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Apple Pro Display XDR review: category of one

Can Apple’s newest display satisfy every kind of pro?

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It’s been a long time since Apple made a standalone display; the Apple Thunderbolt Display was discontinued in 2016. Apple tried to point customers looking for an external display at an LG 5K monitor for a while, but it was fairly buggy, leading the company to promise pro customers a high-end display of its own when it also promised to reboot the Mac Pro in 2017. 

And now it’s here: the Pro Display XDR, part of Apple’s aggressive retrenchment in the professional market with the new Mac Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro. (Here’s our Mac Pro review and our 16-inch MacBook Pro review, if you’re interested.)

The Pro Display XDR is a 32-inch 6K LCD that can hit 1,600 nits of peak brightness, with 1,000 nits of sustained brightness from a full-array local dimming backlight composed of 576 special blue LEDs. It supports true 10-bit color and the full DCI-P3 color gamut, and Apple says that it can hit a million-to-one contrast ratio using certain industry-standard test patterns. These are all very impressive specs — so impressive that Apple confidently says the Pro Display XDR is the “world’s best pro display.” It’s also so impressive that the company spent a lot of time at the launch event comparing it to a $43,000 Sony reference OLED that is usually used for high-end color grading work in film and TV production.

The Pro Display XDR costs $4,999, with a $999 optional stand. Even at $6,000 total, that’s substantially less than $43,000, a number Apple certainly wants you to think about to put the price in perspective.

And I think maybe everyone would have been better off if Apple had never mentioned that $43,000 Sony at all.

The outside of the Pro Display XDR is notable both for what’s there and especially for what’s not there. What’s there is Apple’s striking new pattern of cooling vents across the back, which looks like overlapping alien heads or the fever dreams of a depressed honeybee that just wants to draw for a living. It’s fair to say no other display has ever looked like this from the rear. 

There are four USB-C connections on the back, but they are far more confusing than you’d expect. (Or perhaps not, given that USB-C is generally confusing.) One of the USB-C connectors, marked by a lightning bolt icon, is a Thunderbolt 3 port, which is how you plug the display into your Mac. The other three USB-C connectors operate at different speeds, depending on your computer: most supported Macs can only run them at USB 2 speeds, but the 16-inch MacBook Pro can run them at the USB 3 speeds because its video card supports a new standard called Display Stream Compression that leaves enough bandwidth on the Thunderbolt bus for faster USB connections. The Mac Pro does not offer video cards that support DSC, in case you’re wondering.

In any case, I told The Verge’s resident USB soothsayer, Chaim Gartenberg, that the USB-C ports on the back of the Pro Display XDR only run at USB 2 speeds on most computers, and he looked me dead in the eye and said, “This is my nightmare.” So USB-C is going just great.

Speaking of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, it got very hot while running the Pro Display XDR. We mostly used the display with our Mac Pro, but we also plugged it into our 16-inch MacBook Pro review unit a few times. After about 45 minutes, the laptop got pretty warm, and the fans had spun up. This isn’t a huge surprise — pushing that many pixels isn’t easy — but don’t expect to use this thing with a laptop and have things stay cool.

What you will not find on the outside of the Pro Display XDR are any buttons at all. Zero. Everything is controlled by software, specifically macOS Catalina 10.15.2. Brightness, resolution, reference modes, you name it, it’s in the Displays control panel in macOS. Apple says you can plug the Pro Display XDR into a Windows or Linux PC if they support DisplayPort, but you won’t really be able to configure it. (Apple’s also made drivers for certain newer Macs running Windows in Boot Camp, but it’s not clear how configurable it is in that setup.)

What all of this mostly means is that the Pro Display XDR is unlike virtually every other display in the world in that it only really works as designed with new Macs running the latest versions of macOS Catalina or an Apple-blessed Blackmagic SDI converter box.

Back of the Pro Display XDR

The next step is to configure the Pro Display XDR to your workflow, which is a little more complicated than many people might think. Out of the box, the display comes set to a profile that allows it to hit its peak brightness of 1,600 nits, but it isn’t completely color-accurate, and which also tonemaps macOS apps and content into HDR. Apple says this profile is suitable for “home and office use” in environments with variable lighting conditions. The Pro Display XDR has two light sensors, one on the front and back, that measure ambient light and work with Apple’s True Tone technology to constantly adjust the display’s color and brightness. (Apple says that you shouldn’t point direct light sources at the light sensors, so maybe don’t put a Hue light behind your display if you’re using it in this mode.)

If you’re trying to see how your work will look on standard, non-XDR Apple displays, there’s another mode called “Apple Display” that limits brightness to 500 nits, keeps True Tone and the sensors active, and basically matches the profile Apple uses for all of its other displays.

Out of the box, the display comes set for “home and office use”

But if you’re doing serious color work, the modes get much more precise. For HDR applications, you set the display to a mode that’s totally color-accurate but which sets overall brightness to 100 nits and limits peak brightness to 1,000 nits. This mode is only suggested for use in a standardized, controlled lighting environment; it also disables True Tone and user brightness controls.

From there, various color settings change, and things just get dimmer, basically: the standard HDTV mode is fixed at 100 nits of brightness. The photography mode is fixed at 160 nits. The film mastering mode is fixed at 48 nits. My particular favorite is the “internet and web” reference mode, which is fixed at 80 nits of brightness and also calls for a controlled lighting environment. I truly, with all my heart, love the idea of internet designers the world over demanding $5,000 monitors and controlled lighting setups to make memes for brands. 

All of these reference modes are explained in detail in Apple’s Pro Display XDR white paper; the company says a forthcoming macOS update will allow users to create their own custom profiles. But if you’re looking for a totally color-accurate display, know that you’ll have to adjust settings out of the box in such a way that limits the display’s brightness to get there. That’s pretty normal, but it’s certainly not obvious.

Pro Display XDR

Once you’ve got the Pro Display XDR set up and configured for your workflow, you’ll be looking at a very sharp LCD panel with full-array local dimming (FALD). This part is going to get very nerdy, but if you are already this deep into a monitor review, this is what you came for. You are my people.

Local dimming is not a particularly new technology. TV makers have been using it on high-end LCD TVs for several years now. The basics are pretty clever: LCD panels don’t generate any light by themselves, so you have to backlight them somehow. Most LCD monitors and cheap TVs have LEDs along the edges, which means that you can never get a true black: there’s always light coming out of the black parts of the display, so the best you can do is a dark gray. The reason people like OLED panels is because they don’t have this problem; each individual OLED pixel is also a light source. There’s just no light coming out of black parts of the image on an OLED screen, giving you true blacks.

What full-array local dimming does is attempt to split the difference: instead of LEDs along the edge of the display, FALD displays have a grid of LEDs behind the LCD grouped into “zones,” and those zones can be dimmed and turned off along with the image on-screen. Turn off a zone, and you’ll get a true black from an LCD display.

Again, anyone who’s been following LCD TV trends for the past few years will find all of this familiar. Increasing the number of local dimming zones on high-end LCD TVs is how companies like Samsung and Vizio have tried to remain competitive with OLED. That’s because the grid of local dimming LEDs will always be lower-resolution than the display itself; turning on a white pixel requires the entire local dimming zone to light up, resulting in “blooming”: a splotch of gray where the LED zone is lit up around the white pixel on the display. And if the dimming zones are slow to respond to the image on-screen, that blooming gets worse, as a trail of gray follows bright pixels around the screen as the dimming zones turn themselves off.

And of course, local dimming is a spec race like any other; the number of local dimming zones goes up every year. This year’s highest-end Vizio 4K TVs have 792 zones, for example. That means the dimming zones are smaller, reducing blooming and letting more parts of a display hit true black when necessary.

The Pro Display XDR is one of the best local dimming LCDs I’ve ever seen, but it’s still a local dimming LCD

I’m telling you all of this so that I can put Apple’s riff on local dimming into context. It’s still local dimming, but Apple says it’s using special blue LEDs in 576 zones — one LED per zone — behind a set of custom lenses and layers that even out colors and brightness. The whole thing is run by a custom Apple-designed timing controller that runs the backlight at 10 times the refresh rate of the display itself, which should reduce smearing. Using certain industry-standard VESA test patterns, Apple says the Pro Display XDR can hit a contrast ratio of a million-to-one, which is right up there with OLED.

When I first saw the Pro Display XDR, I was incredibly impressed by how it looked. The black levels in high-contrast scenes with a lot of black are there. The resolution is undeniable, especially with 4K video and photography. And it is incredibly bright in that default mode that can hit 1,600 nits. There’s not a lot out there like it. As we were working on our review video and having people gather around the display to watch different edits, it always attracted a crowd. It’s just nice to look at.

But as we used it more, I think it’s safe to say that while it can run with the very best full-array local dimming LCDs I’ve ever seen, it’s still a local dimming LCD: sometimes it blooms, and sometimes all of the dimming zones are lit up, and blacks look gray across the whole screen. Starfield patterns made it bloom, and there was plenty of content where you could see the black levels turn to gray as all of the dimming zones were turned on.

None of this is even remotely fatal — most people have edge-lit LCD monitors that can’t begin to compare to this display, and full-array local dimming LCD TVs are among the most popular on the market.

But again, Apple has repeatedly invited people to compare this display to very expensive OLED reference monitors that simply don’t have these issues. I am way more surprised that Apple invited that comparison than I am by the results, to be honest: the Pro Display XDR offers a vastly higher resolution and far deeper blacks than almost any other monitor you might test it against, unless you have very specific needs and the budget to match. In terms of backlight performance, it’s basically what I expected.

I was absolutely not expecting issues with off-axis viewing.

As with our Mac Pro review, we gave the Pro Display XDR to a variety of media professionals across Vox Media to use in their day-to-day work. The display attracted a tremendous amount of praise for brightness and sharpness, but two people, in particular, immediately noticed issues with the display viewed off-axis: Verge senior motion designer Grayson Blackmon and Vox Media director of post production technologies Murilo Silva. 

Here’s Grayson, who spent years working in advertising production for broadcast before coming to The Verge:

The XDR display is one of the best I’ve ever worked on, but that comes with a lot of caveats. The fall-off in brightness on the edges, even when you’re on-axis with the monitor, is very noticeable to me, no matter what application I’m working in. Viewing full-screen video content is less jarring, but it’s still there.

And here’s Murilo, who’s been running post-production facilities for 16 years, including his previous gig working at the color shop that did Game of Thrones:

Sadly, my biggest first impression was that the off-angle viewing was just incredibly inaccurate, even at the slightest angle. It’s so dramatic that when you’re standing right in front of it and looking at the display, there’s a vignette effect over the whole thing.

Having worked a lot with the Sony X300s that Apple compared the displays to when they announced them, it was especially jarring to see how the Apple display stacked up to the Sony in real life. This is not a display that I would ever buy as a reference monitor for serious color work.

That off-axis luminance fall-off is definitely there — and the display is so big that if you’re sitting in front of it on a desk at a normal working distance, you’re always viewing the sides off-axis, which is what produces that vignette effect. If you back up, it goes away, but most of our desks didn’t really allow for that in a normal working setup.

This is the photo I sent to Apple, showing the brightness fall-off at the edges of the Pro Display XDR. Since the display is so big, you’re almost always looking at the edges off-axis at a normal working distance.
This is the photo I sent to Apple, showing the brightness fall-off at the edges of the Pro Display XDR. Since the display is so big, you’re almost always looking at the edges off-axis at a normal working distance.
Photo by Nilay Patel

Our friend Marques Brownlee noted the same off-axis luminance fall-off in his review of the Pro Display XDR, so I asked him to double-check, and it’s definitely there. Other reviewers who have done more rigorous metered testing have also seen it.

Ultimately, I ended up sending a photo of what we were seeing to Apple and talking to the company several times about it. And basically: it’s real and fundamentally inherent to how LCDs work. You can see a similar effect right now if you’re reading this review on an LCD screen or have an LCD TV around. Just move your head around to the side, and you’ll see the brightness change and the colors shift a little.

Again, this doesn’t seem fatal to me. Most people are happy with the LCDs they have, and this display is brighter, sharper, and more accurate than those screens. And most people are not, in fact, doing serious color work on their display. But Apple invited that comparison, and I don’t think the Pro Display XDR necessarily holds up to it.

Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR

After several conversations, Apple told me that the goal with the Pro Display XDR was not to replace that Sony X300 OLED, but to provide a professional display with reference color modes and HDR capability so that more people could work on a display of this caliber. That’s a very noble goal, and viewed through that lens, the Pro Display XDR basically sits in a category of one: you would never, ever, use that Sony OLED reference display to crank on Excel or write code. It’s just not meant for that. The Pro Display XDR is far more flexible, can be used all day for office tasks, and be used for reference HDR color work in a pinch if you set it up exactly right.

So this is a puzzle: Apple has to convince all of the people who gasped at the idea of a $5,000 monitor and $1,000 stand that the upgrade to the Pro Display XDR is worth it and convince the people picky enough to spend $43,000 on a reference monitor simply for color use that this display can hit the marks. To be completely honest with you, I have no idea how that’s going to go. But I personally love looking at this thing, and I’m happy Apple’s back in the game. I just think you should go look at one yourself before deciding to buy one.

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