Given my recent iMac woes, I decided to accelerate the transition to a new “desktop” setup before Summer break was over. And, to cut a long story short, this is probably the first time I’ve been without a “normal” desktop Mac in over fifteen years, but it seems to be worth it.
My iMac setup was great, but had a major flaw–I couldn’t use most of my monitors with other machines, since besides the iMac‘s built-in 27” panel, I had a Thunderbolt-only, original 22” LG UltraFine 4K1 and a LG 29WL500-B ultra-wide I got soon after the pandemic started, which had the only spare HDMI port on my desk.
Together with a bit too much hardware, these monitors made for extra clutter and wasted desk space, so cutting down on them was a side goal.
Long Term Planning
Like I pointed out the very day I wrote about my iMac, I don’t really like all-in-ones.
My philosophy around home hardware was always about having the least possible amount of stuff and making it as inexpensive and modular as possible, and ever since the M1 Macs came out I’ve been pondering possible upgrade paths–so my recent troubles were effectively the last straw2, and I decided to get rid of my iMac and start rebuilding my desktop setup sooner than originally planned.
There was a massive blocker, though: Besides the RAM and GPU limitations of early Apple Silicon, replacing the iMac‘s built-in 5K display with a “normal” monitor would need to satisfy a few deceptively simple criteria, with just three “must haves”:
- Retina (or HIDPI) panel
- At least as big as my 27” iMac
- Thunderbolt with Power Delivery so that anyone in the family can plug in a single cable and get their laptop going
…and three “nice to haves”:
- Some form of HDR support
- Built-in USB hub
- Internal Speakers
As it happens, the current monitor market seems to be focusing on gaming (which makes sense, since that’s a segment with insane amounts of disposable income), so I had to wade through dozens of PC monitors with high refresh rates, sub-4k resolutions and increasingly weird designs.
So my deceptively simple criteria were in fact quite demanding, and my shortlist soon came down to:
- The LG 34WK95U-W (great dot pitch, but launched in 2018, reviewed here)
- The LG 49WL95C-WE (worse dot pitch, but able to display two machines side by side, also reviewed here)
- Two other 49” equivalent ultra-wide displays from Dell and Philips
I mulled the 49” displays for a long while since they would let me have both a PC and a Mac displayed side-by-side, but I soon realised any of them would completely take over most of my desk.
Even considering I currently have an unusually large (180x90cm) desk, I really wanted to have less stuff on top of it, so 34” seemed like the better option.
Add to that a nice (but not overwhelming) Summer discount on Amazon, and it was almost a no-brainer. A somewhat expensive no-brainer, but well worth it.
The LG 34WK95U-W
As it turns out, 34” is actually quite large in practice.
It is probably the widest panel I can comfortably use without some sort of curve, and the 5120x2160 resolution is almost directly comparable to the iMac‘s 27” 5120x2880–but it feels much wider, and the 7” increase in diagonal certainly makes up for the “loss” of 720 vertical pixels.
The display has nice, thin bezels and a matte surface (both of which are quite welcome changes from the iMac). It is very, very crisp, with a dot pitch that is almost retina grade–and since I sit farther away from it than with my iMac, the overall effect is the same.
Incidentally, one of the reasons the display sits farthest from me (besides a general rearrangement of my desk layout) is its large, curved stand, which is somewhat inconvenient and adds to its depth.
But the final result is great: I set display scaling to “smallest” and can comfortably get 3 Safari windows (or other apps) side-by-side without any issues. If anything, fonts might be just a tad smaller in practice, but the amount of effective real estate is glorious, and maybe a bit overwhelming at first.
I plugged in my kids’ M1 Air, and it was initially confused at first (why Apple defaults to mirroring rather than extending the desktop is a mystery to me), but had zero trouble driving the display. Far from it, really.
I played around with the machine and both Blender and Final Cut Pro ran effortlessly, with fast, buttery smooth full screen updates across the full resolution of the display. Very impressive, really.
Something worthy of note here is that MonitorControl cannot, at this point, let you manage brightness or volume control for this monitor from your keyboard, although it’s being worked on (but not important for me, as you’ll see later).
I then tried my older Surface devices (a Surface Pro 4 and a Surface Laptop 2), and they can also drive the panel at full 5120x2160 resolution via DisplayPort, but only at 30Hz.
This is borderline OK for light office work, and good enough if I have to rely on either of them as my main machine in a pinch.
I haven’t tried the Surface Book 3 yet (which am pretty sure can drive the display at 60Hz), but will eventually get around to it when I can be bothered to move the Surface Dock 2 from its current location and try it out.
I’m now using the LG 34WK95U-W with my 2016 MacBook Pro hooked up via a single Thunderbolt cable and propped up on a cheap laptop stand with the lid open for extra cooling, easy access to Touch ID and use of the internal display (you soon realize that you need a smaller display for doing presentations, and the internal panel works just fine for that).
Since the MacBook has 2 cores less than my iMac, some things aren’t as snappy (and I will have to cut down on doing any heavy audio or video handling), but it should be good enough for a few months (maybe even a year) until new hardware comes out.
I ended up using the monitor’s two built-in USB 3 ports to hook up my Logitech Brio webcam (directly) and my Yamaha AG-06, a Microsoft Gigabit Ethernet adapter and my Arturia KeyLab Essential 61 via a tiny Anker USB 3 hub, which leaves me one port free and allowed me to put aside my bulky Anker USB 3 powered hub for the moment.
Since the built-in ambient brightness sensor is placed exactly midway through the top (remember, this monitor was launched in 2018, in the Before Times when webcams weren’t a vital necessity), I had to disable it and set the Logitech Brio on top of it, but I seldom feel the need to tweak monitor brightness anyway.
The internal speakers are OK (I guess), but I just plugged in the audio jack to my (not brilliant, but serviceable) Logitech Z333 subwoofer and speaker set and am routing all my audio through the monitor’s audio device and into the Z333, which affords me a nice rotary knob for volume control, with a very convenient built-in headphone jack.
I’m back to my old (AAA-powered) set of Magic Mouse, Keyboard and Trackpad, which feels weird (especially the keyboard, which feels clunkier than the svelte modern variants) but will also have to do until I get a new desktop machine.
I originally thought of using my trusty Logitech K380 keyboard and (very nice, and quite under-appreciated) Logitech M720 mouse combo to control both my Surface and the MacBook, but I remembered I had a Synergy license from a few years ago, so I’m trying that out with satisfactory results3.
For Mac window management, I’m using Phoenix with my own custom window tiling script, which works well enough but needs a few tweaks–I’m now quite partial to 3-up and 3x2 layouts, which afford different ways to manage windows.
I will be looking at mounting the LG 34WK95U-W on a monitor arm, but that will take a few months yet–I’ve identified this one as a possible solution, but since I would also like to replace my desk I am biding my time and weighing all my options.
For now, though, I mostly plan on waiting for new Mac hardware to be released while enjoying these new, wider vistas.
The Ultrafine is the only LG monitor I can’t recommend to anyone, since mine developed a purple haze all around and shows temporary burn-in-like effects when I leave windows on it for too long. Which is a shame, really, as it was quite nice. ↩︎
Right now the jury is out on whether I wait for the M2, go for a holiday deal on a 16GB M1 mini or just get a M1X MacBook Pro, but the gist of things is that I while can wait for an upgrade, I couldn’t wait to have a functioning desktop setup, even if built around a temporary machine. ↩︎
It can be a little glitchy at times (mouse acceleration varies, and my mouse cursor sometimes ends up back in my main display for no apparent reason), but works quite well in practice and, like most good tech, is almost invisible. ↩︎