Apple Studio Display was easy on the eyes, hard on the back

apple studio display 21 inch primary
Christopher Phin

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It’s a testament to how adaptable we are that I’d forgotten exactly, specifically what the experience of using a big, old-fashioned CRT was; like you, in all likelihood, I’ve been using flat, slim LCD panels for a decade or so, and though I’d been using CRTs for just as long before that, I only remembered the experience in the abstract.

I picked up a 21-inch Apple Studio Display from eBay over the weekend, and when I say I picked it up, the actual picking wasn’t accomplished without much effort and colorful language on my part. I strained to lift the thing from the seller’s van to my car, and had to rest three times when carrying it from the car into my flat. Admittedly, the lifestyle of your average technology journalist rarely produces conspicuous upper body strength, but by any objective measure, this thing is heavy. It weighs 77 pounds, and to put that in context, that’s about the average weight of an 11-year-old.

But, see, even reading that, I’d think “pff; that sounds fine!” It’s only when you try to grapple with it—or, having failed to secure it properly the first time round, when it starts to slide with the kind of crashing inevitability of a locomotive through from the trunk of the car when you break heavily—that you can internalize what an awkwardly shaped 77 pounds actually feels like. I remember the AppleVision 1710 I had at university was heavy—not least because it was dutifully carried to my dorm at the start of every term, and laboriously taken home at its end—but this behemoth really is at the limit of what normal person could manage. (Naturally, the manual recommends two people lift it.)

apple studio display 21 inch 01 Christopher Phin

And man, is it deep! Once it’s set up and you’re sitting in front of it, it really doesn’t seem notably bulky. Sure, the bezel is thick, and yes, its big, stocky feet hint that it’s heavy, but you don’t appreciate how much sheer mass there is stretching away into the distance behind the nice, big screen you’re working at. Even if you want to tilt it or adjust the angle, the pivoting connection to the stand just feels like it’s stiff, rather than it feeling like you’re manhandling a huge chunk of glass, metal and plastic. It is, though, hugely deep; I know it’s a silly comparison to draw, but it’s still fun to note that you could stack fully 42 of the new MacBooks in the 21.7 inches of space between the front of the screen and the back of the enclosure.

We do just forget that these hulking great monsters squatted on desks at the turn of the century, sucking up power and making even the biggest workspace seem crowded. My wife took quite some convincing that this was exactly what the displays were like in the computer suite of the art school where we met. That this used to be normal.

The thing I was really fascinated to find out, though, was if the display itself was as I remembered it. The first time I saw an LCD, it looked completely weird and alien. It wasn’t just the flatness of the screen, although that was still a novelty, but there was something peculiarly inert and soulless about the image. Sure enough, when I connected the old CRT to my MacBook Pro and started it up, I got the opposite feeling.

LCDs, of course, are basically a flawless grid of pixels, and so long as you feed them a digital signal at their native resolution, every theoretical pixel that your Mac is passing to it slots perfectly into the actual pixel its meant for. Not so with CRTs; although there are optimal resolutions, there’s just a blank, smooth surface behind the screen that lights up when excited by a stream of electrons fired at it by a gun at the back. There’s no predetermined grid, and the result is a gloriously analogue one. The image is slightly distorted—bending, bowing and warping, especially at the edges—and if you look closely, you can see soft misregistration as the colors smear a little.

To eyes now completely used to flat-panel displays, it’s hard to escape the impression that you’re not really looking at your computer. For one thing, the image looks very definitely like it’s trapped behind glass rather than being on the surface, as it would appear on an LCD, but it’s also true that the very analogness of it makes it feel like you’re looking at your computer through some mediating, interloping hardware like a telescope. Do you remember the Light Boy, a slide-on magnifying lens you could get for the original Game Boy? That’s the effect I’m getting here.

For example, here’s a screenshot of me writing this in OS 9, which, if you’re reading on an LCD, will show that OS’s crisp, rectilinear lines.

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And by comparison, here’s a photo of roughly the same area shown on my Apple Studio Display.

apple studio display 21 inch 03 Christopher Phin

Let’s get in even closer, and note that in this picture this camera is correctly focussed, though it might not seem it.

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I love mashing old and new together, so here’s Yosemite running on the CRT.

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Note that this particular model can only be adjusted using a Mac with the correct drivers installed, connected to it over USB—even the brightness and contrast buttons on its face do nothing otherwise—so that’s one of the reasons the image is going off the screen above.

apple studio display 21 inch 06 Christopher Phin

apple studio display 21 inch 07 Christopher Phin

I’d also forgotten—until iMore’s Peter Cohen reminded me just before the display did it—about how monitors like this would spontaneously degauss, a process that would clear discoloration and corruption in the image. There’s a deep resonant thunking hum, and the image on the screen bounces bigger and shrinks back to its usual size—which only reinforces the analogness of this grand old dame. She crackles and fizzes with static as she turns on and off, and gets warm as you use her. And even though I’d have remembered this if you’d prompted me, I’d forgotten about how the image fades in on a CRT when first switched on.

(Ignore the flickering in the video above; that’s just a symptom of filming it, and doesn’t actually happen in real life.)

If you look closely, too, you can see the two damping wires running across the screen. This display is a Trinitron, Sony’s name for its implementation of the technically superior aperture grille technology, which used a system of fine vertical wires to separate the red, green and blue colors which make up the image; these wires could vibrate in sympathetic resonance with nearby loud noises, so a wire—or in the case of this bigger display, two wires—were run perpendicular to them to stop this effect causing shimmering and color shifts. You can just make out the wires if you look closely.

apple studio display 21 inch 08 Christopher Phin

It’s worth remembering that even though this screen might look primitive today, when LCDs were first introduced, they produced images that were far inferior. For a long time—indeed, to this day in some cases, though by now it’s more habit and contrariness for some!—imaging professionals continued to use big CRTs like this even after the general public made the jump to LCD, since not only did they have better colors and wider viewing angles, but could be more easily calibrated. Indeed, color accuracy was a big selling point of this model. From Apple’s brochure: “Using a patented internal measurement system, the monitor adjusts its electron beam as time passes to maintain the precise calibrations made at the factory. It can also compensate for changes in the ambient light.”

apple studio display 21 inch 09 Christopher Phin

I have to say, it’s amazing how quickly you readjust to finding a CRT’s now-alien appearance completely normal. What’s more, because it’s the resolution that works best out of my MacBook Pro, I’ve had it set to 1152×870 in the few days I’ve been using it, which, on a 21-inch screen, results in huge text and UI—I’m concerned by how much I like its easy legibility, since I’m only 35!

Do you remember these massive displays? Do you miss them, or are you glad they’re history? Share your stories in the comments below!

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