Question: Eye strain from LED backlighting in MacBook Pro
Once I started using my new laptop for long periods of time, I noticed severe eye strain and minor symptoms almost similar to motion sickness. After 20 or 30 minutes of use, I felt like I had been looking at the screen all day. Much longer and I would get headaches. If I used the old white MacBook (with its CCFL display), I had no eye troubles at all. Moreover, I could detect a distinct flicker on the MacBook Pro display when I moved my eyes across it - especially over high contract areas of the screen. White text on a black background was virtually impossible for me to read without feeling sick to my stomach because of all the flickering from moving my eyes over the text.
The strangest thing about all of this was that nobody else I showed the screen to could see these flickers I was seeing. I began to question my sanity until I did a little research. Discovering that the MacBook Pro introduced a new LED backlit display started to shed some light (so to speak) on what might be going on. I had long known that I could see LED flicker in things like car taillights and christmas lights that most of my friends could not see. I also knew that I could easily see the "rainbow effect" in DLP televisions that many other people don't see.
My research into LED technology turned up the fact that it is a bit of a technological challenge to dim an LED. Varying the voltage generally doesn't work as they are essentially designed to be either on or off with a fixed brightness. To work around this limitation, designers use a technique called pulse width modulation to mimic the appearance of lower intensity light coming out of the LED. I don't claim to fully understand the concept, but it essentially seems to involve very briefly turning off the LED several times over a given time span. The dimmer the LED needs to appear, the more time it spends in the off state.
Because this all happens so very quickly, the human brain does not interpret the flickers as flickers, rather as simply dimmer light. For most people that is. Some people (myself included) are much more sensitive to these flickers. From what I can tell, the concept is called the "flicker fusion threshold" and is the frequency at which sometime that is actually flickering is interpreted by the human brain as being continuously lit. While the vast majority of people have a threshold that doesn't allow them to see the flicker in dimmed LEDs, some people have a higher threshold that causes them to see the flickering in things like LED car tail lights and, unfortunately, LED backlit displays - leading to this terrible eye strain.
The solution? I now keep my screen turned up to full brightness to eliminate the need for the flicker-inducing pulse width modulation. The screen is very bright, but there are no more flickers and I love my MacBook Pro too much to exchange it for a plain MacBook with CCFL backlighting (which will also supposedly be switching to LED backlighting in 2009 anyway.) The staff at my local Apple store was of course more than helpful and was willing to let me exchange my glossy screen for matte even though I was beyond the 14 day return period. I knew that wasn't the problem though as my old MacBook was a glossy display. I've decided to stick with my full brightness solution. Sitting in a brightly-lit room tends to help alleviate how blinding the full brightness of the screen can be. In a dimly-lit room I guess I just wear sunglasses. Either way, the extreme brightness is worlds better than the sickening flicker I saw with a lower brightness setting
I would caution anybody considering buying a product with an LED backlit display to pay careful attention to make sure you don't have this same sensitivity. Turn the screen brightness down, find a high contract area of the screen, and quickly move your eyes back and forth over the screen. If you can detect the flicker, you may end up with this same problem.
I have no idea what percentage of the population has this sensitivity. I imagine we will hear more about it as more and more displays start using this technology. Hopefully the Apple engineers will come up with a way to eliminate this flicker some of us can see.
15-inch MacBook Pro, Mac OS X (10.5.4)