In defense of the new Apple Studio Display

Apple exited the standalone display business in July 2016 when it discontinued the fan-favorite Thunderbolt Display. At the time, Apple did something unheard of for the company: it recommended users try third-party displays.

Almost six years later, the Studio Display has officially arrived and finally fills that gap in Apple’s lineup. So why has he been so controversial and divisive in his first two weeks of availability?

The Thunderbolt Display offered a 2560×1440 resolution when it was discontinued, packed into a 27-inch form factor. At the time, it was a respectable panel, but it lagged behind the panel on the 27-inch iMac. Apple introduced the first so-called iMac Retina in late 2014, which featured a significantly improved 5120×2880 pixel resolution.

With the introduction of this 27-inch Retina iMac, the Thunderbolt display was certainly starting to look a bit long in the tooth. The obvious solution would have been for Apple to upgrade the Thunderbolt display to match the panel specifications of the 27-inch iMac. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.

Thinking back to Apple’s June 23, 2016 announcement, the position Apple is taking is quite perplexing. The company explained that the Thunderbolt Display would only be available “while supplies last.” What about users who wanted a new external display for their Mac? “There are a number of great third-party options available to Mac users,” an Apple spokesperson said at the time.

This statement is not necessarily misleading; there were other displays on the market that matched the specifications of the Thunderbolt display. There were even 4K displays starting to hit this market that exceeded Thunderbolt display specs. However, neither screen matched the specifications of the panel used by Apple inside the 27-inch iMac.

LG UltraFine 5K

Then, a few months later, came the LG UltraFine 5K. It promised to fill the void in the display industry, using a panel nearly identical to that of the iMac 5K. Apple even launched the UltraFine 5K at a special event, claiming it was created through a collaboration between the two companies.

Unfortunately, the UltraFine 5K left a bit to be desired. From the start, 9to5Mac discovered that a hardware shielding issue rendered the UltraFine 5K unusable when within two meters of a Wi-Fi router. This issue was eventually resolved with a hardware fix, but that’s the type problem that makes you question everything about the build quality and overall reliability of a product.

And many of those questions and concerns turned out to be valid. The LG UltraFine 5K has languished in the market since its debut in 2017. It has found a niche of users who appreciate its panel quality, but its design has been almost universally criticized and it has been plagued with reliability issues.

So surely there were other options available aside from the LG UltraFine 5K, right? Well not really. As Casey Liss related on his blog, there were actually four options for Retina-grade external displays on the market before the Studio Display. Three from LG and one is Apple’s Pro Display XDR.

Why is 5K so important for Mac users? Thing is, it’s not that important to everyone, and a lot of people won’t appreciate the difference between 4K at 27 inches (171 pixels per inch) and 5K at 27 inches (217 pixels per inch).

For Mac users who may appreciate this increase in pixel density, however, it’s something that quickly becomes part of your workflow. This 5K resolution allows Mac users to run macOS at a native resolution of 2560 x 1440 doubled in pixels – which Apple brands as “Retina”. macOS is perfectly optimized for this resolution and you literally can’t see a single pixel. It’s as clear as that.

That’s not to say 4K at 27 inches isn’t “good.” It is, and if you’ve never used a Mac with Retina quality, you might not even notice what you’re missing. But if you’re used to the Retina display on a 27-inch MacBook or iMac, chances are you’ll notice it immediately when looking at a 27-inch 4K panel.

Enter the studio display

Almost six years after the Thunderbolt Display was discontinued, Apple unveiled the Studio Display. The Studio Display is its first foray into standalone consumer displays since the Thunderbolt Display. It comes in at 27 inches with 5K resolution.

At its core, the Studio Display is exactly what Mac users have been asking for since shortly after the Thunderbolt Display was discontinued in 2016. It’s ridiculous that it took Apple so long to put something like the Studio Display on the market. And Mac users have every right to be frustrated about this. Mac users may even be frustrated that it took so long for this product to materialize and it doesn’t even offer features like ProMotion or miniLED.

The desire for more prosumer features, however, is a double-edged sword. Apple has already priced the Studio Display at the absolute peak of what even the most loyal Mac users are willing to pay. Adding features like ProMotion or miniLED would further increase that price, closing the gap between the Studio Display and the Pro Display XDR.

(Speaking of the Pro Display XDR, you probably noticed that I haven’t talked about it much in this article. That’s because it’s overkill for 99.9% of Mac users, and it’s not a replacement for the Thunderbolt display, nor an alternative to the LG UltraFine 5K.)

There’s also the issue of finding the bandwidth to deliver 120Hz (ProMotion) refresh rates at 5K resolution. This is something not possible with Thunderbolt 4 as it exists today, without relying on Display Stream Compression or some two-cable solution.

Mac Studio vs the rest of the Mac lineup

With the Studio Display, the fact is that Apple has entered a market largely overlooked by third-party companies and produced a product that, while expensive and not without flaws, is the perfect companion for Mac users.

I’ve been using the Studio Display paired with the Mac Studio since release day, and it’s the perfect combination. The Studio Display offers a one-cable connection, 100% reliable performance, and build quality that lives up to Apple standards.

If you’re not someone who cares or sees the value of a 27-inch screen with 5K resolution, then the Studio Display isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a 4K external display, the world is yours. There are countless displays on the market with 4K resolution at every screen size under the sun, with designs and connectivity options galore.

If there’s a problem with the 27-inch Studio Display, it’s that Apple didn’t release it years ago. If you can get over that bitterness (which, don’t get me wrong, is justified bitterness), that’s exactly what we’ve been asking for since 2017. Nothing more, nothing less.

There’s room for evolution over the next few years, but with the general state of the 27-inch, 5K display market today and the lack of competition: the Studio Display is worth it.

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