Apple Pro Display XDR: Why $5,000 is an insanely good deal and could change our future screens

This is not a successor to the Apple Cinema Display, it's a competitor to $30,000 monitors from Sony and Flanders Scientific.

Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner

VP & Editor in Chief of ZDNet

Jason Hiner is Vice President and Editor in Chief of ZDNet. He was formerly Editorial Director of CNET Advice and Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic.

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The announcement of the new Apple Pro Display XDR was greeted with stunned enthusiasm during the WWDC 2019 keynote in June. But the stunning wasn't done. A few moments later the crowd learned the price tag -- $4,999 (£4,599, AU$8,499) for the base model and $6,998 (£6,448, AU$11,698) if you also purchase the matte finish along with Apple's pro monitor stand. You could feel the enthusiasm deflate a little bit when the price went up on the screen at the San Jose Convention Center.

But what the audience didn't realize -- and Apple didn't explain all that clearly at the WWDC keynote -- was that this is not simply the 5K display from the latest iMac couched in a fancy new box to match the revival of the new Mac Pro. This is also not a successor to the 2011 Apple Cinema Display or the 2016 Apple Thunderbolt Display -- which each measured about 27 inches and cost around $1,000.

This is a 32-inch 6K display that is brighter (1,600 nits) than almost any display that any of us have seen before and offers groundbreaking color accuracy that could make $30,000 to $40,000 "reference displays" from Sony and Flanders Scientific obsolete. The fact that some of the world's most creative professionals can now put one on their desk for $5,000 is incredibly disruptive, and unexpected. 

The bummer, of course, is that the vast majority of Mac fans who just want a decent Apple monitor to hook up to their MacBooks and Mac Minis will never be able to afford the Pro Display XDR. They'd be thrilled to simply get the monitor-only version of the latest iMac without the computer tucked inside -- and many would likely still pay around $1,000 for it. 

Why Apple made the Pro Display XDR

When Apple announced in April 2017 that it was going back to the drawing board and redesigning a new Mac Pro and a pro display to go with it, there was also a footnote: It was spinning up a new "Pro Workflow" team to help it create better products for creative professionals. 

The idea for the Pro Display XDR didn't come as a request from the Pro Workflow team. But having the team and listening to customers helped Apple identify one of the biggest pain points for teams of digital creators: Most of the workers in the pipeline don't have monitors that show the images or videos as they were captured, because their monitors don't have the contrast, brightness or color accuracy to match the content. 

One person at the end of the process typically has one of the expensive reference monitors from Sony or Flanders. When they look at video or photos and see problems then they raise the red flag and stuff has to get corrected or re-shot. These ultra high-end monitors can only maintain color accuracy for up to about 30 minutes. Pro Display XDR can now maintain full color accuracy all day at up to 1,000 nits of brightness (and can peak up to 1,600 nits, when needed). For context, the 5K Retina display in the latest iMac has 500 nits of brightness and is well-regarded as a high-end consumer monitor.

James Martin/CNET

The new matte finish

If you've been around the Mac ecosystem for a while, you may remember when you used to have the choice to order a MacBook Pro with either a glossy or a matte display. (I ordered the matte finish on every MacBook I used while it was available, and have definitely missed it since we lost the option.) A lot of professionals opted for the matte because of the low reflectivity and the fact that it's more consistent in different types of lighting conditions throughout the day. The downside of matte is that the coating can cause the display to lose some contrast and sharpness and result in a bit of haziness. 

To address this, Apple started by improving the standard glossy version of the Pro Display XDR. While most glossy monitors have about a 3% reflectivity, Apple was able to reduce this to 1.6%. Then, the company developed a different kind of matte finish that doesn't involve slapping an antireflective coating on top of the screen. Instead, it etched micro edges into the surface of the glass to scatter the light rather than reflecting it. This technique, which Apple has dubbed "nanotexture," has been used by others but the Pro Display XDR is one of the first consumer products to feature it. That's likely why it's a $1,000 upgrade to the standard model and can only be cleaned with a special polishing cloth (yes, it's included).

Why does the stand cost $1,000?

When the Pro Display XDR was first unveiled at WWDC, what made the most headlines was the fact that the (optional) professional stand cost $999 (£949, AU$1,699). Twitter and the tech press had a field day with that as soon as it went up on the screen in the keynote. Most of the people in the audience were expecting Apple's new monitor itself to cost about that much, so the cost of the high-end stand became a symbol of our sticker shock at the Pro Display XDR. 

Officially called the "Pro Stand," it's a substantial piece of hardware. It comes in its own box that's almost as large as the one for the previous "trash can" Mac Pro. It is a thick, heavy piece of metal that is much weightier than the stand for an iMac, by comparison. It also has a tilting mechanism that allows you to spin it into portrait mode, adjust the height or put it at the perfect angle and hold it there. As valuable as all of that is, it still feels like it should be priced at least half of the sticker price. Nevertheless, it's good that Apple made it a separate purchase and didn't build it into the price of the monitor because a lot of professionals will prefer to just order the VESA mount ($200, £189, AU$349) and attach it to the monitor arm of their choice. 

Does it only work with the Mac Pro? 

Running the Pro Display XDR requires a powerful graphics card and Thunderbolt 3 "Titan Ridge." The new Mac Pro can power up to six of them. The 15-inch MacBook Pro (2018), the 16-inch MacBook Pro (2019) and the high-end 27-inch iMac (2019) can each drive up to two Pro Display XDRs. The 21.5-inch iMac and lower end 27-inch iMac models can drive one. By connecting a Blackmagic eGPU ($700) or Blackmagic eGPU Pro ($1,200), other Macs can also connect a Pro Display XDR.

Like the new Mac Pro, the Pro Display XDR officially went on sale on Dec. 10, with shipments starting on Dec. 20. The ship dates quickly slipped into February, however -- especially for the new matte version of the monitor -- which either indicates that demand was pretty strong or Apple didn't have a large supply of them at launch, or both. 

How it could impact other Apple products

Since most Apple customers -- even the most well-heeled -- will never put their hands on a Pro Display XDR, the bigger question is how this product could impact future products, from iPhones and iPads to the possibility of a less expensive iMac-like monitor for the rest of us.

Let's start with the simple stuff. Despite all the social media shade thrown at the price of the Pro Stand, the fact that Apple has created such an aspirational product has created plenty of demand in the Mac ecosystem for a less expensive Apple-branded display. And since Apple has clearly invested so much into making a cutting-edge computer monitor, it would be surprising if the Pro Display XDR is the only product it makes. A separate, lower-priced, prosumer monitor and improved displays of future versions of the iMac would make a lot of sense -- especially if the Pro Display XDR establishes Apple as a leader in high-end computer monitors.

The even more speculative question is whether the color, brightness and matte breakthroughs of the Pro Display XDR could improve future versions of iPhone and iPad screens. We've already seen products like the Paperlike 2 experiment with a matte finish coating on the iPad. Would the nanotexture matte-finish option for the Pro Display XDR work on a touchscreen? How would it interact with oleophobic (antifingerprint) coatings and a stylus like the Apple Pencil?

There are more questions than answers here. But Apple has achieved breakthroughs that no one expected with the Pro Display XDR. We have to expect that Apple will attempt to use those innovations to make its other products better. And when it does, other companies will invest and innovate to keep up. That could give us all better phones, tablets and computer screens in the future, and make us all tip our hats to the Pro Display XDR.