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LG UltraFine 5K review: It's good, but it's not Apple

UPDATE: Wi-Fi routers caused disruption of early LG UltraFine 5K displays when placed in close proximity. LG has since fixed the issue and current models should be fine.

When Apple debuted the latest generation MacBook Pro back in October, 2016, they debuted a new 27-inch 5K display along with it. It wasn't just high-density "Retina" quality either, it was wide color, able to show the same DCI-P3 gamut that digital cinema uses. It was everything everyone waiting on a new Mac display had been waiting for. Except for one thing — it was LG designed and branded, not Apple.

That's not to say Apple didn't have a lot to do with the engineering — everything that makes it work so well with a MacBook Pro using just one Thunderbolt 3 cable. But the outside, what we look at, is nothing like Apple.

There are also compromises here. That gorgeous image and convenient charging all in one cable comes at a price — there's precious little bandwidth left for other ports and peripherals.

So, is the display good enough that we shouldn't judge it by its branding, or are the lack of design and expandability deal-breakers? Let's take a look!

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About this review

I didn't get a review unit for the LG UltraFine 5K display. Instead, I ordered two of them the moment they became available. I wanted two so that, initially, I could test the double display set up on my 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 review unit. Long term, though, I'm looking to simplify my computing experience. So, instead of a MacBook or MacBook Pro to travel with and an iMac in my studio, I want to go with a single new MacBook Pro that I plug into an LG UltraFine 5K display on the standing desk in my studio and, for off-hours, into the second display at the standing desk in my living room.

Over the last week I've tested both setups, the latter with both the 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 with traditional function key row (MacBook "Escape") and the 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 with Touch Bar and Touch ID. I made sure I attached everything I needed, including USB cameras, microphones, and drives, and Ethernet networking. I also tested it on the 13-inch MacBook Pro 2014, which can only drive it at 4K.

Yes, all with the requisite replacement cables or dongles.

For people who want:

  • A 5K external display for MacBook Pro.
  • DCI-P3 wide color gamut.
  • Single cable for display and charge.
  • USB-C expansion ports.

Not for people who want:

  • An Apple-designed external display
  • Ultra-wide aspect ratio.
  • Larger than 27-inch display.
  • Legacy Ports.

In brief

The LG UltraFine 5K display is a gorgeous, high density, wide gamut panel enclosed in a somewhat drab, utilitarian case. It can transit 5K at 60 Hz and power all over a single Thunderbolt cable but that leaves only three 5 Gbps USB-C ports for peripherals. In other words, this is not the display Apple aficionados have been waiting for. It's a compromise. Technical limitations means there's not much we can do about the lack of ports but wait for future chipsets. The design, however, was entirely avoidable. It's simply not up to Apple standards.

It does offer a few features Apple wouldn't have, including a stand that can be raised or lowered vertically, not just tilted to adjust angle. LG also includes a VESA mount in the box. Kudos on that. But the stand does not feel as solid as the old Thunderbolt one, nor the tilting mechanism as smooth. It also doesn't match the finish on Apple's current Retina displays.

For those who dislike or simply don't care about Apple's sensibilities, all of the above might be seen as a positive. Most Apple customers, though, do care.

I bought the LG UltraFine 5K display because there simply is no other option from Apple. If there had been, though, I would have bought it in a heartbeat.

LG UlraFine 5K Unboxing

The LG 5K box is thicker than the tapered box Apple uses for the iMac with 5K Retina display. It's more like the boxes LG uses for their television sets, which makes total sense. But it also made for some annoyance.

Opening it up, I found a lot of loose styrofoam, which was annoying because it got everywhere and I had to break out the vacuum cleaner to fully Ghostbuster it back to the hell from which it came.

The display was also covered in what looked like 1960s science fair inspired silver wrapping. It slipped off with only slightly more effort than Apple's typical translucent wrapper. Horrifyingly, to reveal a sticker on the top right corner of the display itself. It was an EnergyStar certification sticker and it came off easily enough. I appreciate the sentiment but, seriously, putting a sticker on a display? Don't. Just. Don't.

Also included in the box was a manual and a VESA mount. That's a great addition by LG, notably because it was something you had to pick exclusively, and prior to purchase, from Apple. There's also a power cable for the display and a Thunderbolt 3 cable for connecting to your MacBook Pro.

All in all, it wasn't an Apple unboxing experience but it was easy enough to unpack and set up.

LG UltraFine 5K Compatibility

Apple announced the LG UltraFine 5K alongside the new, 2016 MacBook Pro, and that's really what it's designed for. Using the 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016, you can drive one 27-inch LG UltraFine display at its full 5K resolution at 60 Hz. Using the 15-inch, you can drive one on each side for a total of two.

You can also use it with an older MacBook Pro but with a few of caveats:

  • You can only drive it at 4K, not the full 5K.
  • You only get sRGB color space, not DCI-P3.
  • You need a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter and a Thunderbolt 2 cable for the connection.
  • You won't get a charge from that cable, so you'll need to plug in power separately.

I tested with that set up using my old 13-inch MacBook Pro 2014 and it worked fine and looked great. It just wasn't as clean or as dense as using it with the new MacBook Pro 2016.

Here's Apple official compatibility list:

5120 x 2880 @ 60Hz

  • MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)

3840 x 2160 @ 60Hz

  • Mac Pro (Late 2013)*
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Mid 2014) and later
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Mid 2014) and later
  • iMac (Retina, 27-inch, Late 2014) and later
  • iMac (Retina, 21.5-inch, Late 2015)
  • iMac (21.5-inch, Late 2015)
  • MacBook Air (13-inch, Early 2015)
  • MacBook Air (11-inch, Early 2015)

3200 x 1800 @ 60Hz

  • Mac mini (Late 2014)*

That asterisk is Apple recommending you not use the LG display as the primary display on a Mac mini or Mac Pro, since it may not light up until after you boot, rendering pre-boot options unusable. Sadness.

Ultimately, it's only worth driving the LG UltraFine 5K off an older Mac if you plan on updating to a new, Thunderbolt 3 Mac fairly soon. Otherwise there are a lot of good alternative displays out there.

LG UltraFine 5K Design

The LG 5K UltraFine Display in many ways is the next-generation Apple Retina 5K Display. Apple worked extensively with LG on the product engineering in order to make sure it "just worked" when you plugged it in. The design, though, is pure LG.


LG 5K (Image credit: iMore)

And it's not great. It's bland and boxy and looks like any of dozens of the other displays crapped onto Best Buy shelves every year. What's especially galling is that LG is capable of much better design than this. Some of their 4K OLED televisions are gorgeous. Not Apple at all, but still incredibly attractive.

That Apple didn't fight for a better design is bedeviling. That LG didn't have enough pride to do it anyway, shameful. Yes, it would have cost more, but Mac displays are a premium product and great design is something people are willing to pay a premium for. Especially when Apple announces it on stage. Leave bland and boxy for the discount displays that inevitably follow along later.

It probably all came down to a business decision on the part of Apple not to design their own display and LG not to better design this display. And that's too bad. The display is the interface to the computer. It's what most of us look at and allowing that critical relationship to fall under LG's flag, and such a utilitarian flag at that, is risky. Halo effects take years of investment in full ranges of products to build. Horn effects take only a few critical missteps to lose.

Of course, some people won't care. Once the display lights up, the big black bezels disappear into the background and all you see is the image on the screens.

It's not all you'll feel, though. The stand does raise and lower, which is something Apple's Thunderbolt displays never did. But the hinge for the tilt just isn't as smooth as Apple's. Likewise, while the stand is satisfyingly heavy, the structure isn't as solid or rigid as Apples.

There's a reason Apple uses bead-blasted aluminum unibodies and glass, after all. And LG didn't use either. They used black plastic and you can both see and feel the difference.

It's not a deal-breaker for me, obviously, but if there had been an Apple alternative, I'd have bought it instead without a moment's hesitation.

LG UltraFine 5K Display

Rumor has it the LG UltraFine 5K display uses the same if not a very similar panel to the iMac with Retina 5K display. To my eyes, though, it isn't as glossy. That'll please those who prefer more matte displays. Personally, though, I find the slight difference distracting and would have preferred if LG had finished it to match the MacBook Pro exactly. It's especially noticeable when looking at both the MacBook Pro and the LG display at an angle.

MacBook Pro with two 5K displays

MacBook Pro with two 5K displays (Image credit: iMore)

If I'm only looking at the LG display, though, I don't notice it at all. I'm absolutely lost, the same way I was in the original iMac 5K display. There's just something about that size. It fills enough of your field of vision, at such a close distance, that it feels like IMAX. Especially when the density is high and the color is deep. It almost feels supra-real.

Since 5K at 27-inches is the same density and size as Apple's iMac, the Retina story remains the same now as it did in late 2015. For comparison's sake, here's what the pixel counts look like for 42mm and 38mm Apple Watch on the left; iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 7, and iPhone SE; iPad 12.9 and iPad 9.7/iPad 7.9 (same pixel counts), MacBook; MacBook Pro 15-inch and 13-inch; and iMac 27-inch and 21.5-inch on the right:

Specific to the 2016 MacBook Pro, here's a side-by-side of the 13-inch, 15-inch, and 27-inch displays:

That covers the resolution, now for the gamut. If you're not familiar with DCI-P3, it gives greater breadth than the older sRGB standard, which means brighter reds, deeper greens, and more luscious oranges and purples.

These days the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, Retina 5K iMac, iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and the new MacBooks Pro all have P3 displays, and if you have any of them, you'll know it's hard to go back. Once you stare at a P3 display for a while, sRGB just looks... duller.

Some people have complained that their LG UltraFine 5K displays came incorrectly calibrated and had to recalibrate them themselves. I didn't have that problem. I know Apple individually calibrates most of their displays these days before they ever leave the factory but I'm not sure if LG does that or not. The two I bought are identically calibrated, though, and to my eyes match the colors of my MacBook Pro.

It's easy to see, because I've got everything running on my studio desk right now. So. Many. Pixels. But the size, density, and color depth are incredible to behold. It's like a high-dynamic range honeymoon that I never want to end.

It's especially great if, like me, you're shooting with iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus. That way, when your photos sync back to the Mac, you get to see them on the big screen in the same spectacular colors you saw them on the small screen.

Speaking of sizes, I know some people would have liked a bigger display. Something along the lines of 30-inches or more. I personally don't like having to move my head or neck around that much when I'm so close, nor do I find the size trade-off worth the loss of density. I just really don't want to see pixels any more.

So, for me, 27-inches is the sweet spot. At normal working distance I can take almost all of it in at a glance and it's dense enough that it crossed the "Retina" barrier and looks like real life.

Of course, there are already 32-inch 8K panels being shown off at CES 2017, so...

Ports and peripherals

The LG UltraFine 5K display appears to have four identical ports on the back. If you look closely, though, there's a difference in how they'r'e labeled. The one on the right has a Thunderbolt 3 icon, and it'll pull 5K at 60 Hz from your MacBook Pro while simultaneously pushing back 85 watts of power. The three ports on the left, though, have USB-C icons, and they're only rated for 5 Gbps.

Getting the display and power through a single cable is a remarkable achievement, especially considering Intel keeps pushing DisplayPort 1,3 — never mind 1,4 — further and further out to the future. But it comes at the expense of other peripherals. You're not getting 4x Thunderbolt 3. You're getting 1x, dedicated to the Mac, and 3x USB-C for the rest.

I'm mostly using USB peripherals so it's not a big deal for me. If you really need higher-performance peripherals, though, you'll need to plug them directly into the Thunderbolt 3 ports on the MacBook Pro itself. And that defeats some of the convenience of having an external display-as-hub.

That's what I'm doing with my podcast headphones, since there's no 3.5mm headphone jack on the LG UltraFine 5K display either. It's a pain, since I was used to just leaving them plugged into my iMac and, before that, Thunderbolt Display. Ideally I'd just use AirPods or Bose QC35 and kiss the wires goodbye, but I'm still Galactica paranoid when it comes to hardlines for video or audio production.

That's why I also use Ethernet. I've got the Belkin USB-C to Ethernet adapter on order but it hasn't come in yet so I'm currently daisy-chaining an old Ethernet adapter to a new USB-C adapter, for the dongle double-down. It's ugly but it works.

I'm also using Apple's USB-A to USB-C adapters for my Logitech web cam and for the USB interface for my Heil XLR microphone. The LG UltraFine 5K display includes a built-in web cam and mic and they're fine for FaceTime or Skype, but not anything I'd use on a podcast or broadcast.

I've used a lot of dongles before. My old Mac Pro had display port extenders, HDMI adapters, FireWire adapters, and who can remember what else. It takes slightly longer and feels slightly sillier setting up, but once it''s done you forget about it.

But you see and enjoy that display every damn day.

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro (Image credit: Rene Ritchie/iMore)

Buyers guide

Not sure which MacBook Pro to get with the LG UltraFine 5K display. Trying to decide between the MacBook Pro and LG display and the iMac with Retina 5K display? Check out our buyers guides!

LG UltraFine 5K Conclusion

I tried the LG 5K UltraFine Display at the Apple event back in October and liked it enough that, when they went on sale in December — and at a discount thanks to Apple's price cuts on all Thunderbolt 3 accessories! – I snapped up two of them.

Short term, I wanted to test how well my 15-inch MacBook Pro review unit could drive both displays at the same time. And the answer is: just fine. I've noticed no obvious slowdown, tearing, stutter, or freezing. It really does just work.

Longer term, I'm going to be living with one at the standing desk in my living room, where I work off-hours, and the other my studio, where I podcast and otherwise work from. Then, the idea is I'll switch my personal 13-inch MacBook Pro between them. I'm hoping that'll once again let me simplify my computing experience, since it's light enough to travel with and powerful enough to do full-on production.

So far, that's worked out just as well. I did have some trouble with the 13-inch MacBook Pro with traditional function key row at first but once I ran software update, it worked fine. The 13-inch MacBook Pro worked fine from the very first time. (I'd already updated it.)

I don't like the LG UltraFine 5K as much as I do the iMac with Retina 5K display. Apple's design is better in many, many ways. I do like that I can easily adjust the vertical height, though. Previously I had to buy and improvise risers.

Ultimately, though, the LG UltraFine 5K is the external display we have, not the one we deserve. The one we deserve would require Apple take back control of the complete experience.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • "So, to me, yes, it matters. I would greatly prefer if this display was in an Apple casing with an Apple logo. But, it not a deal-breaker for me. Obviously." Sure that's not just your vanity being set off?
    How about the White House? What are your feelings about that? :-) "Personally, though, I find the slight difference distracting and would have preferred if LG had finished it to match the MacBook Pro exactly." I could see why YOU would prefer that, but this display will also be used with other brands and models of computers. Last I checked, it's still something like 9:1 when it comes to Mac against the world. In the spirit of the season, let me be generous and say its 8:2. That does not change the point.
  • I'm not sure the ratio of Macs to whatever really has any baring on one's personal preference of the finish of a monitor. He didn't say it should match MacBook Pros, he "Personally" "preferred" a match. Give a guy a break.
  • Just pointing out some of the obstacles to achieving his desires. LG is not Apple, they play with everyone, so they can only accommodate so much.
    Match Apple's finish, HP complains, match HP's, Dell complains. Actually, they likely wouldn't complain. They're not at Apple's level or flavor of narcissism (though they would serve us all better if, in part, they were). "There will be no swimming today, Carlo is using the ocean!" ;-)
    (A true humorous story about Carlo Rubbia, Nobel Prize winning physicist)
  • The LG UltraFine displays are designed to be used exclusively for the Mac. See the packaging and product page on LG's site. So with that said, wishing it took on a more Apple like design is certainly warranted.
  • Okay. Fair enough. Also fair enough that I wouldn't buy it though it would most likely work, unless it's intentionally crippled. Why would LG not want to sell non-Apple users this monitor?
  • "I could see why YOU would prefer that, but this display will also be used with other brands and models of computers." Actually, last I was aware, there is no built-in display interface. It was designed to be used with Mac only, as the Mac has the drivers to adjust brightness etc.
  • Under their software downloads the only thing Mac specific is the screen manager software. The interface is TB3, which several PCs have, including my Dell XPS 13, or can be adapted. This does not seem to be an Apple only minitor. What sense would that make for LG?
  • Oh boy. Between all those dongles hanging off the back, and the thick black bezels, this is definitely not an Apple-like experience anymore. However, if you need a screen with these specs, I guess this is what you have to put up with. Would definitely like to see a comparison with the iMac, because this might be a better way to go if you plan to do a lot of work at your desk.
  • I was thinking, okay, that would make a good second monitor for my iMac... then I saw the price. I could almost have a second iMac for that price! I think I'll wait for the competition to start. Samsung?
  • Here's a list of 5k competitors: They are all priced about the same or higher than this LG. The well-reviewed DELL UP2715K is over $1,500.
  • none of those have P3 color, though. ...It would seem they do not use the LG panel. ...and, I didn't check, but, I don't think any of them have one connection, but, two cables required to drive the 5K resolution, only the LG uses TB3 so it can do everything in one cable (5K resolution/P3 color/audio/mic/camera/charging all go through the one cable).
  • Good points. I was actually arguing the case FOR the LG monitor being a good value. I was solely focused on the 5K-ness of the monitor, not the connectors, but your notes make the LG only look better. Thanks.
  • oh, I knew that, I just wanted to point out the differences. Apple always prefers simplicity/minimalism, one cable that does it all is preferred, even if it means not backward compatible, and that's what they worked on with LG. ...For those other monitors one would need to use two display port connections, so your computer would need two DP outputs to use those monitors at 5K resolution. (or maybe 2 HDMI 2 ports with "not included" cables.) ...They probably didn't even think of using TB3 to drive their monitors.
  • ...those 5K monitors use 2 DisplayPort connections. ...The HP includes 2 DisplayPort cables.
  • Thought it might be worth mentioning this to the group... I have the 4K LG, connected to a MacBook. Have found with much trial-and-error that when connecting or disconnecting the monitor, the MacBook needs to be awake with the lid open. Initially, I would leave the MacBook closed and just plug-in or unplug the USB cable to the monitor and drop the laptop into it's stand. The display on either the monitor or the laptop would be black, and stay black. All that would show thru the black was my dock icons and the mouse cursor. After a few minutes, it'd go back to normal. An Apple tech confirmed his suggestion is to always wake the laptop before connecting an external. Love the monitor by the way , although the MacBook is an expected performance dog :)
  • Mine worked for less then 5 minutes then died. I had a 4K display before that and it wouldn't work when plugged on one side of my late 2016 MBP. Returning the 5K and getting a new unit but I'm not very hopeful at this point. I can't believe Apple left the display business to LG. Such a horrible experience. I guess this is the new Apple under Cook. Profits before user experience.
  • That's horrible! Both of mine have been working fine since I got them.
  • Wouldn't this work with any computer supporting USB C displays? Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • No. "System Requirements
    Operating System: macOS Sierra 10.12.1 or later
    Connection: Thunderbolt 3–enabled Mac"
  • Are you sure? I'm not talking about what's on the box. Does it really not work? If that is correct, it's intentionally crippled. Why not be able to use it on any computer you own with the correct interface. In this case it's TB3. Still, it should work with the correct adapter. Not for charging mind you, but as a monitor.
  • I don't know about other computers but older macs can connect via adapter, but only able to use it at 4K resolution:
  • The OP asked about "...computers that support USB-C displays". That's an odd and unclear phrase, but I took it to mean that the OP wants to connect via USB-C. That is not possible since this is a TB3 display. Your comment is valid however, the "macOS Sierra 10.12.1 or later" requirement is suspect. Why wouldn't this monitor work with any TB3-equipped machine?
  • From what I understand, this monitor has no physical buttons and relies on the controls built into the Mac OS. While it may respond to a video signal coming off a TB3 equipped Windows machine, you may have issues actually trying to use it. I would pick one or more of these up if it was guaranteed to work with my desktop but until that's confirmed I'll wait for something brand agnostic.
  • I can't see why not, it's a monitor at the end of the day
  • "Why not four Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports at full 40 Gbps bandwidth?" Thunderbolt has always been daisy-chain only. That's why every single thunderbolt hub on the market only has two TB ports (one for in and one for out). In a roundabout way, you do pose a good question though. TB3 supports USB speeds at 10/Gbs. Why are the USB-C ports on this monitor only 5/Gbs?! It's like hooking your firewire 800 drive up to a firewire 400 port.
  • Running the 5K display at 60Hz with 10-bits per subpixel is taking almost 25Gb/sec of bandwidth before you add in peripherals. The 5Gb/sec seems to be to give each the same amount of bandwidth from the remaining 15Gb/sec left on the TB3 connection.
  • Twice you compare P3 to "sRGP" — do you mean sRGB? I've never heard of sRGP as a standard, though maybe I am just out of the loop on technologies in Apple displays. Also, is this information verified:
    The reality is this: Apple helped engineer this display to such an extent that LG wrapping and labeling it probably came down to nothing more or less than a business decision. Internally, it's the same or highly similar to the panel in the iMac with Retina 5K and P3 display introduced in October of 2015. Given that LG has a huge display business and expertise, and how closely Apple holds its technologies to its vest, I'm guessing the opposite is true. Apple didn't want to design/sell its own monitors anymore, but didn't want pro users to freak out, so they decided to pay lip service to a partner's product. I doubt it's much more than that. If Apple labored over every detail of the internals, do you really think they'd allow LG to slap their name and a cheap plastic shell on it?
  • Apple is upping the ante with P3 color gamut on all of it's new devices. (P3 color gamut is currently used in movie theaters and is newly available with the new UHD standards for 4K home theater devices). ...I think apple wanted to give their users the same experience as on their products, but, save $ (and keep the price down for us), by working with LG, who makes their displays for the iMac. They also wanted one-cable connection, which is not possible without DisplayPort 1.3, which, has been delayed due to the need for Intel's next gen. CPUs to drive such. So, Apple is bypassing DisplayPort and using the TB3 data path to drive the 5K resolution, since TB3 has 40G available whereas DP1.2 has only 18G available (max. 4K res.).
  • Yes, I'm verifying that Apple expended considerable engineering resources in the development of this display with LG. I would, and I think many at Apple would, have preferred they go the whole way with the design too.
  • Buy the monitor that suits you, its an investment you'll own for as long as your devices will cast video to it. Invest in a good monitor, keyboard, mouse, and audio. Save money elsewhere.
  • Two DisplayPort streams are required to send the full 5K resolution over a single cable. Each stream contains half the display signal and the system merges them into a single image. If a PC can perform the same signal splitting and combining then it will work with the display.
  • Almost got it, for PCs, they have to use two DP cables to drive a 5K monitor for the reason you stated (however, that is not possible in this case, as no way to connect that way). DisplayPort is used to drive up to 4K resolution, as, this iteration of TB3 includes DisplayPort 1.2, DP 1.3 has not been implemented yet, I think it's coming with next generation intel CPUs. Apple has implemented this differently, not sure if it's proprietary, but to use the single TB3 cable connection they are actually using TB3 data signal to drive the 5K LG monitor, (which would explain why no TB3 hub, as it is also the one connection utilizing the built in speakers, camera, mic and USB-C hub, along with providing charging power for the MBP). ...This is why the new MBP 13" w/2 TB3 ports can only drive one 5K or two 4K displays, MPB 13" & 15" w/4 TB3 ports can drive two 5K (one off either side of the MB