If you own a MacBook Pro with Retina Display and desire extra screen real estate, then a 4K monitor can be a good investment, especially as the price of such monitors continue to dwindle.

Why should you consider a 4K display instead of a cheaper monitor with lesser resolution? It all boils down to clarity.

Resolution

Since it’s enabled by default in OS X, many MacBook Pro owners with Retina displays take advantage of HiDPI mode — a setting that doubles interface element pixels on the x and y axis. This allows items on screen to appear larger to compensate for the smaller pixels provided on such a dense display, while allowing for tack-sharp print-like text.

Users will appreciate having a similar experience on an external display. It just so happens that 4K monitors have enough resolution to support HiDPI mode and still be practical for typical usage.

Hi-DPI MacBookPro vs 4K Effective Resolution

4K displays support a native resolution of 3840-by-2160. When running in OS X’s default HiDPI mode, the amount of available real estate is effectively cut in half, resulting in a display that feels like 1920-by-1080. Granted, you’re giving up screen real estate by running in HiDPI mode, but for the sake of your eyes, it can be worth it.

HiDPI Default MacBook Pro

A 15” MacBook Pro with Retina Display features a native resolution of 2880-by-1800. With the display set as default, the available real estate ends up being half that, at 1440-by-900. As you can see, that’s quite a bit less than the 1920-by-1080 provided by a 4K monitor, although it is possible to set the MacBook’s display to 1920-by-1200 using the More Space option in System Preferences → Displays. The point is, if you’re used to using OS X’s default display settings, then having a 4K monitor will still feel like an upgrade in screen real estate.

An added bonus is that iPhones and now iPads can shoot 4K video. Being able to watch your 4K footage in full resolution on your display is a nice side benefit.

Driving a 4K display

4K monitors are still relatively new in the industry, and as such, the technology continues to mature and improve. Early 4K displays adopted a Multi-Stream Transport (MST) strategy that used multiple input controllers. The result was a single display broken up into two input streams of 1920-by-2160. For GPU’s that supported MST via DisplayPort 1.2, it feeds these two separate streams at 60Hz.

As you might imagine, this is not the most ideal way to go about implementing 4K or higher resolutions into your workflow. It works, and I can personally attest to that, but to be honest, it feels like a hack. Graphical glitches can occur, and you may encounter random issues and display problems that make the monitor appear as two separate displays instead of one. I’ve had mixed results when using MST, but now that Single-Stream Transport displays are available for a reasonable price, I recommend going that route instead.

Not every MacBook Pro is capable of driving a 4K display using SST. According to Apple, here are the Macs that can successfully drive a Single-Stream Transport 4K display at 60Hz:

  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Early 2015)
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Mid 2014) 
  • Mac Pro (Late 2013)
  • iMac (27-inch, Late 2013) and later
  • Mac mini (Late 2014)
  • MacBook Air (Early 2015)

Notice that even the Early 2015 and later MacBook Air can get in on the action. This is particularly interesting, since the MacBook’s Air’s own screen is a “normal” low-resolution display.

The main takeaway from this is that you’ll need a 15″ MacBook Pro from Mid 2014 or later, or a 13″ MacBook Pro from Early 2015 or later, in order to take advantage of 4K at 60Hz in the best way. Earlier models can work with 4K, but they use MST, and I simply can’t recommend that you take that route.

I also can’t recommend using any display running at 30Hz. Such a refresh rate results in a less than optimal user experience. The new 12″ MacBook, for example, can drive a 4K display, but Apple says it’s only capable of doing so at 30Hz.

The best 4K Monitor for the MacBook Pro?

I have some strict requirements when it comes to the 4K displays that I’m willing to mate with my MacBook Pro. The displays must meet the following:

  • Must be an IPS (or PLS) panel
  • Must use Single-Stream Transport
  • Must do 4K@60Hz
  • Must support DisplayPort 1.2

Here are some of the available options for MacBook Pro users shopping for a 4K display that meet the aforementioned requirements:

Brand/Model Size Image
Dell P2415Q  24 Dell P2415Q
Dell P2715Q  27 Dell P2715Q
BenQ BL2711U  27 BenQ BL2711U
Samsung U32D970Q  32 Samsung U32D970Q
Dell UP3216Q  32 Dell UP3216Q

Of course, there may be other monitors out there, but these are the ones with which I’m most familiar.

There are 4K monitors available that meet some, but not all, of my set requirements. For instance, there are several TN panels available, but I assume that most Mac users would prefer an IPS display, like the ones found in the MacBook Pro and iMac lines. The PLS panel used in the Samsung monitor is very similar to IPS, hence its inclusion.

If you’re looking for more coverage of 4K displays, be sure to check out Jordan Kahn’s earlier breakdown of 4K displays geared towards Mac Pro users.

Dell P2415Q

The Dell P2415Q provides the most bang for the buck

If you’re in the market for an inexpensive 4K display to pair with your MacBook, then it’s hard to go wrong with Dell’s 24″ P2415Q. It’s the smallest monitor in our list, but when you’re only talking about a 1920-by-1080 effective resolution when using HiDPI, then having a larger monitor isn’t necessarily adding more screen real estate to your workflow.

The Dell P2415Q doesn’t feature the fit and finish of pricier Ultrasharp-designated offerings, which are calibrated at the factory, but for the price, it’s hard to beat. I’ve never been a fan of the build quality of Dell’s displays, and this monitor doesn’t change my opinion.

If color accuracy is of greater importance to you, and you don’t mind paying a little more, then the BenQ BL2711U is a solid offering as well, plus you get three inches of additional screen.

For larger monitors, I’d be more interested in 5K, but as you’ll see in the next section, 5K is kind of languishing in the third-party monitor space.

The 5K factor

To be completely honest, a 5K monitor is really where it’s at, but the prices for such a display are extremely high at this point, and options are just as limited. As of right now, the only 5K display that I can find on Amazon is Dell’s UP2715K Ultra HD 5K Monitor.

5K monitors are awesome, because you get to enjoy the clarity that such resolution brings to the table, while getting tons of screen real estate. 5K monitors have a native resolution of 5120‑by‑2880, which provides 2560-by-1440 of effective space when running in OS X’s default HiDPI mode. This is the same amount of space provided by a Thunderbolt display, but you get the added benefit of the clarity that you’re used to enjoying while using your MacBook Pro.

Strangely, 5K monitor innovation seems to be lagging behind. Prices have remained high, and the amount of options available are miniscule. With this in mind, the 5K iMac, even at full price, is a good deal. A refurbished 5K iMac can thus be a ridiculously good deal if you’re looking for an all-in-one solution.

Unfortunately, Apple states that its 5K iMac cannot be used as an external display with Target Display Mode. It also makes no mention of its 2015 MacBook Pro supporting 5K displays with a dual cable setup on its support site, even though such a statement was there previously. Needless to say, there still seems to be some confusion at Apple HQ about what resolutions its machines support.

Conclusion

Ultimately, only you will be able to determine whether or not a 4K monitor meets your needs. As someone who uses a 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina display, I believe that 4K monitors, at their current price levels, can be good purchases. Not only do you get extra real estate, but you get to enjoy HiDPI, something that many of us MacBook Pro users are used to by now.

As I stated in our review of LG’s UltraWide 21:9 display, having such added space is great, but it’s hard to downgrade when it comes to clarity. Once your eyes become used to using Retina displays, it’s difficult to make a transition back to lesser resolution. 4K monitors aren’t perfect, but they provide a valuable stopgap at reasonable prices until 5K becomes more mainstream.

If fit and finish, or future-proofing are some of your top concerns, then I suggest waiting it out until Apple releases a ThunderBolt 3-equipped 5K display. That’s certainly what I’m waiting for, but a 4K display can hold me over in the interim.