Triple Your MacBook Retina Real-Estate with a 4K Monitor

Written by dan bartlett in Aug 2016 — product, review
Don't wait for Apple—you can buy an awesome 4K screen today and get it setup as a gorgeous external Retina display.

My setup

I love the Retina display on my MacBook Pro. Even after years of using it, I still catch myself marvelling at it's beauty.

But my heart inevitably sinks when I connect to an external monitor, and get 28" of pixelated fuzz. Boooo.

Alas, there is another way.

Don't wait another 26 years for Apple to catch up and bring out a £2000 4K screen. You don't need to buy an iMac either.

You can buy a much cheaper option today, and enjoy a glorious external display in Retina-like quality. Yes, the discerning eye will notice subtle differences in colour rendering and clarity, due to the excellent quality of the MacBook displays, but it is otherwise identical.

What do you need?

  1. A 4K screen
  2. A cable
  3. SwitchResX

Let's get started!

1. Buy your 4k screen & cable

The Asus PB287Q 28" Ultra HD 4K

The biggest investment is the 4K screen itself. The one I use and recommend is the Asus PB287Q 28 inch Widescreen Ultra HD 4K Monitor, which I bought for £370.

Asus

It's not cheap, but adding the 4K screen to my setup is something I've appreciated more than any other upgrade to my home office.

The screen is stunning, and a constant joy to work with. I get excited every time I connect to it, and watch the 28" of widescreen Retina materialise before me.

The setup was simple, and everything is crisp and beautifully detailed. I can push font sizes down to crazy sizes, and they're still legible—very useful when programming and watching lots of logs.

Stand

This monitor also has a refreshingly good stand, something I didn't used to care about until I used this one.

Height adjustments are easy, in both directions, and the stand itself is rock solid and sturdy. The monitor also has the option of turning fully portrait, although I haven't used it in that way.

Refresh Rate

The Asus PB287Q supports a refresh rate of 60Hz.

I managed to miscalculate my mid-2014 13" MacBook Pro's specs when I bought this monitor, and as a result run it at 45Hz, with a helping hand from SwitchResX.

While I was worried about this at first, I'm happy to report it has made no noticeable difference. The quality is brilliant, and I don't experience any mouse lag or choppy rendering.

I imagine I would experience some lag if I started gaming. But for browsing, coding and even watching videos, I don't notice any degraded performance.

The good news is that the newer MBPs are capable of running the screen at the full 60Hz. Check out the MacRumors guide to 4k and 5k screens for Macs for more details

Getting the right cable is also vital to reaching as high a refresh rate as possible…

Mini DisplayPort Cable

Don't get over-excited and buy your screen, only to realise you can't use it when it arrives, because you forgot to buy the right cable too. That would be stupid, and enormously frustrating… I imagine.

You should go for a MiniDisplay cable to comfortably support the unyielding visual power of 4K.

Displayportcable

I bought this 1 metre Mini DisplayPort to HDMI cable from Neet and it works a treat.

Cost: £8

2. Download and Purchase SwitchResX

When I first started using SwitchResX, it was free. But hey ho, it's a great bit of software, and worth the 20 or so dollars it costs. It is technically shareware, and you can continue to use it for free, but you can't persist your settings after 10 days.

Download SwitchResX here

And be sure to read through this page if you're using El Capitan.

3. Setup a custom resolution

Everything has arrived.

You plug your monitor in with your shiny new cable. It probably won't look pretty.

Fear not. Open SwitchResX. You will need to add a new custom resolution. It will need to be double the size of what you actually want to run the screen at.

Click the icon for your monitor in the sidebar, and then Custom Resolutions. Add a resolution of 3840 x 2160.

If you use this resolution, you'll have enough desktop real estate to fit the Old Testament on a single screen.

3840x2160 thumb

It's pretty cool, and still looks surprisingly good up close. I've used it once or twice whilst trying to track a lot of data and dashboards at once.

But we're after Retina. With the above resolution added, you should now have the option to run a HiDPI resolution at 1920 x 1080.

Switchresx

This will reduce the desktop back to a more manageable size, but with all those extra pixels crammed into rendering more detailed points. It will end up looking more like this, but in crisp Retina:

1920x1080 thumb

Parting thoughts

I've been using this screen for nearly two years now. I absolutely love it, and find it hard to see myself going back to anything other than a 4K screen. I still enjoy turning it on and getting to work on it.

Ditch your pixelated external visual overload and move to 4K—it's so worth it.

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