My Search: a New Display for a Mac Pro, Part I

My story starts with handing down my 2010 27-inch iMac to my wife. That was and still is a very good Mac, especially since it has an awesome 2560 x 1440 IPS display and was purchased with a 256 GB SSD.


But four years is a long time to keep a Mac. In my job, I need to be reasonably up to date with current technology, and I wanted a new, fast Mac with plenty of CPU/GPU power, flexibility and USB 3.0 ports. The 2013 Mac Pro looked like a good choice: it can run virtual machines with ease (Parallels), and I'd never have to wait long for things to happen. Also, I was charmed by the idea of a black cylinder Mac. Did I mention charmed?

The Display Issue

Right away, I was faced with a display issue. The two displays I had handy were a very old Apple 23-inch Aluminum Cinema Display from 2004, 1920 x 1200 (with a DVI to DisplayPort connector) and a decent 24-inch LED Cinema Display from 2009, 1920 x 1200. While these two displays gave me lots of space in total, side by side, the prime display (LED Cinema) lacked that awesome 2560 x 1440 goodness of the iMac. Plus, it's only 1200 pixels high. I couldn't set my windows the way I wanted anymore. I was cramped. That 27-inch iMac spoiled me. This may seem like a nit, but writers need their space and their workflow or they get grumpy.

And so I set out to replace the old 23-inch Aluminum Cinema Display and get back to larger display. Did I mention I hate moving windows around?


Working great, but ten years old and begging to become a hand-me-down.

To be sure, I am not a photographic or display professional. I don't speak color gamuts, RGB spaces, and color temperatures. I'm a writer, not a Final Cut editor, and I don't review displays. But I know what I like in displays, and I had a basic set of (mostly ergonomic) requirements. And a budget.

I started shopping.

Apple's Thunderbolt Display

One would think that Apple's 27-inch Thunderbolt Display would be the perfect mate for a 2013 Mac Pro. Well, I can tell you that it isn't for me. In my research, I discovered that is has some serious issues.

  • It's expensive, bordering on a kilobuck.
  • It's Thunderbolt only, and I like displays with more connections options and hand-me-down flexibility. This display is only officially compatible with Macs that have a TB port, and that won't do because I live in a multi-platform household.
  • It has three USB 2 ports and a FireWire 800 port. OMG.
  • It's old. It was introduced in July 2011, but basically it's an update of the same LED Cinema Display from July 2010. OMG.
  • It's fairly thick on the edge, and it looks like a computer, not a display.
  • The height is not adjustable. (The tilt is.)
  • The display has a glossy finish. That won't do.
  • It uses the old Magsafe connector for charging a MacBook. You need an adapter for modern MacBooks.


Apple's aging 27-inch Thunderbolt Display.
Even the desktop shown by Apple is from OS X Lion.
Image Credit: Apple

What Does Apple Expect?

These are some serious issues for a $1,000 display. It makes me wonder what Apple is thinking. Surely, it would have been appropriate to release the 2013 Mac Pro (that shipped about a year ago now) with an accompanying display, something pleasingly thin, black and modernized. That omission is puzzling unless Apple feels that Mac Pro users are so idiosyncratic that nothing Apple makes will suit them.

Apple still ships just this one aging display, and it's not at all certain that Apple will ever refresh it. Apple's focus seems to be on the 5K iMac, not on displays for its headless Macs or as second displays for MacBooks.

I moved on.

Why Not a 4K/UHD Display?

The first thought I had was: if I need more space to work, why not a 4K/UHD display? Then I'd have 3840 x 2160 pixels to work with. The first eye-opening article I saw was this fabulous write-up by Rob Griffiths at Macworld. "The pros and cons of adding a 4K display to your Mac." I researched some 4K displays for a Mac Pro and looked at Apple's KB article. My reaction initially was that a really good 4K/UHD display would be too expensive for me and that I wouldn't be happy with the cheap ones—notable for using TN LCDs.

The icing on the cake was the Bob LeVitus review of the 5K iMac. "iMac w/Retina 5K Display = Best iMac Ever." Looking at his screenshots, I decided that this kind of display made everything too small for my eyes. There's such a thing as too much (or too small) of a good thing.

From the LeVitus article. The largest outline (black) of Apple's 5K makes for 
incredibly small menus and text. 4K would be almost as bad.

My mind turned back to my personal sweet spot: a primary display that's 2560 pixels across. As for the height, I could go with 1600 high (WQXGA), but my monitors sit in front of a window, and I need to be able to easily see over them. 1440 pixels high, like the old iMac, would be better in that regard, and that meant, finally, 2560 x 1440 (WQHD). Excellent width was what I really need, not height.

Finally, I was ready to make a list of personal criteria that suited me as a technical writer.

My Criteria

I have lots of experience with In-plane Switching (IPS) displays, and I like them. I have read that a LCD display using MVA technology has high contrast and is good for writers, but I decided to stay with the pleasing off-axis color of modern IPS displays. Or perhaps PLS. Twisted Nematic (TN) is great for gamers, but not writers. With TN, the display response is fast, but black levels aren't great and there are off-axis effects. With that, here's the set of personal criteria I created.

  • 2560 x 1440 pixels (WQHD)
  • LED backlight (most are now)
  • IPS (or PLS) technology.
  • USB 3 ports
  • DisplayPort and other inputs such as DVI, HDMI.
  • Not glossy. Glossy displays are not my cup of tea.
  • A healthy maximum brightness. I write mostly in the daytime in a brightly lit room by choice. So: 300 nits or greater.
  • Height adjustable to match its partner, the Apple 24-inch LED Cinema Display. I want both displays at the same height.
  • A high quality and sturdy stand.

I could live without a FaceTime Camera because my other display has one. Also, I didn't really care about speakers. I have a good pair from Logitech.

Armed with my list of requirements, I was ready to do some serious shopping. In Part II, I'll cover the displays I looked at and my final purchase decision.


Update: Part II was published on January 12, 2015. "My Search: a New Display for a Mac Pro, Part II."