Like 1080p before it, 4K is the new, ultra-high-resolution format that promises better detail and greater image clarity due to the huge number of pixels packed into your screen. “Buttery-smooth text rendering and wonderfully detailed photos,” promises MakeUseOf. Just consider the quality differences between Apple’s Retina Display MacBooks and its standard MacBooks: it's the same pixel-increasing principle.
That said, we don’t think it’s the right time to buy one.
While most 4K monitors are still very expensive, we’re starting to see a growing number priced under $1,000: Samsung’s $700 U28D590D, Dell’s $700 P2815Q, and Asus’ $650 PB287Q are already available. Intel and Samsung even recently announced a partnership where they’ve pledged to try and push high-quality, 23-inch 4K monitors to a super-low price of $399. We think it’s worth waiting for some of that to pan out rather than pushing for an expensive early-adopter monitor right now (though you’d be foolish to buy a 24-inch 4K display, we can only hope that Intel and Samsung’s ambitions can push down prices on larger displays).
Even expensive 4K monitors struggle with the same major weaknesses right now: outdated display connections, beefy hardware requirements, and lack of OS/application support. Cheap 4K monitors can have all those problems and more, sacrificing image quality in order to cut costs.
The Argument For 4K
The advantage of a 4K display is pretty clear: it has four times number of pixels as 1080p—8.29 million versus 2.07 million. This increased level of detail is theoretically indistinguishable to the human eye once you pass a certain distance from a screen (say, more than three feet away from a 50-inch 4K HDTV). However, a desktop monitor is close enough for you to notice the difference.
4K’s greater resolution can give you a better-looking picture for your games, the ability to edit high-res photos and videos at their native resolutions, and a lot more desktop real estate—the latter particularly ideal for coders looking to pack multiple windows’ worth of content on a giant display.
While 4K content is still in its infancy, there’s no doubt that the media will eventually move that way. In fact, there’s 4K-sized content you can view right now on your desktop PC. More should hopefully be on the way soon, especially if you’re a big Netflix or Amazon Instant Video fan.
What kind of person might buy a 4K monitor?
Simple: the early adopters. Of these, we suspect that gamers and editors (photo/video) are most interested in what 4K offers given the dearth of 4K content to watch right now (sorry, movie buffs). As well, some 4K enthusiasts will simply want as much desktop space as they can get.
Minus some glitching here and there, you can play plenty of today’s best games in full 4K resolution so long as you have a beefy system that can output a high-resolution picture at reasonable frame rates. In other words, the content is already there—and if your favorite games aren’t 4K-friendly, we suppose you can always run at the highest resolution you can and just play them in a window while you multitask.
4K might benefit your work, too. Combine a 30+ inch monitor with 4K resolution and you’ve just given yourself a ton of extra space for multitasking. You also now have the ability to edit high-def photos and videos closer to their native resolutions, depending on what you shoot at.
“Words don’t do this 4K photo editing setup justice—you have to see it in-person to appreciate it,” describes Microsoft’s Gavin Gear. You could even pair a larger 4K HDTV with your desktop to improve your multitasking—though, again, you won’t be able to avoid 4K’s general drawbacks.
The Arguments Against (Cheap) 4K
One of the major differences between a $3,000 4K monitor and a $700 4K monitor is the quality of panels that can make up the displays. Pricier monitors tend to use higher-quality panels that are better for color reproduction, picture quality, and viewing angles; more inexpensive monitors use cheaper panels that can be better for gaming but also produce a less accurate picture (and horrible viewing angles).
For some, the cheaper Twisted Nematic panels (TN) are plenty good enough. Since 4K displays are in their infancy, 4K monitors with better panels are still pretty pricey. The cheapest that uses stronger In-Plane Switching (IPS) panels as of this article’s writing is Dell’s $1,100 UltraSharp UP2414Q, and it costs almost triple that of our similarly sized “Good Monitor” pick, Dell’s U2412M. It’s even more expensive than our larger, 27-inch “Great Monitor” pick ($550 or so).
“The problem with the Dell UP2414Q is that while it’s easily the most gorgeous, capable monitor I’ve ever tested [...] you can buy displays just as sexy as this one with resolutions that won’t leave you squinting uselessly at poorly scaled programs or improper resolutions,” writes ExtremeTech’s Joel Hruska.
(That said, Apple’s improvements to display scaling in its 10.9.3 update to OS X make for a much better experience running a 4K resolution on a 24-inch display like the UP2414Q, which now runs in Hi-DPI mode by default.)
The current version of the HDMI specification (1.4a) can only output a 4096×2160 resolution at a refresh rate of 24 Hz or 3840×2160 at 30 Hz—the latter, half that of what we’re used to on TVs and monitors. Connect up a 4K monitor at 30 Hz via HDMI and you’ll see choppier animations and transitions in your OS. You might also encounter some visible motion stuttering during normal use, and you’ll be locked to a maximum of 30 frames per second for your games—it’s playable, but not that smooth.
“…the flicker-induced eyestrain is phenomenal…”
“After experimenting with the display in that operating mode [30 Hz] I’m going to flatly state no one will want to use it in anything but an emergency—the flicker-induced eyestrain is phenomenal,” writes Hruska, reviewing the Dell UP2414Q.
“Let me be clear: 30 frames per second sucks. All of my colleagues and I would prefer displays with 60 frames per second or better, all else being equal. But all else is not equal, which means that while 30 frames per second is more bothersome to some than others, we all tolerate it,” writes Brian Hauer, who has been writing about using Seiki’s $500 4K 39-inch HDTV as a computer monitor.
An HDMI upgrade to fix these issues isn’t widespread yet, but it’s on the horizon.HDMI 2.0 supports a full 60 Hz refresh rate at 3840×2160. First-person-shooter fans will finally get to game at a glorious 60 frames per second; desktop users will enjoy smoother screens and movement—no mouse lag either. Unfortunately, HDMI 2.0 is ahardware upgrade. You’ll need HDMI 2.0 on your GPU and monitor, and the only way to get it is to buy brand-new hardware (when it arrives).
DisplayPort has enough bandwidth to deliver 4K at 60 Hz, but most 4K monitors can’t accept it natively. Instead, they employ a clever workaround: they pretend that their giant 4K picture is actually two tiled displays—each 1920×2160, and each running at 60 Hz. DisplayPort transmits both “displays” simultaneously from your computer to your monitor, which the latter seamlessly combines into one giant 3840×2160 picture Some monitors can pull the same trick with two HDMI cables.
Unfortunately, it’s only clever when it works. Since the monitor is set up to act as if it’s two separate displays, screens that are permanently set to appear on only one display in a multi-display environment (in-game menus, your BIOS screen, your POST screen, etc.) can look pretty horrible.
“Sometimes, everything is squished up on half of the display. Other times, the image is both squished and cloned on both halves. Occasionally, the display just goes black, and you’re stuck holding down the power button in an attempt to start over,” describes The Tech Report’s Scott Wasson.
We’re only just starting to see monitors like Asus’ PB287Q that can handle a (seemingly) simple, 3840×2160 picture at 60 Hz without any added trickery. Our advice? They’re worth waiting for.
If you have a fairly recent computer and don’t plan on gaming, your current hardware might be enough for a 4K display. Those running integrated graphics on desktops or laptops can output 4K on an AMD Trinity APU or Ivy Bridge CPU, the latter thanks to a late-2012 update from Intel (but you need a dual-DisplayPort setup to do it). Worse, neither chip is great with 4K video. More recent CPU and APU releases from Intel and AMD handle 4K better, though still not flawlessly—AnandTech still had some issuesrunning a 4K TV from a Haswell processor’s integrated graphics.
Not all Haswell processors handle 4K identically, as they can run different versions of Intel’s integrated HD graphics. U-class processors like the Core i5-4200U (common in many ultrabooks) are limited to 30Hz over DisplayPort and 24Hz over HDMI, while M-class processors like the i7-4700MQ can do 3840 x 2160 at 60Hz. Intel isn’t all that forthcoming about what kind of resolution and refresh rate its desktop chips can dish out. We’re in touch with them, and AMD, to see if we can get some clarification.
According to Ars Technica, discrete desktop GPUs starting with Nvidia’s 600 series (mid-2012 and later) and AMD’s Radeon HD 6000 (late 2010 and later) can handle 4K. Notebook support for 4K is harder to figure out. On the Apple side, the late-2013 Retina MacBook Pros can output a high-resolution display to all 4K monitors via HDMI, and to a particular list of monitors via DisplayPort (SST and MST). Windows PCs are more complicated. If you can’t tell from a manufacturer’s spec sheet or website whether a laptop supports 4K output to an external monitor, you can sometimes figure it out from the processor. If your notebook has a discrete GPU from Nvidia orAMD (or a full-fledged AMD APU), check the specific graphics card against the manufacturer website to see if it supports 4K display.
If gaming’s your passion, you’re going to need to invest in a fairly beefy system in order to have playable frame rates (not awesome, just playable). That includes at least one pricey graphics card like a $500 Nvidia GeForce GTX 780. If you want a little anti-aliasing (which might not even be that necessary) or if you’re planning to play a resource-intensive game like Crysis 3 at high frame rates, put multiple cards (for SLI or CrossFire) on your shopping list.
And it’s not just the hardware that will hold you back from a great 4K experience. TheOSX 10.9.3 update added better 4K resolution support to Apple’s software, but Windows 8.1 users will find a bit of a hybrid experience: The OS scales fairly well at higher resolutions, but apps can be a bit hit-or-miss. And when they’re a miss, they’re “painful,” as Scott Hanselman puts it.
“The increasingly wide array of high resolution laptops and 4k monitors result in a ludicrous Windows 8 desktop experience. Websites and text have to be blown up around 200% while menus, tabs and other crucial parts of the user interface shrink,” writes Gordon Kelly in a Forbes article.
One final note: Unlike 4K HDTVs, 4K monitors don’t always support amazing upscaling. Play a lower-resolution Blu-ray disc on a 4K monitor full-screen, and it’ll likely look worse then than on a 4K HDTV. The latter uses all sorts of complex algorithms to make the picture appear as if it’s native 4K, to varying success.
If you’re looking to buy a 4K monitor, our recommendation is to wait.
If you’re looking to buy a 4K monitor, our recommendation is to wait. We just don’t think the tradeoffs are worth it: the quality and price of panels in 4K monitors; the operating systems and apps that struggle in such a high-resolution playground; and the not-so-great workarounds you’ll have to employ for smooth, lovely pictures.
There’s a light on the horizon. OS support will strengthen, connection types will be able to handle 4K displays sans digital tricks, and prices will drop as more 4K displays hit the market. By then, there will even be more digital content to play on a 4K display (if gaming or multitasking isn’t your thing), and 4K monitors will even start to pull in fancier display technology like Nvidia’s G-Sync for even smoother digital shootouts.
“One day, this technology is going to blow open desktop gaming and viewing content. But interested users should know that today, the price of entry is extremely high. In 4-5 years 4K will be ubiquitous, but for now, it’s in the early adopter phase — don’t leap for it unless you’re willing to tolerate above-average levels of frustration,” wrote ExtremeTech’s Joel Hruska.
You’re not totally out of options if you just want a great desktop monitor with a higher resolution than 1920×1080. Our favorite 27-inch monitor, Dell’s U2713HM, is a gorgeous 2560×1440 IPS panel that runs at 60 Hz. It’s just the right size that you don’t need to mess with display scaling at all, and it costs less than $600.