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Apple's LED Cinema Display: the review

Design: evolution over revolution

By far the most obvious change is the black, glass-covered front, which is much bolder than it was in the past and clearly meant to give the impression of a seamless expanse rather than the conspicuous borders of the plastic and earlier aluminum models. It works and is useful for professionals who may previously have called out for black as a completely color-neutral backdrop for their work, but it has the unfortunate side effect of making the display slightly trickier to keep pristine; a careless grab at the edge is now likely to leave visible fingerprints, and dust is more conspicuous.

Most of the other visual touches are less noticeable but still pleasant to the eye. Although it's really just the same sort of trompe l'oeil that Apple has been using to give the appearance of a thinner design on virtually all of its 2008 products, the tapered back leads to a Cinema Display that no longer feels "fat" or simple in construction, especially with seamless edges that give the impression of a one-piece design.

This new shell is also more eco-friendly than in the past, as it scraps the plastic side fills of the sides and uses glass for the display cover. Apple also claims the screen is free of arsenic, brominated flame retardants, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride, though much of this is owed more to the LED backlighting than anything else.

LED Cinema Display up close

LED Cinema Display back view

Practically speaking, though, those who've had the opportunity to use the last-generation Cinema Display will feel right at home, for better or for worse. The "hanging" design isn't the most flexible and leaves portrait rotation and elevation out of Apple's display lineup. That said, we've never been especially uncomfortable with it in most conditions and still find benefits as well. It's easy to adjust the viewing angle or to turn the display (stand and all) to the right direction, and the space opened up beneath the screen is a convenient place to stow a keyboard or the debris that frequently accumulates during office work.

One caveat: in our experience, the MacBook's wireless reception strength dips significantly with the lid closed, so owners far enough away from their Wi-Fi base stations may see reduced speeds or occasional drops if conditions are sufficiently on the borderline.

Image quality and the gloss factor

Word has it that Apple isn't using the same LCD panel for the LED Cinema Display as in the 24-inch iMac, and we'd tend to agree; we've heard it may be a Samsung panel instead of the iMac's, which is virtually the same as for an NEC MultiSync display near-famous for its color accuracy.

Whatever the supplier may have done, the new stand-alone screen is still very close to the iMac in terms of day-to-day image quality. Colors still "pop," especially reds and blues; there's no noticeable grain, and viewing angles are still very wide (178 degrees from any direction) without producing the color inversion or washouts. Unlike the makers of some newer 24-inch displays that use cheap TN (twisted nematic) panels, Apple has chosen the higher road and is still using either PVA (patterned vertical alignment) or the top-end IPS (in-plane switching) for its display technology, both of which are much more comfortable and suited to color-sensitive editing. We're inclined to say IPS but will investigate further.

Significantly, Apple isn't using dynamic lighting to inflate its contrast ratio; that's unfortunate for gamers and movie viewers, but it's not as much of an issue for editors who may want a more consistent image.

Of course, the LED backlight is touted as one of the distinguishing features, and many other hardware vendors will say it improves color uniformity by lighting the screen more evenly. In our experience, though, about the only visible benefit —and the only one Apple trumpets —is the instant-on lighting, which doesn't exhibit the short warmup period you see with typical cold-cathode fluorescent backlights. If anything, the new Cinema Display is somewhat dimmer than the 24-inch iMac. Both are entirely bright enough, but the monitor-only unit often has to sit at two-thirds brightness or higher where the fluorescent iMac and the LED-lit MacBook are still very comfortable even at their lower settings. Either Apple has introduced more dramatic steppings to the brightness controls or else the LED isn't as powerful as it could be, even if it's perfectly fine for actual use.

LED Cinema Display attached to MacBook

LED Cinema Display viewed from a sharp angle

With the use of a glass cover, though, Apple may have taken one of its biggest risks yet. The glass introduces a significant amount of gloss and, with it, reflections.

The impact of reflections is somewhat overstated by those most determined to avoid it; while you might notice at first, in everyday use with typical lighting conditions they're not often noticeable. Even at the bezel, where the always-black surface can act as a dull mirror, reflections are seldom distracting. We've even heard of artists or video editors consciously opting for the glossy displays, as the switch away from matte can actually produce a truer representation of the final color output and prevent someone using Adobe Photoshop, Aperture, or a similar suite from instinctively oversaturating the image before it's sent to the web or the printer.

Assuming conditions are ideal, that is. While in our testing the background was never really an issue, there are certain circumstances in which the gloss is unavoidable. Viewing a predominantly black website or other document in daylight will also let you view yourself, for example. And if you're unfortunate enough to sit in front of bright spot lighting (chandeliers, fluorescent ceiling lights, and certain floor-standing lamps come to mind), it may be hard to escape the reflection short of moving the display itself.

These conditions are usually only minor inconveniences to everyday users, but they're potential deal breakers for certain creative professionals. For those who aren't clinging to limited palette throughout the entire workflow, visible reflections make it harder to gauge the exact color value a subject should use or whether a portion of the image too bright or too dark. It can also be a nuisance when trying to look for fine detail that might be obscured by the image of a window background.

As such, these experts have to either carefully manage their lighting conditions or else consider another display. It's not a disaster, but it's a hindrance that was never an issue with the previous generation. Most entertainment-minded users don't object to matte screens, but many artists do object to gloss. The environmental tradeoff of glass just wasn't entirely worthwhile here no matter how many in the broader public might like it.