The LG UltraFine 5K Display is Apple’s answer to MacBook Pro customers who wish to connect their notebooks to an external display with a single cable. After reportedly getting out of the standalone monitor business, LG’s offerings, which are available in 4K and 5K varieties, might be the next best option.
The fact that you can connect a single Thunderbolt 3 cable from your MacBook to the LG UltraFine 5K Display is quite compelling. Not only will this provide display output, but it will also deliver the necessary power (up to 85W) to keep your MacBook Pro — 13- or 15-inch variety — charged.
We recently got our hands on the LG UltraFine 5K Display. Is it a good choice for MacBook Pro owners? Watch our hands-on video walkthrough inside to learn more.
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The most compelling thing about this display, of course, is its screen. At 5K, you get 5120-by-2880 native resolution, or 2560-by-1440 when using Retina mode (pixel-doubled). In other words, it’s capable of delivering the same amount of on-screen real estate as the Thunderbolt Display, but it’s Retina-enabled, which makes it a whole lot easier on the eyes.
Apple starts users off with a default 2560-by-1440 pixel-doubled Retina resolution, but users have the option of customizing display resolution via macOS’ System Preferences. I find that the default resolution is the perfect balance of real estate, asset size, and crispness.
The 27-inch glossy IPS display provides wide viewing angles and supports P3 wide color support just like the new MacBook Pro, along with panels that feature 500 nits of brightness. Unlike its smaller 4K brethren, the 5K display is also 10-bit, which will be great for serious video editing, photo editing, and color grading.
Like all modern Apple displays, the LG display is glossy. However, I found that it did a decent job of rejecting glare from light sources in front of the unit while in use.
Using Final Cut Pro X, I’m impressed by how tack sharp all of the screen assets are. I can view a 1080p video in full resolution in a relatively small window with tons of app real estate to spare. 4K videos can also be viewed in full resolution, but obviously with less app real estate.
Hands-on with the LG UltraFine 5K Display
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As you would expect from a good IPS display, it’s got decent off-axis viewing angles. Color shift, while still noticeable at times depending on the on screen content, is kept at a reasonable level. That said, the panel doesn’t seem to be as good as the MacBook Pro’s panel in this regard.
Black levels are less impressive with this display, and I noticed backlight bleed on some of the edges when viewing what should have been a completely black screen. But how often are we staring at a completely black screen? It’s not often for most users, and I don’t think it’s something that should prevent most users from considering the display.
LG’s UltraFine 5K Display supports wide color with a P3 color gamut, and 500 nits of brightness — the same specs that are found on the new MacBook Pro. I find that it does an admirable job of matching my 13-inch MacBook Pro’s display in these areas.
According to LG’s documentation for the UltraFine 5K Display, there’s also an ambient light sensor included on the top bezel, next to the camera.
Sadly, the current version of macOS that I’m using — 10.12.2 — doesn’t feature an “Automatically adjust brightness” setting in the panel’s Display section of System Preferences. Here’s hoping that we will see automatic brightness support implemented in a future release.
Like with most displays, the built-in speakers aren’t suitable replacements for dedicated speakers, however the sound quality is better than you might expect from a pair of down-firing stereo speakers. The speakers are located underneath the bottom bezel and feature a clean-looking four port design.
The biggest deficiency when it comes to sound quality on the LG UltraFine is on the low end, but the mids also suffer from muffled sound. The speakers are good enough to get you by in a pinch, but you’ll definitely want to use headphones or a standalone speaker system if sound quality is of any concern.
Build quality and design
The monitor comes out of the box with its base connected, which means that there are no tools that you’ll need to use. It’s ready to be connected to your MacBook Pro immediately after unboxing.
The LG display is comprised primarily of black plastic, which is a stark departure from the aluminum featured on Apple’s now-discontinued Thunderbolt Display. It’s an understated design for the most part, although there is a small LG logo on the bottom bezel.
The base of the stand is made out of metal, which lends it a solid foundation. However, everything else, from the stem to the display housing and bezel, is made out of dark plastic.
The good news is that the build quality is a step above the typical display, and the plastic isn’t as brittle as the material used on some of the cheaper models you’ll encounter.
That said, I found that the display is still somewhat prone to wobble, especially when the height is adjusted to higher levels. Granted, Apple’s Thunderbolt Display lacked height adjustment, but the LG Display is a noticeable step backward in the area of desktop stability.
The display’s up and down pivot (up to 4.3-inches) is relatively smooth, but still a far cry from what I’d like to imagine that Apple would have produced if designed in-house at Cupertino. It also features positive and negative tilt to position the screen at an ideal angle. The angle adjustments aren’t as smooth as they were on the Thunderbolt Display, which isn’t exactly surprising, but it’s still several notches above the typical cheap monitor.
Although you can’t orient the display vertically like you can with some monitors, you can adjust the horizontal level of the monitor head slightly. This is a feature that’s only to be used when the unit is resting on a slightly uneven surface.
The UltraFine display doesn’t sport any physical buttons or joysticks, which means all adjustments are performed via macOS. There’s not even a power button to power the display on or off. When you connect a Thunderbolt 3 cable, the display comes on, and when you disconnect the cable, the display turns off.
Putting the MacBook Pro to sleep immediately puts the LG display to sleep as well. Think of it as a true extension to your MacBook Pro, and not so much a separate peripheral.
The LG UltraFine 5K Display comes with a power cable, a lengthy 6-foot+ long Thunderbolt 3 cable, and a VESA cover.
The display’s stand can be detached via the switch on the rear, which allows users to mount the stand on a VESA arm using the provided VESA cover.
And since the display features an integrated power supply, there’s no power brick to fool with, which helps promote a clean setup.
A lack of ports
Unfortunately, the display is quite anemic when it comes to additional ports, and this is where it fails to live up to the comparatively generous Thunderbolt Display. Outside of the one Thunderbolt port, which is used to connect your 2016 MacBook Pro, LG only provides three downstream USB-C ports, and these ports are USB 3.1 (gen 1) only, which means a maximum bandwidth of 5Gbps. That’s right, there are no USB-A ports, no SD Card slot, and the USB-C ports are glorified USB 3.0 ports.
The port situation is somewhat disappointing. The most obvious reason is that the new MacBook Pro itself is lacking in ports, so it would have been nice to have the UltraFine Display help pick up the slack. But not only that, the ports that are there are slow by today’s standards.
Since DisplayPort 1.2, which is bundled with Thunderbolt 3, only supports a maximum resolution of 4K at 60Hz, LG and Apple had to work around this limitation. It’s similar to how Apple had to use its own custom timing controller for its 5K iMac, but exact details have yet to be revealed as to what LG had to do to make this display a reality.
From what I can gather, it looks like the monitor is using two streams and stitching them together to make one 5K image. This becomes apparent when closing the lid on the MacBook Pro, and the monitor briefly flickers and shows the two separate images.
The lack of an extra Thunderbolt 3 port means that daisy-chaining other devices to this monitor is not a possibility. You’ll need to either put the LG display at the tail end of the chain, or connect to it with a separate Thunderbolt 3 cable. And what if you’re a 15-inch MacBook Pro owner wishing to drive dual 5K displays? You’ll need to use two Thunderbolt 3 cables coming from each side of the MacBook Pro to drive such a setup.
Users with older Macs devoid of Thunderbolt 3 will still be able to connect to the display using a dongle, albeit at a lower resolution. Windows users are in a similar boat; the display works, but not at 5K.
Integration is key
The display may be lacking in ports, but you do get some built-in amenities that might otherwise require added peripherals. On the top bezel you’ll find a 1080p USB camera (with indicator light), and a USB microphone, which makes the display adequate for handling FaceTime calls without any additional equipment.
Although the inclusion of a the camera and other equipment increases the size of the upper bezel slightly — cue the “fivehead” comments — it is a considerable plus to have a built-in camera and microphone to facilitate voice and video calls. Some people will loathe the unbalanced top-heavy look of the bezel, but it’s not something that bothered me much during actual usage.
When connected to the LG UltraFine Display, users can adjust screen brightness directly from the macOS’ System Preferences. This means there’s no need to finagle with manual buttons or joysticks just to modify the display’s brightness or volume, for instance. I wish there was an easy-to-use Touch Bar shortcut for adjusting the brightness of the external display right from my MacBook Pro’s keyboard, but the Control+Brightness Up/Down shortcut seems to work okay in the meantime.
The LG UltraFine 5K Display is a solid offering, that’s a decent purchase at $974. Remember that you’re getting an excellent panel, and the only other standalone 5K display available for purchase is one from Dell that’s significantly pricier, older, and doesn’t use Thunderbolt 3.
You won’t find the same design polish that you’d find on an Apple-branded monitor, but LG’s offering is generally better than the typical third-party monitor. The one-cable connection, and integration with FaceTime make it a good solution for new MacBook Pro owners who want something that just works. But some of you will probably be disappointed that the display lacks more port options, and the lack of any on-device buttons for brightness control is a little annoying until Apple provides a better software solution in macOS.
LG also offers a 4K version of its UltraFine display as well. Both displays are on sale for a limited time at $524.00 and $974.00 respectively.
The 4K version lacks support for Thunderbolt 3, but can still provide single cable connectivity via a USB-C cable. The 4K version also lacks the 10-bit panel, camera, and only provides 60W of power, which means that it won’t have enough power to charge a 15″ MacBook Pro at full speed.
To add more insult to injury, the 4K model is only capable of supporting USB 2.0 speeds on its downstream USB ports, which means that you’ll only want to connect things like mice, keyboards, and other low-bandwidth accessories. Personally speaking, if I had to choose between these two displays and money weren’t an absolute deciding factor, I’d go with the 5K version, hands-down.
LG’s UltraFine 5K display is currently available for order on Apple’s online store, but ship dates are still a few weeks out. The 4K variety is now available for purchase in some local Apple retail stores, but it’s backordered several weeks out online as well. Fortunately, Apple has extended its hefty discounts on both displays until March 31st, so you still have plenty of time to order one before the price goes back up.
What do you think about LG’s new 5K display? Sound off in the comments below.