Apple’s monitor strategy is… complicated.
The last standalone display sold by the company, the 2011 Thunderbolt Display, was discontinued in 2016. Later that year, Apple introduced LG-branded 4K and 5K UltraFine Displays to go along with its new USB-C-only MacBook Pro redesign. Now, both of those monitors have been discontinued, and while Apple did just announce a new display of its own that’s coming later this year, it costs $4,999... plus $999 for the stand.
It would seem, then, that LG’s new 23.7-inch UltraFine 4K Display is Apple’s proposed mainstream monitor solution from here on out. It replaces the previous 21.5-inch model while still selling for $699.95, and it’s the only monitor you can actually buy in an Apple Store today. It’s a bigger, more capable 4K display for the same price.
So what’s the catch? Reader, there’s a big one.
I’ve used the original UltraFine 4K almost every day since it was released in 2016. It’s a little undersized and the design is boring, but the panel quality is excellent and it works more seamlessly with macOS than any other monitor. I’ve generally recommended it to people wanting an external display for their MacBook.
All of that remains true of the new UltraFine 4K, except, of course, the size. It might not sound like much, but the extra slightly-more-than-a-couple-of-inches does make a big difference. I have a 27-inch 1440p G-Sync monitor hooked up to my gaming PC on the other end of my desk, and I often found myself watching YouTube videos on that, despite the higher resolution and better colors of the old UltraFine 4K. With the new model, it’s more of a fair fight.
There are other improvements to the new UltraFine 4K beyond size. The speakers are much better, for example, though still not something I’d use for anything other than casual listening. The I/O situation is also improved, with two Thunderbolt 3 ports and three USB-C ports replacing the original UltraFine 4K’s four slow USB-C ports.
This means my 15-inch MacBook Pro now draws 85W of power. The previous model would only deliver 60W, meaning the laptop’s battery could drain under heavy loads when plugged in. On the other hand, this new model works with both USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, giving it the flexibility to work with the 12-inch MacBook and the iPad Pro as well as the MacBook Pro.
This should really be a slam dunk
Everything that was neat about the prior UltraFine monitors’ macOS integration still holds true. These monitors don’t have any external controls on them, including a power button. You just plug the USB-C or Thunderbolt cable in, and they turn on automatically and start charging your laptop and using its native controls for brightness and volume. If you use a separate keyboard, as I do, that keyboard will control those monitor settings while the laptop’s will handle the built-in display. UltraFine displays also work with True Tone on more recent MacBook models, adjusting color cast with the ambient light. You might not think that’s such a killer feature for a static desktop setup, but I’ve found it helpful when I switch on warm lighting as the afternoons get darker.
This should really be a slam dunk: a larger monitor with better I/O, compatibility, and audio, all for the same price. But it isn’t a slam dunk because either Apple or LG or both decided to cheap out on the resolution.
Allow me to explain, and forgive the detour into pixel-perfect nerdery. The 21.5-inch LG UltraFine 4K had a resolution of 4096 x 2304, which is fairly uncommon but arguably “true” 16:9 4K in the original spirit of the format. It’s also the same size and sharpness as the 21-inch 4K iMac, with Apple choosing those specifications so that everything appears at the right size when displayed at pin-sharp 2x Retina resolution.
The new 23.7-inch UltraFine 4K, meanwhile, stretches a 3840 x 2160 resolution — the same as every 4K UHD TV — across its larger panel. That makes for a lower pixel density, but that’s not really the main problem here. 4K UHD resolution is four times regular 1080p at the same aspect ratio, meaning that that’s the desktop real estate you’ll get when running it out of the box. That means you actually see less vertical content on-screen than the previous UltraFine 4K’s 1152p. The 1080p-equivalent setting looked ridiculous to me, with giant icons and no breathing space, so I had to set it to the next step up of 1296p equivalence.
Quantity over quality
Why is that a problem? Basically, if you don’t use the specific multiple of a given display’s native resolution in macOS, you have to use scaling to make everything fit on-screen and it just looks worse. It’s better than using a regular sub-Retina monitor, sure, but look closely, and you’ll notice blurry text and juddering while scrolling. It’s a particular compromise if you’re trying to do critical design work or photo editing.
In those situations, you can just switch to the native 1080p-equivalent mode where everything does look sharp enough. And if you’ve never used a Mac with an external display before, it’ll still be an improvement on your laptop’s screen real estate. But for me, coming from the old model, it’s a downgrade in sharpness for a minor upgrade in the number of lines of text I can see on-screen at once. It’s quantity over quality.
To be clear, I bet most people would pick the new model in a scaling mode over the old model at native resolution when presented with them side by side. I’m being picky about image quality here, which is only fair when evaluating a $700 monitor. But if you know you’re picky about this sort of thing, too, you should definitely check out this monitor in person before buying it.
That shouldn’t be too hard because it’s the only one in Apple Stores right now. And honestly, as a one-size-fits-all solution, it’s not a bad one. The size is going to be more broadly appealing to a lot of people, while the ability to natively display 4K UHD content certainly has its uses. I can’t fault the panel’s straightforward quality at this price, either.
Apple could do a lot better
But as a professional Mac user who isn’t going to drop $6,000 on Apple’s new display, the new UltraFine 4K falls short. It might be my best option on sale right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best it could be. Even preserving the prior model’s pixel count at a larger size would have been a better solution.
Whenever Apple makes a new iPad size (which seems like it happens almost every year now), the company takes care to get a custom panel with a specific resolution tailored to the required pixel density and screen real estate of what is now iOS. The effort is worth it because it means every iPad is able to render its content at the perfect size and sharpness. Things are a little different on the Mac because it’s more common to want to choose your own resolution, but there’s a case to be made that this model is a straight downgrade from its predecessor, productivity-wise.
This LG UltraFine 4K is the best external monitor you can buy for your MacBook, MacBook Pro, or Mac mini today. If you need to buy one, I more or less recommend it. You may not have the same complaints I did. But I still think Apple could do a lot better itself.
Photography by Sam Byford / The Verge
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