A Desktop Monitor For 2025

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This post is an extension of a rant thread1 I wrote recently.

All I want is a monitor that looks good next to my 14" M1 MacBook Pro. Is that too much to ask? Apple has taken the quality of MacBook displays seriously for as long as I can remember, which for me goes back to the first unibody designs. Soon after that, Apple was the first company brave enough to ship a notebook computer with a truly dense display, and then a few months ago, Apple introduced the first production tandem OLED display in the M4 iPad Pro, with the purpose of solving the OLED brightness issue. It has a new set of flaws and tradeoffs, as do all display technologies, but it serves as clear evidence of Apple’s commitment to good displays. Despite the obvious passion engineers at Apple have for display technology, they have not demonstrated the same commitment in their desktop displays, or at least been unable to do so for corporate strategy reasons. What I want is an external display that stands shoulder to shoulder with the MacBook it’s connected to. For me, Apple made all of the right trade offs in the MacBook Pro display, and so I use it as my benchmark for the ideal desktop monitor. I know it is possible with today’s display technologies. I know I’m not the only person who cares about this stuff, and I know I’m not the only one willing to pay for it. Hear me out.

# My demands

An ideal monitor meets ALL of these requirements, or comes very close:

- 27-inch (16:9) or ultrawide equivalent
- 10-bit, glossy
- >= 160 ppi, (i.e., 4K or greater)
- 120Hz or 144Hz, more is overkill
- Better than average office display response times
- 400 nits BARE minimum, 600 nits (actual)
- Looks like a MacBook display side-by-side
- Not more expensive than a Studio Display

I don’t feel like my use cases are weird: programming, web browsing, some videos, some photo editing, occasional gaming on weekends. I work from home as a programmer. MacBooks are comfortable programming machines for millions of developers. The recipe works.

For reference, these are the display specifications of a 14" M3 MacBook Pro (2023).

The primary technical trade off in the MacBook Pro is the very poor response times, which is strange for a high refresh rate monitor. It’s most noticeable in gaming, admittedly rare for me on a MacBook. There may have been some improvements since the first model, which is slightly less bright than current models, but not major. For the things I do on it, it feels so much better than a 60Hz display with better response times. 60Hz displays almost feel broken to me now.

## Size and resolution

These are the most common large monitor resolutions you can buy today:

Many 1080p displays are still sold, for some reason.

Apple and LG have made a few exceptional high DPI displays as well:

Mobile displays come in so many more exotic resolutions and densities. Why not desktop displays? Ultrawide monitors generally have low refresh rates and the same pixel pitch as 16:9 panels. I imagine it’s unlikely that my requirements will be met by an ultrawide, because of bandwidth issues. I don’t mind using them though.

## Refresh rate

If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you have read Dan Luu’s popular post on input lag2. In it he shows that all modern computers have slower response times than old 8-bit computers from the 70s and 80s. Only recently, with the popularity of high refresh rate monitors meant for gaming, has the gap started to close. I highly recommend reading it to see where all of the places input lag is introduced in modern computing.

Dan’s post is a little out of date at this point, as it does not include recent OLED monitors with even higher refresh rates and much, much lower pixel response times. It also does not include tests for Apple’s 120Hz “ProMotion” displays found in recent Macs. I suspect they would not fare well in raw end-to-end latency in all scenarios, though.

It seems high refresh rate monitors are mostly targeted at the gaming market. The only exceptions I am aware of are MacBook displays and the recently announced Framework 120Hz high density upgrade panel3. Any other panel with a refresh rate above 75Hz (which is a barely noticeable improvement over 60Hz, by the way) is strictly marketed to gamers, and makes compromises in other areas. 120Hz is a fantastic jump over 60Hz. 144Hz only feels slightly better. 240Hz is noticeably smoother than 120Hz, but only in gaming. I haven’t personally tried anything faster than that, so I’ll settle for 120Hz as the baseline for the ideal monitor.

## Brightness, contrast, and colour

400 nits, bare minimum. Blacks appear darker and colours appear more vibrant on glossy displays, preferably behind actual glass. That’s all. IPS is really good and can get really bright. OLED panels struggle with brightness, TN panels are bad at everything, and VA panels have awful contrast. Apple made the only choice they could for their bigger displays.

## Desktop utility

Dell is excellent for this with their office monitors. Most of them include a functional KVM hub with plenty of USB ports, and sometimes even an Ethernet port that keeps both machines attached to the monitor connected to the network at the same time, no matter which one is active. Like Apple, Dell monitors always have a built-in power supply. It’s really nice for cable management to get that bulky brick off the floor or cable tray.

Power delivery over USB-C is a must for MacBooks, and it’s great to have in a pinch to charge other devices.

KVM is tricky to do well, and I’m pretty sure that’s why Apple decided not to include more than a single input in the Studio Display and Pro Display XDR. Cheeky. A good solution is going to involve software on all connected machines, and the main reason for me to use KVM is to switch between my work Mac, personal Mac, and desktop PC. The Macs I switch with the cable, but I’m not willing to crawl under my desk to plug and unplug my monitor.

# Existing contenders

Here’s what I’ve tried and ruled out, so far. There are a lot of monitors out there, most of them matte. As you’ll see in the Dell section, reviews from sites like RTINGS have limited utility for predicting how the monitor will actually look on my desk.

## Apple Studio Display

It’s brutally expensive, it’s beautiful, it’s quite bright, and it has bad deal breakers. It only has a single monitor input, and it only goes up to 60Hz. Those together are disqualifying. If it went up to 120Hz, I’d have put up with swapping cables or an external KVM switcher. I believe it also has pretty bad input lag. I don’t have much else to say besides that I hope Apple refreshes it some day soon with a faster panel. 5K would be really nice to have.

## Dough Spectrum One

DO NOT BUY the monitor described in this section from Dough (formerly Eve). The company is as sketchy as they get. They have an ongoing4 history5 of fraudulent business practices6. In my PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, I was not able to make warranty claims for the two monitors I bought during the 1 year warranty period. PLEASE DO NOT SPEND YOUR MONEY ON DOUGH PRODUCTS. I deeply regret doing so myself.

I feel the need for such a harsh warning up front because, on paper, and when it decides to work, the Dough Spectrum is somehow still the best answer to my demands currently on the market, AND it’s priced competitively. I am reluctant to mention the price or even link to the product listing here because of the risk that I may sell a monitor for them, which is something I truly cannot endorse.

Here are the specs for the ES07DCA I current have on my desk. The product currently sold as the Dough Spectrum One is essentially identical. They are not transparent about the differences, if there are any. The constant rebrandings and product relabelings should be a bright red flag to stay away from this company on their own.

It’s a great looking monitor. The black enclosure is solid and sleek. The bezels are only 5mm on the top and sides, around 10mm on the bottom. It has a standard 100mm VESA mount, which is handy, because the (also very solid stand) is sold separately. Sounding good so far, right?

As mentioned in the warning, I bought two of these monitors together in 2022, which I ended up waiting 13 months for. The wait was so long that I asked around the 10 month mark to cancel my order, which they did. However I did not get a refund. I should have immediately gone for a chargeback, which was a big mistake on my part. By the time I realized I was not going to get a refund, it was too late to do a chargeback through my bank because more than a year has elapsed. After being lied to for months by Eve support about the status of my refund, I requested they re-open my order, which to their credit, I did eventually get a few months later.

The first monitor had half of its backlight fail after two weeks. I was unable to get a return label, nor did I trust that if I shipped it back to them that I would get a refund given the recent experience of asking for a refund. It sat in the box for a year and I sold it very cheap locally to someone who wanted to try to repair it. I don’t know if they were successful, so I consider it to be e-waste.

The second monitor is flaky, but works most of the time. It has a black dead pixel in the upper middle section of the display. The edges of the screen have noticeable backlight bleed, especially at the bottom. This has worsened over time. The most frustrating issue is random display connectivity drops, which seem to occur with long screen-on time on warmer days, always during an important Zoom call. Summers here regularly hit 30 °C (86 °F), which is hot, sure, but really not that hot. I also have a small air conditioner, so we’re talking ambient room temps around 25 °C at worst. Nothing crazy at all. There have been other times that I can’t associate with temperature that the monitor doesn’t show an image when connected to any input. The only fix for that is not to power the monitor off, no, but to completely unplug from the wall for about a minute so the capacitors drain. It usually works after that stupid process.

It also happens to take a really long time to wake from sleep, which keeps me on my toes wondering if it finally died like the first one. It’s also very slow to switch between KVM inputs. When powering on cold, it takes a solid 45 seconds to get a picture. Ridiculous.

If a reputable brand like LG or Dell sold a monitor with the same LG panel Dough uses in the Spectrum I would not have written this post. I do not know why Dough is the only company that makes a bright, glossy IPS, 144Hz monitor. I would love to have the opportunity to ask product managers at big monitor manufacturers why this cannot be done, because I really do not get it.


## Gamer OLED monitors

They’re really expensive and they just don’t get bright enough. Most top out around 250 nits. Even though they usually come with a glossy finish, they do not look good next to a MacBook, even after a lot of calibration.

I recently bought and returned a Dell Alienware 32” 4K QD-OLED AW3225QF. I figured the high price and semi-glossy OLED panel would make up for it.

For the price it has too many compromises. The low peak brightness makes it look washed out next to a MacBook Pro and my Dough Spectrum (when it works). The input lag is the lowest I have ever experienced on any monitor, which is what it’s meant for. Its 240Hz feels fantastic, but it could only do 120Hz when plugged into my MacBook. My Dough Spectrum can do 144Hz over USB-C, for some reason. I also really do not like the anxiety of pixel burn in. Every few minutes, this particular Dell monitor shifts the display contents by a pixel in a random direction. It’s jarring when you’re staring at code, or doing pixel peeping in Figma. It’s a compromise, like increased input lag and ghosting is on a MacBook.

RTINGS rates it very highly for creators, so I guess it’s technically very colour accurate. It’s just really dim, almost like the displays Lenovo used to put in ThinkPads7. To my eye, I was shocked at how bad it looked. It felt more like VA or TN panel. It was washed out. It didn’t feel vibrant like the other experiences I have with OLED screens, like LG’s awesome OLED TVs, or my iPhone. It was a really disappointing experience. I’m really grateful I could trust that Dell would accept a return, which was easy. I didn’t have to speak to anybody on the phone, no email volleys, just a Purolator return label and a quick trip to the depot. You will not get this experience with Dough past the short return windows of their resellers like Newegg and B&H.

## Conclusion

Better is possible. Dough gave us a good recipe with ingredients we already have today. With patience, new display technologies could trickle down from high end TVs, or up from smartphones. Desktop monitors are stuck in this awkward middle spot where little to no innovation seems to happen. 60Hz desktop displays are still extremely common, but phones and TVs have had 120Hz panels for a decade now. Some laptops are starting to get good panels, and OLED monitors are getting pretty common too. I have hope that micro-LED displays and advancements to OLED tech will help out here, but for now, I’ll settle for a Spectrum with a Dell logo on it that comes with a fucking warranty. Seriously, do not buy Dough.

  1. The Mastodon thread that inspired this post: https://hachyderm.io/@ddl/112584091556177153 ↩︎

  2. Computer Latency: 1977-2017: https://danluu.com/input-lag/ ↩︎

  3. Framework | Display Kit: https://frame.work/ca/en/products/display-kit?v=FRANJF0001 ↩︎

  4. The Eve V was Eve’s first major product, anounced in 2014. Some units did eventually ship in 2017, but there are still people waiting for a refund to this day. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eve_V ↩︎

  5. The Eve V subreddit, still active: https://www.reddit.com/r/evev/ ↩︎

  6. A collection of stories similar to my own about Eve/Dough: https://www.doughscam.com/ ↩︎

  7. My 2020 piece in a similar format about ThinkPads: posts/thinkpad-2020 ↩︎