For several years, I’ve used a 20" iMac at work — one of the older model, plastic shell models, which was the first of the iMacs to have an Intel chip. It has served me well, but it’s starting to get rather long in the tooth. It’s slow, a bit unreliable, and cannot be persuaded to run Mountain Lion. Since I already had a MacBook Air 11" that I used for my portable computing needs, I thought that I might was well switch over to that as my full-time computer: it’s easily fast and powerful enough.
However, one thing I missed was having a large screen, particularly when working on documents (which is most of my work). The 20" screen of the iMac was certainly better than the Air’s 11" display, but a slightly larger screen would allow me to open two document windows side-by-side, and still be able to see the text clearly. I hadn’t tried connecting my MacBook Air to an external screen for work1, so I borrowed an ancient, unused (and tiny) LCD screen from a colleague to try it out. I wanted to make sure that connecting and disconnecting the screen wouldn’t get irritating after a while. The resolution and colour fidelity of this borrowed screen was absolutely dire, but it was enough to convince me that the setup would work well with a better external monitor.
I did a fair bit of research trying to find a good, but reasonably priced, 24" monitor. I love Apple’s Thunderbolt Displays, but while they may be superb quality and have convenient, all-in-one connectors for MacBooks, they are ruinously expensive. I also didn’t really need a 27" display: 24" would be plenty.
After a lot of searching, the Dell Ultrasharp U2412M seemed to have very good reviews, and a good balance of features to price. It’s an IPS panel with an LED backlight, and extremely sharp (as the name suggests). It’s a 16:10 ratio, which actually works rather better than the standard 16:9 widescreen for working with documents as you get more lines of text on the screen. In some ways, it’s fairly basic: it doesn’t have built-in speakers or an HDMI connection, so if you wanted to use it in a home multi-media setup, it wouldn’t be ideal. However, it does have a built-in USB hub and — more importantly for me — it has a DisplayPort connector. This meant that I could buy a cheap DisplayPort to mini DisplayPort cable and connect my Air directly. So when I connect or disconnect it, I only have to worry about 3 cables: the power adapter for the Air, the mini DisplayPort cable and the USB from the built-in hub, and I can leave all my peripherals plugged in to the display itself. That’s only one more cable than if I was using a Thunderbolt display.
The quality of the screen itself is superb. It’s very bright, evenly lit, absolutely no dead or stuck pixels, and it has an excellent range of viewing angles. The video output from the Air displays perfectly, and I can use it with the Air closed (in ‘clamshell’ mode) which is convenient. The matte surface gives a slightly different feel compared to the built-in display of the Air or the glass screen of the iMac, but it’s accurate and very comfortable to use in the lighting conditions of my office. It also adjusts vertically easily, as well as having adjustable tilt, so it’s simple to get it set up ergonomically. Using it connected to my Air with an external keyboard (my HHKB, obviously) and mouse feels magical. The 11" MacBook Air is such a tiny, razor blade of a laptop that it seems extraordinary that such a gloriously large visual display can come out of a sliver of aluminium. I mean, I know how it works, but it still seems magical.
If you’re in the market for a reasonably priced external monitor, I think that you can’t go far wrong with the Dell Ultrasharp. The plastic body is in no way up to the build quality of Apple’s products, but it’s solid enough and visually very low key. The display itself is superb, and it has enough features for me. At some point, I might get a cheap pair of external speakers, because I find that audio is a bit muffled since I keep my Air in clamshell mode and the display has no speakers of its own. I’ll also have to use the iSight camera and microphone of the Air itself when I want to Skype, but that doesn’t happen often enough to be a big problem, and I only need to flip up the lid of the laptop to use it anyway. Given that I could buy four of these displays for the price of one Thunderbolt display and have some change left over, I think I can live with that trade-off.
Though I connect it to external projectors all the time for lectures and seminars. ↩︎