Apple finally refreshed its new MacBook Pros last fall, but while the laptops received their first new design in years, the long-suffering Apple Cinema Display didn’t even get a mention. Instead, buyers were pointed toward the new LG UltraFine 5K as the best monitor for their new USB-C laptops.
And after a few days using the $1,299 IPS display, I’m inclined to agree that when it comes to Apple’s latest laptops, the UltraFine 5K is a great option. But much like the updated MacBook Pros, the UltraFine 5K fits a much narrower use case than other more full-featured displays.
First things first: when it comes to the actual visual quality of the screen, the UltraFine 5K is perhaps one of the single best monitors I’ve ever used. Nothing I’ve seen can match it for color, brightness, and clarity. The display puts the already excellent display on the new MacBook Pro to shame, and going back to my old Retina MacBook Pro (circa 2013) felt like looking through a dusty window.
The UltraFine uses the same clever trick as Apple’s Retina displays — instead of running everything at the impossible tiny native 5120 x 2880 pixel resolution, the UltraFine 5K by default renders scales things up to more standard resolutions of, say, 2560 x 1440 when it comes to visual elements of things like fonts and icons, and using the extra pixels to render things twice as sharp. And much like it did when the iPhone 4 first debuted the Retina display, it’s a wonderful experience, with text rendered crisp even at the smallest font sizes and images appearing vibrant and clear. Between the high resolution and wide display, the UltraFine 5K is a multitasker’s dream.
From a design perspective, the 27-inch UltraFine 5K Display is virtually identical to LG’s smaller 4K 21.5-inch panel (which runs for a comparatively cheap $699.95). That means you’re getting the same uninspired black plastic case and bezels, and an overall bland design the could charitably be called “professional.” For all that Apple touts that it worked closely alongside LG to ensure that the UltraFine 5K would be the perfect monitor for its new USB-C MacBook Pros, that partnership hasn’t extended to the design, with the UltraFine tends to blend into the background among the rows of pedestrian Dell displays that line my co-workers’ desks.
That said, materials aside, the mechanical parts of the UltraFine 5K are wonderfully put together. Adjusting the screen is silky-smooth, with the perfect amount of resistance when it comes to sliding the display to a welcome range of heights. And ultimately, while Apple’s aluminum chassis on the now-defunct Thunderbolt Display may be nicer from an aesthetic perspective, functionally speaking it’s not strictly necessary when it comes to the actual use of the screen.
The display also features a built-in webcam, which offers a bit better visual quality than the built-in one on the new MacBook Pro and some integrated speakers, which at least provide some louder sound than the computer’s speakers, if nothing else.
But while Apple’s hand may not have been in play from an industrial design perspective, its vision for the future of computing is all over the UltraFine 5K Display. Unlike other desktop displays, which tend to offer a wide range of options to hook up computers, ranging from DVI to HDMI to DisplayPort, the UltraFine 5K has exactly one choice: USB-C Thunderbolt 3. And due to the confusing nature of the USB-C standard, that means that, unlike the smaller 4K UltraFine panel, not every laptop with a USB-C port will cut it here. So, for example, Apple’s new MacBook Pros are in, but the 12-inch MacBook is out.
Even if you have a Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 adapter, you’ll be limited to only specific, recent models of Apple’s desktops and laptops, which also can only run at a maximum 4K resolution of 3840 x 2160 instead of the full 5120 x 2880 that the newest MacBook Pros can power it. I tested the UltraFine 5K the non-Touch Bar 13-inch model, arguably the least powerful MacBook Pro that still supports 5K. Performance was fine for the most part, with some minor slowdowns during visually intensive Exposé commands. The bigger issue was 4K video, which tended to stutter on YouTube, something with probably has to do with the MacBook rather than the screen, but was still disappointing to see from a $1,500 laptop.
Like the MacBook Pro models that it was intended for, the UltraFine 5K is similarly anemic when it comes to ports. The single USB-C connection that drives the display also provides power to a connected laptop (up to 85W) and allows the computer to take advantage of the extra ports on the back of the display as a USB hub. But Apple’s single-minded devotion to USB-C shines through here as well, with the UltraFine 5K only offering three extra USB-C ports. On the one hand it’s understandable given Apple’s aggressive pushing of the format, but on the other I couldn’t help but be frustrated by the addition of three more ports that required the same dongles and adapters to connect a flash drive or SD card.
Setup of the UltraFine is meant to be plug-and-play — simply connect the display to powered, and connect your computer via USB-C, and you’re good to go. Or, at least in theory. In practice, I spent several minutes trying to figure out why I had been presented with a blank screen, before restarting several times and eventually updating macOS on the MacBook Pro I was using, at which point things actually were plug-and-play.
I also tested the UltraFine with a few Windows computers, as well. The monitor works out of the box with anything that supports Thunderbolt 3, but only the most recent of laptops were able to drive it at the full 5K resolution, with the rest defaulting to 4K. Additionally, while the Windows PCs were able to work with the display without any issues, there was no way to adjust the brightness without installing LG’s drivers first (which is more important than you’d think, given that the screen is almost blindingly bright at the maximum setting of 500 nits).
And to briefly address the router-shaped elephant in the room, the original shipments of of the UltraFine 5K display infamously suffered from issues where the screen would completely cease to function if placed within roughly six feet of a router, which many computers tend to be. I am pleased to confirm that based on my testing, LG does seem to have fixed that issue, and I experienced no problems with the 5K UltraFine cutting out.
At $1,299, the LG UltraFine 5K display isn’t cheap, costing almost as much as some of the computers it’s designed for, and suffers from a major lack of connectivity options, both for input and output, that make it incredibly limited in terms of compatibility. And while the Ultrafine may be the best accessory for your MacBook Pro today, it’s worth keeping in mind that Apple already has announced its plans to get back into the pro display game next year. But if you’re willing to work within the narrow scope that Apple has imposed the UltraFine 5K (and are willing to pay for it), then you can be safe in knowing that you’re getting one of the best displays on the market.