Driving a 5K Apple Display


Technology seems to be conspiring against an Apple 5K Display. So, how could the company ship one anyway?

There have been rumors about Apple working on an updated Thunderbolt display since the iMac got its new, sleeker redesign in 2012. Most recently, 4K versions that never shipped and, following the Retina iMac introduction in 2014, and again following the DCI-P3 iMac in 2015, a 5K, wide-gamut version that was only waiting on DisplayPort 1.3. So far, though, that’s all we’ve gotten: rumors.

Now, as WWDC 2013 approaches, we’re getting them again. But with Thunderbolt 3 punting on DisplayPort 1.3, it’s unclear if or how Apple could connect such a display.

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

A 27-inch standalone retina display will be a genuine finally. If they announce it at WWDC, the crowd will go nuts. But just how they’ll drive it is a fascinating question. Using two Thunderbolt cables would be clunky. Maybe one cable that forks into two Thunderbolt adapters at the end?

There seems to be a few ways Apple could go:

  1. Ditch 5K and ship 4K instead. In addition to the 27-inch 5K iMac, Apple already ships a 21.5-inch 4K iMac. That feels too small for a standalone Apple display, though, and stretching 4K to 27-inches feels like a show-stopper.

  2. Ditch the dream of Single-Stream Transport (SST), for now, and resort to Multi-Stream Transport (MST), using some type of dual-link cable, like Gruber mentions.

  3. Ditch the idea of shipping with Intel’s current Skylake or next-generation Kaby Lake chipsets and wait for the next-next generation Cannon Lake, theoretically coming in late 2017, and its supposed DisplayPort 1.3 SST support.

  4. Ditch Thunderbolt 3 and its meager DisplayPort 1.2 support for an Apple-specific cable that can handle DisplayPort 1.3 or greater now.

Dual-link is certainly a pragmatic solution, even if the idea of splitting the cable and stitching the output seems inelegant. At least it feels better than ditching 5K and shipping 4K instead.

To support 5K internally on the iMac, instead of waiting on the industry Apple made its own, custom Timing Controller (TC). So, a custom split cable to support it externally wouldn’t be that far-fetched.

It wouldn’t be as far-fetched as Apple sacrificing a Thunderbolt 3 port at the back left of the upcoming MacBook Pro, or on the back of the upcoming Mac Pro, and going with something custom that does support DisplayPort 1.3 or similar bandwidth. Minimum.

In a perfect world, Apple could do that while maintaining some amount of backward compatibility with the TB 3-supported DP 1.2. Even if they couldn’t though — complete pie-in-the-sky, flight-of-fancy, short-term-thinking, terrible-idea — I’d be okay with it.

Thunderbolt and Intel feel like they’ve lost a step lately, and Apple’s uniquely positioned to charge ahead.

If you’ve been waiting on an updated Apple Display, which way would you like to see the company go?

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