Apple Thunderbolt Display vs 4k/5k Displays

almost 6 years ago from , Freelance Designer

Hi Designers,

Would you still recommend Apple Thunderbolt Display for designing at 1x or there are other substitutes?

I know the display industry has moved forward with retina, and there are many great monitors available in 4k and 5k, but is it better to purchase a retina monitor (4k, 5k) or still to the 1x monitor?

Looking forward to hearing back. Zulal


  • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, almost 6 years ago

    If you’re desperate, right now I’d buy a nice Dell or LG non-Retina display with sRGB gamut, with the intention of buying one of Apple’s new Retina displays with Display P3 gamut in 2018 (or whenever is appropriate, based on your Mac and financial situation). Here’s my main reasons.

    • If you have a 2016 MacBook Pro, you can use an LG 5K display. If you don’t have a 2016 MacBook Pro, Retina isn’t an option anyway.
    • Choosing a display that’s not near 110PPI or 220PPI (pixels per inch) will likely mean you need to use display scaling, and that’s bad news for performance and quality. I’d go as far as saying it’s completely unacceptable for design work.
    • You can’t buy Apple’s new display yet, but non-Retina displays are pretty cheap.
    • Many tools still have issues running on Display P3 displays, and there is no setup change you can make that will fix it. Getting an sRGB display right now solves that, while the software issues get fixed.
    17 points
    • , almost 6 years ago

      Thanks for the insightful reply, Marc. I found it really helpful.

      I'm aiming for a display that could help me see my designs in actual form (at 1x) while I work, just like my non-retina iMac.

      I'll be connecting the display with my MBPr 2013. I think what you've recommended above, a Dell/LG non-Retina Display should work fine in this case.

      But still, I'm curious to know do designers find 4k/5k displays easier to work at. 4k/5k displays are gorgeous and the majority of designers have switched to tools like Sketch & Figma, including me, but to see how your designs look at 1x, you would need a non-retina device, no?

      0 points
      • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, almost 6 years ago

        I think working with a full 1× or full 2× display shouldn't be a problem. Display scaling (in System Preferences) is a far bigger issue. All design tools let you snap to pixels, which is the main concern when snapping to a 1× grid.

        0 points
    • Connor NorvellConnor Norvell, almost 6 years ago

      Just a note, I am running the lg USB-c 4k display with my late 2013 retina 15" MacBook Pro with no issues over display port.

      And I love it

      0 points
  • Andy MerskinAndy Merskin, almost 6 years ago

    Check out this great article from Bjango: Mac external displays for Designers and Developers. There's a chart with a handful of displays of various sizes, showing their PPI and their ideal design target (Retina and non-Retina).

    Worth a look!

    9 points
  • Mattan IngramMattan Ingram, almost 6 years ago

    Also keep an eye out for Apple's "Pro" display coming sometime next year with the new Mac Pro.

    2 points
  • Paul @StammyPaul @Stammy, almost 6 years ago

    I can't stand my thunderbolt display anymore. I spend the majority of time on my 5K iMac now, with the res set to native mode (the tiniest setting). Takes a day to get used to but now I can't go back..

    2 points
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    0 points
  • Benjamin Mailian, almost 6 years ago

    What Mark Edward said: Choosing a display that’s not near 110PPI or 220PPI (pixels per inch) will likely mean you need to use display scaling, and that’s bad news for performance and quality. I’d go as far as saying it’s completely unacceptable for design work.

    I got a 4K display recently to replace my 24" apple Cinema Display. I thought, "higher resolution = better clarity". My Cinema Display was always a little fuzzy with font rendering, in stark contrast to my MacBook Pro Retina display. So I went and got myself the well reviewed 28" TN Samsung 4K screen. At full resolution, everything looks very clear but it's also incredibly small. Buttons, icons, windows, it's all really tiny so I end up having to upscale my display to end up pretty much right where I left off with my Cinema Display: slightly fuzzy. Not the best purchasing decision, if I'm being honest.

    0 points
    • Connor NorvellConnor Norvell, almost 6 years ago

      I'm not having these issues with the LG ud-88 4k display. Using a late 2013 MacBook Pro 15" and it runs perfectly for me, no up or downscaling, just native 4k

      0 points
  • Abram Goglanian, almost 6 years ago

    I haven't yet upgraded to a Thunderbolt 3 capable machine (running a 2015 MBP right now) but I am using an Apple Thunderbolt Display and I'm very pleased with it. I fully understand it's not going to be the same experience as a 4K/5K monitor or let alone the 5K iMac but I'm not working on those machines personally.

    I'm plenty happy with the quality of the display as well as its color fidelity after calibration. It does just fine for me when working in Sketch, Photoshop or Illustrator.

    I am very interested to see what Apple has in the pipeline (I had all but given up hope that they were going to still care about us Creative Professionals), but until that point I'm not at all unhappy with the performance of my 2015 Macbook Pro and Thunderbolt Display.

    0 points
  • Cristian MoiseiCristian Moisei, almost 6 years ago

    Surprisingly, after I've had to use a non-retina 27" iMac at work, I didn't find it that bad. (the display that is, the computer is a slow relic). It takes a day or two to get used to it and it's not that nice, but it's not a massive downgrade either.

    I'm not advocating for the thunderbolt display, there are definitely better, cheaper monitors out there, but it's not such a big deal either.

    0 points
  • Jon MyersJon Myers, almost 6 years ago

    I was using the iMac5K along with a Thunderbolt as a secondary display.

    I found the Thunderbolt to just be hard on the eyes.

    Recently, I picked up the 2016 MBP.

    Despite the fact the LG hardware is ugly AF, I decided to go with the two LG 5K displays.

    The resolution and image quality on the displays is awesome. I wouldn't go back.

    Each display has a USB C out and both must be plugged into the MBP. Also, each display then has 3 additional USB C ports, which come in handy.

    If you are setting up the workstation (bringing your laptop in and out) everyday, it can get annoying.

    The two USB C plugs must be inserted into the MBP at nearly the exact same time, which can be annoying. Daily use, I leave the MBP closed and there is no lag on the displays at all.

    Highly recommend this set up.

    I was really down on the new MBP, but honestly, Touchbar gimmicks aside, it's a pretty awesome machine, and I'm glad I upgraded.

    My set up:

    my set up

    0 points
    • Diego LafuenteDiego Lafuente, almost 6 years ago

      I have the MBP 2017, does this works with the dual LG5k also? That seems a lot of pixels to push, the MBP will melt.

      0 points
      • Connor NorvellConnor Norvell, almost 6 years ago

        The 2016 MBP was designed to use 2 of these displays. The 2017 MBP hasn't been announced yet, so I am assuming you have a 2016, if it's a 15" it should run these displays

        0 points
  • Mark Lamb, almost 6 years ago

    Here's a good thread on it:

    Designer News — Thunderbolt Display Replacement?

    I've always found Dell or LG to be pretty solid and accurate for the price like Marc mentioned.

    The Wirecutter — The Best 27-Inch Monitor

    Didn't the Thunderbolt displays use LG and Dell panels anyway?...

    iFixit's Apple Thunderbolt Display Teardown

    0 points