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Pixel problems: Living with a 5K monitor isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (yet)

Living with a 5K display
Greg Mombert/Digital Trends
5K is the future of computer monitors. While it may seem like an extravagant and unnecessary luxury, it’s actually an ideal — the resolution at which any further advancement makes little sense. It guarantees that a 27-inch display, used at a normal viewing distance of twenty inches, is completely free of visible pixels. 4K can be improved upon. 5K is perfect.

But what is it like to use a 5K display every day? To find out I’ve spent the last few weeks with the Dell UP2715K and the technical preview of Windows 10. My retinas will never be able to accept 1080p again, but that doesn’t mean you should buy a 5K monitor immediately.

Plug what into what?

The first problem any Windows user with a 5K display will run into is hooking it up.

No currently available display standard can handle 5K resolution. DisplayPort 1.3 offers enough bandwidth, but it’s not supported by any hardware (yet). The only way to drive a 5K display is with not one but two DisplayPort 1.2 connections. A video card that only supports DP 1.1 won’t work, even if it has two ports available. That means you’ll need to upgrade your video output if your system is more than a few years old.

4K can be improved upon. 5K is perfect.

Oh, and you need to plug the ports in the correct order, as well. Switching them will result in a blank screen. Dell at least provides two DisplayPort cords in the box, and one is marked with a blue sticker on both ends, so users can tell one cord from the other.

If you have a video card with the right DisplayPort connections, and enough of them to go around, then using the display is the plug-and-play experience you’d expect from any monitor. Mostly. We had problems with Windows 10 detecting the UP2715K as the primary monitor on boot if another external monitor was connected, and waking the monitor from sleep often took 10 or 15 seconds. Waking from sleep failed twice, though the problem was fixed by turning the monitor off and back on.

Dell UP2715K
Dell UP2715K connections Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

These problems place a barrier on entry, but Dell’s cutting-edge display is mature in other ways. The UP2715K is a 60Hz monitor, and was instantly detected as such. It also does not use two separate display panels bound together, as did early 4K displays, so there’s no chance of vertical tearing as windows are moved to and fro. Put simply, 5K works like any other monitor – once you run the gauntlet of setting it up.

Windows still isn’t prepared for high resolutions

Booting into Windows with the UP2715K is an astounding experience. Suddenly, a new level of sharpness becomes apparent. Fonts that once appeared fuzzy look crystal-clear. And images reveal detail that was previously invisible.

At least, that’s what I hoped for.

In truth, the default Windows experience is poorly tuned for 5K. This is made immediately obvious by the default backgrounds used by the operating system. Their resolution is a mere 1,980 by 1,200, which means they contain around a sixth as many pixels as a full 5K image. Stretched to their limit, the default selection of wallpaper looks awful, as if it’s been run through JPEG compression ten times too many.

My retinas will never be able to accept 1080p again.

Portions of Windows 10 do a reasonably good job of scaling its interface. Unlike earlier incarnations of Windows, the latest Technical Preview appears designed with high pixel densities in mind. Default icons look razor-sharp, even in Explorer, and window borders share the same clarity.

Yet there are obvious problems. Windows, as an operating system that must support a long list of third-party applications from past incarnations, cannot control what third-party developers do. Spotify, for example, is a mess of fonts and images stretched to their breaking point, and the application’s Icon looks straight out of Windows 95.

Stranger still are the text-scaling issues found even in Metro. Microsoft’s new interface design is supposed to handle high pixel densities without issue, yet some aliasing is obvious in text found on the login screen, the taskbar and the Start menu.

Metro apps suffer similar problems. The Windows Store, for example, has made little effort to ensure images scale as well. Even the icons used for Microsoft’s own software, such as the preview editions of Word and Excel for Windows 10, are obviously up-scaled from a much lower resolution. This is not just a 5K problem: the unexpected softness is also visible on a 4K monitor.

MacBook Pro
MacBook Pro with Retina Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Apple released the first MacBook with Retina display almost three years ago, and has been encouraging developers to update applications ever since with moderate success. Cupertino’s engineers have also updated all of its in-house software, provided appropriately pixel-dense wallpapers, and stuck to resolutions exactly twice that of previous, non-Retina displays to make scaling as painless as possible. The result is an experience that usually (but not always) takes advantage of the clarity high pixel densities can offer.

Microsoft, meanwhile, still hasn’t updated many of its own applications and icons, and hasn’t suggested third-party developers do the same. Windows 10 is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

Content quandary

It’s not just Microsoft, or even software developers, that need to change their ways. Content suitable for a 5K display was difficult to find no matter where I looked. Even images are rare; approximately half the images I used as wallpaper or login backgrounds were ripped straight from Apple, which developed a number of them for 5K displays.

And those images, already rare, make up the entirety of 5K content. There’s no 5K video available, of course, and while many games offer support for the resolution, you’d need an absurdly powerful rig just to play games that are several years old. I found 1440p images are the best compromise, since they are readily available and, at exactly half the pixel count, scale well.

5K is undoubtedly the future of computer displays, but the future is not today.

Even 4K video can be difficult to find. Outside of a few trailers, most UltraHD available on the PC comes courtesy of YouTube and other streaming video services. Unfortunately, high-resolution displays are a particularly poor choice for compressed content like this, as their extreme clarity makes even the smallest artifacts visible. The problem is most noticeable in video that includes significant motion, where trailing artifacts are common, and easy to pick out. This, to the credit of Dell and Microsoft, is not a problem uniquely suffered by extreme resolution video on Windows. The iMac with Retina struggles, too, with the same issues.

Still, boosting streaming video 4K does show some benefit, even in YouTube. The enhanced clarity is most obvious when viewing images that have a significant fine detail. A shot of a car moving across a background of tall grass and wildflowers, for example, looks much sharper than a shot of a car moving across a flat plane, or down a typical city street. The difference can be subtle, but it is there, and when it’s noticeable it does enhance the viewing experience. Just don’t expect the obvious, punch-in-the-face impact of viewing a 4K OLED television for the first time. PCs simply don’t have widespread access to the content that puts 4K monitors in their best light, never mind 5K.

OK, what’s it good for?

Alright, we’ve determined that 5K isn’t a great resolution for the Windows operating system, and that content currently available on PC can’t do it justice. If that’s true, then, who cares? What is 5K for?

Photo and video editing.

A full 4K image takes up about 10 inches of the Dell UP2715K’s 13 inches of vertical real-estate, and about 17 and half inches of its 23 and half horizontal inches. That means a full 4K image can be viewed in its entirety with significant room left over for other windows or software tools.

Put another way, a 5K display offers about 1,000 extra horizontal pixels and 700 extra vertical pixels when a 4K image is open. That’s enough space for an open webpage, Explorer window, or any number of software utilities. Video editing tools, meanwhile, may occupy that extra space with a timeline and other tools while simultaneously viewing UltraHD in its full, unscaled glory.

Dell UP2715K
Dell UP2715K Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The extreme resolution can also be useful to anyone who works with numerous windows, though less so than you’d think. Technically, a 5K display could show about 10 browser windows or documents comfortably, assuming each fit within a space about 1,000 pixels wide and 1,000 pixels tall. That’s a lot of data!

Whether or not you can use all of the data will depend on your eyesight, however. Editing a document at 100-percent scale in Word is possible, as the text, while tiny and fine, is entirely legible thanks to the UP2715K’s extreme pixel density. Yet it’s certainly at the border of what I find comfortable, and I have 20/20 eyesight (with corrective lenses). Even a slight deviation from that imperfect human standard is going to make up-scaling a requirement, and that means using 5K at less than its full potential. From a productivity standpoint, at least.

The future isn’t now

Using a 5K display every day will spoil you. The clarity of fine text, and the rare images that do the display justice, opened my eyes to a world of computing without pixels. An appropriately tailored Windows desktop doesn’t look like a computer screen on Dell’s UP2715K. It looks like a high-quality print carefully attached to a slab of metal.

That impression is fleeting, however. Reality often interrupts the enjoyment of 5K bliss with blurry photos, strangely aliased fonts and artifact-filled video. This is a problem on any display with a resolution beyond 1440p, but it’s particularly bad in the Windows environment, which is years behind the Mac’s embrace of pixel-dense displays.

In short, 5K isn’t ready for primetime. It’s available for Windows only through Dell’s extravagantly expensive monitor, and for Mac only through an equally luxurious all-in-one. Even if you can afford it, you may not be able to take full advantage of its resolution. Users who primarily consume content, like games and video, will see little benefit until more content is available.

Those who produce content, however, will find more to like. This is true even for writers, to an extent. I found the extreme clarity of the UP2715K’s text a boon, as I could view more documents simultaneously and decipher tiny fonts with little or no eyestrain. Photo editing is pure joy – providing, of course, you have a camera that can do the display justice.

5K is undoubtedly the future of computer displays, but the future is not today. Content, even entire operating systems, have to catch up. That could happen sooner than you’d think – a few years, perhaps – but until then, most people should stick with 4K as the resolution of choice. It too offers a massive increase in clarity over 1080p and, unlike 5K, it can display UltraHD content without scaling.

Editors' Recommendations

Matthew S. Smith
Matthew S. Smith is the former Lead Editor, Reviews at Digital Trends. He previously guided the Products Team, which dives…
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