5 things you need to know before buying the Apple Pro Display XDR

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When Apple unveiled the Pro XDR display in June 2019, I confess to drinking the cool-aid in large refreshing sips. From concept to execution, I had every reason to believe this monitor would change the creative landscape, bringing reference displays into a price range accessible to mere mortals. But a year and 7 months later, as I sit in front of my own review unit, I’ve had to temper my excitement with a small dose of reality.

Since the posting is over a year old, and since we correct reviewed what is probably its most compelling competition at this price point, we decided to do this review a little differently. Instead of rattling off and testing all the advertised performance one by one, I wanted to share 5 things you absolutely need to know if you’re planning on buying this monitor in February 2021.

You probably already know the main features of the Pro Display XDR:

  • 6K resolution
  • True 10-bit color
  • 1600 nits peak brightness, 1000 nits sustained
  • HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision support
  • 100% DCI-P3 coverage (in-house tested)
  • 576 local dimming zones
  • Single-cable connectivity, with 3 additional USB-C ports

And everyone knows the price(s) associated with such luxury:

Here are some things you might not know, but should.

1. LED not OLED

Monitor nerds, please excuse me for stating the obvious, but the world of display terminology is so convoluted that it has to be said: this is not an “OLED” monitor that can turn off individual pixels and therefore has a “perfect” contrast. It is an IPS LCD screen with a backlight consisting of 576 individually controlled LEDs.

I’ll say it again: this is an LED-backlit LCD, not an OLED.

Apple considered using OLED technology when creating the Pro Display XDR, but instead opted for an IPS panel “for its better uniformity, sustained thermal and brightness performance, off-axis viewing characteristics, and resistance to permanent run-in”. This quote is taken directly from Apple’s White Paperand most make sense.

Modern OLEDs can only reach a maximum brightness of 1000 nits, while the Pro Display XDR can reach up to 1600 nits on up to 39% of the screen area at a time and maintain 1000 nits indefinitely on the whole screen. OLEDs also traditionally suffer from burn-in, which is a problem when using them for a computer screen where some of the elements on your screen never move. The only point that doesn’t really make sense is the “off-axis viewing performance”, which is worse with LCDs (yes, even IPS LCDs) than with OLEDs.

Note that Apple likes to compare the Pro Display XDR to 4K benchmark displays over $30,000. That was correct when it was released, but it’s no longer the only monitor with this kind of functionality in this price range. The $5,000 Dell UP3221Qand the $4,500 ASUS Pro Art PA32UCXalthough it is true that only 4K monitors, not 6K, offer similar brightness and, because they use Mini LED technology, are able to integrate more local dimming zones into the screen.

I mention this because it has a noticeable impact on point #2: backlight blooming.

2. Backlight bloom

The image above is a 3 second exposure taken in near total darkness. On the left, the Dell UP3221Q mini LED display; on the right, the Apple Pro Display XDR. Both were paused while playing the same 4K HDR local dimming test video, in HDR mode, and powered by the same M1 MacMini. I don’t need to tell you which is better.

Note that the image does not NOT looks so bad in person. The long exposure makes both the center line and the surrounding bloom look brighter than they actually appear to the naked eye. But the bloom was, indeed, obviously more pronounced on the Pro Display XDR. This photo does a good job of showing the difference in the amount of bloom you can expect, although it exaggerates the effect a bit for demonstration purposes.

The Dell Display – full review here – is the latest and greatest in LED-backlit LCD technology. It uses a backlight consisting of 2,000 individually controlled Mini LEDs, or approximately one LED per 64 x 64 screen pixels in 4K. The Pro Display XDR’s backlight uses 576 regular LEDs, or about one LED per 120 x 120 screen pixels at 4K. If you factor in the full 6K resolution of the Pro Display, that number jumps to around 188 x 188 pixels per LED.

Apple has included some creative technology in its display stack to try to alleviate the blooming issue. There is a “reflecting diffusion plate”, a “color transformation sheet” and a “micro-lens array” between the LED backlight and the LCD panel. But there’s no way to completely fool the physics, and the backlight shines when you have a bright object with hard edges displayed against a perfectly black background, especially in HDR mode.

In the real world, the effect is about 2 times worse than the Dell Mini LED monitor, which also costs less ($5,000 including the gallery). Will this impact regular HDR viewing and editing? Barely. It’s really only noticeable in this specific scenario. But it’s something to keep in mind now that Apple has legitimate competition from ASUS and Dell in this price range.

3. Outstanding design…with a catch

A place that Apple makes NOT any competition is in the construction quality and design department. The Pro Display XDR is gorgeous.

Assuming you like the “cheese grater” design of the new Mac Pro, you’ll find no reason to criticize the design of the Pro Display XDR. The square aluminum unibody with scalloped cutouts in the back and quarter-inch bezels in the front sets the Pro Display XDR apart when you put it side-by-side with its closest competition.

There’s a reason people expect Apple to bring this design to the next-generation iMac.

However, and this is a big deal, the sleek design comes with a major trade-off: the monitor itself has no input mechanism. There’s no power button, no joystick, nothing. Display settings are fully controlled in macOS System Preferences, under the Displays setting. Also very Apple-esque, the monitor doesn’t have any USB-A ports in the built-in hub, and Apple missed an opportunity to “bring back” the SD card slot by placing it in the display.

Still, it’s the best-looking 32-inch monitor on the market, bar none.

4. Solving and reference modes

Design quality aside, there are two big reasons why photographers may prefer this monitor to the comparable options I mentioned above: the 6K resolution and the plethora of useful pre-calibrated benchmark modes like “Photo and “Design and Printing”.

There’s not much to say about the benchmark modes other than “they’re there” and “they work as advertised”. If you are going to use them, definitely read Apple’s white paper so you know the gamma, peak luminance, color space, and white point you are working in when selecting each mode. For example, the Photography reference mode uses the wide P3 gamut, with a white point of D65 (6500K), Gamma of 2.2 and maximum brightness which is fixed at just 160 nits.

Default scaling is another matter. You’re still using full 6K resolution (obviously), but the “Default for display” setting automatically scales all your text and icons to 2x their size, the equivalent of 3K. On the one hand, that’s a little disappointing because I find unscaled 4K to be the best balance of icon size and screen real estate for a monitor of this size. On the other hand, this is absolutely necessary, as the display is basically unusable with scaling set to full 6K resolution.

Apple knows that, which is why the frame is sort of…hidden. If you want to use every last centimeter of the screen, you have to hold down the Option key and click on Scaling in the display settings to reveal the hidden menu below:

This is the only way to select the full unscaled 6016 x 3384 resolution.

5. PC users do not need to apply

Finally, the last and most important point if you’re considering the Pro Display XDR is this: you better own a Mac. It’s not that it won’t work with a PC, but the special one-way Thunderbolt connection and lack of physical controls means you’re stuck with default display settings and might not even be able to achieve the advertised 6K resolution.

I could go further, but I don’t need to. Linus Tech Tips did a full “PC Guy’s Perspective” on the Pro Display XDR that’s worth watching instead. Check it out if you want to get an idea of ​​the PC user’s experience with this monitor:

As Linus explains, even getting full resolution out of this thing is going to be tricky if you’re using a PC, let alone using the built-in reference modes for “Photography” or “Printing”, or even adjusting the backlight. If you’re a PC user, I’ll save you some time: buy the Dell instead. It’s better in some ways, equivalent in others, and you’ll be able to do things like…you know…adjust the brightness.

Some Final Thoughts

To be clear, when Apple first released this screen, it was something special. The comparison to reference displays over $30,000 wasn’t entirely out of proportion given the Pro Display XDR’s combination of brightness, resolution, color accuracy, and HDR capabilities. Apple deserves credit for bringing this category of display into the ‘mainstream’ so to speak, and it’s still one of the best high-end displays around.

But Apple is not immune to the incredible pace of innovation that has swept the monitor market. Thanks to the arrival of Mini LED technology and some of the advances in OLED, children under 2 Pro XDR display is starting to show its age in real-world benchmarks, which leaves me wondering if the pros outweigh the cons. In the pros column, you’ll find the monitor’s unrivaled design, stunning 6K resolution, convenient benchmark modes, stunning color accuracy and brightness; in the cons column you have the lack of physical controls, complete disregard for PC users, and lackluster thriving performance compared to its latest competitors from ASUS and Dell… which also cost less.

Only you can make this calculation and decide what matters most to you. My goal with this article was to highlight a few of the trickier variables that you might not have considered.


About the Author: DL Cade is an art, science and technology writer and former editor of PetaPixel. When he’s not reviewing the latest technology for creatives, you’ll find him working in vision science at the University of Washington, publishing the weekly Triple Point Newsletteror share personal essays on Average.


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