Apple’s HD Cinema Display: Or, How I Overcame Monitor Envy

apple-cinema-hd-displayIn 1999 I was building websites with UltraDev and Drumbeat. I was playing with DHTML and a cool new thing called CSS. I was dropping the word “recordset” into conversations with other geek friends via the just-released MSN Messenger Service. I considered myself pretty technologically accomplished. But then one day a friend visited and used my computer to check his email. As he took his seat before my beige plastic 15 inch CRT he mumbled “Ugh! It’s so small.”

I was crushed. My monitor was smaller than his monitor. How embarrassing!

Since that day I have always strived to use the largest monitor possible, and usually two of ‘em side by side. And while dual monitor setups are not so common in most homes, at least we’ve come a long way since the primitive days of 15 inch CRTs. The first flat panels ordinary people could afford were tiny, low resolution, low color saturation, low-light things. The contrast (pun intended) to today’s cheap, bright and capable LCD screens is remarkable, but it has been a very short journey from one to the other.

I always knew that Apple made amazing displays. Perhaps they haven’t always been the first choice of graphics professionals, but at least they’ve been consistently better than the cheap monitors offered by PC manufacturers. So early this year, as I switched completely from PC to Mac, I made sure I bought the biggest and best displays Apple could offer. And that meant the gargantuan, beautiful, breathtaking 30 inch Cinema HD Widescreen Displays. Two of them, as it happens.

And they are amazing. Positioned side by side before me, I practically swim in Cinema Display goodness. To clarify; when I work on my 15 inch Macbook Pro, despite the beauty of that glossy screen, I’m acutely aware that it provides a limited, narrow view of the digital world, a little like peering through the mail slot in my front door. With these enormous cinema displays, I don’t need to peer through the mail slot because the door has been thrown wide open. Sometimes, it feels like the door has been taken off its hinges. And sometimes, I feel a little silly having all this display. In fact, unless I’m doing some graphics/video work, I don’t maximize windows. Doing so feels… I don’t know… over the top, somehow.

So why does anyone need more than one monitor? The answer falls conveniently down to a single word: productivity. Quite simply, people who (properly) use multiple monitors work more efficiently and productively. Don’t take my word for it — look at this report (PDF) from Pfeiffer, which goes into extraordinary depth examining the virtues of extensive screen-space.

There’s Always a Down Side

The Cinema HD Display isn’t perfect. Sure, Apple generously endowed it with two USB ports and two Firewire 400 ports within easy-reach, and if you’re using a Mac Pro, those ports are fantastically useful, saving you from making trips to the mysterious, cable-strewn world Beneath the Desk. But FW400 is old now, and since these displays were launched they haven’t been refreshed. Newer standards, such as HDMI, are unsupported. Even Apple’s own Mini-DV standard isn’t supported without an adapter.

But by far the biggest problem with the 30 incher is its price. At $1,799 it’s a fantastically expensive monitor. Our own James Dempsey compared Apple’s behemoth with Dell’s 30 inch UltraSharp Widescreen and concluded he preferred the Dell. Read the article to see his reasons why, but I’ll tell you now that price was an important factor.

But I have no regrets — and a good job, too, considering how expensive these things still are. Whether you buy from Apple or elsewhere, they’ll set you back a painful $1,799 each! Personally, however, these displays are by far the most impressive non-television panels I’ve had the pleasure of using. Call me insane, but I enjoy needing to slide my chair a little to the left to more comfortably see what’s going on on my other screen.

The Future

As with all things Apple, there’s the knowledge that what’s top-of-the-line today will be old-hat tomorrow. Buy a brand new MacBook Pro and enjoy the pleasure of being at the cutting-edge while it lasts — because new models will be out before you know it. Well, the 30 inch Cinema HD Displays have yet to be surpassed. But Apple does have some very nice new LED screens on the market. It makes me wonder what might be happening with the ageing 30 inch line.

A quick visit to both the American and UK versions of the Apple website revealed that, at some point since April this year, Apple quietly removed the dedicated microsite for the 30 inch display. The only link you’ll find now is to its product page in the online store. My old bookmarks no longer work. So — what’s happening? Is Apple discontinuing the 30 inch Cinema HD Display, perhaps planning to replace it with a refreshed new line based on their LED monitors? I emailed no fewer than four of my contacts at Apple who, two weeks later, have remained utterly silent on the matter.

But I’ve never quite gotten over that brief period of monitor envy in 1999. I’ve always hated it when I’ve walked into a room and discovered, to my silent horror, bigger and better monitors than my own. So I’m going to enjoy my beautiful cinema displays while I still can, because I know it’s only a matter of time before Apple makes them feel like that old, beige 15 incher that started it all.

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