First take: The 30-inch Apple Cinema Display

A few years back, Apple Computer touted its hardware and software with the marketing slogan "Think Different." After using the company's latest, greatest and largest Apple Cinema Display (ACD) for the past few weeks, I've come to wonder if maybe that ad campaign has morphed into "Think Big."

That's really all you can think when you see the 30-in. monitor in person. It's big. Huge. Overwhelmingly so. Think sitting in the front row at the local cinema, and you have an idea what it feels like to plop down for the first time in front of this LCD display, which offers a whopping 2,560-by-1,600-pixel resolution.

And then, after you use it for a while, it doesn't seem quite so gargantuan.

First, a little background: Apple officially unveiled the TV-size display (I'll call it the ACD 30) last June, with delivery promised later in the summer at a price of $3,299. But as is often the case with new Apple products, shipping times stretched into the fall. That's in part due to the fact that this display requires a special 256MB video card to operate. Those $599 GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL cards offered by Nvidia Corp. were delayed into the fall as well -- and a quick check at the Apple Store online still shows a three- to five-week shipping time. A second, scaled-down version of the card, the Nvidia GeForce 6800 GT DDL, has been offered since last fall, and it's available now for $499.

So it has only been in the past month or two that the 30-in. display has become somewhat available.

Since its debut at last year's Worldwide Developers Conference, two important things have happened regarding the ACD 30: Apple dropped the price by $300, making it $2,999 (with the 23- and 20-in. displays now going for $1,799 and $999, respectively). And ATI Technologies Inc. announced that later this year it will release the ATI X800 XT, a video card that drives the ACD 30 -- and costs the same as the lesser Nvidia card.

Like all of Apple's LCDs, the ACD 30 uses a standard Digital Video Interface (DVI) connector to hook up to a Power Mac G5 (which is required). It also uses up a FireWire port and a Universal Serial Bus port on the G5, although it offers two of each on the back of the display for peripherals. But first, you'll need to get one of those Nvidia cards and install it inside the G5. This is a five-minute do-it-yourself job, since all you have to do is loosen two screws and slide out whatever card is already there. Slide in the Nvidia card, which is so big it actually takes up two Peripheral Component Interconnect slots, close up the computer, plug in the ACD 30, and behold.

How much bigger is it than Apple's onetime LCD king, the 23-in. model? According to Apple, the new king of the display hill offers 77 percent more screen real estate, with 4 million pixels. It also offers a 170-degree viewing angle from side to side and top to bottom, meaning the image can be viewed from the side just as easily as head-on.

So just who is this larger-than-life LCD display designed for? I had a chance to ask Scott Brodrick, product line manager for displays at Apple, just that question. His response: It's aimed at professional users who need massive screen space for desktop publishing, video and audio work, and of course, graphics.

If you use programs such as Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Final Cut Pro or Logic Pro (for audio mixing) -- basically anything that has a lot of palettes -- this one's for you. In fact, when I viewed Computerworld's content management application on the screen, I was able to see virtually every text field and drop-down menu I needed without having to scroll up and down.

"This 30-in. screen is like having the entire Adobe Creative Suite on-screen at one time," Brodrick said. "It's just more productive to have more real estate to do your work. The more real estate you have, the better."

Equally important is brightness, sharpness and color accuracy. "Our goal is to provide a display which delivers a bright [image] and is very sharp and very crisp and has a color gamut that has the best color viewing that you can provide in a computer," Brodrick said.

That it does. Color saturation to my untrained eye was uniform across the screen, from side to side and top to bottom. Text was razor-sharp, and the brightness was more than abundant. I had to turn it down a notch or two -- even more in the evening when the lights were low.

Brodrick noted that the display has been certified by SWOP Inc. (SWOP stands for Specifications Offset Web Publications.) "We're the first monitor to receive a SWOP certification, which says that the image you're seeing on-screen is a soft proof of what you'll print out with a Web offset printer," he said. "This has been a goal of the display industry for a long time."

The display, like its smaller brethren, offers a pixel response time of 16 milliseconds, which Brodrick said eliminates the ghosting and smearing appearance that can show up in video playback and on-screen motion. "Each of our displays supports that, and [pixel response time] has improved steadily. Our video customers are happy with this technology."

In fact, the display makes for an incredibly good, albeit rather expensive, DVD playback monitor. And given the 30-in. size, you can watch it from across the room.

Brodrick also pointed to the narrow aluminum bezel surrounding the screen, making it easy for high-end users to put two of the monitors side by side. You will, of course, need a workspace with a lot of elbow room. Although the aluminum stand on which the display sits takes up very little space, you'd be looking at a screen combo that's about five feet wide.

"In the video field, we have Final Cut Pro HD, the ultimate video-editing system that allows you to use not one, but two of these displays [with] the idea of using your second display as your preview monitor," Brodrick said. "Rather than having to use a broadcast HD monitor as your preview device, the color space of these monitors and pure digital perfection of the screen allows you to view all of your HD content on [one] screen and use the second monitor as your preview."

All of Apple's displays were designed so they can be mounted on a wall or on an extendable arm. And they can be adjusted up and down from 5 degrees below the horizon to 25 degrees above with just a light touch, Brodrick said.

"The design of the stand allows it to [appear as if it's] suspended in air," he said. "That was something we paid extreme attention to."

Apple also made the base easy to move from left to right. "You would expect you'd want a sticky base, but we made it slide a little bit," Brodrick said. "It gives a little."

In fact, the 30-in. display I've used is remarkably easy to adjust. And while you'd think it would be top-heavy, Brodrick said the aluminum arm and base are integrated into the back of the display in a way that keeps it balanced.

Asked whether Apple has any plans to boost the resolution of its various displays, either the Cinema Displays or those incorporated in its PowerBooks and iBooks, Brodrick said no -- the company is happy where it is right now. The ideal resolution for text, video and graphics, he said, is about 100 pixels per inch.

"I think we've put that issue to rest," he said. "It's a resolution we feel is the optimal resolution for today's systems. Our customers aren't just viewing highly detailed images. They're balancing their books. They're editing movies. They're iChatting. We're trying to strike the right balance. And to go lower than [100 pixels per inch] is not making the best use of the technology."

Brodrick also said Apple has no plans to add TV tuner capabilities. "When you try to design a display that is being used in multiple ways, such as a desktop monitor as well as a television monitor, you're compromising both designs for each of those customers. It doesn't fit in our strategy."

Asked about Apple's decision to return to DVI connectors rather than its proprietary Apple Display Connector (ADC), which incorporated the video signal and power into one cable, Brodrick called it a practical move. DVI allows the displays to be connected easily to Windows-based PCs, as well as to Apple's own PowerBooks -- although they're limited to using the smaller 20- and 23-in. displays. In fact, it was PowerBook users that helped push the company to make the change.

"We wanted a display connector that was simple, direct and provided ease of use, and over the ... years, the popularity of our PowerBook line has grown," he said. "A lot of those customers are interested in attaching the portable to the displays. It's very difficult to put an ADC connector on a portable system. To better support the use of our flat-panel products, we went back to the DVI."

He also welcomed the upcoming ATI X800 XT video card. "We partner very close with Nvidia and ATI throughout our line, so we're of course very happy to have more options for our customers to use to drive our 30-in. monitor."

Indeed, options are a good thing. So if the 20-in. LCD is too small, and the 23-in. model isn't just right, you'd be well advised to take a look at the 30-in. display. It's pricey, but if you really need the real estate or want to have the best and the brightest, the ACD 30 is the best option available.

As for me, I'll soon be returning to my almost-new 20-in. display and sending this ACD 30 back to Apple. Twenty inches never looked so small.

For more enterprise computing news, visit Computerworld.com. Story copyright (c) 2005 Computerworld, Inc. All rights reserved.

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