No Apple product was more overdue an update than the Thunderbolt Display. First sold in 2011, its unlaminated, un-Retina screen was beautiful in its day, but Apple gave it so little attention that it even chose to throw an adapter in the box rather than update its charging cable with the 2012 MagSafe 2 connector. And, with Apple moving to Retina displays across most of the Mac line, the Thunderbolt Display was left to languish on shelves at a ludicrously high price.
But the stage was set this year for Apple to make itself relevant in monitors again. The advent of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 technology means that it's now possible to deliver the Thunderbolt Display's key feature of single-cable charging and video connectivity at higher, Retina-class resolutions. The company pulled the Thunderbolt Display from sale in June, however, and later this year told Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel that it was getting out of the monitor business altogether.
That's not to say that Apple doesn't have a solution. It's worked with LG on a pair of new “UltraFine" monitors — a 21.5-inch 4K model and a 5K display at 27 inches, matching the (LG-manufactured) panels in both sizes of iMac — that are meant to be the perfect partner for USB-C-equipped MacBooks. Apple’s Phil Schiller described them as “the ultimate docking station” at October’s MacBook Pro event.
I've been using the 4K model all week, and while it might not be the official Thunderbolt Display replacement some Apple fans were hoping for, it turns out to be more Apple-like than you might expect.
Much has been made of the UltraFine design, or lack thereof. Apple has made gorgeous monitors since the Studio Display line back in the '90s, and it's safe to say that the LG UltraFines do not follow in the same tradition. They are aggressively generic, with plain black plastic casing and fairly large bezels that protrude around the screen. If Apple didn't already make the iMac, it would probably have an emoji character for "computer monitor" that looked something like this.
But I don't necessarily want my monitors to be art pieces, and I wouldn't call the UltraFine 4K ugly. It gets out of the way with a simple, sensible design that is Applesque in function, if not form. There are no buttons anywhere on the monitor, and no setup process to speak of. The stand is excellent, offering just the right amount of resistance to make adjusting the angle and height easy without sacrificing stability. The UltraFine's design may not be premium, but it is professional.
Not premium, but professional
If you're on board with Apple's definition of "professional" as espoused by the latest MacBook Pro, that is. Like that controversial new laptop, the LG UltraFine is equipped with four USB-C ports that are responsible for all input and output. On the 4K model, one of these ports provides power to your MacBook at the same time as receiving the display signal, so all you need to do is plug in a single cable to use the monitor and charge the laptop. The other three USB-C ports can be used for various other peripherals, though they're limited to USB 2.0 because of Apple and LG's bandwidth-splitting solution for piping a 4K signal through USB-C. The 5K model doesn't have this limitation because it uses the faster Thunderbolt 3 interface, but that means it loses compatibility with the USB-C-only MacBook — you'll need a new Pro model to drive the bigger display.
Although there are still growing pains with USB-C, this is really the kind of product that shows the full potential of the connector. Once you have the right cables and adapters, it's never been easier to build and use a docking setup for a desk. In my case, my MacBook gets power, a second display, two external hard drives, and a USB microphone all by plugging in a single cable, along with the wireless Magic Trackpad 2 and Magic Keyboard. The obvious problem right now is that Apple's entire lineup of desktop computers — the Mac mini, Mac Pro, and iMac — still doesn't support USB-C or Thunderbolt 3. While in many ways they're the computers that need these displays the most, Apple has been extremely lax in keeping them up to date. Perhaps that'll change next year, but it's far from a sure thing.
What matters most about the UltraFine is image quality, of course, and it doesn't give me a single reason to complain. The transition to Retina-class resolution is no less transformative in a desktop situation than it was for the iPhone, the iPad, and Mac laptops, and in many ways it's even more profound on a larger canvas. Simple tasks like browsing and reading the web are wildly improved, as you'd expect, but this is a technology with serious professional implications. Editing photos in Lightroom, for example, will never feel the same again — since you have to zoom in far less frequently to check finer details, you get a much more comprehensive sense of the full image when adjusting parameters. After one week with this monitor, I just can't go back.
I just can't go back
21.5 inches is a little small for an external monitor these days, but it's this size for a reason. The resolution is 4096 x 2304, which scales down to give you desktop space equivalent to 2048 x 1152 at the same sharpness as the larger 5K display. This means that at the default scaling settings, everything on screen is a comfortable size while giving you more real estate than you'd get with a 1080p-equivalent display. This UltraFine 4K has replaced my 24-inch 1920 x 1200 Dell monitor, but it doesn't really feel any smaller in actual use.
There's more to image quality than sheer resolution, though, and the UltraFine monitors keep up in terms of color reproduction. Both support the P3 color gamut, a wider color space that has been trickling down throughout Apple's product lineup over the past couple of years, and while most people won't find it life-changing I definitely notice the difference. Oranges and greens look ultra-vibrant in P3, and photos from the iPhone 7 — which captures images in the same color space — really pop. The only downside is that my 2015 MacBook doesn't support it, so the two displays don't look perfectly color-matched next to each other. (The new MacBook Pros and 9.7-inch iPad Pro do.)
Aside from the P3 gamut, LG and Apple have worked together in other ways to make the UltraFine monitors feel like Apple products, even if they don't quite look the part. The aforementioned lack of buttons is actually a great feature, because you get to sidestep the inevitably terrible overlaid control panels and adjust settings directly through macOS. With my setup, the Magic Keyboard controls the LG display brightness and the MacBook's keyboard controls the MacBook's display, meaning they're independently adjustable at the touch of a button. You can control a set of integrated stereo speakers, too, which take the traditional iMac approach of directing sound down at the desk and bouncing it toward you. The sound is kind of muddy at high volume, but it's a lot more substantial than what you get with the MacBook, which already has better speakers than most laptops.
My biggest caveat with the UltraFine 4K is performance. It's hard to quantify, but I do feel like there's a slight penalty incurred by hooking up the 2015 MacBook — that's to be expected, of course, considering the sheer number of extra pixels that need to be pushed by what was already a noticeably slow computer. It doesn't make a huge difference, but the bigger deal to many might be that the monitor runs at 48Hz out of the box with the 2015 MacBook, rather than the standard, smoother 60Hz. This doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would — it's a lot better than 30Hz, which is the 4K refresh rate that the MacBook was specced for on launch last year, and for my uses the dramatic leap in image quality and convenience is worth the speed tradeoff. The monitor should run at the regular 60Hz speed on this year's MacBook and MacBook Pros, too. But if you have an older MacBook, it's something to be aware of.
The LG UltraFine is a worthy successor to Apple's own displays in every way other than its industrial design. Its actual panel looks as good as an Apple display — no surprise, since LG is Apple's supplier for the iMac — and its operation is as smooth as you'd expect from an official Mac product.
I don't plan to see a macOS pixel ever again
I understand why some people would prefer that their monitor come from the same company as their computer, but unless you're extremely fussy about your desk layout, I think LG's UltraFine displays are an unqualified win for Mac users. That's especially true when you consider the 25-percent-off prices you can get them at until the end of the year: $524 for the 4K model, and $974 for the 5K. (The 5K isn’t shipping yet, however.)
If you have a MacBook or new MacBook Pro and want a bigger screen, look no further. Apple might not be making its own monitors any more, but the LG UltraFine is an excellent solution. I don't plan to see a macOS pixel ever again.