Apple Studio Display review: Apple’s Frankenmonitor fails to impress
Quick verdict: Apple's Studio Display is a curious Frankensteined affair that mixes in bits of the iMac, its Pro Display XDR and even an iPhone. The end result is a weirdly mixed display that may suit a niche of users, but only if you're really specifically into the Apple ecosystem and don't need faster refresh rates, a good webcam or HDR.
- Slender design
- Center Stage added to every Mac
- Good speakers
- 60Hz only
- No HDR
- No HDMI
- Webcam is awful
The Apple Studio Display is a curious critter. Visually, you could be mistaken for thinking that it's the 27-inch upgrade to the existing M1 powered 24 inch iMac.
Only this isn't a Mac computer at all. It's a display panel that sits well below the hefty asking price of Apple's true pro-grade Pro Display XDR, with the brains of an iPhone 11 thrown in, because Apple's mad scientists figured that they could.
This raises the question of whether you should. Even though it's way cheaper than a Pro Display XDR, nobody's going to call the Studio Display "cheap" any time soon.
It's best suited to those whose workflow sits within the Apple ecosystem entirely, but you should carefully consider what it is that you need out of a monitor in the first place, because it's also lacking in high refresh rate support or HDR if those are important to you.
While it does bring Center Stage zooming to any Mac you connect to it, that's at the cost of colour accuracy on the webcam.
Design: They killed the 27-inch iMac for this. Was it worth it?
The Studio Display comes in a box that's entirely reminiscent of the one that it used to sell 27 inch iMacs in. That's no great surprise, because it is a 27 inch display, but instead of being built on the older, Intel-based 27 inch iMac design spec, it's instead left looking rather like a super-sized 24 inch M1 iMac.
That means you get the same thin display screen with all the ports out the back, located inconveniently in the lower left hand side of the back of the screen. There may well be good technical reasons for it, but it totally feels like a pity that Apple couldn't accommodate a port or two on the sides.
Talking of ports, you get four of them, with one Thunderbolt 4 port for video and power connection out to a compatible Mac, and three straight USB C ports for connecting other peripherals that will then be controlled by that Mac.
It's another sign that the Studio Display is a pure in-house Apple product, because what's not present is any form of DisplayPort or HDMI connector. If you're coming from a much older Mac, or wanted to use it with a Windows PC, you'll need to rig it up to talk over Thunderbolt, or not at all.
That also has some implications if you're using a USB hub off a Mac, because most of those tend to talk HDMI much more commonly than they do Thunderbolt. At least for my work setup, which does use a USB hub, I could connect that up to the Studio Display and then a MacBook Pro directly to its Thunderbolt port, so it was still a "one cable" solution from the laptop end.
The top bezel of the Studio Display accommodates the included webcam. Like Apple's other webcams, you'll be alerted to when it's in use by a green light at the side, but there's no privacy shutter available, unless you've got some duct tape handy. It's just a guess, but Apple might not cover that kind of self-built shutter under warranty.
Power is handled by a not-quite standard cord, and I can't quite work out why Apple's opted for the solution in play. For regular iMacs, you tended to get a kettle style cord, or something similar that you'd plug into the back of the monitor.
There is a plug in the back of the Studio Display, but it's fixed in place, requiring a special Apple tool to remove. Apple's basically saying "don't even try to", and that's concerning for a display you might want for some time. If the cable frays or gets damaged, you can't as easily swap it out for another without paying Apple a sum for the privilege.
Speaking of putting up with Apple's decisions, the other one you'll have to accept with the Studio Display is around its stand. It's available with an iMac-style flat stand that offers tilting, or a tilt and height adjustable stand for a hefty $600 extra. Or you can opt for a VESA compatible model for the same price as the tilt stand. The problem here is that you only get the one, where competing monitors do tend to at least include VESA compatibility out of the box. Make your choices wisely if you're buying the Studio Display, because you'll be stuck with them.
One consequence of that borrowed-from-the-iMac design is that the flat foot of the stand isn't big enough to balance a MacBook or the Mac Studio without a gap underneath and some titling as a result. For a company so obsessed with design and products that look good in shiny showrooms, it's a weird misstep.
Finally in the choices category, the default model comes with a reflective screen panel; if you want an anti-glare nano texture coating, it'll run an extra $500. Or you could try your luck with one of those dodgy car glass tinting kits, but Apple won't cover that under warranty.
Apple did supply me with the nano texture glass, and it does make a big difference if you're in a bright environment. Even throwing open my curtains in my home office and letting the sun creep in didn't create noticeable glare issues on its panel. Then again, for $500 I'd want it to work very well indeed.
Apple Studio Display review: The camera is just 1080p, by way of a crappy beauty filter
For such a premium brand, Apple has had a curious approach to webcam quality over the years. MacBooks ship with functional but very poor 720p capable cameras, while the 24-inch iMac has a better 1080p-capable webcam. Over the past few years, having a webcam in easy reach has become something of a must-have, because we're all working more from home or remotely, or just keeping in touch with friends and family over video conferencing apps.
As such, I was quite excited to test out the Studio Display's 1080p capable camera. Sure, I could wish for 4K for this price – and it would be nice, if anyone at Apple is listening – but it at least should provide a simple upgrade for any connected Mac, or for that matter a first-time camera if you're using a Mac Mini or the new Mac Studio desktop systems.
That excitement quickly waned. You do get access to Apple's "Center Stage" zooming technology, which tries to keep everyone in view in shot by panning, zooming and cropping to keep faces tracked at all times, but only across apps that actively know it's there.
I hit a number of web-based applications that simply didn't think Center Stage was a factor at all. Center Stage can also be a tad quirky if you're trying for a wide multi-person shot at times, though this isn't unique to the Studio Display.
Center Stage issues I could deal with, because honestly in some situations you'd probably want it switched off anyway.
Where I hit much bigger problems was in video quality, with everyone I chatted to commenting that it looked like I had some kind of cheap "beauty" filter overlaid on my video.
Low light pickup on the Studio Display webcam is poor at best. The way it tries to work around this is with a blurring colour filter that removes a lot of facial detail. In some ways I could argue that it's flattering, because it removes a lot of my middle-aged wrinkles and spots. Then again, I've earned those wrinkles, dammit, and I should pick if I want to blur them out or not.
I'll show you what I mean by way of Apple's own Photo Booth app for Mac OS. First up, the best possible scenario, using a ring light to throw a lot of light onto my face, Influencer-style.
Clearly, I've still got it. Or I think I do, although you can already see how it's smoothing out the top of my head to a degree that looks like I've taken a dip in the Botox bucket.
Moving on, here's the same shot with just my standard office light at full brightness.
Almost instantly there's a lot more noise, a lot more blurred detail – and bear in mind, this is only a still shot. It's noticeably worse for video.
Here's how it works with the overhead lighting at the normal level I have it set to in my home office:
I have a lot of passion for the classic PlayStation, but I promise you, I wasn't rendered on one.
And finally, if you do work in less bright situations, here's how it looks:
That's a less that desirable video setup to be fair, but then Apple is selling the Studio Display as a premium device. When it comes to the camera, it simply isn't up to scratch, at least at launch.
The rather unique nature of the Studio Display's build does mean that there's more that Apple could do here than most when it comes to firmware updates. As always, I can only assess what's in front of me at review time, however.
Apple Studio Display review: The performance means there's basically an iPhone hiding in my monitor
The Apple Studio Display ostensibly just looks like a wide screen monitor, but there's a little more lurking under the surface. Behind its 27 inch 5120x2880 218ppi display sits an Apple A13 Bionic chip. That's the same chip you'd find in an iPhone 11, 2nd Gen iPhone SE or 9th Generation iPad.
Here, I suspect Apple's making the most of the A13 Bionic chips that don't quite make the grade on the silicon wafer of life, because it doesn't actually have to do quite as much strenuous work as an iPhone or iPad would. There's no sign of iOS or macOS on board, because it's instead there to run the webcam… and we've already seen how oddly it manages that task. It does at least open up the possibility for future software upgrades with a little more ease than your typical reference monitor firmware jumps.
Connectivity for the Studio Display is via Thunderbolt only, with HDMI notably and I'd argue regrettably missing. Sure, you might work only in the Mac space and not consider other monitors, but considering plenty of other designs do offer that kind of split flexibility, it's not a plus to be limited in this way. It does make it easy to hook it up to a MacBook, Mac Mini, Mac Studio or even a 5th Gen iPad Air or iPad Pro if you're so inclined.
It's interesting and a little weird hooking up an iPad to the Studio Display. So naturally while I wouldn't work that way myself, I had to.
On the plus side, you get access to the Studio Display's extra USB-C ports, which adds flexibility. I could quickly get access to a decent mechanical keyboard and mouse on an iPad Air 5th Generation running through a USB C-hub that way, for example.
However, the Studio Display only mirrors the iPad Air's display, which isn't the same aspect ratio. What that means is that you get large black bars on the sides of the display, with no current inbuilt support for display resolution matching in iPadOS. Right now, this feels more like a neat gimmick than a genuinely good way to work.
Here again, the way that Apple's rested on prior designs feels like it limits what the Studio Display can do. Its 600 nits of brightness are nice, and if you're a fan of Apple's True Tone displays, that's also an option.
If you're not, it is also rated for P3 wide colour, but critically not for HDR, making it a lot less useful if you're editing video on it. It's also only 60Hz capable, which feels limiting on a "Studio" display, though fast refresh rate gaming isn't really where it's pitched.
You also get integrated microphones, and those did work quite well in my tests. No, you're not likely to dump your higher end USB mics in favour of the Studio Display, but for video conferencing and in-a-pinch audio recording they're reasonably clear.
The same is true of the six speaker system, which can deliver nice clear audio with Dolby Atmos support as a bonus. On a small screen that you're quite close to the effect isn't that impressive in my estimation, but it's at least a kick upwards from the kinds of ordinary speakers you might see on this kind of monitor.
As a straight working monitor for my own needs, the Studio Display worked quite well.
"Quite well" can't help but feel as if it is under-reaching given the asking price. For a monitor that costs more standalone than a 24 inch M1 iMac – a far more capable device in its own right – I'd really want to be blown away by screen quality, flexibility and features. Instead, after a week's testing, it's just OK.
A three thousand dollar monitor should do more than just be OK.
Should you buy it?
- Buy it if you work exclusively within the Mac space and don't need HDR or a good webcam.
- Don't buy it if you want device flexibility or a good webcam.
The Studio Display is a weird, Frankensteined mix of some innovative ideas and some older technology that just doesn't quite hit the spot relative to its asking price. It's far from being a bad display, and for some working situations it could represent a great way to hot-desk while adding features to existing Mac systems at a fraction of the Pro Display XDR's asking price.
However, it's also not hard to see that you could get many of its features, and in some cases better features for the same or less money. It won't suit anyone needing to work with HDR video, it won't work nicely if you also use a USB C hub to connect up a MacBook as so many people do, and the webcam is, frankly, a bit embarrassing for such a "Studio" grade product.
Apple Studio Display review: Pricing and availability
The Studio Display retails in Australia with pricing starting at $2,499. The model reviewed was the Nano Texture screen variant with the tilt stand, which has pricing starting at $2,999.
How we tested
The Studio Display tested was loaned to me by Apple for the purposes of review. I tested it over a one week period connecting it to a Macbook Pro M1, a MacBook Air M1, an iPad Air 5th Generation and a Mac Studio to see how it worked with each device. It was used for a variety of daily tasks including writing, web research, video editing, photo manipulation and (while the boss wasn't looking) a few Steam games just to keep it in check.
The reviewer has more than two decades of tech product reviewing under his belt and is a multi-time Australian IT Journo award winner, including awards for best reviewer and best technical journalist.