Apple’s Studio Display fills an obvious gap in the monitor market

At Apple’s March event, the company announced the Studio Display, a new, 27 inch external monitor that starts at $1,599—a huge step down in price from the company’s only other monitor, the Pro Display XDR, which starts at $5,000.

The announcement of the Studio Display is big news for many who have been waiting for Apple to offer a replacement for its popular Thunderbolt Display, which was released more than a decade ago and was eventually discontinued in 2016 when Apple pulled out of the display business entirely. In the tech industry, I know many product designers that refused to give up their Thunderbolt Displays, keeping them limping along despite their limited resolutions and outdated ports, in the hope Apple might eventually release a successor.

When Apple discontinued the Thunderbolt Display, it left a large gap in the market: there are practically zero all-in-one displays that combine a monitor with a webcam, microphone, speakers, and USB ports into a single product. The LG Ultrafine was pushed by Apple as a solution, but it fell short in build quality, reliability, and connectivity compared with the Thunderbolt Display, despite sporting more the more modern USB-C port.

When the technology industry switched to working remote full-time in 2020 due to the pandemic, I was surprised by the lack of great options for all-in-one external displays when I was shopping for a new monitor. With USB-C popping up on almost every modern computer, promising high-speed connectivity, display support, and charging over a single cable, I had expected monitor companies might try to recreate the success of the Thunderbolt Display. But, I found few options when I looked for one and wound up ordering a simple 4K monitor, a separate Logitech webcam, USB hub and a microphone.

Apple’s new Studio Display is the answer, after a decade of waiting, and its specifications hit all of the right notes. It sports a 5K display (5120 × 2880 pixels) at a 60hz refresh rate with a wide P3 color gamut, a 12 megapixel webcam, three studio microphones for noise cancelling, six built-in speakers, and a Thunderbolt 3 port along with 3 USB-C ports for plugging in all of your peripherals. It plugs into a MacBook via a single Thunderbolt 3 USB-C cable, which also charges the laptop while it’s being used.

Apple Studio display - top down view

It stands out from the competition because it’s one of the few 5K resolution options available to buy, but also because Apple built in an A13 processor to add additional features such as True Tone, which adjusts the color temperature based on the ambient light in your room, as well as Center Stage which tracks you and keeps you in the frame of the webcam as you move around. While it might sound sort of dull, you can also control the brightness, sound levels, and other functionality directly from your Mac’s keyboard hotkeys instead of requiring navigating a cryptic on-screen display menu built into your screen, which is a massive quality of life improvement.

The most common complaint I’ve seen of Apple’s new display online is that it doesn’t support the company’s ProMotion technology found in its latest computers, which includes a high maximum refresh rate (120hz) that can only be described as buttery. This was never going to happen, however, because the port throughput required to pull this off doesn’t exist yet: 5K resolution at 120hz would require 53.08 gbps, but Thunderbolt 3/4 are only capable of carrying 40 Gbps over a single cable. This type of speed is reported to be coming as a part of the Thunderbolt 5 standard, but the new technology is yet to be announced publicly and isn’t available on any computers yet.

Studio Display - on desk

While many have balked at the $1,599 base price, I’d argue that all of this is actually well worth it for folks that need a high resolution, color accurate display and spend most of their day in front of a screen, especially if they work from home—which is especially true of anyone working in the product design industry, such as myself, but it’s compelling for anyone who’s in meetings all day and would like to ditch all of the accessories.

Being able to plug in a single cable and have a webcam, microphone, and speakers ready to roll for your next video call is a massive improvement over fiddling around every time you’ve unplugged your laptop, especially considering that the integrated microphones are optimized for noise cancelling to make taking video calls on the speakers tolerable for everyone involved. For companies hiring on remote employees, being able to ship out a single screen that includes all of the accessories they’re going to buy individually anyway, is likely to make it a popular choice for enterprise buys.

Is the Studio Display expensive? Absolutely, but it’s an investment in something you’re likely using all day, and will get years of use out of if the Thunderbolt Display’s legacy is anything to go by. I never thought I’d be dropping $1,599 on a screen but didn’t hesitate to order one the moment it was available, because life’s too short for bad screens and having webcams perched precariously on top of them.

Why your next TV needs ‘filmmaker mode’

TVs this year will ship with a new feature called “filmmaker mode,” but unlike the last dozen things the display industry has tried to foist on consumers, this one actually matters. It doesn’t magically turn your living room into a movie theater, but it’s an important step in that direction.

This new setting arose out of concerns among filmmakers (hence the name) that users were getting a sub-par viewing experience of the media that creators had so painstakingly composed.

The average TV these days is actually quite a quality piece of kit compared to a few years back. But few ever leave their default settings. This was beginning to be a problem, explained LG’s director of special projects, Neil Robinson, who helped define the filmmaker mode specification and execute it on the company’s displays.

“When people take TVs out of the box, they play with the settings for maybe five minutes, if you’re lucky,” he said. “So filmmakers wanted a way to drive awareness that you should have the settings configured in this particular way.”

In the past they’ve taken to social media and other platforms to mention this sort of thing, but it’s hard to say how effective a call to action is, even when it’s Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie begging you:

While very few people really need to tweak the gamma or adjust individual color levels, there are a couple settings that are absolutely crucial for a film or show to look the way it’s intended. The most important are ones that fit under the general term “motion processing.”

These settings have a variety of fancy-sounding names, like “game mode,” “motion smoothing,” “truemotion,” and such like, and they are on by default on many TVs. What they do differs from model to model, but it amounts to taking content at, say, 24 frames per second, and converting it to content at, say, 120 frames per second.

Generally this means inventing the images that come between the 24 actual frames — so if a person’s hand is at point A in one frame of a movie and point C in the next, motion processing will create a point B to go in between — or B, X, Y, Z, and dozens more if necessary.

This is bad for several reasons:

First, it produces a smoothness of motion that lies somewhere between real life and film, giving an uncanny look to motion-processed imagery that people often say reminds them of bad daytime TV shot on video — which is why people call it the “soap opera effect.”

Second, some of these algorithms are better than others, and some media is more compatible than the rest (sports broadcasts, for instance). While at best they produce the soap opera effect, at worst they can produce weird visual artifacts that can distract even the least sensitive viewer.

And third, it’s an aesthetic affront to the creators of the content, who usually crafted it very deliberately, choosing this shot, this frame rate, this shutter speed, this take, this movement, and so on with purpose and a careful eye. It’s one thing if your TV has the colors a little too warm or the shadows overbright — quite another to create new frames entirely with dubious effect.

So filmmakers, and in particular cinematographers, whose work crafting the look of the movie is most affected by these settings, began petitioning TV companies to either turn motion processing off by default or create some kind of easily accessible method for users to disable it themselves.

Ironically, the option already existed on some displays. “Many manufacturers already had something like this,” said Robinson. But with different names, different locations within the settings, and different exact effects, no user could really be sure what these various modes actually did. LG’s was “Technicolor Expert Mode.” Does that sound like something the average consumer would be inclined to turn on? I like messing with settings, and I’d probably keep away from it.

So the movement was more about standardization than reinvention. With a single name, icon, and prominent placement instead of being buried in a sub-menu somewhere, this is something people may actually see and use.

Not that there was no back-and-forth on the specification itself. For one thing, filmmaker mode also lowers the peak brightness of the TV to a relatively dark 100 nits — at a time when high brightness, daylight visibility, and contrast ratio are specs manufacturers want to show off.

The reason for this is, very simply, to make people turn off the lights.

There’s very little anyone in the production of a movie can do to control your living room setup or how you actually watch the film. But restricting your TV to certain levels of brightness does have the effect of making people want to dim the lights and sit right in front. Do you want to watch movies in broad daylight, with the shadows pumped up so bright they look grey? Feel free, but don’t imagine that’s what the creators consider ideal conditions.

Photo: Chris Ryan / Getty Images

“As long as you view in a room that’s not overly bright, I’d say you’re getting very close to what the filmmakers saw in grading,” said Robinson. Filmmaker mode’s color controls are a rather loose, he noted, but you’ll get the correct aspect ratio, white balance, no motion processing, and generally no weird surprises from not delving deep enough in the settings.

The full list of changes can be summarized as follows:

  • Maintain source frame rate and aspect ratio (no stretched or sped up imagery)
  • Motion processing off (no smoothing)
  • Peak brightness reduced (keeps shadows dark — this may change with HDR content)
  • Sharpening and noise reduction off (standard items with dubious benefit)
  • Other “image enhancements” off (non-standard items with dubious benefit)
  • White point at D65/6500K (prevents colors from looking too warm or cool)

All this, however, relies on people being aware of the mode and choosing to switch to it. Exactly how that will work depends on several factors. The ideal option is probably a filmmaker mode button right on the clicker, which is at least theoretically the plan.

The alternative is a content specification — as opposed to a display one — that allows TVs to automatically enter filmmaker mode when a piece of media requests it to. But this requires content providers to take advantage of the APIs that make the automatic switching possible, so don’t count on it.

And of course this has its own difficulties, including privacy concerns — do you really want your shows to tell your devices what to do and when? So a middle road where the TV prompts the user to “Show this content in filmmaker mode? Yes/No” and automatic fallback to the previous settings afterwards might be the best option.

There are other improvements that can be pursued to make home viewing more like the theater, but as Robinson pointed out, there are simply fundamental differences between LCD and OLED displays and the projectors used in theaters — and even then there are major differences between projectors. But that’s a whole other story.

At the very least, the mode as planned represents a wedge that content purists (it has a whiff of derogation but they may embrace the term) can widen over time. Getting the average user to turn off motion processing is the first and perhaps most important step — everything after that is incremental improvement.

So which TVs will have filmmaker mode? It’s unclear. LG, Vizio, and Panasonic have all committed to bringing models out with the feature, and it’s even possible it could be added to older models with a software update (but don’t count on it). Sony is a holdout for now. No one is sure exactly which models will have filmmaker mode available, so just cast an eye over the spec list of you’re thinking of getting and, if you’ll take my advice, don’t buy a TV without it.

Apple: Use only our special cloth to clean the $1,000 coating on our $5,000 Pro Display

If you thought the saga of the $7,000 Apple Pro Display XDR couldn’t get any more ridiculous, prepare yourself for the proverbial cherry on top: The company insists that you only use the single special cleaning cloth that comes with the monitor. If you lose it, you’re advised to order another.

Apple, already under fire from longtime users for the ever-increasing price of its products, attracted considerable ire and ridicule when it announced the high-end monitor in June. Of course there are many expensive displays out there — it was more the fact that Apple was selling the display for $5,000, the stand separately for $999, and an optional “nano-texture” coating for an additional grand.

Just wait till you see how much the Mac Pro that goes with it costs.

 

Technically it’s not actually a “coating” but an extremely small-scale etching of the surface that supposedly produces improved image quality without some of the drawbacks of a full-matte coating. “Typical matte displays have a coating added to their surface that scatters light. However, these coatings lower contrast while producing unwanted haze and sparkle,” the product description reads. Not so with nano-texture.

Unfortunately, the unique nature of the glass necessitates special care when cleaning.

“Use only the dry polishing cloth that comes with your display,” reads the support page How to clean your Apple Pro Display XDR. “Never use any other cloths to clean the nano-texture glass. If you lose the included polishing cloth, you can contact Apple to order a replacement polishing cloth.” (No price is listed, so I’ve asked Apple for more information.)

Obviously if you’re cleaning an expensive screen you don’t want to do it with Windex and wadded-up newspaper. But it’s not clear what differentiates Apple’s cloth from an ordinary microfiber wipe.

Do the nano-scale ridges shred ordinary mortal cloth and get fibers caught in their interstices? Can the nano-texture be damaged by anything of insufficient softness?

Apple seems to be presuming a certain amount of courage on the part of consumers, who must pay a great deal for something that not only provides an uncertain benefit (even Apple admits that the display without the coating is “engineered for extremely low reflectivity”) but seems susceptible to damage from even the lightest mishandling.

No doubt the Pro Display XDR is a beautiful display, and naturally only those who feel it is worth the price will buy one. But no one likes to have to baby their gadgets, and Apple’s devices have also gotten more fragile and less readily repairable. The company’s special cloth may be a small, even silly thing, but it’s part of a large and worrying trend.

Japan will restrict the export of some materials used in smartphones and chips to South Korea

Japan’s trade ministry said today that it will restrict the export of some tech materials to South Korea, including polyimides used in flexible displays made by companies like Samsung Electronics. The new rules come as the two countries argue over compensation for South Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories during World War II.

The list of restricted supplies, expected to go into effect on July 4, includes polyimides used in smartphone and flexible organic LED displays, and etching gas and resist used to make semiconductors. That means Japanese suppliers who wish to sell those materials to South Korean tech companies such as Samsung, LG and SK Hynix will need to submit each contract for approval.

Japan’s government may also remove South Korea from its list of countries that have fewer restrictions on trading technology that might have national security implications, reports Nikkei Asian Review.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled several Japanese companies, including Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, that had used forced labor during World War II must pay compensation and began seizing assets for liquidation. But Japan’s government claims the issue was settled in 1965 as part of a treaty that restored basic diplomatic relations between the two countries and is asking South Korea to put the matter before an international arbitration panel instead.

Japan will restrict the export of some materials used in smartphones and chips to South Korea

Japan’s trade ministry said today that it will restrict the export of some tech materials to South Korea, including polyimides used in flexible displays made by companies like Samsung Electronics. The new rules come as the two countries argue over compensation for South Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories during World War II.

The list of restricted supplies, expected to go into effect on July 4, includes polyimides used in smartphone and flexible organic LED displays, and etching gas and resist used to make semiconductors. That means Japanese suppliers who wish to sell those materials to South Korean tech companies such as Samsung, LG and SK Hynix will need to submit each contract for approval.

Japan’s government may also remove South Korea from its list of countries that have fewer restrictions on trading technology that might have national security implications, reports Nikkei Asian Review.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled several Japanese companies, including Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, that had used forced labor during World War II must pay compensation and began seizing assets for liquidation. But Japan’s government claims the issue was settled in 1965 as part of a treaty that restored basic diplomatic relations between the two countries and is asking South Korea to put the matter before an international arbitration panel instead.

Samsung’s Space Monitor is practical and minimal

Samsung always has a huge presence at CES, but it isn’t the giant TVs and flashy next-generation gadgets that have my attention this year; it’s this simple, flexible monitor that looks like it would be right at home in any workspace. It’s called the Space Monitor, presumably because it gives you space, not because it’s meant for use in space. I don’t see why you couldn’t, though.

What the Space Monitor does is very simple: it clamps to your desk and sits straight up from the edge — up against the wall if there is one — and takes up about as little space as it’s possible for a display to.

When you want to bring something closer, or lower, or just need to adjust the angle or whatever, the neck of the monitor lets you bring it down all the way to the level of your desk and tilt it up or down as well (though not side to side). Cables go up through the stand so you won’t see them at all.

Combined with very thin bezels on the sides (there’s a thicker, but still very reasonable one on the bottom) this makes for quite a minimal presence, and it could allow someone (like me) to shrink their workspace in some dimension or other. I like my Dell Ultrasharps, but if I was putting together a new desk situation, I’d probably look very hard at these Samsungs.

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Sure, you could do a wall mount, but this is much easier and you don’t have to fiddle around with tools or load calculations. Just clamp it on there.

There are two models, a 27-inch QHD (2560×1440) model and a 32-inch 4K one (3840×2160); the latter costs $500, so the former will probably be a bit less. They use VA panels, which hopefully will be about as good as IPS, though of course not quite so good as OLED (though for that tech you’d have to add another zero to the price).

Only downside: 60 Hz maximum refresh rate. That’s a possible dealbreaker for some. But the specs also list a 4 ms response time, without explaining further. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but I asked Samsung to explain the discrepancy. The specs for the 27-inch display could also differ.

It feels nice to have a reason to visit the actual CES main halls this year. And of course, for the maximalists out there, I’ll also be sure to check out the mammoth new ultrawide: