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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

That question again: iMac or external display?

Some questions are perennials. This week on Upgrade we answered a question from a listener:

With the increasing suspicion that Apple is readying a new, more affordable external display for Mac users comes the revival of a classic conundrum. Which would you rather have—an iMac, or an external display attached to a separate Mac?

I’ve been on both sides of this question. I’ve had an iMac has my primary computer a few times, including for the last seven-plus years. But before that, I spent an awful long time with a MacBook Air as my primary Mac, attaching it to an external display at one or both ends of my commute.

It’s a tricky one. For some people, the answer will be clear. For others, it will be fraught with indecision. One reason some questions are perennials is because there’s no one right answer for everyone.

Price tags

A new Apple external display isn’t going to be cheap. Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman says the price will be about half that of Apple’s Pro Display XDR, so let’s call it $2500. (Yeah, I know it hurts.)

What will a new 27-inch iMac cost? Undoubtedly Apple will offer a base model at a low price to start the conversation, but most people will want to upgrade the storage, memory, and core count. For the sake of argument, let’s set this better-than-average iMac at $3000.

If you already own a laptop, you’re set. Buy the new display, attach the laptop, you’re done.

But if you don’t? Or if your laptop is old or underpowered? You’ll need to spend $2500 on the screen and then spend $1000 (for a “pro” Mac mini or a MacBook Air) or $2000+ (for a MacBook Pro) or… a lot more for a Mac Pro.

At which point you may say to yourself, “Maybe an iMac isn’t such a bad idea.” $3000 out the door for an iMac Pro? Plus you’ve still got your current laptop? Not a bad deal, at least to start.

A display for the ages

The thing about the iMac is, it’s a computer and display in one. Setting aside hacks that let you sort of use an old iMac as a display—and they’re really not good enough!—once your iMac is done as a computer, the display is done too. It feels wasteful, and there’s no getting around that.

So the real savings you get by going the external display route is deferred—because the next time you want to buy a faster, newer computer, you can keep your display. This would be a more powerful argument if it weren’t for the fact that the cost of a standalone Apple display and the cost of a full-fledged, powerful Mac attached to the same display panel are generally… not that different? If the Apple display is $1000 and the iMac is $2500, it’s a different story than if they’re priced at $2500 and $3000, respectively.

Still, there’s overall long-term savings and reduction in waste—so long as you keep your display for a long time. And while display technology definitely advances, I don’t think it advances as quickly or as dramatically as computer technology advances. Oh, sure, there are probably brighter screens coming with extended dynamic range and mind-blowing color gamuts and who knows what else, but now that we’ve crossed the Retina divide I feel that it’s unlikely you’ll buy a standalone external display and want to dump it three years later. Even if it’s not cutting edge, it’s likely to be good enough for the long haul.

In the end, these are the same issues I was grappling with 15 years ago. It feels better to invest in an external display and cycle two or three (or more!) computers through it. And there will be some savings over time. But is it enough to make the initial outlay worth it?

It’s a lifestyle choice

Like I said at the start, there’s no one right answer. I think it all comes down to what kind of a user you are.

In the fall of 2020, I bought an M1 MacBook Air. My previous MacBook Air was the one I walked out of IDG with1 in 2014. It was showing its age, and I had stopped traveling with it unless I absolutely needed to have a Mac around. But with the new MacBook Air in the mix, I started traveling with it, and using it occasionally around the house. What that experience brought back to me is something I’d forgotten during all the years of using an iMac and an iPad:

Using two Macs sucks.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated. And today, thanks to iCloud and Dropbox and all sorts of other in-the-cloud services, it’s much easier to use two Macs than it was the last time I did it.

But still… it’s not great. Keeping track of files. Updating apps. Keeping macros in sync. Signing back into apps and websites that have timed out. Moving around licenses for apps that can only be used in one place. None of it is impossible to overcome—but there are often a bunch of little nagging things that you have to work on in order to get Computer B to behave in the same way you’ve trained Computer A.

You know what solves this problem? Using one Mac. And if your two Macs are a desktop and a laptop, that is the single best reason to buy an external display. For years, my laptop was my only Mac, and when I was at work, it was attached to a nice, big, bright Apple Thunderbolt Display, external keyboard, and external trackpad. And when I unhooked that tiny laptop and brought it home… it was still my only Mac and did everything exactly as I expected it to.

Using a laptop as your primary computer isn’t for everyone. Though I have to say, when I consider the power of the new Apple silicon-based MacBook Pro, I wonder how many people don’t fall into this category? Even my little M1 MacBook Air is faster than my iMac Pro in numerous (but not all) ways. And Apple silicon Macs seem to be a lot better at running in docked, lid-closed mode than the old Intel models did.

(Speaking of needing power, of course there’s one other clear user base who undeniably should buy an Apple external display: Mac Pro users.)

Fear the future, or embrace the iMac

As for me? I do most of my work at my desk, and certainly most of my intensive Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro work happens there. The M1 MacBook Air is a nice travel machine, but I’d prefer something more powerful on my desk. Maybe I could hand down my MacBook Air to a family member and pick up a MacBook Pro… or maybe I could just invest in another souped-up iMac with a gorgeous display and use it for the next four or five years.

But even as I feel like I’ve reached a solid answer, I feel doubt creep in. To original Ask Upgrade questioner Kiran’s point: We’re still in the earliest days of Apple silicon. Will the next few years offer so many new innovations on the Mac that hanging on to an M1-based Mac for a few years would be a terrible idea? If I’m anticipating buying a new Mac every couple of years for a little while, maybe an external display is a better option.

It goes on and on and on. I fully expect to buy an iMac Pro when Apple makes it available, and give the Apple external display a pass. And yet, if you told me that by the end of the year I’d be using an external display with a docked MacBook Pro, or a Mac Pro, or even a Mac mini, I wouldn’t be too surprised.

It’s tricky. Some questions are perennials.

  1. Relax—they gave it to me. 

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