Staff Writer, CNET News.com
You've just blown $2,000 on a sexy new flat-panel TV, and it thinks there should be a little black pimple in the middle of Tom Cruise's face.
Good luck getting it fixed. That black spot is a dead pixel, a malfunctioning electronic dot among the millions that make up a typical display. And manufacturers of TV sets, notebook computers, desktop PC displays and other devices equipped with LCD screens vary widely in their policies on rectifying them.
"This is one of the things nobody ever wants to talk about in the industry," said Paul Semenza, an analyst at research company iSuppli. "The reality is that there are a lot of (screens) that aren't quite up to snuff floating around, and they end up somewhere."
Sometimes they end up in your new notebook, as San Francisco engineer Rik Wehbring discovered a few years ago. The screen on his new Dell laptop turned out to a have a dead pixel.
Under Dell's policy, which considers a screen defective only if it has six or more faulty pixels, Wehbring didn't have a problem. To Wehbring's eyes, he did.
"It was definitely an annoyance," he said. "When it's your monitor and you're sitting 18 inches away, you definitely notice it."
Wehbring said Dell customer service told him he could send the screen in for repair, but he'd get a refurbished unit, and those were allowed to have as many as seven bum pixels. Instead, he took advantage of the company's 30-day return policy and sent back his laptop, later using the refund to gamble on another Dell. The screen on the new laptop was fine, but the initial experience left a bitter aftertaste.
"The real issue is truth and language—broken is broken," he said. "They were trying to tell me I was silly for believing a dead pixel is a bad thing."
Dell spokeswoman Mary Fad said the company developed its dead-pixel policy to be brief and comprehensible to customers. But Dell can be flexible in interpreting it, she said, realizing that some dead pixels are more aggravating than others. "It's something that's a little subjective," she said. "We try to work with customers on a case-by-case basis."
Dead pixels are the result of flaws in the glass sheets that go into displays. Inevitable glitches in the manufacturing process mean that some pixels don't illuminate properly—or at all. Display manufacturers can avoid most defects by scrapping bad sections of a glass sheet, but a few bad pixels usually crop up in other areas.
John Jacobs, an analyst at research firm DisplaySearch, said the prevalence of bad pixels in consumer devices tends to change with the display market. When supplies are tight, gadget makers have to accept panels with more flaws, and those get passed on to consumers.
"The market for displays is pretty bad right now, so the (manufacturers) can raise the cosmetic specs and get away with that," Jacobs said. "If the market gets really, really tight, they'll change those policies to keep costs down...You're better off selling another 10,000 laptops and having 50 more returns than having to bump your prices way up."
It's possible to make devices whose every panel is perfect, as shown by standards for industries such as medical-imaging devices, where one bad pixel can mean "they're going to cut you open thinking that's where the tumor is," Jacobs said.
But applying such stringent quality standards dramatically raises the price of the finished device, as more than half the display glass the manufacturer buys has to be rejected because of flaws. Instead, device makers accept a certain number of defects and let the buyer beware.Defining 'defective'
The trick comes in figuring out just what your gadget maker considers to be a defective screen. Some manufacturers, such as Dell, set specific policies laying out how many pixels have to conk out for a display to be defective.
While Dell's policy is relatively straightforward, some, such as those belonging to Acer and IBM, set complex formulas that distinguish between "bright dots" and "dark dots," the location on the screen and other factors.
Online retailer Newegg.com is one of the few stores that applies a uniform and widely publicized dead-pixel policy. Each LCD monitor listed on the site includes a reminder that the store will only replace if it has eight or more dead pixels.
"Not everybody's forthcoming with that kind of information," said Jommy Gayoso, director of sales and merchandising at Newegg. "We believe customers are better off if they know what they're getting into with a purchase."
Other manufacturers boast simple zero-tolerance policies on bad pixels as a way of boosting customer loyalty. Samsung last year began promoting a "no dead pixels" policy on some LCD monitors. And Nintendo has recently garnered praise for a lenient policy regarding replacing defective screens on its new DS handheld game player.
"We're seeing a shift toward zero defects," iSuppli's Semenza said. "Several years ago, the manufacturers were basically saying that if there's not three (dead pixels) in a row or a cluster, they don't count—all these nitpicky things that put the risk on the consumer. It's like saying that as long as three wheels work on your car, it's OK. It's clearly not something consumers want to hear, and the manufacturers are having to respond."
Ithaca, N.Y.-based Web developer Teri Solow said she appreciated the clarity of Nintendo's policy for the DS. Even though the company basically promises to fix any screen defects bad enough to annoy the consumer, Solow decided that the bum pixel or two on her player weren't noticeable enough to warrant replacement.
"Dead pixels bother some people more than others, and I'm sure there are many people out there who would be much more upset at getting one dead pixel in their DS than I was at getting two," Solow said. "By giving everyone the option to get their screens replaced, Nintendo is ensuring that everyone who cares deeply about such things will end up happy."
Sony, on the other hand, offers no such assurances for its PlayStation Portable, whose Japanese launch was marred by numerous reports of dead pixels. Sony's manual for the PSP merely states that faulty pixels are "a normal occurrence associated with LCD screens and not a sign of a malfunction."
Apple Computer employs a similarly vague policy for its PowerBook laptops, desktop displays and other products, saying an undetermined number of "pixel anomalies" are normal in such products, and Apple will decide when a problem is bad enough to warrant service.
Canadian filmmaker and comedian Andrew Currie said he learned of the policy when he bought a PowerBook a few years ago and discovered several dead pixels on the screen. The screen was replaced, but only after much haggling with Apple.
"I had absolutely no idea, and my first reaction to hearing the policy was, 'Well, I never agreed to that!'" Currie said. "This issue is akin to buying a new car and being told that there might be a couple of dents in the body panels, or new eyeglasses and being told that the lenses might have some scratches on them."
DisplaySearch's Jacobs, formerly a global supply manager at Apple, said the company's pixel policy is designed to put the onus on consumers. "Basically, Apple has a policy that if you make a stink, they'll replace it," he said.
An Apple representative did not respond to requests for comment.
Currie later bought one of Apple's Cinema Display desktop monitors and negotiated with the retailer to make sure he eventually got one without bad pixels. He said Apple and other manufacturers would serve customers better by adopting zero-tolerance policies on bad pixels.
That's not a bad idea, Jacobs said, given that most customers won't notice or complain about one or two bad pixels. For those who do, a simple "we'll fix it" policy like Nintendo's ensures goodwill.
"It's cheap customer love, saying, 'We care, we're going to give you the best-quality product,'" Jacobs said. "But the number of people who actually complain and do something about it is still going to be pretty small."
Semenza, however, said dead pixels will become more rare through a combination of improvements in manufacturing processes and market forces, especially as flat-panel displays proliferate in the home. "For TVs, any defect is unacceptable," he said. "If you're asking somebody to pay $2,000 for a high-resolution TV, they're not going to accept any flaws."