Is 5K in our future?
At a Glance
Apple's Thunderbolt Display debuted over three years ago, but Apple display updates have been very hard to predict due to their erratic upgrade cycle.
- Retina resolution of 5120 x 2880 pixels to match new 27-inch Retina iMac
- iMac-like redesign with tapered design and razor-thin edges
- USB 3.0
- Likely requires Thunderbolt 3 for connectivity bandwidth
- Launch likely in late 2015 or later
What We Expect
Apple's Thunderbolt Display is over three years old now, having been announced in July 2011 but not shipping until two months later. Apple display updates have always been very hard to predict due to their erratic update cycle, and while Apple's 2013 Mac Pro launch seemed like an opportune time for Apple to launch an upgraded standalone display, no such product surfaced.
At the extreme end of possibilities would be a true Retina Thunderbolt display, offering four times as many pixels as the current Apple Thunderbolt Display, coming in at the same 5120 x 2880 pixels seen on the new 27-inch Retina 5K iMac. A display at this size would be able to offer the same amount of screen real estate as the current display but with a much sharper appearance, using the same technology as in the Retina MacBook Pro.
A alternative goal would be "4K" resolution of either 4096 or 3840 x 2160 pixels. Apple has touted its new Mac Pro as being able to drive three such displays simultaneously, leading to speculation that the company is planning to launch its own 4K display at some point in the relatively near future.
New 4K panels from AU Optronics and Dell's announcements of new 4K displays have also fueled speculation regarding Apple's plans. Apple offered a 32-inch 4K Sharp display in its European Online Stores for a short period of time before removing it, but the display returned to the store alongside the new Mac Pro, putting a damper on hopes of an imminent 4K display launch from Apple.
During CES 2014, several companies, including Asus, Lenovo, LG, and Seiki debuted 4K monitors at relatively low prices, indicating that the technology is becoming both more widely adopted and more affordable for consumers, potentially removing price barriers that have prevented Apple from debuting a 4K Thunderbolt display. Dell has also announced plans to launch a $699 28-inch "4K" display with a 3840 x 2160 resolution on January 23.
OS X Mavericks 10.9.3, released in May of 2014, included enhanced support for 4K monitors, with new native Retina resolution settings. While the update increases compatibility with a number of existing 4K monitors from third-party vendors, it could also be a hint that Apple has its own 4K solution in the works.
No Concrete Rumors
With the Mac Pro having launched without an accompanying announcement regarding Apple's 4K display plans, timing remains unclear. Ultimately, there are still no concrete rumors suggesting when Apple will update its displays.
Though prices on 4K panels have begun to drop, the graphics requirements needed to drive high-resolution displays may lead Apple to continue to offer either the current Apple Thunderbolt display or a redesigned version of it in order to offer a product compatible with the MacBook Air and other Macs lacking the graphics capabilities to drive the number of pixels in an upgraded display.
A July rumor suggested that Apple had a 4K desktop in the works, which was said to be a new iMac, a new 4K display, or both. The 4K desktop was said to be slated for a late fall release to highlight OS X Yosemite.
Another rumor suggested Apple could release a new 5K ultra-high definition 27-inch monitor later in 2014, with a resolution of 5120 x 2880. At the same time, the new Displayport 1.3 standard could allow future Macs to support high-resolution displays in the coming months.
Apple released a 27-inch Retina iMac with a 5120 x 2880 display on October 16, 2014, but did not release a new Thunderbolt display at that time.
The new 27-inch Retina iMac is unable to function in target display mode because none of Apple's Macs are powerful enough to handle the bandwidth necessary for 5K video over a single cable, which is likely why no 5K display was introduced.
Plug-and-play support for 5K external displays will require the new DisplayPort 1.3 standard, which will launch alongside Intel's Skylake processors in late 2015 or 2016.
In More Detail
Speculation regarding a Retina standalone display from Apple began to ramp up in May 2012 when it was reported by ABC News that the next-generation iMac would be adopting such a display. Apple's "Retina" display transitions have so far been focused on doubling the number of pixels in each direction from the corresponding non-Retina models, allowing for the same amount of screen real estate but with sharper content enabled by having four pixels contributing to one viewable "point" on the screen.
Initially, the only Mac to receive such a bump was the MacBook Pro, with the 15-inch model being the first to make the jump in moving from a 1440 x 900 display to a 2880 x 1800 Retina display. As of October 2014, the 27-inch iMac has now joined the group in moving from 2560 x 1440 to a monster 5120 x 2880 resolution. The 21.5-inch model will presumably follow suit at some point in the future and jump from the current 1920 x 1080 resolution to 3840 x 2160 or "4K" resolution. Given that the Apple Thunderbolt Display uses the same 2560 x 1440 display panel found in the 27-inch iMac, it has seemed reasonable to think that Apple's display could make the jump to Retina resolution alongside or soon after the iMac.
Apple briefly posted an OS X Mavericks wallpaper at 5120 x 2880 resolution following the introduction of the upcoming operating system at WWDC 2013 in June, renewing speculation about possible Retina iMacs and standalone displays, but the wallpaper was quickly removed and the September 2013 iMac update failed to bring Retina displays.
Graphics horsepower has long appeared to be a major limiting factor for the move to a true Retina display, particularly for the 27-inch iMac and thus Apple's standalone display. With a Retina display at that size carrying nearly 15 million pixels, many of Apple's Mac products would simply be unable to drive such a display at its full resolution, even with significant graphics upgrades. Apple has managed to squeeze a Retina display into the 27-inch iMac with AMD graphics chips doing the heavy lifting, but external connectivity at the required bandwidth remains an obstacle for a potential 5K Thunderbolt display.
Cost is naturally another issue, especially considering the iMac's positioning as Apple's primary consumer desktop. The company has, however, elected to pursue an interim strategy similar to that used for the MacBook Pro, maintaining non-Retina models at the traditional price points while offering Retina models at higher prices for those who are interested in the feature. The new 27-inch iMac at $2499 carries a $700 premium over the entry-level non-Retina iMac of the same screen size, although the Retina model also offers several other improved components such as the processor, graphics, and Thunderbolt 2 connectivity.
4K and Thunderbolt 2 for Mac Pro
At its Mac Pro sneak peek offered at WWDC 2013 in June, Apple touted that the new, radically redesigned Mac Pro would be able to drive up to three 4K displays simultaneously, drawing on the power of its standard dual AMD FirePro graphics processors. As a result, many observers speculated that Apple could be planning to launch its own 4K display alongside the Mac Pro when it debuted later in the year. That scenario did not, however, come to pass.
The traditional 4K "Ultra HD" resolution carries 3840 x 2160 pixels, the same 16:9 aspect ratio seen in Apple's iMac and Thunderbolt Display lines, and is in fact the exact resolution that would be expected for a Retina 21.5-inch iMac. But blowing that resolution up to a 27-inch display could offer some appealing options for screen real estate without needing to go to the full Retina resolution of 5120 x 2880. A 4K Ultra HD display carries 8.3 million pixels, or just over half what would be required for a full 27-inch Retina display. But with Apple targeting professional users with the new Mac Pro, the company may even look to push the resolution to the wider "Cinema 4K" standard of 4096 x 2160. These options are, however, now looking less likely with the arrival of the 27-inch iMac at 5120 x 2880, but it will likely take some time and some more new Macs before the technology can make its way into a standalone display.
Apple's new Mac Pro introduces the new Thunderbolt 2 connectivity standard, offering up to 20 Gbps of data transfer in each direction. An upgraded Apple display could take advantage of that standard both for its own display needs and for its passthrough capabilities as a hub. USB 3.0 would also be an obvious upgrade for such a display.
Given that the maximum resolution supported by the DisplayPort 1.2 standard used in Thunderbolt 2 is Cinema 4K at 4096 x 2160 pixels, it seems extremely unlikely that Apple would create a dual Thunderbolt 2 solution for driving an even higher resolution Retina display at 5120 x 2880 pixels. As a result, Apple may need to wait for Thunderbolt 3 before it can launch a Retina Thunderbolt Display.
Apple's Thunderbolt Display and its predecessor Apple LED Cinema Display have taken design cues from the iMac over the years, with a similar body design and aluminum foot. With the iMac receiving a redesign at its late 2012 launch with a new design encompassing up to 40% less volume than the previous design and with thin edges tapering to just 5 mm thick, many have been waiting for the Apple Thunderbolt Display to adopt a similar design, reducing bulk and weight.
The redesigned iMac also features a new laminated display technology that brings the display closer to the cover glass for improved color and contrast, as well as an anti-reflective coating. Both features would be welcome additions to the Apple Thunderbolt Display as well.