Best Thunderbolt Display / iMac Monitor AlternativePublished 2021-12-1
You're most likely not going to find a display that does it all. You want 3 things:
- Display: HiDPI (Retina), Beautiful, Solid - via DisplayPort, not HDMI
- Dock: DisplayPort, ThunderBolt (or USB-C), SD, ethernet, etc
- Colorimeter: Accurate (for syncing colors between displays)
What I got:
(which have exceeded my expectations)
- 3x 27" Dell S2721QS (2021 Model, with VRR support)
- 1x WAVLink Thunderbolt 3 to Dual DisplayPort 1.4 Adapter (with VRR support)
- 1x CableMatters USB-C to DisplayPort 1.4 (with VRR support)
- 1x X-Rite (Calibrite) i1Display Pro + DisplayCal + Barnecules' How to Calibrate your Monitor
As far as I can tell, I spent less than the cost of 1 of the monitors Apple recommends on their website and I got 3 monitors that are better, in almost every respect, and I have the tools to keep them properly calibrated and synced.
Best Alternative - Use an iMac as your Display
You can pick up a used 5k iMac for < $1k, so Apple's upcoming Universal Control may make handoff between multiple Macs the best solution for multiple literally-Apple-level-of-beautiful displays.
Or one of these:
- Universal Control (like Apple AirPlay, but between Macs and iDevices)
- Luna Display $129, ~16ms latency
- Duet Air $20/yr, ~30ms latency
However, if you're doing audio or video work, or ~30ms of latency will otherwise disrupt your work... maybe not.
Best Value Purchase: Dell S2721QS < $350
I bought 1 of these, loved it, and bought 2 more.
You can check out the RTings and compare to the dozen other monitors for yourself, but I already did that and this is what I bought as a result, and I'm happy with it.
- 😢 Matte Display, No edge-to-edge glass
- 😍 Connect via DisplayPort
- 😍 4k HiPDI (near 'Retina' PPI)
In total, it's even better than the 27" Dell UltraSharp 4K:
Where to buy:
You'll also need something like MonitorControl.app to control Brightness, etc over
You will need a Colorimeter if you want to get multiple of these in color sync (but then at least you're only paying the cost of calibration once, rather than for each monitor).
Most Apple-ish: LG UtraFine 5K (27MD5KL-B)
- 😍 Thunderbolt Hub
- 😍 Glossy Display
- 😍 Sold by Apple
- 😢 Apple price... but not Apple
That said, in terms of quality, the Dell S2721QS may still be better:
All Things Considered
Here's the long of it...
HiDPI (Retina) Displays ($200 - $2,000)
LG makes Apple's XDR panels, and generally has some of the best panels on the market (in both the TV and Monitor space), but there seem to be more people raving about Dell monitors in general.
In any case, you'll probably want one of these:
- Best Overall: Dell S2721QS
- Apple/LG 5k (LG 27MD5KL-B)
- DCI-P3 (wide gamut): Dell UltraSharp 4K (U2720Q)
- LG: LG27UK650-W (same as LG 27UK850-W, but without the port tax)
- Curved: Dell's S3221QS (similar to S2721QS, but not full retina due to size)
- Ultrawide (5k2k): LG 34" Thunderbolt Display (34BK95U-W / 34WK95U-W)
- Dell's original 4k Cinema Display Competitor (P2715Q)
DO NOT get MSI or Samsung, and certainly not any off-brand.
DO try to get an IPS panel with its color gamut measured in DCI-P3 (NOT just sRGB).
ASUS ProArt is another good pick, but more on the top-end (~$3k). LG and Dell will probably beat out ASUS on mid-range and best value monitors.
Note: RTings is the best site for actual, human- (and engineer-) reviewed electronics, including monitors. However, they're really focused on the objective facts, not subjective experience. The numbers aren't everything.
Dock / DisplayPort Adapter
There's a lot out there. Don't go for cheap, go for works.
- USB-C to DisplayPort 1.4 $17.99. Make sure to pick a good brand, one of these:
- Cable Matters
- Cable Creation
- Thunderbolt Dock $79 - $299. You can get lucky with off brands, but I recommend sticking to one of these:
- CalDigit (no VRR support)
- Cable Matters
- Anker (no VRR support)
Note: None of the USB-C hubs I found have VRR (FreeSync/G-Sync) support. Only the direct USB-C to DisplayPort 1.4 cables and the direct WAVLink Thunderbolt to DisplayPort 1.4 adapter seem to support VRR.
And make sure to get VESA Certified cables. Definitely worth the extra $1 - $2 to get cables that will work.
Unless you pay the UltraSharp (Dell) / UltraFine (LG) / ProArt (ASUS) tax ($300~$2000), each display you buy will ship uncalibrated - meaning that two identical monitors of the same model will have wildly different colors.
To solve for this you need a colorimeter. There's really only one option:
- X-Rite i1 Display Pro (EODIS3) $180
- NOT i1 Display 2, NOT i1 Display Studio, NOT SpyderX
- DisplayCal Open Source (better than the built-in software)
- RTings' ICC profiles (download linked in each review)
- although each monitor is different, the RTings ICC profile will get you in the right ballpark to start
Bonus: check out Barnecules' How to Calibrate your Monitor
This is something that will last you years and years and help you acheive Apple-like color consistency without paying the factory-calibration premium for each individual monitor.
Also, if you do decide to get a Spyder - despite it being almost as expensive, and inferior - DO NOT pay for the "Elite" because DisplayCal will unlock all of the same features on the less expensive "Pro".
Where to Shop?
If quality isn't a concern, sure, hit up Walmart, Best Buy, and Amazon.
However, if you want nice things...
- B&H Photo & Video
What makes the iMac / Thunderbolt Display Great?
It's not the size, it's how you use it. - Austin Powers
Sometimes Apple has the best technology on the market, but sometimes they just have the best design and the best process for making the experience consistent.
- 1440p (High PPI)
- Color Accuracy (DCI P3)
- Beautiful Design
- Magnetic edge-to-edge panel
- NO Swivel, Height Adjustment, or Rotation
- IPS LED LCD panel
- Software Controls (Brightness, Contrast, Color)
Nothing else on the market has all of that.
Even displays that are superior along every objective metric just don't feel as good - and they're more expensive!
And remember: A 24-inch 4K display has a Higher PPI than a 32-inch 5k display. More pixels in smaller space is part of the magic.
By AJ ONeal
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