4K may make sense on TVs, but what about your next PC?

4k monitor buying guide why get pcs laptops monitors how buy computer pc dell p2815q asus viewsonic

Though originally crafted as a new feature for TVs, it now seems that 4K (aka Ultra HD) may make its way to consumers more quickly by hitching a ride on desktop monitors and notebook PCs. ASUS, Dell, Toshiba and Viewsonic showed new Ultra HD products at CES, and while they do carry a premium, some, like the $699 Dell P2815Q monitor, are reasonably obtainable.

You may soon find yourself with a choice between 1080p, 1440p, and 4K. Does the higher resolution result in a pixel-dense bliss, or should you wait for the tech to mature?

More pixels

Let’s start with the basics: what is 4K? You might think that it’s a resolution which in some way includes the number “4,000,” but you’d be wrong. 4K is named as such for the same reason Mustangs are sold with a “5.0” badge when the engine is really 4.95 liters: because it sounds better, especially from a marketing standpoint.

The real resolution of a 4K display is typically 3,840 x 2,160. There are some other formats though, like 4,096 x 2,160 resolution which is commonly used for digital cinema projection, but consumer devices almost always use the former format, which can also be called 2160p.

Add the pixels one-by-one, and you’ll end up at an astounding 8,924,400. By comparison, 1080p adds up to 2,073,600, and 1440p comes to 3,686,400. This means that 4K offers more than twice the pixels of the highest-resolution desktop monitors previously available for a Windows PC. Even a MacBook Pro 15 with Retina has “only” 5,184,000 pixels; over three million less!

4karea

Packing in the extra dots sends pixel density skyward. The pair of 15.6-inch Ultra HD laptops shown by Toshiba at CES 2014, for example, served up almost 280 pixels per inch. While some tablets already exceed that, they’re also meant to be used more intimately. A large laptop will usually be no closer than two or three feet from the user, so individual pixels become practically invisible.

And that’s the technology’s headline feature. Content designed for 4K looks almost impossibly crisp on an appropriate monitor or laptop. Games hardly need anti-aliasing because the “jaggies” between pixels become almost unnoticeable. And fonts are rendered as if they were printed on paper and then stuck behind the screen.

Mo’ pixels, mo’ problems

More pixels means sharper image quality and a better PC experience overall. So 4k is all good, no matter how you slice it, right?

Wrong.

Here’s the problem; computers don’t work like televisions. When a television is sent a source with a resolution below its native resolution, it will use a scaling algorithm to compensate for the difference. HDTV makers have spent a lot of time researching the best way to accomplish this, and televisions ship with respectably quick processors (usually based on ARM architecture) to deliver fast, high-quality scaling.

Monitors have no such hardware, and just do what they’re told. If a program says its main menu should be 500 pixels tall, you’re getting a menu that’s 500 pixels tall. So, as pixel count increases, that menu becomes smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until it’s so small it can hardly be used. Redmond, we have a problem!

All of the 4K laptops we saw at CES suffered from almost unusably small icons, even with scaling set to the max.

Microsoft has responded to this issue with a variety of features, including built-in scaling and font calibration, but the pace of the company’s response has fallen behind the advance of technology. All of the 4K laptops we saw at CES suffered from almost unusably small icons, even with scaling set to the max. Windows also doesn’t do much when it comes to scaling old software, so an app designed for 1,280 x 1,024 monitors a decade ago is a headache to use on Windows 8.1 with a 4K display.

Gamers will also run into problems. Most modern games will launch at 4K, but smooth play is another matter. Any increase in pixel count results in a not-quite-linear, but a still substantial increase in GPU load. Want to play Metro 2033 at 4K and max detail? No problem! You’ll just need four Nvidia GTX Titans. Good luck coming up with that kind of cash, unless you’re Bruce Wayne’s cousin or something.

And then there’s the issue of 4K content. We saw some beautiful demonstration videos at CES, but they were simply that; demos. There are few 4K movies or shows available, and while the infrastructure for it is beginning to develop, you’ll have to wait a few years before content becomes widely available in 4K.

Should you go 4K?

Shoppers in the market for a Windows laptop, particularly one with a screen smaller than 17 to 18 inches, should hold off on getting anything above 1080p if desktop use is important. The Windows Metro interface scales pretty well, but the desktop does not, and old software can be a literal pain to work with if your eye-sight is less than perfect.

Desktop monitors are larger and easier on your eyes, but most users will still need to run Windows at its maximum scaling pre-set, which is 150% of normal size, to feel comfortable. This setting makes icons large enough for people to read, but don’t expect them to look crisp. Some browsers have issues with scaling even on a desktop monitor as well. Google Chrome is particularly bad.

Windows 4K scaling

There are some individuals who might want a 4K desktop monitor, however. Anyone who’s looking to edit extremely high-resolution images or video will love the extra space. Hardcore gamers will deep wallets will also enjoy the astoundingly crisp visuals of Ultra HD. Though, as mentioned earlier; expensive hardware is required to play the most demanding games at high detail.

Even if you have a reason to fall for 4K, though, you’ll need to check that your computer can support it. Only recent video cards can output to a resolution this high. Nvidia has a product page that can tell you if your GPU is compatible. AMD does not, so you’ll have to look up your particular card, but generally speaking, you’ll need a mid-range Radeon 7000 series card or better. And only the Intel HD 4000/5000 series can handle Ultra HD; all previous integrated Intel GPUs cannot.

Conclusion

Our recommendation is to wait unless if you have specific need for more pixels. As stunning as 4K monitors may be, we expect them to drop in price significantly over the next year, and current software support isn’t good enough to justify opening your wallet for it just yet. 

Smart Home

Samsung SmartThings adds A.I.-based Wi-Fi for faster, smarter home networking

Samsung introduced the SmartThings Wifi, an A.I.-based multifunction mesh networking router with an integrated smart home hub. The device intelligently allocates network speed and bandwidth based on device and application needs.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2018, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR, and much more.
Mobile

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 vs. Pixel 2 XL: Flagship face-off

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is a productivity powerhouse. With its Snapdragon 845 processor and 6GB of RAM, it's sure to please the most demanding user. How does it compare to the Pixel 2 XL? We put the two phones head-to-head to find out.
Computing

One of these monitors will look great next to your new MacBook Pro

Apple doesn't make its beloved Cinema Display monitors anymore, which makes finding the best monitor for the MacBook Pro more difficult. In this guide, we break down some of our favorites and offer something for every size and budget.
Computing

Intel’s ninth-generation CPUs could launch on October 1

New rumors point to an October 1 release date for Intels' next-generation CPUs. The 9900K, 9700K, and 9600K could all debut in just a few weeks time, offering higher clocks and increased core counts.
Product Review

5 generations later, Microsoft's Surface Pro is still the best 2-in-1 out there

At first glance, the 2017 Surface Pro looks like an incremental update to the Surface Pro 4, which was already our favorite detachable tablet. But does the newest version earn its own place at the top of the 2-in-1 heap?
Computing

AMD’s new 32-core Ryzen Threadripper chip is out, and you can get one for free

AMD’s 32-core Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX CPU is now available for $1,800. It’s compatible with motherboards packing the TR4 socket and the X399 chipset. The only other new Threadripper chip arriving this month will be the 2950X.
Computing

Google may launch two Pixelbook 2 laptops in October

Google may have a new Pixelbook design to show off in just a few weeks, with a new rumor suggesting two variations on the new laptop will be showcased at the start of October with new Intel hardware under the hood.
Gaming

Wage war on a budget with these fun and free first-person shooters

We all know about Halo and Call of Duty by now, but what about quality titles that won't cost you upward of $60? Check out our picks for the best free first-person shooter games from Paladins to Quake Champions.
Computing

Apple preps production of updated MacBook Air for a 2018 launch

To reach its rumored launch timeline of later this year for its low-cost notebook, Apple is expected to begin production of its updated MacBook Air soon. The sub-$1,000 laptop could launch as early as September or October.
Smart Home

White-hat Chinese hackers turn Alexa into a spy, briefly

A team of Chinese researchers revealed this week that they were able to use a cracked Amazon Echo to exploit a series of Alexa interface flaws to take control over an unteuched Echo running on the same network.
Music

Spotify vs. Pandora: Which music streaming service is better for you?

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Computing

What's the best laptop? We've reviewed a lot of them -- and this is our answer

The best laptop should be one that checks all the boxes: Great battery life, beautiful design, and top-notch performance. The laptops we've chosen for our best laptops you can buy do all that — and throw in some extra features while…