Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 15 Nov 2008

Using (or not) an Apple Cinema Display on a non-Apple

Dave and I recently acquired a lovely trinket from a Mac-using friend: an old 20-inch Apple Cinema Display.

I know what you're thinking (if you're not a Mac user): surely Akkana's not lustful of Apple's vastly overpriced monitors when brand-new monitors that size are selling for under $200!

Indeed, I thought that until fairly recently. But there actually is a reason the Apple Cinema displays cost so much more than seemingly equivalent monitors -- and it's not the color and shape of the bezel.

The difference is that Apple cinema displays are a technology called S-IPS, while normal consumer LCD monitors -- those ones you see at Fry's going for around $200 for a 22-inch 1680x1050 -- are a technology called TN. (There's a third technology in between the two called S-PVA, but it's rare.)

The main differences are color range and viewing angle. The TN monitors can't display full color: they're only 6 bits per channel. They simulate colors outside that range by cycling very rapidly between two similar colors (this is called "dithering" but it's not the usual use of the term). Modern TN monitors are astoundingly fast, so they can do this dithering faster than the eye can follow, but many people say they can still see the color difference. S-IPS monitors show a true 8 bits per color channel.

The viewing angle difference is much easier to see. The published numbers are similar, something like 160 degrees for TN monitors versus 180 degrees for S-IPS, but that doesn't begin to tell the story. Align yourself in front of a TN monitor, so the colors look right. Now stand up, if you're sitting down, or squat down if you're standing. See how the image suddenly goes all inverse-video, like a photographic negative only worse? Try that with an S-IPS monitor, and no matter where you stand, all that happens is that the image gets a little less bright.

(For those wanting more background, read TN Film, MVA, PVA and IPS – Which one's for you?, the articles on TFT Central, and the wikipedia article on LCD technology.)

Now, the comparison isn't entirely one-sided. TN monitors have their advantages too. They're outrageously inexpensive. They're blindingly fast -- gamers like them because they don't leave "ghosts" behind fast-moving images. And they're very power efficient (S-IPS monitors, are only a little better than a CRT). But clearly, if you spend a lot of time editing photos and an S-IPS monitor falls into your possession, it's worth at least trying out.

But how? The old Apple Cinema display has a nonstandard connector, called ADC, which provides video, power and USB1 all at once. It turns out the only adaptor from a PC video card with DVI output (forget about using an older card that supports only VGA) to an ADC monitor is the $99 adaptor from the Apple store. It comes with a power brick and USB plug.

Okay, that's a lot for an adaptor, but it's the only game in town, so off I went to the Apple store, and a very short time later I had the monitor plugged in to my machine and showing an image. (On Ubuntu Hardy, simply removing xorg.conf was all I needed, and X automatically detected the correct resolution. But eventually I put back one section from my old xorg.conf, the keyboard section that specifies "XkbOptions" to be "ctrl:nocaps".)

And oh, the image was beautiful. So sharp, clear, bright and colorful. And I got it working so easily!

Of course, things weren't as good as they seemed (they never are, with computers, are they?) Over the next few days I collected a list of things that weren't working quite right:

The brightness problem was the easiest. A little web searching led me to acdcontrol, a commandline program to control brightness on Apple monitors. It turns out that it works via the USB plug of the ADC connector, which I initially hadn't connected (having not much use for another USB 1.1 hub). Naturally, Ubuntu's udev/hal setup created the device in a nonstandard place and with permissions that only worked for root, so I had to figure out that I needed to edit /etc/udev/rules.d/20-names.rules and change the hiddev line to read:

KERNEL=="hiddev[0-9]*", NAME="usb/%k", GROUP="video", MODE="0660"
That did the trick, and after that acdcontrol worked beautifully.

On the second problem, I never did figure out why suspending with the Apple monitor always locked up the machine, either during suspend or resume. I guess I could live without suspend on a desktop, though I sure like having it.

The third problem was the killer. Big deal, who needs text consoles, right? Well, I use them for debugging, but what was more important, also broken were the grub screen (I could no longer choose kernels or boot options) and the BIOS screen (not something I need very often, but when you need it you really need it).

In fact, the text console itself wasn't a problem. It turns out the problem is that the Apple display won't take a 640x480 signal. I tried building a kernel with framebuffer enabled, and indeed, that gave me back my boot messages and text consoles (at 1280x1024), but still no grub or BIOS screens. It might be possible to hack a grub that could display at 1280x1024. But never being able to change BIOS parameters would be a drag.

The problems were mounting up. Some had solutions; some required further hacking; some didn't have solutions at all. Was this monitor worth the hassle? But the display was so beautiful ...

That was when Dave discovered TFT Central's search page -- and we learned that the Dell 2005FPW uses the exact same Philips tube as the Apple, and there are lots of them for sale used,. That sealed it -- Dave took the Apple monitor (he has a Mac, though he'll need a solution for his Linux box too) and I bought a Dell. Its image is just as beautiful as the Apple (and the bezel is nicer) and it works with DVI or VGA, works at resolutions down to 640x480 and even has a powered speaker bar attached.

Maybe it's possible to make an old Apple Cinema display work on a Mac. But it's way too much work. On a PC, the Dell is a much better bet.

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[ 20:57 Nov 15, 2008    More tech | permalink to this entry ]