Earlier this week, Apple announced a handful of new devices: the new iPad Pro, AirTags, and a redesigned iMac that comes in a rainbow of colors. And while I appreciate all the new tech that Apple has crammed into the new iMac, I can’t help but feel like the device I really wanted Apple to announce is a more affordable version of its Pro Display XDR.
Apple had a long history of making its own desktop monitors, including the Apple Thunderbolt Display from 2011, a big family of Cinema Displays, and even the 15-inch Apple Studio Display from way back in 1998. And while Apple did team up with LG to help design LG’s UltraFine monitors after Apple stopped making its own displays in 2016, following the launch of Apple’s super expensive $5,000 Pro Display XDR, the recent death of the iMac Pro, and the arrival of the M1 Mac Mini last fall, it feels like there’s a big hole in Apple’s lineup that the new iMac doesn’t totally fill.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any particular major grievances about new iMac itself. The addition of more powerful speakers, an upgraded webcam, and a 4.5K display all in a sleek new chassis combine to make an enticing system for people working or learning from home. The bigger issue is all the limitations of an all-in-one PC design.
The system’s display and its guts are pretty much tied to each other for life and rather difficult to upgrade, especially with most of Apple’s M1-equipped devices featuring RAM and storage that are soldered onto the logic board. This is potentially an issue for someone who likes the new iMac’s design, but wants a display that’s bigger (or smaller) than 24 inches.
But an even bigger concern is that internal components like CPUs, GPUs, and storage tend to age faster than displays. While it’s always good to try to run gadgets into the ground before buying a new one, most people tend to replace computers after four or five years, at which point a system’s performance might not feel quite as snappy as once it did when it was new. The problem is that a good display can easily last a decade, assuming you can resist the temptation of replacing it with the latest hot new panel during that time.
For example, at the end of 2020, more than 10 years after purchasing it during college, I finally had to replace my 24-inch Dell UltraSharp monitor after its backlight finally died. And even though its image quality wasn’t all that impressive anymore, it was more than good enough to serve as my second monitor for working at home. Unfortunately, with the new iMac and other all-in-one PCs, when you finally decide to replace it, there’s a good chance you’ll be throwing out a perfectly good display just so you can get a new system with speedier guts.
This is an issue inherent with every all-in-one: Their biggest strength—simplicity—is also their biggest weakness. By incorporating all of a traditional desktop PC’s components into a single box, you get a machine that’s super easy to set up. There’s no need to connect a bunch of wires or worry about finding a place to mount a webcam, because everything has already been set up for you. But at the same time, if just one thing breaks or slows down, you might have to replace the entire machine.
The most confounding thing is that Apple actually already makes a device that addresses the iMac’s shortcomings (most of them anyways): the Mac Mini. Starting at $700, the Mac Mini has pretty much the same base specs as a new iMac, including the slightly faster 8-core CPU/8-core GPU M1 chip that comes on the mid-range $1,500 iMac, just without the attached display, speakers and webcam. It’s a great starting place for a home Mac setup, it just needs a sidekick to help it output video.
Adaptability is another weak point for all-in-one machines. For the person who already owns a MacBook but wants a bigger screen for use at home, it simply doesn’t make sense to buy a full desktop like an iMac when you could save a ton of money by purchasing a standalone monitor instead. Sadly, Apple doesn’t really have any options for people in this situation.
That’s because unless you opt for Apple’s super premium $5,000 Pro Display XDR (monitor stand not included), you’re forced to go with a third-party monitor, with the only monitors listed on Apple’s online store being a 24-inch 4K LG UltraFine Display for $700 or a 5K 27-inch LG UltraFine for $1,300. Now obviously you can get a monitor from dozens of other retailers, but for people who don’t like to stray outside of Apple’s ecosystem, pickings are pretty slim.
So what if, in addition to the new iMac, Apple had a line of non-pro monitors with built-in webcams and powerful speakers that you could connect to a Mac Mini with a single USB-C/Thunderbolt cable? It’d be the best of both worlds: a simple and elegant computing solution with added value thanks to Apple’s included components, but with the flexibility of being able to more easily mix and match the kind of monitor that you works for you. It would even avoid the tangle of wires that you often see with traditional desktop setups. Heck, Apple could even do what a lot of enterprise PC makers do and include a mounting bracket for the Mac Mini so you could attach it to the back of your monitor. At least from the front, a setup like this would be just streamlined as an iMac.
Now at this point you might be asking if Apple’s real blunder was halting the production of its in-house display back in 2106, which is a decision that was a real head-scratcher back then, and one that makes even less sense when viewed in context with Apple’s current portfolio. The iMac Pro is dead and the Mac Pro is way too expensive for most people, which leaves the only remaining current-gen desktops in Apple’s lineup the 24-inch iMac or the Mac Mini, which doesn’t have a Robin to help with its duties.
The good news is that with multiple reports claiming that Apple is looking to ramp up production of Apple-designed displays for things like the Apple Watch, the mini-LED Liquid Retina XDR display in the new iPad Pro, and more, Apple could be prepping to show off a new line of more affordable Apple monitors sometime in the not too distant future. But that’s merely speculation.
My one worry is that somewhere deep inside the Apple mothership there’s a bean counter who has crunched some numbers and determined that if Apple released a new line of monitors, the Mac Mini and a new affordable Apple monitor might cannibalize the sales of iMacs.
The cheapest new iMac costs $1,300 compared to just $700 for a base Mac Mini, so any monitor that costs less than $600 could mean less revenue for Apple. However, the alternative is that people continue to buy Mac Minis and simply source displays and other peripherals from other companies, in which case Apple still only gets that original $700. And even with Apple’s typically higher price tags, there’s still a lot of wiggle room for Apple to develop a nice 4K display for between $600 and $700.
To me, this makes the equation rather clear, and I can only hope for the sake of Mac fans that Apple will expand its display offerings sometime soon. Apple made some great monitors in the past, and I’m hoping that someday soon, it will begin offering some more affordable displays again.