Thinking of buying a new large or widescreen monitor to go with your new MacBook Pro? Then this article is a must read- not only great advice, but Brian might save you money as well.

The task of finding a monitor for a Mac was a lot easier about a decade ago.

There were two choices:

  1. Spend a bunch of money on an Ap­ple display. It would look amazing.
  2. Spend significantly less money on a third party display. This was a gamble.

As we stand today, the 27” hole in Apple’s lineup is creating some conundrums for notebook users. Running a string of dongles into an old Apple display gets less and less viable with every laptop generation, and the Apple Thunderbolt Display’s resolution doesn’t stand up as a primary monitor for interface design, working with images or (in my case) video editing.

I needed to find a monitor for my 15” MacBook Pro. After a lot of research and soul searching, I wound up with a massive notes document that contained ridiculous diagrams like this:

BK display 02Working out USB-C I/O and price differences between two potential setups

I landed on these conclusions for a MacBook Pro display:

  • A USB hub was a must
  • A USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 monitor would be ideal
  • Power delivery must not monopolize one of the four USB-C ports on the computer

There was also a long list of potential monitors, including an inexpensive 28” 4K Samsung display that went on sale for Prime Day. It was purchased and promptly returned. The VESA mount was awkwardly placed, the colors were bad, and the bezel was creaky. I had forgotten what the world of third party displays was like.

BK display 03Not okay, Samsung.

At the most expensive end of my list was Apple’s official third-party recommendation: the 5K LG UltraFine Thunderbolt 3 display. This monitor had caused me some technical problems during its initial manufacturing run and had been bought and returned twice during Apple’s USB-C sale from earlier in the year. I was hesitant to buy it a third time, especially at full price.

 BK display 04

My interest in finding an ultrawide display peaked when I was shooting an interview with Zedd. His home studio had a striking HP ultrawide sitting front and center on his desk. The monitor wasn’t on at the time, but Zedd reccommended it strongly for timeline-based work. Though it’s hard to trust a musician on image quality, it’s safe to say that he knows how to wrangle timelines and wide user interfaces.

After a couple days of research and waffling, I wound up buying the 34” HP ENVY 21:9 display, and proudly posting my setup on a subreddit dedicated to ultrawide displays.

 BK display 05Pictured: the full timeline of a BTS piece for Digital Sputnik

Outside of gaming, the big pitch for 21:9 displays is productivity. You can fit more documents on the screen, timelines are bigger, and the immersion is stronger. Coming from a standard 16:9 display, this is true! Many PC users still run at 2560 x 1440, with some lagging behind at 1920 x 1080. Higher-end ultrawide displays (including the HP on my desk) have a resolution of 3440 x 1440. Tons of extra pixels!

I set up this workstation on a Sunday, and used it for one full workday on Monday. By Monday afternoon, I had realized my mistake.

I’m not a typical PC user, coming from a standard PC display. Most of the work on my old setup was done on a 5K iMac with P3 color. Most of my reading is done on an iPad Pro. Despite the immersion, the extra onscreen breathing room, and the aesthetic appeal of hav­ing a huge monitor on my desk, I couldn’t handle the lower resolution on the ENVY. I was dragging webpages and documents over to the MacBook Pro screen, where they could be read comfortably. My eyes were straining to figure out why photos were rendered behind screen doors.

 BK display 064K image of the HP display with a photo from The Boston Globe

It should have been obvious, but reverting from two years with a Retina display to a screen with 109ppi was not pleasant. Spreading my timeline across the expansive screen was luxurious, but squinting at boxy text in Final Cut was not. The fine lines inside macOS had a difficult time rendering, and I found myself pushing the screen further away from me to hide some of the chunkiness. I needed to move up my list of displays and spend a little more money.

As it happened, the business team at one of my local Ap­ple Stores had the LG UltraFine 5K display in stock. It was time to suck it up, and listen to uncle Tim.

 BK display 07Perfect world: 21:9 GUI, 5K preview monitor.

With the unique opportunity to have both of these screens running side-by-side, I did some experimenting. How much extra space and productivity did a 21:9 display really have to offer over its 5K competition?

 screen compareAnswer: not much.

 BK display 08

As it turns out, running Final Cut Pro in fullscreen on the ENVY display didn’t offer much extra workspace as compared to the UltraFine. The small gain of horizontal space was mitigated by vertical space. The ultrawide gave me more room for a timeline, but image quality was a massive loss. The color difference between P3 and SRGB was stark, and the fidelity between a retina and non-retina display were as obvious as ever in the FCPX GUI.

 screen compare2.gif hardly does this justice, but look at the detail in the waveforms!

These differences were even more evident when Final Cut Pro was closed. The ability to put three websites side by side along with twitter and messages was not a worthwhile advantage when reading those windows’ content inspired eyestrain.

 BK display 09My 5K UtraFine setup

Ultrawide displays have their place. Gamers love them, and the scope of the display made my setup look very impressive. For my purposes, though, buying the HP ENVY was only a reminder of what a huge lead Apple (and LG) has over their competition. This display will be the window into my work for the next five to seven years, and that’s worth making an investment.

Takeaways:

  • Retina and HiDPI displays are not a technology you can walk away from
  • 21:9 screens are very cool, but the panels inside them need to catch up
  • Buying the UltraFine in the first place would have saved me enough time and effort to buy two UltraFines.

 brian king
Brian King is a Director at Lucid Potato.

You can follow him on Twitter @bkbkbk