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Ultra-high-resolution displays aren’t exactly new to the channel. Until recently, displays capable of 4K resolution have been expensive, niche products tailored for medical or other specific business applications. In other words, it was never really an option to stick a 4K display on any productivity worker’s desk. Of course, technology always trickles downstream. Today, 4K-capable displays can be had for less than $500, but while these ultra-high-resolution monitors offer stunning visuals and plenty of desktop space, more pixels isn’t always better.
Thanks to things like HDTV and high-density smartphones, most people have a basic understanding of display resolution. For those needing a refresher, a display’s resolution is stated as the number of pixels across and down. A typical 1080p display, the most common in service today for TV and PC displays, would have a resolution of 1920 x 1080. Multiply those numbers and you get the number of pixels on the screen, so 2,073,600 in the case of our 1080p example.
Commoditized 4K desktop displays seem to be settling at a resolution of 3840 x 2160. Those noticing that 3840 does not equal 4,000 (4K) pixels across would be correct. The original standard of 4096 x 2160 has an odd screen ratio from the displays in use, so 4K really means anything around 4,000 pixels across. To compare 1080p to 4K, a 3840 x 2160 display is exactly double the pixels (horizontally and vertically) of a 1080p display. Thanks to my trusty calculator, that equals 8,294,400 pixels, or four times the pixel density of a 1080p display.
So looking purely at the numbers, a 4K display is four times better than a 1080p display. Simple, right?
Here’s where things get fuzzy. Resolution is a metric that is both fixed and relative, and that’s because there are two variables that dramatically alter one’s perception of resolution: screen size and distance. If the distance eye-to-screen is exactly 3 feet, the apparent resolution will be different for two screens with the same resolution and different sizes. In desktop displays, that can mean the difference between usable and unusable.
It’s important to remember that most desktop operating systems and software haven’t been optimized for ultra-high-resolution displays, making for some really teeny-tiny icons and text. OS X handles display scaling better than the desktop side of Windows, although the modern side of Windows handles display scaling beautifully. Reading text on a 24-inch 4K display in Windows (assuming 100 percent display scaling) from a few feet away would require a magnifying glass. You can bump display scaling on the Windows desktop, but that doesn’t offer a great experience.
As a result, 4K displays are generally larger. Sizes range from 24 to 32 inches, but the most common is 28 inches. At 24 inches 4K is almost unusable; at 28 inches it’s better … but 28 inches is simply too big for most desktop scenarios. It dwarfs the typical 19- to 21-inch displays found on most desks. Some users would absolutely love the extra size, but many would find it too large for day-to-day use.
Where 4K Shines
Where 4K truly shines is in video, photographic, and gaming applications. Anyone who has seen native 4K video or photos on a 4K display will attest to how stunning they can look. Gaming is another area pushing hard into the 4K realm, and with games that truly support it running on the hardware that can push it, the visuals are amazing.
Therein lies another caveat to 4K, and that’s the amount of hardware required to drive it. It takes a significant amount of extra GPU to push over 8 million pixels 60 times per second; to the GPU it’s like running four 1080p monitors simultaneously. The newest desktop processors generally have graphics capabilities with enough oomph to display the desktop from a productivity perspective, but any form of GPU-intensive application like gaming or rendering really requires a heavy investment in additional graphics horsepower. For gaming in particular, a multi-GPU setup is almost a requirement to push 4K with any level of detail right now.
With the extra hardware overhead, large screen sizes, and a suboptimal desktop experience for many productivity tasks, moving to 4K could be less of a blessing and more of a curse. For the right user and the right tasks, however, the results can be absolutely breathtaking.
Ready to take the 4K plunge? The latest crop of lower-cost 4K panels offers a lot of pixels for the dollar, so let’s take a look at some of the ultra-high-resolution monitors vying for some one-on-one time with your eyeballs.
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