A Tour of Apple’s External (LCD) Displays

With the 2022 Apple Studio Display, the company has returned to the display business in a big way. To celebrate, I thought we could walk through the history of Apple’s standalone flat displays.

1984: Apple IIc Flat Panel Display

In April 1984, Apple introduced a 1-bit, 7-inch LCD for use with the somewhat-portable Apple IIc:

Apple IIc Flat Panel Display

With a resolution of 560 x 192, it provided an 80-column text mode and hi-res graphic support, but things were a bit … squished, as you can see in these photos. At $595, it didn’t sell very well, with estimates putting the number made at just about 10,000 units.

1998: Apple Studio Display (15-inch)

After the IIc Flat Panel Display, Apple users would need to wait over a decade until the company shipped another external LCD display.

In March 1998, Apple introduced the Apple Studio Display (15-inch). At the time, all of Apple’s external monitors were CRTs wrapped in beige plastic. In contrast, the Studio Display was a thin-for-the-time LCD perched on a plastic stand.

Apple Studio Display

Here’s how Apple pitched the $1,999 display in marketing materials at the time:

The Apple Studio Display combines state-of-the-art digital imaging technology with advanced software-based features unique to Apple. The result is a high-performance flat-panel display that’s ideal for anyone who spends a lot of time manipulating text, graphics, and other media on-screen. Whether you’re a multimedia content creator, a designer, a writer, an educator, or an accountant, the Apple Studio Display can make your job look a lot better to you — and vice versa.

This Studio Display would end up spanning the change from beige plastic to more colorful designs, and would ship in three distinct Revisions:

  • Rev. A: Used a DB-15 connector and came in a graphite finish. Included ADB ports, as well a RCA jack for extra connectivity.
  • Rev. B (January 1999): Used VGA and came in new styling to Match the Blue and White G3, as seen below. Came with a price cut to $1,099.
  • Rev. C (August 1999): Used DVI and included 2 USB ports and was styled to match the early Power Mac G4

The time the Blue and White G3 as well as the initial batch of Power Mac G4s had matching CRTs, but the Rev. B LCD is my favorite from the time period:

Apple Studio Display (15-inch) with a G3

(Amazingly, this display — wrapped in beige plastic — was teased in 1997 by none other than Jonathan Ive and Phil Schiller. Skip to about 36:30 in this video.)

1999: Apple Cinema Display

In September of 1999, (alongside the Power Mac G4) Apple released a 22-inch LCD named the Apple Cinema Display. It introduced a new design language that would last for nearly five years:

Apple Cinema Display

This image is actually from 2003, but the design featured here was basically the same as the 1999 model.

The panel itself was enclosed in an acrylic housing with two clear feet that were fixed in place. Around back was a leg on a hinge that could be used to adjust the tilt of the monitor. It was designed so that it was easy to change this angle, but that the display would hold its place on almost any desk surface.

This display initially sold for $3,999 (or $6,901.13 in Pro Display XDR 2022 money) and had a resolution of 1600 x 1024. Like the 15-inch Studio Display before it, it underwent a connection change, moving from DVI to ADC later in its life.

John Siracusa reviewed the display alongside the Power Mac G4 Cube for Ars Technica about a year after its release:

Let me start by saying one undeniable thing about the 22-inch Apple Cinema Display digital active matrix LCD: you want this monitor. Even if you don’t yet know that you want this monitor, trust me, you do. Don’t try to deny it. Its screen area is 22-inches on the diagonal and its thickness varies from 1.25 inches on the edges to about 2 inches in the center. It’s completely digital. It has a single cord coming from the back of it: an ADC cable. There’s not even a power cord. If you were to take this monitor back with you a decade or so into the past, it, perhaps more than anything else that exists in the world of computer hardware today, would look impossibly futuristic and magical. It’s as elemental as computer display devices get these days: a flat, thin panel with single cable poking out of the back. And I suspect that if Apple could have made it wireless, it would have.

ADC is just one chapter in the long story of weird Apple display standards. It wrapped power, DVI and USB into one connector for easy set up. In a way, it was the precursor to what we have today in standards like Thunderbolt.

2000-2001: Apple Studio Display (LCD)

In July of 2000, to coincide with the launch of the Power Mac G4 Cube,1 the Studio Display was reworked to match the larger and more expensive Cinema Display. This edition kept the 15-inch panel, but wrapped it in the same enclosure introduced the year before for the Cinema Display.

In May 2001, a 17-inch Studio Display (LCD) was added to the line. At this point, Apple’s entire line had transitioned to flat screens, with three models:

  • 15-inch Studio Display
  • 17-inch Studio Display
  • 22-inch Cinema Display

Just look at them. My word, I miss transparency in Apple products:

2001 Apple Display Lineup

2002: 23-inch Apple Cinema Display HD

In March 2002, Apple added another display to its lineup, in the form of a 23-inch LCD named the Apple Cinema Display HD. It supported a maximum resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels, allowing for 1:1 playback of 1080p media for the first time on an Apple display.

This model did not replace the 22-inch Cinema Display, probably because it cost a whopping $3,499.

2002 Apple Display Lineup

2003: Cleaning Things Up a Bit

Toward the end of 2002, the old 15-inch Studio Display was discontinued, making the 17-inch Studio Display the entry-level option for Power Mac users.

In January 2003, Apple introduced a new 20-inch Cinema Display to take the now-empty middle spot, replacing the 22-inch Cinema Display. This gave the 23-inch Cinema Display HD some breathing room at the top of the line, and nicely split the difference between it and the remaining Studio Display, as you can see on this tech spec page:

2003 Display configurations

2004: Aluminum Cinema Displays

At WWDC 2004, Apple took the wraps off a redesigned display lineup:

Aluminum Cinema Displays

Gone was the transparency and tri-foot design introduced five years earlier. In its place was a sleek aluminum design with much thinner bezels, and a new metal stand that would eventually find its way to the iMac.

The lineup looked somewhat familiar, with a $1,299 20-inch and a $1,999 23-inch model taking the smaller two spots.

At the top was something all-new: a 30-inch LCD for $3,299. Here’s a bit from the company’s press release at the time:

“Our gorgeous new 30-inch Cinema Display is the largest desktop canvas ever created, and you can even run two of them side-by-side to get 8 million jaw-dropping pixels,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “Apple’s Cinema Displays have always set the bar for the industry’s highest quality displays, and our new 30-inch display is a giant leap forward for our pro customers.”

I remember the first time I saw one of these in the real world, and my jaw dropped. The 2560 x 1600 panel was so much bigger than anything I had ever seen on a desk up to that point. I mean, just look at this press image of the 30-inch display next to a Power Mac G5:

Power Mac G5 & 30-inch Cinema Display

All of those pixels meant that most Macs couldn’t actually push the 30-inch Cinema Display, at least at first. Initially, only a G5 tower with a then-new GeForce 6800 GPU could so.

All three model ran at 100 pixels per inch, which Apple praised on its website:

The quality of the pixels you see impacts how you use your computer. After years of experience, Apple engineers have discovered the ideal resolution to display both sharp text and graphics — a pixel density of about 100 pixels per inch (ppi). Other vendors may offer a larger monitor, but with less resolution, so you end up with fewer pixels, or a smaller monitor with a high resolution that causes eyestrain and headaches. Apple’s balanced 100 pixels per inch format is optimized for images, yet allows you to easily work with text in email, Safari and sophisticated type treatments in layouts.

Around back, all three of the new models now included two USB and two FireWire 400 ports, and the display was run via DVI. This meant the display could be used as a hub for all sorts of workflows, including those powered by notebooks, as ADC was now a thing of the past.

Of course, this also meant that the days of a single connection between a Mac and display were over. This generation of Cinema Displays shipped with a break-out cable that included individual connectors for DVI, USB and Firewire 400. Additionally, there was a power connector that plugged into an external power supply.

2008: LED Cinema Display (24-inch)

In the fall of 2008, Apple replaced the mid-range 23-inch Cinema Display with a new 24-inch model that was just $899. Built with a LED backlit display and in an updated chassis to better fit in with the now glass and aluminum iMacs.

24-inch LED Cinema Display

While the other two Cinema Displays remained on sale, it was clear from Apple’s press release that this display was the start of a new generation of products. For the first time, Apple had made an external display really designed for notebook users:

“The new LED Cinema Display is the most advanced display that Apple has ever made,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. “It is a perfect fit for our sleek new line of aluminum MacBooks with its 24-inch LED-backlit screen, aluminum and glass enclosure, integrated camera, mic and speakers, MagSafe charger, three USB ports and Mini DisplayPort.”

The 24-inch glossy, widescreen display with 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution uses LED-backlit technology to provide instant full-screen brightness and great power efficiency. Suspended by an aluminum stand with an adjustable hinge that makes tilting the display almost effortless, the new display includes a built-in iSight video camera, mic and speakers, making it ideal for video conferencing with iChat, listening to music or watching movies. The new display also includes three self-powered USB 2.0 ports so users can simply leave their printer, camera, iPhone 3G or iPod dock connected when they take their MacBook with them. The sleek, thin display also includes a built-in universal MagSafe charger so users can conveniently leave their notebook’s MagSafe power adapter in their travel bag.

2010: LED Cinema Display (27-inch)

Less than two years later, Apple replaced all of its external displays with a new one — a larger LED Cinema Display. Its 27-inch screen ran at a resolution of 2560 × 1440, but was otherwise the same as the outgoing 24-inch. It ran $999.

2011: Thunderbolt Display

In July of 2011, the 27-inch LED Cinema Display got one-upped, in the form of the mighty Apple Thunderbolt Display. It took everything good about the LED Cinema Displays and made it even better, thanks to the all-in-one nature of Thunderbolt:

With its 27-inch LED-backlit screen, the new Thunderbolt Display delivers a brilliant viewing experience. But connect it to any Thunderbolt-enabled Mac, and it becomes a plug-and-play hub for everything you do. You get 27 inches of high-resolution screen space, high-quality audio, a FaceTime HD camera, and support for FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet. All through a single connection.

Well not everything was made better with this product. This was pre-Retina, so the display remained at 2560 x 1440, but it was bright and vivid, with great viewing angles.

However, the Thunderbolt Display truly was the realization of a decades-long dream at Apple: a display that could hook up to almost anything, with as few cables as possible.

Apple Thunderbolt Display

The Thunderbolt Display was the ultimate docking station for a number of years, but as more and more of the Mac lineup went Retina, it felt increasingly out of place.

2016: The Darkest Timeline

In 2016, when Apple introduced the Touch Bar MacBook Pros, a curious thing happened: no new display was in sight. Instead, Apple said that it had worked with LG on a display for Mac users: the UltraFine 5K.

It worked well enough with macOS, but Apple’s statement about leaving the standalone display business left many Mac users feeling a bit abandoned.

Touch Bar MacBook Pro

The Touch Bar wasn’t the Retina display many Mac users were expecting in the fall of 2016.

Coupled with the a lukewarm reception to the new MacBook Pros, the lack of Mac Pro updates and more, 2016 started a years-long period without much good news on the Mac hardware front.

Where We Are Today

Today, Apple is back to having two external displays.

ProDisplay XDR

The 2019 Pro Display XDR was Apple’s first display in eight years, but was unlike anything that had come before it. Bigger than the old 30-inch Cinema Display, this monitor packed a whopping 6K resolution into a panel that Apple said went toe-to-toe with reference monitors used in Hollywood. At a starting price of $4,999 — without a stand — it was far from what most Mac users could justify.

Apple said the Pro Display XDR was a serious tool for serious work, but it was just plain overkill for most.

The 27-inch Studio Display houses a 5K panel in a new design that takes its cues from the Apple’s current design language. While its name is an old one, it really feels like a successor to the Thunderbolt Display more than anything else. While notably more expensive, it offers a similar docking experience that notebook users were first treated to over a decade ago.

Studio Display

While the XDR is just too much … everything… for most people, the Studio Display is a much better fit. Many think it is too expensive at $1,599, and that’s probably true, especially given that the panel itself isn’t anything all that special anymore.

I’m willing to sit those things aside and just be glad Apple is back in the display business. It has a rich history of making good products in the space, and I hope there are many more to come in the future.

  1. At the same time, the CRT-based Studio Display was given one last overhaul, but the full history of Apple’s CRT line is a story for another time.