minimum standard, usually one or two defective pixels for a 15-inch screen. But to a consumers’ eye, “bad is bad,” Semenza said.

In the weeks before he bought his current Apple laptop, Slade said he went through three others, all with at least one bad pixel out of the box. The first he returned because of a defective hard drive, applying the credit to a more expensive model. When the second turned out to have two bad pixels, the Apple Store where he bought it wouldn’t exchange it until Slade, as he put it, “threw a fit.” The store manager agreed to an exchange, stipulating that it would be final, even if the new unit had a bad pixel, Slade said. It did.

After selling that laptop, Slade bought a fourth on Apple’s Web site — with a less noticeable but still defective pixel in the middle of the screen. Considering the effort it took to exchange a machine with two dead pixels, he didn’t attempt a return. But after a reporter queried Apple about Slade’s experience, the company contacted him and arranged for his monitor to be repaired or replaced.

Apple Computer said in a written statement that its monitors meet the same International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, standard as other manufacturers’ products. “Any customer who is concerned about pixel anomalies with an Apple display should contact an Apple Authorized Service Provider,” the statement read. Unlike other manufacturers, Apple does not spell out exact requirements for a return.

Slade has an idea: “I feel that (the screen) should be flawless when you are paying as much as I did.”

Perfect screens

But if electronic device makers rejected every screen that wasn’t “pixel perfect,” their costs — and consequently the price of their products — would skyrocket, said John Jacobs, an analyst with market research firm DisplaySearch in San Jose, Calif.

The quality of LCDs in consumer electronics can fluctuate with the market, Jacobs said. When screens are plentiful, manufacturers can be pickier, but when supply is tight, they may relax their standards. “They’d rather sell 100,000 more laptops even if it means more returns,” he said.

The flexibility to use less-than-perfect screens is part of what keeps prices coming down, Jacobs said.

Slade, on the other hand, points out that people who buy monitors or laptops with one or two bum pixels pay the same price as those lucky enough to buy perfect screens. “It’s like gambling,” he said.

Stephen Pehrson agrees.

Pehrson, 36, an Oakland, Calif., Web consultant, has developed some novel strategies for masking the beacon-like red dot on his new 17-inch Sony flat-panel computer monitor. He tries to position letters or a scroll bar over the offending spot. “You have to phase it out somehow, or you’ll end up staring at it,” he said., the online retailer that sold Pehrson his monitor, reminds buyers before they purchase that it takes returns only on monitors with eight or more bad pixels.

For a 17-inch monitor, Sony’s warranty requires at least four dark or bright pixels, said Robert Stevens, a San Diego-based spokesman for Sony. However, the company sometimes replaces monitors with as few as one bright pixel if it’s near the center of the screen, he said.

Quality rising

Slade’s string of bad pixels aside, manufacturing quality is steadily rising, Semenza said. But so are expectations, especially as more LCD TVs are sold. “If you are sitting there watching TV on your $3,000 screen, you are going to focus on that bad pixel in the corner,” he said.

Some manufacturers and sellers are rising to the challenge. Nintendo last year won praise for a generous return policy applied to a new handheld game console said to have dead-pixel problems.

Some retailers are beginning to treat pixel problems as defects, not just unfortunate side effects of LCD technology.

Circuit City, for example, will exchange any product within its return period, 30 days for TVs and 14 for computers and monitors, said spokesman Jim Babb. “We don’t have a specific pixel policy,” he said. “If the customer feels it’s defective and brings it back within the return period, we will exchange it for the exact same product.” Refunds may incur a 15 percent “restocking fee.”

Noting the risks

Slade thinks consumers would feel less cheated if manufacturers were just more upfront about the risks of getting a flawed, non-returnable screen. “If you get a perfect one, you get a perfect one; and if you don’t, you get some money,” he suggested.

Jacobs said buyers can stack the odds in their favor by carefully researching the return policies of different retailers and manufacturers before buying.

Those who can wait might want to hold out for a zero-dead-pixel guarantee, Semenza said. He predicts consumer expectations eventually will push device makers to offer one.