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

Apple's LED Cinema Display: the review


Power and controls; or rather, the lack thereof

The refocusing of the Cinema Display as a notebook dock becomes obvious with the built-in MagSafe adapter, which is there solely to charge MacBooks. It's arguably the one feature of the LED Cinema Display that simply can't be replicated by other displays, and it's a tremendous benefit for frequent road warriors; you can now leave your MacBook's power brick in a bag and off the floor whenever you're in front of the larger screen, saving you just a minute or two of time but a whole lot of clutter.

What might surprise most is the absence of a power button. Keeping with Steve Jobs' seeming fear of buttons, the new display reacts automatically. Plug a powered device (even a sleeping MacBook) into the DisplayPort jack, and it turns on; remove the cable, and it turns off. There's a certain wonderful simplicity to this, but it also limits your choices for when the display will activate. You can't turn the display off with the computer still running, and nor does the button serve to put both the display and the computer to sleep at the same time. It also makes unplugging peripherals difficult when a connected system is asleep, as there's no way to elegantly do that without first waking the computer and the display at the same time.

Some might also be disappointed with the absence of dedicated brightness or speaker volume controls. We don't see it as much of a problem given Apple's Mac and peripheral lineup for the past year. Any of these have keys to adjust both brightness and volume themselves, while Mac OS X also has software controls. It could be a hassle with non-Apple keyboards, however.

LED Cinema Display cabling for the MacBook


A word on DisplayPort and copy protection

Like with the MacBook, the redesigned display marks Apple's first venture into using DisplayPort for video input. From a performance standpoint, it's functionally equivalent to dual-link DVI but adds two-way signaling; it's hard to tell if Apple is using this newfound interaction at all, but it has the potential for future uses.

The particular implementation doesn't adhere to the official standard; Apple is instead using its own variant, dubbed Mini DisplayPort. This design is actually very convenient and makes for a far smaller, screw-free connection than even full DisplayPort. However, it also locks the display out of any non-Apple computer at present, and only the current MacBook range at that (other Macs are coming soon). There are no existing adapters to convert full DisplayPort, DVI or HDMI to use the display, so those hoping to use older Macs or non-Mac hardware will simply have to wait until if and when peripherals make the link possible.

But in contrast to the at times notorious Apple Display Connector, Mini DisplayPort should at least have broader industry support. The company has recently started offering free licenses to hardware and software makers and may ultimately get backing from rival notebook and video card designers looking to put video outputs into very small spaces.

Some have already railed against Apple's use of DisplayPort as buckling to pressure from overly protective movie studios, as users have already encountered problems with being locked out of movies on external displays that don't support anti-piracy encryption using High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, or HDCP. To some extent, that's true; Apple wasn't technically required to use DisplayPort and could have insisted on keeping DVI and left purchased iTunes videos with no extra protection. The company was recently forced to patch QuickTime to loosen its restrictions, which until then were actually harsher than what the studios usually demand.

Nonetheless, it's important to separate the technology from the content, and DisplayPort is still a move in the right direction. The LED Cinema Display won't have problems playing any HDCP-encrypted videos, whether they come from the iTunes Store or not. And while movie studios have often been fairly open with standard-definition videos, many of these been less than generous with HD playback rights regardless of the platform. Apple has influence in online movie rentals and sales, but it can't force studios to offer content without HDCP limits or control what happens with Blu-ray videos (should Apple ever adopt Blu-ray movie playback). DisplayPort at least lets Apple continue to offer support for playback on external displays no matter how the battle over copy protection pans out.