Apple Studio Display Review — But Why?!

Apple’s just launched a new $1600 Studio Display that’s pretty much exactly what a very specific, very fussy segment of the Mac market has been asking for… going on 6 years now: A Cinema Display. A Thunderbolt Display. Whatever you want to call it… Just take the 27-inch 5K iMac and… delete the Mac part, or the LG 5K UltraFine and delete the LG part… slap it in an Apple enclosure. Seriously. Anything… anything that isn’t 6K for 6K!

And Apple’s gone and done it. Finally. But at the same time, somehow upset a very loud, very vocal handful of tech-heads who not only never wanted it, but don’t understand why the people who do want it… do want it. So let me explain. No no, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I’ve been using the pricier nanotexture version of the Studio Display on loan from Apple for almost a week now, but if you’ve used a recent 27-inch iMac or iMac Pro, 5K UltraFine, or even the 24-inch iMac, then the Studio Display is a slightly better version of those. And I’ll get to the slightly part in a hot take minute. And why does that really matter so much?

So, it’s 5K and not 4K, because at 218 ppi, that’s dense enough that, at a normal viewing distance, most people can’t really make out the individual pixels any more, and — and! — it’s also native 2x resolution. Which means all those pixels fall precisely on-grid. Because no matter how good Apple’s display scalers are, and they’re pretty damn good, pixel perfect designers… and anyone with especially snobby vision, really will notice display scaling and pixels falling off grid — they will look for it, they will find it, and they will have Liam Neason kill it.

4K at 27-inches would be scaled, and that’s… anathema to Apple’s fussiest customers, the ones who, if you tell them to just get 4K or… just get a gaming monitor, you might as well be telling them to just get a Windows PC.

Listen, the Mac nerd heart wants what the Mac nerd heart wants, and having to settle for 4K or a gaming monitor or the UltraFine lo these last many years is how you break that Mac nerd heart.

The Studio Display is also not just P3 wide gamut, but individually color calibrated at the factory to match all of Apple’s other P3 displays, and meticulously color managed through Apple’s entire imaging pipeline. So what you shoot on your iPhone or process on your iPad or MacBook will exactly match what you see on your Studio Display, and that’s why some pros insist on using Apple gear to begin with.

Now, while the pipeline is 10-bit internal, it’s still rendering out to a physically 8-bit panel, using spatial and temporal dithering to represent the full billion color range. Which is bummer, but I believe it’s how all Apple panels work, and most commercial panels too for that matter, because physical 10-bit panels are still kinda rare and kinda expensive, especially at scale.

Where the Studio Display is better than both the iMac and UltraFine is brightness. 600 nits versus 500 nits. Which isn’t a huge difference but is still a pretty welcome one.

It’s LCD with an LED backlight, so it’s not HDR, or high dynamic range. For that it’d need OLED like the iPhone or mini-LED like the latest iPad Pro or MacBook Pro. Those can be up to 1000 nits sustained sometimes, 1200 to 1500 peak even. So the Studio Display is still SDR, or standard dynamic range.

Well… Technically, EDR, or extended dynamic range, because LCD Lobby rhetoric aside, which, yes, is somehow a thing, Apple’s been doing a ton of work for a ton of years to provide as close to an HDR experience on SDR displays as possible. It’s why they use the HDR source for TV+ shows or the HDR tone map of Dolby Vision videos shot on iPhone. So, yeah, the blacks are still kinda dark gray and whites still only get so bright. Which is better than strict SDR but still nowhere near HDR.

Which is also a legit bummer. But it’s arguable how many people outside Dolby and Jonathan Morrison really are all-in on full HDR workflows at this point anyway. And, at 5K, that would add a fair chunk to the price tag. So, my guess is, Apple stuck with EDR for the Studio Display as a bridge and to keep the bill of materials down so it really could be the spiritual successor to the Thunderbolt Display, and we’ll get an updated mini-LED Pro Display XDR at the high end…some point in the not-so-distant future, and that’ll be for everyone who really is all in on HDR.

The Studio Display is also locked to 60Hz and doesn’t have the up to 120Hz adaptive refresh rate Apple markets as ProMotion. The one that came to the iPad Pro in 2017 and the iPhone Pro and MacBook Pro in 2021.

Which, yeah, absolutely, 120 is better than 60. Hell, I’d take 480 in a heartbeat if I could get it. But in this case, it’s less about cost or segmentation and more about physics and implementation. Because… 5K is just a lot of pixels. Like a lot a lot. When Apple first took the iMac to 5K, they had to build their own custom timing controller, or t-con to do it, so the two streams they were stitching together wouldn’t occasionally tear right down the middle. But they could only do that internally, at least back then, so we gained 5K but lost Target Display Mode, which I think all of us still lament and would seriously love to have back to this day.

But even today, 5K still… just a lot of pixels, and the current DisplayPort 1.2 protocol supported by Thunderbolt4 just can’t handle 5K and 120Hz at the same time.

I’m hoping Apple can figure out a way to do, even if just internally, for a 5K ProMotion iMac one day. Not just for super smooth scrolling, but because 120 means divides evenly down to 60 for TV shows, and 48 for movies… both for viewing and editing 30 and 24 frames per second, the way nature and Hollywood intended. But it doesn’t sound like we’ll be getting that iMac any time soon. So, while I’m super curious what they’ll do with the next XDR Display, I’ll only be expecting 120Hz when and if we see it.

Also, like the 27-inch iMac, but unlike the LG UltraFine, Apple’s offering a Nano-texture option for the Studio Display. For an extra $300. It’s what I’ve been testing for the last week and while it’s inarguably better than traditional anti-glare coatings, which really gunk up the crispness and clarity, it’s still not as good as the non-nanotexture, normal option, and is way fussier to keep clean, so if you aren’t stuck in a studio or location where you can’t control the glare, stick with the normal option.

Taken all together, the Studio Display looks as good as any Standard Dynamic Range display can look. Basically 6-star Raid Boss LCD.

And all wrapped up in an all-aluminum Apple enclosure that’s halfway between the 24-inch iMac and 32-inch Pro Display XDR, even including smaller versions of the vent holes, because while it doesn’t need the massive thermal system of a reference monitor, it does need to pull the heat off that big back light.

AndI really like the industrial design. It’s simple, elegant, sturdy, and obviously built to last. Basically, the complete opposite of the LG UltraFine. Of which, I’ve owned three, and had the WI-Fi interference issue on the first and display muck up issue on the second. Pretty much why everyone wanted those panels back with Apple to begin with.

The only thing I don’t like about it is the default stand option. It’s well engineered for what it does, obviously, but it only does one thing — tilt back and forth. Not up and down, not around.

Which, yeah, is exactly how all recent iMac or non-XDR Apple Displays have done it as well, but the UltraFine provides full functionality, and from the company that had the God Mode of adjustable stands way back in the day with the 2nd gen Pixar-style iMac, it’d be all shades of considerate to just give the people more here. Especially with so many of us stuck at home for so long, we can’t just plunder Dunder Mifflin office supplies to stack underneath anymore. No. Now have to use discarded Amazon boxes stuffed inside each other, like animals.

You can replace the basic stand with with a VESA mount at no extra cost, or a height-adjustable stand for an extra $400 at time of purchase. But you really have to do it at time of purchase, because you can’t swap them later… which… also seems weird from the company who made changing watch bands 8 times a day a thing.

Ports are the same as the Ultrafine 5K as well, and previous generation Apple displays. One Thunderbolt to connect to your Mac, and charge it if it’s a MacBook. Up to 96 watts. And 3 USB type C, to plug in and charge all your accessories and peripherals, up to 10 Gb/s.

Not gonna lie, I’d love more and faster ports, but that’d mean an extra controllers inside, which not even the Pro Display XDR has and Apple seems content to have those live on the new MacBook Pro and Mac Studio now anyway.

With that single, upstream Thunderbolt, you plug in, route it through the cable management circle on the back, connect your Mac, and… that’s it. Quick and oh so super clean. Bonus points too, because the included Thunderbolt cable is braided, as are the Lightning to USB-C cables Apple’s including with the new mouse, trackpad and keyboard. So much better built than the previous, embarrassingly janky plastic ones… They should just be the new normal for everything going forward.

But, yeah, pretty much everything everyone who just wanted a new Cinema Display, Thunderbolt Display, a 5K iMac without the Mac, the LG UltraFine in an enclosure that’s actually fine. With slightly better than the iMac’s brightness, and slightly worse than the UltraFine’s adjustable stand. All gift wrapped up in a bead blasted aluminum Apple box. Something simply no other vendor has been providing. A literal Commander Sinclair-sized hole in the market’s mind. Filled. Finally.

And Apple didn’t even stop there. They also added an A13 Bionic, the system on a chip from the iPhone 11. Which… depending on how you look at it, might seem just all shades of over powered, under utilized… or both?

Worst things first — the webcam. Which has been the subject of a brouhaha from reviewers who actually managed to file on time… unlike me. But hey, I was getting the Mac Studio review up. Make sure you watch it. And hit subscribe for more!

The camera hardware is the exact same 12-megapixel ultra-wide angle paired with the A13 image signal processor, or ISP, that’s in the current 9th-generation iPad. Same as what’s in the latest iPad Air and iPad Pro as well, albeit they have the M1 ISP, which is based on the A14, or one generation newer.

The reason for going ultra-wide is to support Center Stage, Apple’s name for the pan and scan, zoom in and out technology that uses the neural engines and machine learning to recognize and lock onto one or many faces in the frame, and keep them in the frame, even as they move around, or come in or out. And it’s great for FaceTime and WebEx and Zoom, for kitchens and living rooms, even office conferences if and when you have people back in offices to actually conference.

But it’s also a compromise, because megapixels… or pixel quantity, never really matters as much as pixel quality. And ultra wide cameras stuffed into ultra-thin enclosures never tend to be as good as even lower megapixel non-ultra wides. So, basically, it’s trading selfie integrity for video call capability, which is fine if you consider Center Stage worth the sacrifice, and… not so fine if you do not.

Now, normally, Apple counts on the ISP and computational photography and videography to make camera hardware do more than the optics themselves would normally allow. That’s how the iPad still gets pretty good selfies out of the exact same spec. But on the Studio Display, something seems to be going wonky or just plain wrong. Faces just look flat, and kinda mopey, and just not what you’d expect from a modern Apple camera. Even a Center Stage camera. It kind of reminds me of the issues with the iPhone XS selfie cam and its A14 smart HDR implementation. Apple says they’re working on a fix, either for macOS, the Studio Display firmware… both… so we’ll just have to wait and see. Again, it’s the exact same hardware as the 9th gen iPad, so there’s no reason for it to be any worse than that iPad.

The A13 is also being used as the sensor fusion hub for TrueTone, which dynamically changes the white balance based on ambient light temperature, so the display never looks too blue or too yellow. And as the always-on processor for Siri voice activation for Macs that don’t do it natively, like the Mac mini, Studio, or Pro. Also, noise canceling for what Apple calls studio-quality mics. Basically the equivalent of a USB podcast mic, if you’re in a pinch or just don’t use one enough to have a dedicated mic available.

And, computational sound processing for spatial audio, which creates a virtual 3D sound stage, up to and including handling full-on Dolby Atmos streams. Like what you hear with AirPods Pro, AirPods Mac, or any recent MacBook Pro or iMac. Combined with a 6-speaker system, using four force-canceling woofers, similar to what the MacBook Pro uses to make sure your desk doesn’t rock along with your music, and it’s legit terrific. One of the best Apple speaker systems yet, and that’s saying something.

Alas, Apple hasn’t surfaced any A13-powered HomePod-type functionality that would let you pair two Studio Displays as a stereo speaker systems for an ever wider sound stage. So, if you have two of them, you have to select which one you want to use for A/V. Also, any form of built-in AirPlay or Sidecar running on the A13 via HomeOS or anything else. So if it isn’t connected to another Mac, you can’t just stream to it wirelessly, you have to plug in the cable. Which, yes, hardlines are bestlines… But if you’re on your MacBook and just don’t want to bother with a cord at the moment…

Like Spatial Audio, Center Stage.. Universal Control, these are the kinds of uniquely differentiated features that gets Apple into — or back into — markets. The integration from silicon to software that gets that single yes for every thousand nos. Which, frankly, is also how Apple gets to charge what they do for people who truly believe the value is worth way more than the cost.

Which is $1600 for the base model here. $300 more than the LG UltraFine, and gets you the better brightness, materials, build quality, speakers, mics, and the A13 Bionic. Plus a way sturdier, if way less capable, stand. Also, $200 less than the last 27-inch iMac, which had the same stand, but included an Intel chipset, storage, way more RAM and ports, and a chin!

Though… I can’t help wondering if… instead of an A13, Apple had thrown an M1 into this exact same, and priced it starting at $400 more, $2000 minus a buck even, would anyone have so much as blinked? Probably not, even though we’d have been right back where we started, demanding a stand-alone display. At any price. Under $6K.

But if you really do want a more capable Apple display, and you want it now, that’s what the Pro Display XDR costs. With stand. I mean, unless you choose to rest it artisonally against the hipster-brick wall in your loft. If you’re willing to wait, we might get a mini-LED version at some point in the future, even if that point is another year or so out. But that’s what, personally, I’m going to be doing. If you don’t care about the enclosure, you can get the less than fantastic plastic of the LG UltraFine when it comes back into stock, presumably some time in Q2 2022. Or any one of those 4K gaming monitors everyone who doesn’t get Apple displays is super happy to tell everyone to get. But if you’ve been asking for — nay, demanding! — a return of the Cinema Display, the Thunderbolt Display, the LG UltraFine without the LG, the iMac without the Mac, whatever, then go get the Studio Display, now, now, now. Because Apple just gave your fussy Mac nerd heart just exactly what you’ve been demanding!