Many of us were deeply disappointed when Apple appeared to be exiting the display business last summer.
Not just because we want matching aesthetics and the reassurance you get with an all-Apple setup, but also because there was no obvious third-party replacement. All Apple said at the time was that ‘there are a number of great third-party options available for Mac users,’ but without pointing to anything in particular.
When the company finally did make an official recommendation in the form of the LG UltraFine 4K and 5K monitors, it wasn’t exactly a great one. Not only are the monitors extremely un-Apple-like in their grey plastic cases, but a serious technical fault first identified by us led to the temporary withdrawal of the product until LG fixed the Wi-Fi interference problem. All in all, it was a mess.
The good news is that this mess has likely played a role in Apple doing a U-turn and making plans to get back into the display business …
There have been some who argued that Apple never officially said that it was quitting display manufacturing in the first place. While that’s technically true, it would be naive to imagine that this was all part of some grand master plan on the part of the company.
You don’t launch a monitor in 2011, fail to update it for six years, discontinue it without a replacement, advise customers to get a third-party model instead and finally co-announce a third-party monitor for use with your shiny new MacBook Pro models if you were planning to stay in the business all along. That would make zero sense. This is undeniably an about-face on the part of the company.
Apple hasn’t told us anything about its display plans. In fact, in the entire transcript of the briefing Apple gave in revealing plans for a new Mac Pro, there was exactly one unprompted sentence about it. Schiller said only that it would be a ‘pro display.’
As part of doing a new Mac Pro — it is, by definition, a modular system — we will be doing a pro display as well.
In response to a question, he did also appear to rule out a touchscreen.
[Would you consider a touch display?] No [laughter]. We’ve talked a lot about touch on the Mac. It’s certainly, as we’ve talked to pros, not a big request for things they would want in a Mac Pro and not the problems that they most want us to solve. And then, of course, there’s the whole other discussion we’ve had many times about why we believe that MacOS and iOS are distinct and each optimized to be best at what they’re best at. That’s a whole other long discussion we can get into, but suffice it to say, it’s not a big need of the Mac Pro customers that we’re trying to address.
But beyond that, we were given no steer on what the company has in mind.
We can, though, draw some conclusions based on what the company has done in partnering with LG to spec-up the UltraFine models it currently offers as its officially recommended monitors. So let’s start by looking at these in terms of the display panels themselves.
There’s a 21.5-inch 4K model, and a 27-inch 5K, so these would certainly be the minimum sizes and resolutions on offer. I think Schiller gave us a clue when he referred to ‘display’ singular, so I’m not expecting a 21.5-inch model, even though some pros like to stack them. That leaves us with a single model no smaller than 27-inches.
Would Apple go further in either size or resolution?
Where resolution is concerned, 8K monitors are a thing now – but so far at a massive cost. The Dell 32 UltraSharp 8K Monitor costs an eye-watering $5,000. That’s a huge amount of money even for an Apple monitor. So my money is on a 5K monitor.
On size, Apple has made 27-inch monitors and iMacs forever, so clearly it thinks that’s a sweetspot – and it’s still an extremely popular size for third-party monitors. But I do think the world is moving on. We’re seeing a growing number of 32-inch 4K monitors on the market at the kind of prices we used to pay for 27-inch ones. If I had to put money on it, I’d expect Apple to stick to 27-inch, but I do think 32-inch is at least a possibility.
Both LG monitors also use IPS panels, which offer very wide viewing angles. Apple used IPS panels even in the elderly Thunderbolt Display, so I think this is a given in a new one. I think it will also stick with a 60Hz refresh rate – this is the established standard for non-gaming monitors.
Both LG monitors also support the P3 wide color gamut, and I’d say this is also a certainty with any new monitor pitched at the pro market. Apple could have gone with aRGB, which is more typical for pro monitors, but P3 is the color space choice of cinematographers, and video is arguably becoming a more important market than photographic prints, which is where aRGB shines. I’d also expect a pro-focused Apple monitor to offer 10-bit color – something you currently get in LG’s 5K monitor but not the 4K one.
Finally, before we move on from the panel, there’s the question of matte versus glossy displays. If Apple truly listened to pro users, it would offer the choice. There are many of us who still miss the gorgeous matte display of the 30-inch Apple Cinema Display. But much as I’d love to see a matte option reappear, I don’t think it’s likely: Apple seems convinced that glossy screens are all we need.
Let’s turn next to ports.
The LG monitors also go all-in on USB-C. Both feature a single-cable USB-C connection that combines power, data, video and audio feeds. The monitors also offer three USB-C downstream connections for USB & Thunderbolt peripherals.
The single-cable connection makes for a very neat setup, but ports are one area where I think Apple may revisit the specs. The company says it has been listening to pros, and one thing many pros have been saying is that they have a whole bunch of AV accessories with connectivity ranging from USB-A through optical audio to HDMI. If Apple truly plans to design a monitor which reflects feedback from professional users, I suspect we’ll see some back-pedalling on the ‘one port to do it all’ approach.
One further disappointment with the 21.5-inch UltraFine is that it only delivers 60w of power to a connected Mac – enough for the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but not the 15-inch. I’d hope that Apple would offer an 85W power feed in any monitor offered.
Enough tech, let’s talk design. This has been one of the biggest complaints about the LG UltraFine monitors Apple tried to push at us. The specs are impressive, but the aesthetics are anything but. It’s a subjective judgement, of course, but I don’t think anyone could disagree that the grey plastic sits somewhere on the ‘nondescript to pig-ugly’ scale.
We don’t, I think, have to do much guessing where the design is concerned: Apple will take its cues from the discontinued Thunderbolt Display with elements from the 5K iMac and 2016 MacBook Pro. That would give us an overall design not dissimilar to the old display but with thinner bezels – and possibly a thin aluminum surround framing the black glass as per the MacBook Pro.
We can expect the same 5mm thin edge as the iMac, and I fully expect Apple to retain the familiar and much-loved aluminum stand.
Finally, price. The LG UltraFine 5K Display comes in at $1299.95, and an Apple-branded one certainly isn’t going to be cheaper, so that sets the price floor.
But with glass and aluminum replacing plastic, perhaps a few more ports and that Apple logo, it is certain to cost more. My guess would be around $1500 for a 27-inch model, or around $2000 if the company opts for a 32-inch one.
The executive summary, then, is this: a 5K monitor looking like a cross between the old Apple Thunderbolt Display and the 5K iMac. Probably 27-inch, with a small possibility of 32-inches. IPS display, 60Hz refresh rate, P3 color gamut. Probably gloss finish only, with a tiny possibility of a matte option. Single-port USB-C cable, and additional USB-C ports, but also HMDI and perhaps more. 85w power deliver. Costing $1500 (27-inch) or $2000 (32-inch).
Would Apple sell one of these to you? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.