More (Retina) Display Thoughts

Dell U2711 beside a white MacBook

Simpler times. My setup from November 2010, featuring a Dell U2711 beside my white MacBook of the time.

If I’m honest, I was a little early to the 4K train. Had I known about the Retina-class displays that would be coming out not that long after I purchased my first, current, and only 4K display, I would probably have waited a year or two. That’s not saying I don’t love my Dell P2715Q — having a 4K, 60Hz, IPS display in late 2014 for under $1000 was a pretty sweet deal at the time — but had I known about the higher pixel density displays that were coming out, I might have waited. But predicting the future of technology is a fool’s game, and hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Retina-class displays are a mess. You can count the models you can currently buy new on one hand, and none of them come in under $1800. The introduction of Apple’s own Studio Display means there’s now exactly three models you can buy new today, making it an exclusive club indeed. LG’s UltraFine 5K, Apple’s own Pro Display XDR, the Apple Studio Display… and that’s it! There are a bunch of older models that you can’t find new today, but even at “peak Retina” a few years ago, there were never more than a handful of models available that came with roughly 220ppi. There are some that come close, like LG’s UltraFine 4K, but even then that costs over $1000 today, which would otherwise buy you a nice 4K high-frame rate IPS display (more on this in a sec).

Reviews indicate that the Studio Display is a fine display. While it costs similar to what a 27-inch, 5K iMac cost back in the day, with the latter having the price advantage of including a whole-ass computer, there’s still some value there for people firmly ensconced within the Apple ecosystem and want a quality display that’s not the Pro Display XDR and the eye-watering price that comes with it. The Studio Display comes with some innovative features that haven’t yet been seen in any display so far, thanks to the A13 SoC and whatever version of iOS its runs. Centre stage is cool, I’ve read that the speakers sound great, and perhaps most importantly, it probably won’t have the same quality and reliability issues that have plagued the UltraFine 5K, despite the latter being a much simpler display without the bells and whistles of the Studio Display. It turns out that if you want reliability, you strap an iPhone to the display and call it a day. Hey, if it works, it works.

But it’s not for me. A lot of people have been wondering if Apple would ever get back into the display game, and now they have, I’m not so sure that Apple would ever make a Retina-class display for me, someone that wants a quality panel without all the bells and whistles.

I’ve been thinking about upgrading my display for a while now. I’ve had a Dell P2715Q since late 2014, and it’s probably about time I started thinking about my next display. While my dream display — 4K or higher res, 120Hz or higher, and IPS HDR or OLED HDR, doesn’t exist yet, it’s getting close to that time I want something better.

I’d like a Retina-class display as much as the next guy. My primary computer is a Mac, and a 5K, 60Hz display could easily be suitable for both general computing and some gaming, just like my 4K 60Hz is currently. But my choices are either an UltraFine 5K, or Apple’s Studio Display, and neither of those can be had for under $1800. And plus, it just wouldn’t feel like that much of an upgrade for that kind of money. The only real thing they’re offering that my current Dell can’t is higher pixel density.

So what’s the alternative? Thankfully, 4K 144Hz HDR displays are becoming more and more common, and if you’re looking in the 27-inch sweet spot, there are quite a few options.

In order to feel like an upgrade from my current display, I would like:
– 4K
– 144Hz
– IPS or mini-LED
– G-Sync compatible

Everything else is a nice-to-have. I don’t really care about pass-through charging or USB PD, I don’t care about my display having a USB hub, or audio, special lighting sync effects, or any kind of extra features like that. Alas, the above feature set seems to come with some bells and whistles, even though I’m not really interested in that kind of thing.

There’s a couple of displays that fit this bill. The one that interests me the most is the Eve Spectrum, for its understated design and no-frills features. If money were no object, I’d toss up between the Asus ROG Swift PG32UQX, and Apple’s Studio Display.

But no matter how much money you’re willing to throw at the situation, the complication here is that there’s no display that does both gaming and general productivity, at least not at Retina-class pixel density. Most displays will do a fine job at both, but there are compromises. Either you get something like Apple’s Studio Display that will give you a great 5K, Retina-class display, but lacks the high-frame rate that I want for gaming, or I can get a high-frame rate 4K display that lacks a little in the pixel density department. No matter how much I spend, I literally cannot buy a monitor that gives me the best of both worlds. If I want a high-frame rate gaming display, I can’t get one that offers the kind of pixel density that I want. I can equal the pixel density of my current display, but that’s the best I can do.

I think some part of this problem is literally that the technology doesn’t exist yet for a 5K, high-frame rate display. 4K high-frame rate displays exist, but no one makes one smaller than 27-inches, and I need one to be 22 inches, if it is going to be Retina-class.

So, which trade-off do I choose?

Which is where we run into our second problem; I’ve never had a Retina-class desktop display. I have a high-frame rate 1080p display, but the image quality just isn’t there thanks to its el-cheapo TN panel. It’s all very nice and smooth, but every time I switch back to my Dell 4K, all I notice is how awful the image quality is on my gaming display. Would I notice the smoothness associated with a high refresh rate, more than I would the crispy-ness eye-candy of a Retina-class display? I honestly don’t know. If I had to guess, my deteriorating eyesight would probably notice high frame rate more than it would some extra pixel density.

Clearly, the only acceptable answer here is two displays.

But even then the question is: which two displays? If I’m getting a 4K 144Hz that I can use with both my Mac and when I’m gaming, what’s my secondary display going to be? Two 27-inch displays side-by-side covers far too much horizontal area, and using a 27-inch display vertically is probably too much to use alongside whatever 27-inch 4k 144Hz display I end up picking. If I’m going to use something vertically, I think anything more than 22-inches is getting uncomfortably tall. And if I’m going to use something in a vertical orientation as a secondary monitor when I’m gaming, I probably don’t need for it to be Retina, or have particularly great image quality if all it’s going to do is show Discord. The higher res the better, but even then, anything above 1440p is probably wasted.

I guess I’m waiting a little longer until either one of two things happens: mini-LED displays get much cheaper to satisfy my 4K/HFR/HDR requirements, or new displays come out that satisfy both my pixel density and HFR wants. I’m not holding my breath on the latter, but the former could be just around the corner.

But that’s technology for you, isn’t it?

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