Gloss begone


— 7:57 PM on February 10, 2011

There are few things that I despise more than the predominance of polished plastics in today's notebooks. Glossy finishes are the single worst trend in PC design since the beige bland boxes of yesteryear. Those old-school systems weren't so much the product of poor design as they were a reflection of what happens when you have no design at all. Gloss is arguably even worse because it's an attempt at aesthetic improvement that ends up having the opposite effect.

Sure, glossy plastic looks great when it's fresh from the factory or right after it's been buffed with one of the cleaning cloths that always seem to come with it. However, even gentle handling tends to leave behind a mess of fingerprints and smudges that's impossible to ignore. As I've said before, that's an epic failure of design.

My opinion would be different if notebooks were meant to hang on a wall, sit on a stand, or otherwise be separated from end users. But we're talking about an inherently tactile device that gets touched, held, carried, and otherwise manhandled as a part of day-to-day life. Design departments are either ignorant of this reality or have made a conscious decision to ignore it. I get the distinct feeling that glossy notebooks were designed more to attract the attention of consumers wandering retail aisles than to look good after purchase.

More than a year ago, I bought an Acer Aspire 1810TZ in spite of its glossy finish—not because of it. I've buffed that surface more times than I'd care to remember, but thanks to a few scratches picked up here and there, it'll never be pristine again. What better time to get rid of the gloss for good?

This Lifehacker post served as my inspiration, promising to banish gloss with little more than a kitchen scouring pad. The article also suggested that fine-grained steel wool might work, but with Walmart a short walk away and scouring pads the recommended option, I soon found myself approaching the Aspire with a stack of Scotch-Brite pads.

The notebook's lid offers a large, flat surface without too much curvature around the edges, making it the perfect place to begin my scouring. Lifehacker recommends sanding in a circular motion and with different sizes of circles to create a layered effect, so that's what I did. I started with tight circles to ensure even coverage around the edges before expanding the diameter. All the while, Mr. Miyagi's voice echoed in my head. Scour on, gloss off.

This process essentially wears away the glossy finish with an abrasive material. Not wanting to press too hard and end up gouging the plastic, I applied firm but even pressure across as much of the scouring pad as possible. The sanding will generate a fine dust that should be wiped away with a slightly moist paper towel after each pass. After about 10 minutes of scouring, I ended up with something that looked quite a bit duller than before.

The Aspire doesn't have a glossy palm rest, but like many other notebooks, the screen bezel is a polished fingerprint magnet. I can't think of a more inappropriate place for gloss. Tilting a notebook's lid without touching the bezel is nearly impossible, and since the bezel rings the screen, you're going to be face to face with whatever marks your fingers leave behind. Don't get me started on how polished bezels can accentuate unwanted reflections in glossy display panels.

After masking the screen with some painter's tape, I set to work on the bezel. This should go without saying, but you definitely don't want to take a scouring pad to your screen—that'll ruin it. Care should also be taken to avoid the webcam lens unless you want to blur your next Chatroulette session.

Tight circles are really your only option when de-glossing a bezel, and some hinge configurations may make it difficult to get even coverage all around. I also found that the Acer logo on the bezel was much less resilient than the one on the top cover. The bezel logo started to wear at the first touch of the scouring pad, while the one on the top panel remained crisp and clear after heavy scouring.

A closer look at the bezel reveals exactly what one might expect: the thing looks like it's been attacked with sandpaper or a scouring pad. But there's no gloss to be seen, and my fingers don't leave any marks. In fact, the screen itself looks less reflective because it's no longer framed by a shiny border.

Peering closely at the top panel under the oppressive lighting of my makeshift home studio reveals a similar pattern of scratches. The gloss is gone and fingers leave no discernable marks, but the scoured surface isn't all that attractive from a few inches away. For a moment, I felt a twinge of regret and wondered if maybe I'd made things worse.

Then I saw the top panel from arm's length under the lights of my living room.

Yeah, that's a definite improvement.

Arm's length is as close as I really get to my notebook. At that distance, the individual scratches sort of blend together into a larger pattern that really comes alive under softer lighting. That pattern effectively hides not only the oily residue deposited by my fingertips but also the few gouges that had previously marred the glossy finish. The end result looks worn and weathered, sort of like an old pair of jeans. I'd much prefer that to the alternative, which would be more akin to a pair of latex pants after an evening of heavy petting. Ewww.

Scouring away the gloss has probably dropped the resale value of my notebook and voided the now-expired warranty, but I don't really care. I have no plans to sell and am quite happy to sacrifice fingerprints, smudges, and buffing for scratches that only bother me up close. If I end up with another glossy notebook, I won't hesitate to break out the scouring pad once more. Thankfully, the number of new matte and textured finishes we saw at CES this year suggests that gloss may be on its way out. The migration to surfaces that maintain their attractiveness in the real world can't come soon enough.

   
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