LG’s new 5K Monitor Draws Sideways Looks

It’s an unspoken understanding in the world of computers and technology: when you buy a manufacturer’s most expensive, highest-end device, it’s supposed to be the “best” in the line. This has been the conventional wisdom at Apple for years, but today’s post is all about the frustrations that come with their latest “flagship” device, the new UltraFine 5K Display from LG.

hkn62_av1

LG’s latest monitor, now with Apple’s seal of approval. (Source: Apple.com, click photo to go to the Apple page for this display)

First off, the conundrum: why would Apple’s newest monitor come from a third-party manufacturer? That’s anybody’s guess. Since nearly the founding of the company, Apple had made their own displays, going all the way back to the Apple Monitor III in 1980. The last standalone display manufactured by Apple was the 27″ Thunderbolt Display, introduced in July 2011, and discontinued in June 2016.

1317358652-apples-newest-version-of-thunderbolt-display-mc914lla-2

Apple’s last in-house display, the 27″ Thunderbolt Display. (Source: 9to5mac.com)

Apple proudly unveiled their partnership with LG, in the form of the new “UltraFine” Display line, at their October 27, 2016 keynote.

The monitor was intended to complement Apple’s new flagship notebook, the 2016 MacBook Pro. This notebook is the first from Apple to feature Thunderbolt 3, a technology I discussed in a previous post.

I’m sure the new display works like a charm on the new notebook, connected natively through the new Thunderbolt 3/USB-C cable. The problem I encountered came when I connected the new monitor to Apple’s flagship desktop, the Mac Pro.

mac-pro-gallery3-2013

“Remember me?” (Source: Apple.com)

The cruel irony is, that while the Mac Pro was unveiled to a great deal of fanfare in 2013,  they haven’t kept up its momentum in the past three-plus years. This may change (and I certainly hope it does), but as of this writing, the Mac Pro is currently running older interfaces than its notebook siblings the MacBook and MacBook Pro. And this is where the first issue arose.

LG’s 5K display has five connection points on its back: standard AC power, one Thunderbolt 3 in, and three USB-C out (shaped the same as the Thunderbolt port, of course—markings designate which is which). Connection is a cakewalk to an equivalently-designed notebook via the included Thunderbolt 3 cable: plug it into a 2016 MacBook Pro or even a 2015 or 2016 MacBook, and you’re all set. But what if your computer doesn’t have the appropriately-shaped port?

9to5mac-files_-wordpress-com201701lg-ultrafine-5k-display-rear-ports-thunderbolt-3-usb-3-1-power-1bef9e1e9dc7d39fe2f691cf6785f38337388c8c

The ports on the back of the 5K UltraFine Display (Source: 9to5mac.com)

Solution: Apple sells adapters. Of course they do.

thunderbolt-3-2-1236x720

Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter, shown here plugged into a 2016 MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt 3 port. (Source: SlashGear.com)

The one I got takes the USB-C shape and adapts it to fit a standard Thunderbolt 2/Mini DisplayPort cable (see the photo above). That Thunderbolt 2 cable then plugs into the corresponding port on the computer, and the connection is complete. Interestingly, Apple does NOT sell a cable that adapts the Thunderbolt 2 port on the computer, to fit a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C cable, such as the one included with the new LG monitor. If I wanted to plug the 5K UltraFine Display into a Thunderbolt 2 port via this adapter, I was going to have to buy a Thunderbolt 2 cable. Of course.

Fine; I got the cable, and the adapter, and I was able to plug this new whiz-bang monitor into my client’s Mac Pro cylinder. The picture came up bright as day, and all was well, until my client explained that he needed to rotate the screen 90 degrees into “portrait mode.”

giphy

Viewing a rotated display can be tricky if you don’t have the right settings. (Source: giphy.com)

Now, this isn’t necessarily a non-starter. The latest iteration, macOS 10.12, “Sierra,” supports rotation at 90, 180, and 270 degrees, via the “Displays” pane in System Preferences. Once I had the monitor connected, and suitably rotated on a VESA arm, (remember those?)  I went into the Mac Pro’s settings to rotate it the 90 degrees. I selected the rotation, and then… blackness.

set-mac-display-rotation-os-x

macOS’s “Rotation” option in System Preferences/Displays. (Source: osxdaily.com)

Luckily, the rotation setting needs the user to confirm the new setting; if you don’t click “Confirm” within 15 seconds, the screen reverts to its original orientation.

I was surprised to see this feature, which allows users to view documents and websites in space-efficient upright orientation (see below), wasn’t working on this monitor when connected to such a powerful Mac; especially when it had worked just fine on my client’s previous monitor, a 32″ Sony display from 2013 (same vintage as the Mac Pro, remember). Why would anyone take away functionality?

2012_06widescreen_wastedspace

The same monitor in landscape (left) and portrait orientations, here highlighting the benefit of the latter. (Source: keyliner.blogspot.com, click the photo for a 2012 discussion on monitor rotation).

I contacted LG to get to the bottom of this riddle. They explained that they don’t support rotation, and that was that. I arranged to pick up the monitors to ship them back to Apple; and the hunt for new, rotation-friendly screens continued in earnest.

I brought my Thunderbolt adapters and cables back to the Apple Store where I bought them (unlike the LG display, these were not a special order, so I could walk them back into the store to make the return). Once the return was completed, I went over to the display table where an identical LG 5K display was connected to an identical Mac Pro. I demonstrated to the Apple folks what happens when you select 90 or 270 degree rotation. (Amusingly, Mac Pros have no problem flipping the picture 180 degrees on the 5K display, but that’s not what my client needed.) I told the Apple team about what LG had told me, that this display was not rotatable, so there you have it…

Until I went over to another Apple display: this time another 27″ LG 5K monitor, connected to a mac mini. For fun, I selected rotation, and it worked!

mac-mini-vs-mac-pro

Amazingly, the $499 mac mini (right) can do something the $2,999 Mac Pro (left) can’t? (Source: macheat.com)

LG’s stated “non-rotation” policy notwithstanding, here’s my theory on why this may be.

The 2014 mac mini has a maximum external resolution of 3840 by 2160 pixels at 60Hz when connected via its native Thunderbolt 2 connection (adapted for a Thunderbolt 3 screen). This is known as “4K” resolution (because “3.84K” sounds less impressive).

The 2013 Mac Pro, on the other hand, outputs a maximum external resolution of 5120 by 2880 pixels via Thunderbolt (proper 5K, you see). When connected to a lower-resolution monitor (such as my client’s Sony screen), the resolution peaks at whatever the monitor can handle. The Sony’s resolution was a mere 1366 by 768 pixels, so it had no problem performing the graphical gymnastics required to rotate the screen. Likewise, a lower-resolution computer (such as the Apple Store’s mac mini) isn’t going to push the limits of the 5K LG monitor; so again, rotation isn’t a problem.

The issue only seems to occur when a 5K-capable computer attempts to rotate the picture on a 5K display. Now, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to test this hypothesis on 5K displays from other manufacturers, such as Dell or Philips; but since we’re focusing on computers and monitors both sold under the Apple imprimatur, LG is the relevant brand.

In the meantime, my client has decided rotatability is a higher priority than monitor resolution; so we’re now shopping for displays with 4k–or even lower–resolutions. I suppose that’s a more sensible course of action than, say, keeping the 5K monitors and swapping the Mac Pro for a mini.

Given LG’s recent headaches with wifi interference, it’s probably for the best that we keep looking, anyway. I’d hate to have to switch computers, and then have to move everything to the other end of the room, away from the wireless router. My client is fiercely brand-loyal to Apple, so it’s a good thing these screens are made by LG… hey, maybe THAT’S why Apple decided to let somebody else make them! ■

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “LG’s new 5K Monitor Draws Sideways Looks

  1. José De Bardi

    I just ran into the exact same issue with my 15″ MBP w/ Touchbar and 5K LG! What’s most annoying is I invested in a VESA arm had it all set up for a few days now, didn’t even think to test rotation beforehand, come to need it this evening for something I’m working on and BAM! I don’t understand why the same resolution can’t work sideways! Not to mention the Mac reports only driving it at 2.5K as ‘default’ (I’m led to believe it’s doing retina double pixel magic though so maybe that means it’s is still driving it at 5K?).

    I’m not too impressed, but I’m not going to bother sending it all back, I like it as it is too much. Very frustrating though!

    Reply
  2. José De Bardi

    Following up, I found a perfect solution (well almost, it costs money!) – SwitchResX
    So far (after 30 mins of using it) it does the job perfectly. God knows why Apple/LG couldn’t make it work out the box!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s