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Studio Display review: An Apple monitor where “5K” doesn’t describe the price

Studio Display review: An Apple monitor where “5K” doesn’t describe the price

 March 19, 2022 at 8:29 am   |     Author:   |     Technology  

Apple's Studio Display.
Enlarge / Apple’s Studio Display.

Andrew Cunningham

Ever since Apple released the $5,000-and-up Pro Display XDR in 2019, rumors have persisted that the company was also planning a more affordable screen to fill the same niche as its Thunderbolt Display. You could connect the Pro Display XDR to a MacBook Air that costs one-fifth its price, and Apple always went out of its way to mention that M1 MacBooks were technically capable of driving its 6K display resolution. But it wasn’t exactly an appealing value proposition.

Enter the new Studio Display. With a design that strongly recalls 2011’s Thunderbolt Display and a name that harks back to its late-’90s namesake, the display is tailor-made for anyone who wanted the 5K screen from the dearly departed 27-inch iMac without the computer that was attached to it.

It’s certainly not for everyone, and at $1,599, it’s not the first external display I’d recommend for all Mac owners (especially people who tend toward the cheaper Mac mini and MacBook Air end of the spectrum). But as its enthusiastic reception from several Ars staffers suggests, it will find an audience by virtue of being a 5K Apple-branded monitor, and its design and features are a solid step up from the 5K LG UltraFine display that Apple has sold for the last few years.

Why 5K?

Before we talk about the monitor itself, it’s worth briefly reiterating how high-density (aka “Retina”) displays are handled in macOS and why the 5K-vs-4K discussion in the context of the Mac isn’t just about visual detail.

Apple had a consistent formula when transitioning to Retina displays: every new screen would have exactly four times as many pixels as the non-Retina screen it replaced. So the iPhone 3GS’s 480×320 screen became 960×640 in the iPhone 4, and the iPad 2’s 1024×768 screen was upgraded to 2048×1536 for the first Retina iPad. The first Retina Mac, the 2012 Retina MacBook Pro, used a 2880×1800 display that exactly quadrupled the previous generation’s 1440×900 screen, and when it finally released in 2014, the 5K iMac quadrupled the pixels of the original 27-inch iMac’s 2560×1440 screen.

For developers, this made the transition from non-Retina to Retina screens relatively easy and predictable. You only needed to scale up your apps’ assets to 200 percent of their normal size to take full advantage of Retina screens, and apps on both iOS and macOS added Retina support fairly quickly. The downside is that developers can’t tell their apps to render at anything other than 100 percent or 200 percent of their normal size.

To this day, macOS tooltips will tell you
Enlarge / To this day, macOS tooltips will tell you “looks like” non-Retina resolution numbers when you set different scaling modes.

Andrew Cunningham

To help offset that downside and take advantage of Retina screens’ additional density, Apple also added “scaled” display modes to Retina Macs. These scaling modes increase the apparent resolution of your Mac’s screen; Apple no longer needed to offer both a 1440×900 and a 1680×1050 display option for the MacBook Pro because you could scale its screen to look like a 1680×1050 screen, with only a minor loss of detail. The GPU would draw your desktop at 3360×2100 and then scale it down to 2880×1800 to match the native resolution of the display panel. Many MacBooks, including the old 12-inch MacBook and some more recent Air and Pro models, actually shipped using a scaled display mode out of the box.

But one person’s “minor loss of detail” is another person’s “unacceptable loss of detail,” and that’s why some people (particularly those doing graphics and publishing work) don’t like using 27-inch 4K monitors with their Macs. Compared to a 5K iMac, you either lose usable desktop space by running the monitor at its native, non-scaled 3840×2160 resolution, or you give up some detail by using a scaled 5K display mode.

With a native 5K display, that trade-off doesn’t exist, and that’s why some Mac users want there to be at least one good option available to buy. Enter the Studio Display.

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