What Is a Dead Pixel, Anyway?

Switch users are complaining about spots on their screens. What’s going on?
March 7, 2017, 4:00pm

A dead pixel is like a popcorn hull in your gums: It's not going to kill you, but once you've noticed it, you'll probably never manage to un-notice it.

Malfunctioning pixels, like the ones Nintendo Switch users are complaining about on their new consoles, have plagued screens since the dawn of liquid crystal displays. They're those tiny stubborn squares of missing or "stuck" color that remind you that yes, you're looking at an array of carefully programmed bits of light and not a sprawling meadow in Hyrule.

So, what are these little irritations on your otherwise picturesque view?

"They can be one of two things," Jonathan Brawn, a digital signage consultant, told me. "[Either] a dark pixel, which is what I personally call a 'dead pixel,' where no light is produced, or a stuck pixel that is constantly outputting light."

"Dead" and "stuck" aren't interchangeable names. Dead is dead. They're purely black or white spots, and are rarely resurrected. Stuck is just stubborn—these sometimes respond to remedies (which we'll get to in a moment). A stuck pixel can show up as any color of light, but is most often red, green, or blue.

"Dead or stuck pixels are typically caused as a flaw in manufacturing, something about that particular pixel that was not manufactured correctly on top of the substrate glass, causing an electrical malfunction," Brawn explained.

In most stuck cases, it isn't the entire pixel that's gone awry, Raymond Soneira, President of DisplayMate Technologies told me. It could be just one or more of the red, green or blue subpixels, the individual RGB elements that form color combinations within each pixel. "A stuck on red or green sub-pixel is probably the most annoying."

Regardless of how they got there or what color they are, they're irritating, especially if you just chucked the better part of this month's grocery budget into a gaming system. Some new Switch owners have publicly complained about their pixel problems, without much sympathy from Nintendo.

"Small numbers of stuck or dead pixels are a characteristic of LCD screens," reads Nintendo's curt FAQ on the topic. "These are normal and should not be considered a defect."

So, it's up to you to either forget that it's there, or fix it yourself—and there are a lot of how-tos on the internet for desperate people looking to correct stuck pixels.

Most, like JScreenFix or PixelHealer, involve running the maximum current into the capacitor in the pixel, in an effort to flush the trapped, errant voltage. "If it's a more serious flaw, then it may be permanent," Brawn said. "Dark pixels are another thing entirely, and that typically won't help."

Some of these methods seem extremely questionable, instructing you to grab a blunt object and start scrubbing away at your screen. Don't do that. Even if the Switch system is nearly indestructible, and made of plastic, not glass, Brawn does not advise that anyone try to massage that pesky spot in their screens away. "I really don't like the recommendation to apply pressure to the glass," he said. "This can deform pixels and potentially help, but it's a big risk of breaking the glass. I'd never tell someone to do it."

Unless Nintendo starts taking a closer look at its screen manufacturing process, or releases some kind of app to flash or flush suspected stuck pixels, you're kind of shit out of luck. But at least you've learned something about that maddening blemish on your new toy.