How-To Geek

Should You Buy a 4K Computer Monitor?

New 4K monitors are dropping in price, and they are available almost everywhere. They can be found now for a few hundred bucks, and we’ve seen some great sale prices. But are they worth the money, and should you upgrade?

As with TVs, 4K computer monitors have a display resolution of 3840×2160. This is about four times as many pixels as a typical 1920×1080, or 1080p, display.

Why 4K Monitors Make More Sense Than 4K TVs (Right Now)

TVs need content. To take advantage of that 4K display, you need movies, TV shows, and video games designed to provide 4K detail. Your set-top box, Internet streaming device, Blu-ray player, and game consoles need to be able to output 4K content or you just won’t get any advantage out of the 4K panel. There’s just very little 4K content to watch right now, and there are still questions about upscaling and other things that we’ll talk about in another article soon.

Computer monitors are different. Your operating system — Windows, Mac, Linux, or even Chrome OS — can output at higher resolutions than 1080p. You could grab a 4K monitor, plug it into your computer right now, and increase your display resolution to 3840×2160. Your computer’s graphics card would need to support this resolution, of course. The computer’s desktop and interface itself will be in sharp, 4K detail. Your eyes are also closer to your computer monitor than they would be from a TV, so the increase in pixel density will probably be even more noticeable than with a TV.

Note that you can’t stream the handful of 4K videos on Netflix or Amazon to your computer — only to certain 4K TVs. The reason for this is unclear, but it’s probably for DRM reasons — it prevents people from capturing the 4K content and recording it on their computers.

The 4K Desktop Experience

The experience you’ll have is all about the size of the 4K display and how your computer’s operating system can deal with it. For example, if you have a small 4K monitor, everything will be extremely tiny on it. You’ll fit a lot of content on the screen, but at the cost of barely being able to read any of it — only if you get up close and squint. Desktop web pages designed for typical display sizes will be a narrow column down one part of your screen. With a large enough 4K monitor, this gets better. You can actually see all the stuff on your screen!

Operating systems and applications offer a variety of tweaks to make life better on the higher-resolution displays popping up on laptops and tablets. These features help fix the problem of tiny interface elements, making them appear larger — but still sharper than they’d look on a lower-resolution display. Windows 10 has the best scaling features of any version of Windows yet, and even it isn’t perfect. Many applications — even a few of Microsoft’s own applications included with versions of Windows prior to 10 — look blurry when they’re blown up to appear larger on a high-resolution display.

Mac OS X deals with this better, as the scaling features that enable Retina displays on Apple’s Macs also work for 4K displays. Some applications still aren’t updated to work with this properly, but most Mac applications now support proper display scaling. Apple has also updated all the included Mac applications to look good on a high-resolution display, while Microsoft hasn’t done the same for some included Windows applications — though with Windows 10 things are much better.

Different Linux desktops also offer different display-scaling features, and modern Linux desktops are improving their high-resolution display support with every release.

It’s All About The Applications You Use

Ultimately, the advantages of 4K are all about the applications you use. If you use a few important applications on Windows and they’re all properly optimized for 4K displays, then all the concerns about the Windows desktop ecosystem being behind don’t really matter.

Applications that make better use of 4K are a killer app. For example, Adobe Photoshop can make good use of 4K displays. Photoshop’s interface can scale up to be larger and more usable, and then you can open a high-resolution image and see it in full detail. In other words, you could work with massive images at their original size, seeing them in a 1:1 ratio without any scrolling or zooming. If you do photo manipulation, graphics work, or video editing, a 4K monitor seems like a no-brainer.

Warning: Check the Specs, Not Just the Resolution

There are some 4K monitors on the market that have a great picture, and great 4K resolution, and are even fairly inexpensive. The problem is that the refresh rate on some of these monitors, which is the frequency that the screen updates itself again, is extremely low, to the point where even moving your mouse across the screen can get a little jittery.

That isn’t to say that those monitors are useless for everything, but a really low refresh rate, say 30hz, is going to get really annoying over time as things will be very jumpy and jittery on the screen — and those cheaper monitors are pretty much useless for most PC gaming, at least when they are running at the higher resolution. Most modern monitors have a refresh rate of at least 60hz and some are at 120hz instead.

5K Displays

4K isn’t even the latest new thing anymore. Some manufacturers are now pushing “5K” monitors with an even higher resolution. Unlike with televisions, we don’t have to wait for all the content to catch up before we can get the benefit of higher-resolution displays.

For example, Apple sells an iMac with a 5K display for $2499. This display has a definite use, as it allows graphics and video artists to view a 4K image or video on the screen in its native resolution with bonus room around it for toolbars and other interface bits. Unlike with a 4K TV, there’s a definite selling point here that some people can really use today.


4K PC Gaming

A 4K monitor would let you game in 4K on your PC — there are some big caveats here, though. You’ll need very beefy, high-end graphics hardware to play modern games on high-detail settings in 4K resolution. There’s a good chance you’d prefer lower-resolution gaming with a higher frames-per-second than that 4K gaming. 4K games also might not look as good as you might expect, as games really aren’t optimized for 4K.

And, when we say “very beefy, high-end graphics hardware,” we don’t just mean one top-of-the-line graphics card. We mean multiple top-of-the-line graphics cards.

You’ll end up needing to run your games at a lower resolution, which should work just fine. Just keep it in mind when buying a 4K monitor.

So, should you get a 4K display for your computer? Sure! If you want one and have a few hundred extra bucks to spend on one, you can get a lot of benefits out of it. Unlike with a TV, the higher-detail of a 4K computer monitor is always visible — even when you’re just staring at your desktop taskbar or perhaps a nicely detailed 4K desktop background image.

It also that depends on your use case. If you’re looking to buy a top-notch monitor that looks great, and you have the cash, you should probably invest in 4K instead of buying a lower resolution monitor. If you don’t care that much about how the screen looks, you can get a regular 1080P monitor for really cheap these days.

So it’s really up to you. But we’ve been living with high-resolution displays for a while, and it’s hard to go back to a low-resolution monitor once you’ve used a 4K monitor for a while.

Image Credit: John Bristowe on FlickrKarlis Dambrans on FlickrJon Fingas on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/3/16

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