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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Hands on with Apple’s Studio Display firmware update

Two pictures of Jason

Apple has released both developer and public beta versions of macOS 12.4 that include within them a beta version of the firmware for the Apple Studio Display. This is the first update to the Studio Display firmware since it shipped, and Apple says that it “has refinements to the Studio Display camera tuning, including improved noise reduction, contrast, and framing.”

Since my Studio Display arrived last week and I haven’t yet sent back Apple’s review unit, I’m in the enviable position of having two Studio Displays available for testing. So I updated my display, kept the stock firmware on the review unit, placed them as close as possible to one another to take similar shots, and compared the two.

But first, some observations about the process of updating the Studio Display. After updating to the macOS 12.4 beta and rebooting, the new Studio Display firmware becomes available as an update. Applying this update requires another reboot (and a stealth reboot at the end of that process).

Since the software that runs the display’s webcam is on the display itself, you should see those changes even on Macs not running the latest beta. (This makes sense—Apple would never want a display to suddenly become incompatible with older devices due to a firmware update.) So if you really want to update a display but don’t want your primary Mac to be running a beta, perhaps find another Mac that’s capable of running the update to sacrifice to the cause.

So how does it look? I’ve posted a video on YouTube so you can see for yourself. I’ve placed a few stills from that video below.

In general, I’d say the new firmware generates a better picture. A lot of that is down to the fact that it seems to prefer a wider crop. That’s good, because it means it’s using a larger portion of the Center Stage camera’s 12 megapixel image. More pixels should equate to a better image.

I’m not sure I have figured out how the Center Stage framing algorithm may have been tweaked. An advantage of the new, wider crop that Center Stage seems to prefer is that it requires less panning in general—a slight shift in posture isn’t nearly as dramatic when there’s more room around a face in the frame. In certain circumstances it did appear that framing adjustments were happening later on the new firmware, but in other cases the panning seemed pretty much identical.

two faces

In terms of image quality, beyond having access to extra pixels due to framing, it looks like the camera is being a bit less aggressive when it comes to softening the image and in trying to decrease contrast. In some of the lighting conditions I tested, the dynamic range of the image seemed to be a little wider—highlights weren’t as crushed down, though blacks were still a little more of a gray. Compare it to another Apple webcam like the iMac Pro and you can really see how much less contrast this camera provides.

two faces
With Center Stage turned off, the crop is not as hilariously high.

One other change in this version: Turning off Center Stage provides a lower crop than it did in the previous firmware, which was comically high. This one is more likely to include my entire face in the frame, rather than just the top portion of it. (The image sample above is actually a little unfair to the new firmware; in order to get the two displays to work simultaneously, I had to place the new-firmware display higher above my desk than I normally would.)

So is all forgiven? Not really. Anyone who thought that a firmware update would transform the Center Stage camera into a different camera was probably fooling themselves. This is still a 12 megapixel wide-angle camera that’s being dynamically cropped, and while firmware fixes can definitely improve the image output, there are limits to those changes.

I hope the team at Apple that’s working on this firmware continues that work, because there’s more that can be done to improve things. (I still think the firmware’s insistence on doing rapid, jerky recentering of the image is a mistake, compared to subtler movements like you’d see on television. And the contrast could still be better.) But this firmware release is a definite improvement on what was there last month when the Studio Display shipped.

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