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  • Newsletter Issue #1053

    March 16th, 2024


    In recent months, I’ve been looking for something affordable — or reasonably affordable — to replace my aging and obsolete Late 2014 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display. Let me tell you the process isn’t easy, especially if dollar signs are on your mind.

    So if you are seeking an all-in-one computer, your options are limited when it comes to Macs. Apple used to have two iMac lines. The basic model featured a 21.5-inch Retina display; the higher-end product had a 27-inch Retina display. While the original iMac was largely basedon portable computer parts, the newest models have come close to professional grade in terms of performance. Indeed, the short-lived iMac Pro featured an Intel Xeon CPU, same as older Mac Pros and high-end PC boxes.

    In switching to Apple Silicon, Apple has placed the iMac back at the low-end of the heap, the same position it occupied during its early years. You get a 24-inch display; actually it’s 23-inches, but Apple simply rounds it off. Also CPU horsepower is limited to the entry-level M-series chips. They are surely capable of performance levels that rise above their low grade, but for content creators, and those who crave big displays, they come up short.

    Of course, a clear shortcoming always comes to the fore. An all-in-one computer is not the most cost-effective solution, and you pay for the convenience. Obviously, if the computer components are shot, or outdated, and you still have a perfectly functional display, you’re out of luck. You can’t even repurpose the more recent iMacs as a standalone display. Imagine all the cash you’ve paid for that marvelous 5K Retina display from a 27-inch Intel iMac. That’s the dilemma I faced as my iMac aged and Apple removed support for recent versions of macOS.

    With the help of my old friend Tommy, I’ve had a long look at lowest cost alternatives to Mac desktops with more a reasonable degree of flexibility when it comes to replacing components. Obviously Apple hasn’t helped with its decision to remove easy or any upgrade possibilities. This means that you are stuck with whatever configuration you get even if you wish you had more memory or storage.

    And, of course, the all-in-one shortcoming also leaves out notebooks, although they are obviously more flexible if you want or need a traveling Mac.

    The best starting point is the display. It will — or should — outlast the computing equipment. A 5K display would be a plus, but there aren’t many to choose from. Worse, expect to pay $1,000 and up for one.  Well, almost. I did encounter an offering at Best Buy for the Samsung – 27″ ViewFinity S9 5K IPS Smart Monitor with Matte Display, Thunderbolt 4 and SlimFit Camera. Wow! What an awkward name. In any case, it evidently lists for $1,599, same as the latest Apple Studio Display, but was on sale for $899.99

    I was also troubled by some of the less-than-stellar reviews at Best Buy. The worst, “Shoddy quality, two displays had coil whine.” The internal speakers were also dinged for poor audio quality. And Samsung isn’t getting the love when it comes to product support.

    An alternative, LG’s 27MD5KL-B 27 Inch UltraFine 5K (5120 x 2880) IPS Display with macOS Compatibility, DCI-P3 99% Color Gamut and Thunderbolt 3 Port, Black can be had at Amazon for $1,104; it lists for $1,299. Even better, LG reportedly builds display panels for Apple gear.

    Now if you’re willing to sacrifice a few of the frills and settle for a 4K display, you won’t lose much in terms of screen quality, although editing 4K videos works better with 5K. That said, one Amazon review for the LG display had a more practical conclusion: “But I will say that I struggled to appreciate the difference in sharpness between my 4K 27s and this 5K 27. Side by side, if I consciously looked for it, I could see it, but in isolation, I think the resolution difference would not be noticeable; at least for me.”

    So maybe settling for a 4K display won’t be such a loss after all. I think I found a worthwhile solution.

    One of the most cost-effective displays of that sort that I’ve encountered with Tommy’s help is the ViewSonic VP2756-4K. It lists for $399; Amazon has them for $377. But we found a refurbished model for $255. Now we’re getting somewhere. I got access to his M1 Mac mini, one of the original Apple Silicon models that was released in the fall of 2020, and had plenty of face time with the ViewSonic.

    While Mac compatible, its PC origins are obvious in terms of operational flexibility. You can tilt, raise and lower and rotate this display. Well rotating isn’t supported with Apple Silicon Macs. The remaining movement options are quite a revelation compared to the restrictions of an iMac that’s limited to tilt. The Apple Studio Display, with the optional base that costs $400 extra, can also be raised or lowered. ViewSonic also provides USB-A, USB-C, HDMI and DisplayPort hookups. Cables are supplied for the first three, and I used one of the two HDMI connections to hook it up to the Mac mini,

    But what about its configuration? Well, hooked up to a Mac, the out-of-box experience is seamless. You turn it on, and it just works. At its default brightness/contrast setting, it delivers a perfectly good picture.  There are tiny buttons at the bottom right, next to the power light, that can fine-tune settings with a typical Windows configuration process. Since the ViewSonic evidently connects with a default color profile on a Mac, you probably won’t have to change much, if anything, under normal use. I did, however, have to alter the resolution to one that more closely matched the iMac’s desktop. Here the 4K promise of 3840×2160 doesn’t work so well in practice. ViewSonic doesn’t double the pixels as Apple does, so I got a huge desktop with teeny tiny text. No good.

    The closest equivalent I could get to my iMac’s default desktop was the 2560×1440 setting. Not quite 4K obviously, but still far better than HD.

    Out of the box, the ViewSonic supports Pantone color matching for design professionals, and color display was first rate, with a reasonably bright picture, rated at 350 cd/m2. Text is reasonably sharp and crisp, and color rendering is first rate. So I was able to essentially recreate the desktop look of the iMac.

    And I agree with that review from Amazon. In the real world, unless you’re editing 4K video and want to see your files at full resolution, 5K is essential. Otherwise you won’t see a huge difference from the fewer pixels. At a normal viewing distance of two feet or so, my old typography eyes were able to detect a slight text fuzziness if I looked closely. Otherwise it was not immediately apparent nor did it impact my work in any discernible way.

    So far so good.

    Unfortunately, the ViewSonic’s speaker system is little better than that of a Mac mini; in other words, adequate for system sounds but little else. There’s also no webcam, but there are loads of affordable choices for either, so you won’t suffer much from the lack of these features. You will, however, be pleased with all the money you saved taking the cheap route to a high quality computer display.


    Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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