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Dell's Ultrasharp 6k 32": Squandered Potential

Apologies in advance for not including photos; it didn't occur to me that I might write a blog post about this monitor until it was too late. Still getting used to this blogging thing.

The Problem

Recently, I've come into the market for a monitor upgrade. The centerpiece of my hybrid personal/WFH desk setup, an Apple Thunderbolt Display, has been in service for 8 years now. It still works great and has performed well, but as its age increases so do its chances of accruing image defects or failing, and so the time has come for it to pass the torch and retire to the role of secondary monitor.

At first blush, shopping for a new monitor seems like it should be easier than ever, with an incredible number of options boasting impressive specs of all sorts. In some cases, this is true. Gamers in particular are in great shape — whether you're playing FPS games and need blisteringly high refresh rates or are more of the type who relishes in the beautiful environments of slower open world games and want top-class contrast and color, there's a monitor for you.

Unfortunately, the situation isn't as rosy for Mac users, especially those doing pixel-perfect graphics and development work.

In the years since 2015 when my Thunderbolt Display was manufactured, much has changed. Apple exited the monitor business by discontinuing the Thunderbolt Display, went all-in on high DPI across their entire product line, and then re-entered the monitor market with two high DPI monitors. These changes have left their mark on macOS, which has become increasingly dependent on high DPI displays to look good. The past several major releases of macOS even disabled the RGB subpixel antialiasing required to make text appear smooth and legible on more traditional displays.

Today, Apple clearly intends for Macs to be used with high DPI displays. This shouldn't be much of a problem with the dozens of 4k monitors on the market now, right?

Not quite. This Bjango review of the Apple Studio Display has a section that takes an in-depth look at why 4k monitors, at least those at the more desk-friendly sizes of 27"-32", are suboptimal for macOS and why 5k/6k monitors are preferred. The short version is that the way macOS scales its UI does not lend itself to sharpness and clarity on 4k displays.

For the average user this isn't too much of a problem (aside from those with exceptional eyesight), but as mentioned a couple paragraphs back it's not something you want if you're with doing graphics work, app development, or anything else where individual pixels count. I'm a dev who does a good deal of graphics work, so I fall into the latter bucket.

So we're narrowed down to 5k and 6k monitors at 27" and 32", respectively. What are our options?

LG UltraFine 5k27"5120x2880 (5k)$1300 USD2016
Apple Pro Display XDR32"6106x3384 (6k)$6000 USD2019
Apple Studio Display27"5120x2880 (5k)$1600 USD2022

The table above represented the options for off-the-shelf name brand models available to Mac users until very recently, and they all have problems.

No matter which you select, you're trading something off and probably paying more than you'd like.

The Solution (?)

Considering the situation, when news of a 6k 32" monitor from Dell broke, I was intrigued. On paper, it look great:

Looking at these specs, it feels fairly certain that professional and prosumer Mac users — the same crowd who'd consider purchasing one of the three monitors in the table above — is one of the primary audiences that Dell is targeting with this product. Thunderbolt is still a rare sight among desktop PCs and is almost entirely absent from AMD-based laptops, and most Windows using pros would likely prefer one of the numerous more affordable 4k monitors mentioned in the last section. Also lending to this idea is how Dell is offering a Mac version of its display manager app intended for use with this monitor, which is unusual for a company competing head-to-head with Apple in the desktop and laptop computer market.

It also feels a lot like the often-wished-for "little brother" of the Pro Display XDR that keeps the 32" size and 6k resolution, but drops the fancy backlighting in favor of something more traditional to bring its cost down.

Priced at $3200US, the Ultrasharp 6k 32" is still quite expensive, but for users who don't need the XDR's blistering maximum brightness or support for HDR, it looks like a reasonable value relative to the XDR. Its massive "forehead" comprised of speakers and a webcam make it something of an eyesore compared to an Apple display, but in my opinion it's not that much worse than the LG Ultrasharp 5k with its large top bezel or the now-discontinued 27" iMac with its chunky bezels and even more gigantic "chin".

When the monitor became available for purchase on the Dell web store a few weeks ago for $700 below MSRP, I ordered right away with the thought that such a large discount wouldn't be seen again any time soon. After sitting in a pending state for a couple of days it shipped and it came in a few days later.

The Reality

Unpacking and setup of the Ultrasharp U3224KB was easy. It comes in a box that's "suitcase style" that has a handle and opens on its side, as Dell has been using for their monitors for some time. The included stand seemed decent, but I didn't test it since I mounted the monitor on a desk clamp arm instead.

Build quality is fine, but its back feels notably hollow and plasticy. This doesn't matter too much since the back of a monitor isn't something that's touched frequently, but feels somewhat incongruent with its price. Its buttons and joystick are decent, if perhaps a touch too noisy with their clicks.

After plugging it into an M1 Max MBP, its picture showed up after a short but notable delay.

While testing the monitor with various content, I noticed something odd: parts of the screen displaying light content were overlaid with a chromatic "glitter" effect. The lighter the color, the more visible this "glitter" was, being most evident on white parts of the screen, and though backing away to normal usage distances reduced its intensity, it was still visible enough to be distracting. I'd heard in the past that some Dell monitors suffered this issue as a result of aggressive anti-glare matte coating, but had never seen it in person. It was disappointing to see, but I thought might be something I just needed to acclimate myself to. In retrospect, this was the first sign of trouble.

The virtual real estate offered by the Ultrasharp's 6144x3456 resolution is a noticeable upgrade from the typical 27" 2560x1440 and its 2x counterpart 5120x2880 and fits IDEs like Xcode more comfortably. This was welcome, because things can easily get cramped with all of the editor panes, sidebars, and inspectors open at any given time.

Its color is quite good, though a bit less deep compared to glossy Apple displays due to matte coating. Contrast is also good, but to my eye the improved contrast ratio this display's IPS Black panel offers over more traditional IPS panels wasn't readily visible. Despite its high pixel density its sharpness is a bit disappointing which probably another casualty of the heavy matte coating, which makes for a subtle "haze" or softening effect that wouldn't be as noticeable on a lower DPI monitor.

Already, I'm feeling some ambivalence creep in.

Next up was testing the webcam. The image it delivers, though as detailed as one might expect of a 4k webcam, has major issues with skin tones, turning my face an odd shade of purple or orange depending on if my high CRI desk lamp is turned on or not. It also had trouble handling the lighting environment of a bedroom on a sunny afternoon, badly blowing out highlights. Dell's display manager utility offers some knobs to tweak, but unfortunately nothing to help the webcam with its struggles with lighting and skintones.

Its speakers are fine, but not nearly as nice as this monitor's price might suggest. To my ears devices as old as the Thunderbolt Display and as compact as an iPad Pro sound better, which is a bit incredible considering the oversized visual footprint of the Ultrasharp's speakers. They're probably designed primarily with conference calls in mind which is reinforced by the presence of capacitative call control buttons that light up when your hand approaches them on the bottom left bezel, and they're perfectly usable for that, but for media purposes one would be better served by picking up some $50-$100 external speakers or even just leaving your MacBook open and using its internal speakers.

By now, I'm beginning to question if makes sense to keep this monitor.

While testing it with my Windows PC with the monitor's Mini DisplayPort input, something caught my attention. In the little info panel that shows up when the monitor acquires a signal, it was reporting that it was running with 30-bit color when plugged into the PC and 24-bit when plugged into a Mac. Strange. My first thought was that it was a quirk of the Thunderbolt connection, but this was proven incorrect when plugging my Mac into its DisplayPort input by way of my Dock with a DisplayPort output produced the same result.

Some googling later, I came across a thread on the MacRumors forums where other buyers of the U3224KB had found that there's a quirk with M1 and M2 Macs that limits DisplayPort link throughput of monitors connected via Thunderbolt, reducing colors to 24-bit. In the thread it was discovered that if users make use of third party utilities to force a resolution of 6016x3384 — the same as used by the Pro Display XDR — instead of the monitor's native 6144x3456, the quirk disappears and macOS can drive the monitor with full 30-bit color. From that same thread, one poster suggests using a particular model of USB-C to HDMI adapter that can be flashed with custom firmware to allow the monitor to run at full resolution with 30-bit color over HDMI, working around the problem by opting out of DisplayPort Alt Mode, which the quirk seems tied to.

To be clear, this is an Apple problem, not a Dell problem. One might surmise that Dell is aware of the issue given the monitor's Mac-inclined target audience however, which makes the lack of mention of it anywhere in marketing materials or documentation feel somewhat dishonest. Additionally, while 24-bit color is sufficient for the overwhelming majority of desktop usage, it's difficult to excuse not getting full functionality at this price.

At this point I'd accumulated a couple of weeks of usage on the Ultrasharp, with newness starting to wear off and more subtle flaws becoming apparent. The antiglare coating I hoped I'd eventually be able to tune out was causing a form of eye strain I hadn't previously experienced. Around the monitor's edges, the picture was slightly darkened. The signature "glow" that IPS panels such as this one are known for was more obvious than on my other IPS monitors, being visible even when images with middling darks were displayed.

Noticing these papercuts was the straw that broke the camel's back. I pulled up the account page on Dell's website and initiated a return.

In Summary

The Dell Ultrasharp U3224KB is a much-needed entrant in the market that comes so close, but fails to stick the landing. Its biggest flaws are seemingly the result of carelessness rather than problems inherent to the technology it's built with: its antiglare coating could instead resemble that of numerous other matte finish monitors on the market instead of being so overbearing and its webcam's woes are almost certainly down to badly tuned firmware, for example.

While the experience would have been a bit smoother had I been an exclusive user of Windows or Linux (giving me 30-bit color out of the box), I'm doubtful that I would kept the monitor even in that scenario. There's simply too much about the U3224KB that isn't up to par for its price tag to make any sense. Some of its issues could potentially be fixed with a firmware update, but with the deadline on returns fast approaching, that's not a gamble I wanted to take.

At the risk of speaking outside of my field of expertise ("I'm a programmer, Spock, not a hardware engineer!"), my advice to Dell would be the following: next time, leave it in the oven a little longer. Test extensively with a wide range of real world users, gather their feedback, and act on it. Get the details right. In this price range, there is little room for slipping up on execution. But then again, maybe I'm totally wrong and companies will be buying these by the crateload for their designers regardless.


After submitting the return request, I was back at square one, except this time with frayed patience.

This led me to order the VESA mount version of the Studio Display the same day, which I'm now using to type this blog post. Its value to price ratio is still not amazing, but coming away from the U3224KB it seems a little better than it did before.

The Studio Display's specs aren't anything to write home about, but it delivers on the finer bits: its antiglare coating curbs reflections well, its colors and brightness are excellent, its picture has no magic glitter effect, its IPS glow is comparatively negligible, its backlight has some of the best uniformity I've seen, its webcam is perfectly usable (it doesn't turn me into Thanos, at least), and its speakers are dramatically better. I plug it in and it works. It's supremely boring, and as it turns out that's exactly what I want in a monitor.