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Sunday, December 07, 2008, 07:05 am PT (10:05 am ET)

Apple's LED Cinema Display: the review


The speakers, the webcam and the USB hub

Apple clearly sees at least the 24-inch model in its third-generation Cinema line as a chance to bring some of the iMac's all-in-one design philosophy to desktops and to lid-closed operation for desktops, and it's this which has pushed the company to make the unusual decision to include full audio and a webcam rather than reduce costs further still over the old 23-inch display.

The LED Cinema Display uses the iMac's trick of piping sound through the bottom and bouncing it towards you. Surprisingly, though, it's actually a 2.1-channel setup with a dedicated internal subwoofer instead of the iMac's 2.0-only design. For internal speakers, they're much more appealing than those on the iMac or for most any other display saddled with often significantly underpowered stereo speakers meant only to satisfy office workers who just need enough to hear voice chats.

The system does a surprisingly good job of producing clear, warm-sounding audio: treble is very distinct (albeit not stellar) and bass isn't lost in the mid-range as it might be otherwise. There are many users who could depend entirely on the Cinema Display's speakers for entertainment, and they're arguably better than many $50-70 external speakers that can't get at least this basic audio range down pat.

Those expecting an audiophile-grade sound system will be disappointed, however, though it's not necessarily something Apple can avoid. Due to the small space and the absence of close contact between the subwoofer and your desk, the bass won't have the punch of a full 2.1 system with a subwoofer close to an appropriate surface. There's also a slightly hollow-feeling sound that reminds you the sound is being pushed out of an aluminum casing and not a perfectly designed wooden shell. Thankfully, serious listeners can automatically override the built-in speakers by plugging speakers or headphones into an attached Mac's audio-out jack, though this also leaves a significant portion of the display's value wasted.

LED Cinema Display's underside speakers


LED Cinema Display's iSight camera


A more universally helpful touch is the built-in iSight camera, which lets owners with lid-closed MacBooks (and most likely, future Mac minis and Mac Pros) hold video conversations without the expense and ugliness of grafting on a third-party camera. There's not much to say about the quality beyond what most computers' integrated webcams offer; it's still not perfectly quick on the draw, doesn't have focus or zoom and induces visible noise in low lighting. But it's convenient and certainly no worse than what you'd expect.

About the only real quirk was the default volume. When we first fired up the camera, the recipient on the other end complained that our voice was too quiet; it turned out that the output volume in System Preferences defaulted to a very low 23 percent and had to be bumped up to around 75 percent before every bit of spoken dialogue was at normal volume.

Less kind words can be said about the reduced expansion options. Further rubbing salt in the wound from the 13-inch MacBook's abandonment of FireWire, Apple has also scrapped the two FireWire 400 ports found on older Cinema Displays. This is admittedly not the gravest concern — how many owners actually plugged video cameras or audio breakout boxes into their LCDs? — but it also comes at the expense of expansion, as technical reasons dictate that the three USB ports are now the sum total of the display's expansion. It's evident that the base MacBook and the MacBook Air were primary concerns in the design process, and we can't entirely blame Apple for wanting extra space for that iPhone or still photo camera, but it's a step back.