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.
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.
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.
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?
Solution: Apple sells adapters. Of course they do.
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.”
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.
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?
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!
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! ■