Samsung’s ViewFinity S9 27″ 5K could be a great monitor — if it had reliable software
2,500 words for those as pedantic about high-density displays as I am
I’ve been waiting for a 27″ 5K monitor for a long time. Ever since I got a MacBook with a Retina display, I’ve wanted a monitor with the same display quality and, crucially, the same pixel density (roughly 220 PPI). Based on Casey Liss’s recommendation, I found a used Dell 24″ 4K monitor that came pretty close (185 PPI) for 350 AUD — much cheaper than the LG UltraFine 5K (1,800 AUD). It served me quite well until I wanted more screen real estate and set it to ~1.75× scaling, resulting in slightly fuzzy text. This was fine, as the generation of MacBook Pro I was using also had similar fractional scaling.
When I got an M1 MacBook Pro (which has 2× scaling at 254 PPI, by the way), I also wanted to upgrade my monitor to 27″, but I was pretty disappointed by Apple’s Studio Display costing a whopping 2,500 AUD. And if you wish to have the seemingly basic function of adjusting its height, that brings the price up to 3,100 AUD. I’m sure many of us don’t have that kind of cash to drop on a single monitor.
So when Samsung announced its 27″ 5K monitor back in January, I was very excited and waited patiently for its release (by setting up a Google search filter to show the past week’s results and obsessively checking it). I received mine a week ago and nearly returned it to get a Studio Display until I fixed my issue.
Text sharpness woes
As I work from home, I look at text all day. I adore how text is rendered on Apple’s Retina displays — incredibly sharp and print-like. That’s precisely why I want a comparable high-density display. So I was pretty disheartened upon connecting my Mac to see text being this sharpened mess:
The sharpening on the display garbles text — look at how the lowercase ‘u’, ‘m’, and ‘h’ have entirely different vertical stroke widths.
This may be difficult to see at normal viewing distances (I had to take a close-up photo with my phone for this post), and you may very well not notice this yourself if you get this monitor. But as someone who looks at text all day, I absolutely do.
I’m using the ‘DCI P3’ option in ‘Picture Mode’, and by default, it has ‘Sharpness’ set to 10. Computer monitors (and TVs, for that matter) don’t need additional sharpening, so I put it to 0, and it ended up even worse:
I bought this display precisely not to have fuzzy text — and ended up in fuzz city!
I suspect there’s something wrong (or at least different enough not to match Apple’s) factory gamma calibration, as the text rendering is noticeably bad on the horizontal axis, matching the layout of the display’s subpixels. There is a 32-point ‘White Balance’ option in settings, but I’m not enough of an expert to figure this out.
Thankfully, as I looked at the store’s return policy and got ready to spend an extra 1,300 AUD on the Studio Display, I figured out how to use the monitor’s ‘Smart Calibration’ feature. Ten minutes later, the text rendering matches what’s on my MacBook display. 🎉
But figuring out how to use Smart Calibration was a ridiculous challenge in itself.
Update 2023-09-24: An easier fix
I just discovered an easier way to fix this issue without doing a ten-minute Smart Calibration. I’ve kept the following section on how to use Smart Calibration, as there’s no online resource explaining how to use it.
- Disable ‘High Dynamic Range’ in macOS’s display settings.
- Set the ‘Picture Mode’ to ‘Eco’ on the monitor.
- The text sharpness issue should now be fixed. You can now set it back to any ‘Picture Mode’ or even set HDR on. Although it seems that ‘Eco’ renders the same colours as ‘DCI-P3’, so this may not be necessary.
Curiously, ‘Sharpness’ is set to 10, and it appears correct. Setting it to 0 makes it appear blurry, but not like above, where it’s only blurry in the horizontal direction. It appears blurry like a Gaussian blur filter was applied to the picture.
If the monitor is powered off (not just standby), this will reset. If you again set it to HDR off on ‘Eco’, it will fix the issue. You may need to toggle HDR on and off to fix this.
You also don’t need to run a Smart Calibration before setting the monitor to ‘Eco’ with HDR off, as I tested this after doing a factory reset. Note you also don’t need to connect the monitor to Wi-Fi while setting up. On the network connection screen, press the ‘right’ button on the remote to skip setting up the connection.
I also hired a Datacolor Spyder5, but using the colour-calibrated profiles it created did not solve this issue.
Additionally, if you have two inputs connected (in USB-C/Thunderbolt and Mini DisplayPort) at the same time, switching from the Mini DisplayPort to the USB-C/Thunderbolt input may cause it to have a gamma of 1.8. Setting ‘Gamma’ in ‘Expert Settings’ to −5 fixes this.
How to use Smart Calibration and get around Samsung’s infuriating TV software
Smart Calibration, the ability to use your phone to calibrate the monitor, has featured heavily in Samsung’s advertising for the ViewFinity S9, so I was left puzzled to see the option disabled in settings:
It took me hours of playing around with settings to figure out that it’s only available when in the monitor’s smart TV-like ‘Home’ screen. This isn’t a feature I expected to use often since I bought this to use exclusively as a display, not a smart TV. There is zero mention of this requirement in the monitor’s manual or any help articles at the time of writing. You’ll also need to connect your monitor to Wi-Fi and the SmartThings app on your phone with a Samsung account signed in to continue with calibration.
The calibration process was simple enough, but it needed more documentation. I’ve used the settings below in my phone calibration in ‘Professional Mode’. ‘Basic Mode’ only made minor adjustments to the white balance and did not fix my issues with text sharpness. Note: the ‘Manual’ option seems to require you to use a colour meter and asks you to input the readings from it (I’m unfamiliar with this process).
The process took just over ten minutes and involves the monitor displaying a pure white image at full brightness, so it’s best to look away during this time. Here are the settings I chose and the calibration report I received.
But the problems didn’t end there. The SmartThings app has a peculiar bug with scrolling where you can’t scroll down. You have to scroll up a bit for it to be able to scroll down. I have never encountered this at any point of using any smartphone. It is utterly bizarre.
Then, it shows you a preview of the original and calibrated images with a looping video of Rome. If you back out of that screen or spend too long without interacting with the SmartThings app, you will lose your progress and have to start the ten-minute calibration again. So make sure you are in the room once calibration finishes.
You’ll know the calibration is successful when the ‘Picture Mode’ is set to ‘Standard (Calibrated)’ and the option is disabled. And, of course, you’ll see the gorgeous text rendering. For some reason, if you do the ‘Basic Mode’ calibration instead, the setting remains enabled and will add a new ‘Custom 1 (Calibrated)’ option.
But the drama doesn’t end here. Once you’ve completed a ‘Professional Mode’ calibration, do NOT go to the Home screen under any circumstances. This will delete your calibrated profile, and you’ll have to repeat the ten-minute calibration. If you turn the monitor off by unplugging it from power, it will do the same thing.
Update 2023-09-24: You do not need to avoid the Home screen if you use the HDR off + ‘Eco’ mode solution above.
You can press and hold the Home button to pull up the settings panel, but make sure not to press the Back button when nothing is on screen, as this will go to the Home screen.
I sincerely hope these are early adopter bugs that Samsung will fix in a future firmware upgrade. I don’t plan to use the smart TV streaming features, so I can work around this.
This has been an extremely frustrating user experience and makes me question why Samsung felt the need to include their Tizen OS-based smart TV software, which is demonstrably buggy. Perhaps Samsung could have priced this monitor a few hundred dollars less without this unnecessary and unreliable software. Like the classic Australian milk ad, I just want display that tastes like real display.
Why not the Apple Studio Display?
As many Apple-focused reviewers have said, I 100% agree that Apple’s Studio Display is the superior external display for Mac. It has a superior build quality and doesn’t suffer from the same software issues as this display. It just works. For Mac.
- If you’re like me and want to connect it to a Windows device like a gaming PC, it doesn’t “just work”. If you have a Windows laptop with Thunderbolt, you can plug it directly into the Studio Display’s Thunderbolt input. But you’ll have to physically switch which cable is plugged in since it only has one information.
- If your PC doesn’t have a Thunderbolt port — like most gaming PCs, especially those with AMD CPUs — you’ll have to use a DisplayPort to USB-C cable. And you won’t be able to access the USB ports, camera, or microphone. You’ll have to use a special DisplayPort + USB-A to USB-C cable to do so, as Jaime Marrero found out in their video.
- If you want to control the brightness from Windows (and of course you do — you don’t want to plug your Mac in to change display brightness), you’ll need to install Apple’s Boot Camp drivers — while they’re still supported. This is quite hacky, and the latest guides I’ve read involve downloading additional scripts from GitHub. And Apple never made a Mac with an AMD CPU, so good luck installing those drivers on an AMD-based PC.
These reasons are why I did not — and still don’t — consider the Studio Display a viable option for me. I want to like the Studio Display. I want to have a Studio Display. But Apple seems so hell-bent on not making a standard display that a Windows PC can use. Damn this walled garden I willingly put myself into!
So if you’re choosing between the Samsung display and the Studio Display for a monitor exclusively for your Mac, and they’re the same price, you’re simply better off with the Studio Display. But if you also want to use it with a Windows PC or find the Samsung display at a discount, you should consider it.
Why not a 27″ 4K display?
There are countless posts online saying you don’t need a 5K display and a 4K one will be more than enough — and that’s true for most people, who wouldn’t notice the difference. And you may be one of those people. If you are, I’m kinda jealous of you since I absolutely notice the difference (and spent the extra money on a 5K display).
The crux of the matter is that, unlike Windows, macOS’s display scaling sucks unless it’s exactly 2×. If you use a monitor less than 2 × 110 PPI, the UI looks too big when scaled at 2×. And if you set the scaling to something below that, like 1.75×, everything becomes just a bit fuzzy. You can see how this looks in Marc Edwards’ excellent explanation on Mac external displays and pixel density, where he simulates the difference between pixel density and fractional scaling on Mac.
And because seeing is believing, you can head to an Apple Store (or your local electronics store) and compare the text rendering on a MacBook Air (any generation with Retina displays), which uses fractional scaling to get more screen real estate, to a 14″ or 16″ MacBook Pro, which uses crisp 2× scaling. If you don’t notice the difference (or don’t care), you don’t need a 5K display! Save yourself the money and the trouble.
Other observations while using this monitor
- The reviewers are correct: this display’s speakers are basic compared to the Studio Display. The 16″ M1 MacBook Pro’s excellent speakers serve me well for this not to be an issue. And I use headphones on my gaming PC anyway.
- The matte display coating is more noticeable than the Dell P2415Q I used before and other Dell monitors in general. It seems to be quite similar to the Studio Display’s, where the grain is noticeable when you’re really close up, but at a normal viewing distance, it’s not noticeable.
- Changing the brightness takes too many steps. To find the Brightness slider, go to Settings > Picture > Expert Settings. Alternatively, you can go to the ‘Picture Setup’ option in the quick settings panel. It seems Samsung is pushing you to use its auto-brightness feature, even though it’s off by default.
- To turn auto brightness on, go to Settings > General & Privacy > Power and Energy Saving > Brightness Optimisation. Make sure to set ‘Minimum Brightness’ to 0. I do not understand why this feature is off by default and buried in this menu.
- To switch inputs without going to the dreaded Home screen, you can press and hold the button on the back of the monitor. There is no quick setting for this. At the time of writing, a press-and-hold of the button no longer brought up the input switcher, so I switched the monitor off. That’s how I found out you also lose your calibration by turning it off. I will now spend the next ten minutes calibrating it again. Update 2023-09-24: Powering the monitor off completely (not just standby) fixes this, letting you change input using the monitor’s button.
- Alternatively, you can go to Settings > Connection > External Device Manager > Auto Source Switch+ and set that on so the monitor switches inputs when you turn your PC on or plug your MacBook in. I’ll be using that since the button on the back of my monitor no longer seems to work.
- There is a microphone on the bottom used for voice assistant commands (either Bixby or Alexa) with a physical mute switch. But you can’t use it on your connected computer. The removable camera has its own microphone that appears as an audio device.
- The removable camera attaches magnetically and connects to the monitor through a special input with a provided USB-C adapter, so I think it’s possible to connect an additional USB-C device, but I haven’t tested it yet. I appreciate that this is removable and potentially upgradeable.
- You can’t use a monitor light with the camera attached to the back. I got the BenQ ScreenBar Halo a few months ago, and the backlight makes using my PC at night much more comfortable for the eyes.
- The monitor light seems to affect the display’s light sensor, making auto brightness make the monitor too bright. I can use this as an indirect brightness control for the monitor by changing my monitor light’s brightness.
I really hope Samsung fixes the software
I seriously don’t understand why Samsung’s Smart Calibration is so broken. They came so close to making a Studio Display competitor that could be recommended. While drafting this post, I wrote, “So far, I don’t regret purchasing this monitor.” I may be starting to experience buyer’s remorse after this experience.
I think I can put up with the calibration quirk by avoiding the Home screen and using ‘Auto Source Switch+’ to switch inputs. (Update 2023-09-24: I can put up with this much easier by keeping the ‘Picture Mode’ on ‘Eco’ and toggling HDR on macOS when I need to.) However, I got this at a 20% discount on the retail price, or a whopping 40% cheaper than the Studio Display with the height-adjustable stand. And I don’t have to figure out how to install Boot Camp drivers for the Studio Display.
Hopefully, Samsung can issue a firmware upgrade that fixes the text sharpness, Smart Calibration, and general software issues I outlined here to make using this monitor not painful.