So Apple didn’t release a 4K (or 5K) standalone Retina display alongside the new 5K iMac, but you can’t hold off any longer on a shiny new display for your Mac Pro. I found myself in the same predicament not too long ago and decided to put a number of displays to the test in recent months. 4K might offer 4x the resolution of your standard 1080p display, but for the short time they’ve been around, they’ve also cost about 4x as much as the alternatives. The good news: There are a few Mac Pro compatible 4K displays (and UHD alternatives) finally starting to hit more reasonable price points just as recent OS X updates fix some issues early adopters first had with the higher resolution displays.
I’ve been testing Mac Pro compatible displays from Dell, Sharp, Samsung, LG, and others that are officially supported by Apple, and put together a list of my thoughts and top picks for those planning on picking up a new Mac Pro this holiday season. Despite my tests being done mostly on a new, stock Mac Pro, these picks stand for Thunderbolt-equipped MacBook users as well.
Apple last made silent minor tweaks to the Thunderbolt display in July 2012, but otherwise it has remained the same since its introduction over 3 years ago. I don’t have much bad to say about Apple’s display— it’s tried and tested and a solid choice— but at $999 almost three years later, I’m inclined to recommend these new 4K displays over Apple’s.
In my tests, the Dell UltraSharp UP3214Q offered the fewest compromises with most shortcomings being OS X related and often much more pronounced in other 4K displays, especially anything in what would be considered an affordable price point for most. Color accuracy, refresh rate, a high-quality IGZO panel, and a solid physical design, most of the other displays I tried didn’t impress in at least one or more of these categories, but the Dell stood strong.
Using this Dell 4K monitor was the first time an external display has been able to live up to the experience of my Retina MacBook Pro, which I had been using since its launch in 2011 before acquiring a new Mac Pro this year. One thing is true for all of these 4K displays: Once you go 4K, there’s no going back. This is a bigger problem for those coming from a Retina MacBook to a new Mac Pro like myself: 1080p simply doesn’t cut it once you’ve experienced super crisp text on a Retina display making 4K a necessity for many.
OS X supports the Dell UP3214Q at 60Hz after manually enabling DisplayPort 1.2 (the same can’t be said for all supported 4K displays) and that’s what I opted for using a mini DisplayPort 1.2 cable into the Thunderbolt port on my Mac Pro and the mini DisplayPort on the monitor. That works with MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Late 2013), Mac Pro (Late 2013), and iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, Late 2014).
The monitor includes 1 HDMI, 1 DisplayPort, 1 mini-DisplayPort, 4 USB 3.0 and a 6-in-1 media card reader, and the stand offers adjustable height, swivel and tilting.
OS X 10.9.3 introduced scaling options for 4K displays not unlike those available for Apple’s own Retina displays. That corrected a lot of the initial complaints about 4K displays with Macs and made the higher resolution displays usable. Apple’s “Best for Display” option, which gives you the display’s full 3840 x 2160 resolution, still made UI elements a bit too tiny for my liking, so I opted for the next down scaling preset that looks like 3008 x 1692 but keeps everything on the display incredibly sharp and easy to read. A side by side comparison of those two resolutions (other scaling options exist) is above. For iOS and Mac users, it’s as close as you’ll get to the experience of a Retina display iPhone or Mac considering the larger 31.5-inch Dell has a much lower 140 PPI pixel density.
I still do have a few hiccups even with the latest Yosemite release using the Dell, and it appears to be related to 4K resolution support as the same issues appeared on displays from Sharp and others, but not lesser resolution UHD options. From time to time I experienced minor screen tearing effects when scrolling and the Dell has issues waking up when my Mac Pro has been asleep for extended periods of time, often requiring a reboot using the display’s power button. While annoyances, neither issue kept me from making this my main display and the top pick among all of the 4K displays I’ve tested.
To top it all off, the Dell has become what I’d consider affordable down from its starting price of $2999 to as low as $1500 and dropping today (Amazon).
It’s not quite 4K, but LG’s new 21:9 Thunderbolt display gives the 4K displays a run for their money by offering one of the most attractive so-called UHD displays that, apart from resolution, beats out most displays on this list in just about every other aspect. At a resolution of 3440 x 1440, the super wide screen format has a lot to offer for pros that spend most of their time in timeline-based editing apps like Logic Pro or Final Cut. You lose a bit of the print quality crispness on text when coming from the Dell and other 4K resolution monitors, but with everything else it offers and a lower price point might make this a better option for many Mac Pro users.
The display didn’t have any of the growing pains experienced with the 4K displays, as mentioned above with the Dell and below with the others. LG made the display to be completely Mac Pro compatible. There’s a lot to like about the Thunderbolt ports at the rear: One allowed me to connect to the Mac Pro using a Thunderbolt cable at the full 3440 x 1440 resolution with a 60Hz refresh rate, while the other acts as a spare for daisy chaining up to six Thunderbolt devices or additional displays.
The monitor includes 2 HDMI ports, headphone out, 1 Display Port, and 2 Thunderbolt ports.
The 21:9 widescreen format is truly an experience all its own. It’s essentially like having two 20.5-inch, 5:4, 1720×1440 displays side by side in one 34-inch panel, and LG also has a Screen Split app that works well for easily docking windows side-by-side in various configurations to get the most out of the wide screen while multitasking. It’s great for pro apps that take full advantage of the wider format for timelines and other features, although it feels a bit vertically challenged in comparison to 4K monitors on the list if a horizontal workflow isn’t your thing.
Content made for the 21:9 widescreen format won’t look better anywhere else, and any content such as games that do not support the widescreen will get black bars along the side of the display essentially giving you a 16:9 display square in the middle. But it’s not my top pick for everyday mainly because the 4K displays blew it away for overall screen real restate while offering crystal clear, nearly print quality text, something that is extremely important in my decision for an everyday work display while multitasking. Having this is as a second monitor for working in pro apps that can benefit from the widescreen is a no-brainer, and it’s by far the nicest looking display on the list from a purely aesthetic standpoint.
The 34” 21:9 Ultrawide WQHD display I reviewed currently sells for $824 (Amazon), and LG has since released a curved version of this display— The 34” 21:9 UltraWide Curved Monitor— that has a slightly different stand and some other tweaks for $1299 or $1799 on (Amazon).
If it weren’t for the fact this display still rings in at around $3,000, around twice as much as the Dell monitor above and most others on this list, Sharp might have come in closer to the top. But I couldn’t justify spending twice as much on it when comparing the two displays side by side and living with them for the past couple months. The benefits of Sharp’s IGZO panel brings the same best in class marks for colors and viewing angles present in Dell’s monitor, but I’d put it a notch behind Dell in other categories including overall design, price, and user experience for configuration and more. While the Dell has come down in price by about half of its original asking price, the Sharp remains too pricey to recommend over other options.
One category the Sharp definitely wins in is build quality. The whole package is quite a tank in comparison to the Dell, which cuts down on any potential wobbling, although it’s mainly the weight of the display, a wider base, and slightly beefier stand. That’s not to take away from the Dell’s hardware, which is solid and not too long ago cost about the same as the $3000 Sharp. The stand is comparable to Dell’s with adjustable height, swivel and tilting action. On the back the display has two HDMI ports, 1 DisplayPort, and audio in/out.
Apple continues to offer this display as an add-on alongside the Mac Pro and through its online store for $3595. Or get it on Amazon for as low as $2900.
With a 31.5-inch IGZO panel from Sharp like the Dell UP3214Q, there isn’t much to complain about with this display and it remains a solid option if you aim to save a couple hundred dollars over our top pick. But with the Dell coming down in price and often on sale for the same price or less than the Asus, there aren’t many reasons to recommend this display over Dell’s unless you simply prefer its design.
It includes an 2 HDMI ports, 1 DisplayPort 1.2, Audio in/out and is essentially the same design as the Sharp display above.
Dell’s UP24 looks like a smaller, 24-inch version of our top pick, the 31.5” UltraSharp UP3214Q, but it includes an LG panel of lesser quality that leaves much to be desired when it comparing it to the 31.5-inch version’s IGZO panel from Sharp. Still, at $600, it’s an officially supported option that is probably your best bet if your budget doesn’t allow for any of the picks above. Apple also supports this display with a refresh rate of 60 Hz — the only display with support in this price range– when using a DisplayPort 1.2 cable and manually enabling the setting for MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Late 2013, Mac Pro (Late 2013), and iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, Late 2014.
The new LG 4K has promise: Apple just added this recently announced LG display (31MU97) to its list of officially supported 4K and UHD displays for OS X. We’re awaiting a review unit and will do a full review plus update this comparison once it arrives (perhaps we’ll have a new winner!).
It features a “Digital Cinema 4K” native resolution of 4096 x 2160, slightly higher than the other 4K displays on this list, an IPS LED panel like our top picks, 2 HDMI, 4USB, 1 headphone port, 1 Display Port, and 1 mini Display Port. Its stand also allows switching to a portrait landscape on the fly, without requiring a third-party Vesa mount, and it starts at a competitive $1399 as it rolls out to various markets slowly.
It’s available to order now for $1,399 in select regions (Amazon).
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Other 4K displays exist, but straying from Apple’s official list of supported displays is dangerous territory with a long list of compatibility issues documented online for the majority. Things are a little better for compatibility with these cheaper displays if you can deal with an often choppy 30Hz refresh rate or a less than spectacular panel, and MacBook users seem to be having more success with unsupported displays than Mac Pro users.
We got a $400 Samsung 4K display up and running on a custom Mac setup, but it’s not a route I’d recommend going. There’s a reason Samsung’s 28-Inch 4K Monitor (U28D590D) isn’t officially supported by Apple, and at a $500 price tag and dropping, you can probably imagine you’ll be getting what you pay for here when it comes to both build quality and compatibility.
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