4K vs 5K

Dear Lazyweb, is a 5K monitor a waste of money?

Is there any chance that I will be able to perceive the difference between 27" 5K and 27" 4K running at the same apparent resolution?

One uses retina 2x pixel scaling, and the other uses 1.5x, and is almost a thousand dollars cheaper.

I do not have microscopic vision. I use this monitor at my desk, sometimes for editing photos and videos but never for watching movies or playing games -- I have a 1080p projector for that.

Previously, previously.

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39 Responses:

  1. Reid says:

    I’ve used both and the 5K is noticeably better for me. Specifically, LG 4K vs. iMac 5K. If it were my money, I'd spend the extra thousand.

  2. John Poole says:

    I've used both and found that the 5K with 2x scaling looks better than the 4K with 1.5x scaling for things text-centric.  macOS warns that 1.5x scaling is slower than 2x scaling but it's not noticeable on recent integrated GPUs.

  3. Carlos says:

    I went with 27" 4K with 1.5x scale so I could also have 120hz refresh rate. The 1.5x scale is a very noticeable improvement over my previous 27" 1440p at 1x I used for years (I stare at text for 12h a day). Since I haven't experienced 2x at this screen size I don't miss anything about it, and 120hz refresh allows for things like video players frame doubling for perfect 24hz playback.

  4. Liam says:

    I use an LG 5K monitor, and it significantly lowered my eyestrain.

  5. Sami Samhuri says:

    For those uses I don’t think you’ll notice a difference. I used a 5k iMac alongside a 27” 4k display at an effective 2560x1440 for several years and it was totally fine for dev work.

    Yes you’ll notice with text if you look closely, and maybe editing photos if they’re high enough resolution. But unless you really know you want that higher DPI and have experienced it before, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with 4k at 27”.

  6. 1

    If you think you're not going to notice the difference then you probably won't. I am much more bothered by a low refresh rate than by the 1.5x scaling.

    I do notice a difference if I lean in, and I wonder if it might make a difference at normal usage distance, all day long. Am I causing strain? Am I making my eyesight worse? I can be very sensitive to my ergonomics but on this front I haven't yet felt the need to spunk $1200+ to replace the 4k monitor that works fine.

  7. Terry Weissman says:

    I think age is very relevant here, and while you are not quite as decrepit as I am, I also suspect you are much older than most of the people here who say they can see a difference.  My ancient eyes don't care.  They haven't cared about things like this in many years, which makes me suspect yours might not either.

    • thielges says:

      My eyes are getting worse at focusing close up though I stumbled across a good solution.  When I set up my pandemic home office, an old 37" HD LCD TV set was dusted off and repurposed as a monitor.  It sits about 30" from my eyes and is easy to read without strain.  The pandemic desk is pretty cheap and crude: a ~4x8' scrap of plywood sitting on a pair of old sawhorses.  The whole setup: chair, desk, monitors, etc. was made from salvaged items and cost a grand total of $0.

  8. Patrick says:

    I notice it almost immediately when I switch from my run of the mill 27" 4k display to my wife's 27" 5k iMac, but not $1000+ worth.  I might have a different opinion if I knew of a 27" 5k screen that had a nicer assortment of inputs (HDMI, displayport, etc), but since the only ones I know of are Thunderbolt only, I'd have to figure out a different display for my windows PCs and that gets annoying quick.

  9. CSL3 says:

    I'm typing these words on a 4K-screened Dell laptop (also touchscreen). If anything, it's best for when I pop in Blu-Ray to my external disc drive. As someone who used to sell HDTVs at CompUSA (and knew more about them than the clerks at the old Sony Style store in the Metreon), 4K is great - especially when compared side-by-side with 1080p - but there is <b>no need</b> for anything higher.

    Even if you put aside the fact that barely any material currently exists for higher-than-4K quality, you're right: there is <b>no perceived difference</b> between 4K and 5K to the naked human eye. Hell, it reminds me of when 7.1 surround sound was starting to debut and I was the one who rolled his eyes, saying "You honestly think the average person can even tell the difference between three channels and 6.1? All 7.1 is is an excuse to tack on a higher number and higher price." And I say that as someone who can hear the difference between Dolby and DTS, but they had no reason to go past 6.1.

    Such is the same with 5K: tell me there's and upcoming abundance of material geared toward that resolution, and I'll consider adopting. 'Til then...

    • Ralston Elko says:

      While this is true if all you do is watch video, if you’ll be dealing with text in any way >200 ppi resolutions are noticeably better than the 160ish you get at 4k/27”.

      If you could see the difference between the iPhone 3g (163 ppi) and the iPhone 4 (300 ppi) you will see the difference in text rendering between 4k and 5k at 27 inches too. IMHO of course.

      • CSL3 says:

        And therein lies the crux of the whole argument: who's gonna see it? Do you actually need the advertised high pixel number - especially enough to spend $1,000 on a monitor - or do you just think those extra pixels are necessary because it's new?

        I have a colleague who used to work for CNet and then TechCrunch, both of which had her review products at different times. I remember one of her video round-ups about digital cameras (this is going back a decade-plus, before smartphones had completely taken over) and she came to a really expensive model with a high-pixel number. She discouraged consumers from shelling out so much for it because "You really don't need that many pixels unless you're blowing [the image] up to poster-size or a billboard or something."

        That same sentiment is summed up in this piece "Why would you want a $10K Camera w/ 100MP anyway?" I mean... I'm sure that resolution would be great for a NASA mission or a deep-sea dive or if you're Rick Deckard needing a-pic-so-hi-res-you-can-just-say-'enhance'-and-'stop'-over-and-over-again, but the average person won't need it to take a pic of their lunch or their kid's first day of school.

        Spending an extra $1,000 on a monitor is just as wasteful if you can't perceive the differences off-hand.

        • Ralston elko says:

          I suppose my point was that if you work with text in any way then the difference between 160 ppi and >200 ppi is very noticeable and worth a premium. Again IMHO, because I definitely can see the difference in text rendering.

          Do keep in mind that a 4k laptop screen (which I’m guessing is at 15 inches or so) is actually >200 ppi. Most 4k desktop monitors are substantially larger with the same resolution and are therefore much less pixel dense. Text on your 4k laptop would look as sharp as text on a 5k 27 inch desktop monitor.

          I am willing to pay the premium for sharpness in text rendering. Others may not be. But my advice for Jwz is that pixel density is worth the money.

        • thielges says:

          Yes, casual photographers really don't need more than 10 megapixels.  But hi-rez cameras do have a role even when the target media is just a magazine or web page.  The common postprocessing changes of cropping, rotation, and perspective correction chip away at the pixels.   It is even more important with video where pans and zooms are often done after the fact.  Many pros shoot in 8K even though their target product is 4K.  Room to fix mistakes.

  10. Tom says:

    > I have a 1080p projector for that

    Short throw? Any recommendations for indoor home use (big-ish room, high ceilings like SF)?

    • jwz says:

      Optoma EH500, 4700 lumen DLP, manufactured in 2008. I like it enough that when it developed some distracting dead pixels a few years ago I just picked up a new one on eBay for like $400 instead of upgrading to anything more modern. These days it is weirdly difficult to find a projector above 3000 lumen.

      Its lamps are about $100 and last a year-ish, but quality and lifetime varies widely depending on which fly-by-night crap-vendor you order from. And "shitty lamp" presents as weird and inconsistent behavior, so always suspect the lamp first.

      It has a built-in web server, so it's easy to power it on and off remotely.

      • Eric TF Bat says:

        Wait - there's a technology that isn't getting eye-blastingly brighter every year?

        Please tell car headlight manufacturers that this is an option.  Wearing sunglasses at night used to be a fashion thing or a sign of drug addiction.  I miss those days.

      • Tom says:

        Thanks. I appreciate you taking the time to respond

  11. Chris says:

    It's perceptible to me, but I sit probably 6 inches farther away than many people would, so I'm fine with 4K. I use the 2x setting because it avoids the downscaling artifacts & I want everything slightly bigger anyway.

    The difference with the new Macbook Pro is similar - it went from "I can see pixels if I lean in" to "I cannot see them even if I try".

  12. Malcolm says:

    I've run 27" 4K and 5K monitors of the same Mac at the same time for coding.  I made the 5K my primary monitor because I found the 5K's text slightly crisper and I made great use of the extra screen real estate.  My preference is for 5K but the differences may not be $1K compelling.

    I also find the pixels on 32" 4K monitors too chunky.

  13. Morgan says:

    I’ve used a 23” Dell 4K at work for several years, and the effective resolution is about the same as a 27” 5K. I can absolutely tell the difference with text, and I find it easier to work on the higher res screen than the 27” 4K I have at home. I would maybe liken it to reading text from an inkjet vs a laser printer.

  14. Eric Parker says:

    The issue is that macOS does not do fractional scaling in a sane manner (scale the UI 150%), what it does is up-rez your 4k screen to 5k and then 2x it, which leads to noticeable pixelation. This also messes up media because the up rezing applies to multimedia, so you end up with worse visual quality all around.

    I would honestly go with a 1440p monitor over 4k on a Mac.

    • Porcupine Club says:

      At least it's consistent. have seen fractional scaling on Windows?

    • Patrick says:

      I dunno, I'm using a 27" 4k screen on one Mac Mini (scaled to 2560x1440) and a 27" 1440p screen on another Mac Mini and the actual 1440 screen is noticeably more pixelated.  I suspect it's because Apple isn't bothering with subpixel rendering any more in the post-Retina display world.

      Ironically I have them that way because I think Windows does display scaling terribly, so 27" 4k at 150% is just weird but 27" 1440 at 100% is fine, so the display that's primarily for Windows is 1440 and the display that's primarily macos is 4k.  But that might be pure preference.

      • Porcupine Club says:

        Yeah, I imagine fractional scaling on macOS looks worse the lower the native resolution of the panel is.

        • Patrick says:

          I had to give up on a 1080 (mumble 19-23"? "small" for modern definitions of small) screen after whatever macos release dropped the subpixel antialiasing, yeah.  It was terrrrrrrible.

          The actual 1440-at-1440 display is ok - if I didn't have a 4k-scaled-to-1440 display to compare it to I probably wouldn't necessarily notice it without leaning in to nitpick? But then again I'm a middle aged nerd with the usual vision complaints, so your mileage may vary.

          But that said, the actual 5k-scaled-to-1440 (which is, IIRC, the default scaling factor?) screen in an iMac is noticeably sharper still.  Not $1300+ worth with how limited the display's inputs are, but if I had the money burning a hole in my pocket and didn't need to switch between Macs and Windows and the occasional retro project, sure, it's great.  I don't know that I'd pony up for the Apple model over the LG version, though.  But it's a monitor, it can outlast most of the other stuff on your desk and you spend all day staring at it, there's no need to be frugal for the sake of frugality.

          All of that is for your usual nerdy text heavy needs, though.  Photography and media creation / consumption? I'unno, I make no claims.

    • Jon H says:

      "what it does is up-rez your 4k screen to 5k and then 2x"

      Presumably only if you choose a resolution that is half of 5k rather than half of 4k.

      Get a utility like DisplayMenu, which provides easy menubar widget access to a wide variety of resolutions, and find something that works for you. You can also choose between HiDPI and non-HiDPI versions of each resolution. You can set it to, say, 3840x2160 HiDPI, which uses an 8k buffer and scales down 50%.

      My 50 year old eyes, which crapped out ten years ago, and whatever glasses I happen to be wearing at the moment, are overwhelmingly the most significant cause of problems and outweigh any marginal issues caused by the rendering method.

  15. Porcupine Club says:

    If you don't notice (or don't care about) the inconsistent anti-aliasing artifacts that come with fractional scaling, or you don't mind losing some screen real-estate by running the 4k at 2x scaling, then by all means save yourself $1000.

    On a laptop with a retina display, set the resolution to "More space" and then slowly drag a window containing black text on a white background across the screen. If the shimmering effect you see as the virtual pixels are resampled onto physical pixels disgusts you, then fractional scaling is not for you.

    Or, I guess, if you don't mind telecine judder, you definitely won't mind fractional scaling artifacts.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Let me suggest to you an interesting and inexpensive alternative; bigger 4k monitors. I use -- depending on work or home office setup -- one or dual 40" monitors. They're really just 4k TVs that have good ratings as monitors on rtings.com. They tend to be inexpensive, around $500 or so on Amazon, Best Buy, etc. though you may need a fancy HDMI cable and DP/HDMI adapter (Club3D is a brand that has worked for me from Amazon, again, need the active versions)

    The resolution is no better than the classic 72-96dpi monitor we've all used a lot since the 80s and 90s but the size is tremendous, giving you loads of room to move stuff around. (Many many side by side browser windows, terminals, etc) Someday an 8k monitor or tv of similar size will serve as a high res but large screen, but this has worked really well for me since around 2016, and aside from sheer elbow room, it's also good for maps and blueprints which are about that size on paper.

    Plus you can hook up a console or whatever on one of the other HDMI inputs.

    Downsides -- uses a lot of desk space and typically notadjustable -- you get a big flat video wall, not unlike Tog's Starfire demo from Sun in the 90s. May also require some fiddling with remotes -- they often have to be convinced to be monitors rather than TVs with overscan, smoothing, etc.  Windows laptops seem to barely support dual 4k@60Hz over TB3, but Macs are great at it. And if you're nearsighted you may need glasses to see everything.

    But I'll never go back and most people who I've convinced to try it like it.

    • k3ninho says:

      I've got 23.6" 3840x2160 screens (LG 24UD58-B, currently £180 in my location/$225 today for 8-bit colour depth on each channel). The jump to retina saves my eyes inferring what each character should be. It's so much less strain on a day of reading text to be up above 180dpi.


  17. mdhughes says:

    I find the iMac 5K better than the adjacent 4K monitor, text is very slightly crisper, especially since Apple doesn't do old-timey subpixels as much, they just have pixels. It's enough that I will never use a non-retina main display again.

    On content other than rendered text, it doesn't make any difference.

  18. Juan Antonio de los Palotes Machado says:

    Buy the 4k, donate the extra 1k to a homeless relief fund.

  19. Simon says:

    If it's an option, neither. For less than the cost of the 5k you can get a good 32" 4k (I have a Dell Ultra sharp) and run 4k native with no scaling.

  20. I have the new Studio Display and vastly prefer it over my 30” 4K Samsung display. No hard evidence, but using both on a daily basis for the past few weeks the higher resolution is easier on my aging eyes.

  21. I'm a mix of what Dude and the anon said.

    Being 36 with poor eyesight I find 4/5k of 27 inches or smaller not enough after buying one just because it was a very good offer (graphics shop shutting down). But a 40" improved my life a lot.

  22. Colin says:

    I’ve had the LG 5k for several years now and it’s wonderful. The added res is great for text based stuff and reducing eye strain and the color on it is great. It’s solidly worth the money if you use your computer a lot. The new Apple Studio display is I hear equally good if not slightly better than the LG.

  23. prefetch says:

    Desktop OLEDs look set to be arriving en-masse in the coming months. There a few 4K 27" models already available (e.g. LG's 27EP950 and 27BP95E, both 163ppi). Pros: pretty, black blacks; cons: burn-in.

  24. Pakraticus says:

    Well... waiting for 4K to hit a better price point than the 2560xwhatever was a win.  I'll repeat it for whatever replaces 4K for the consumer passive entertainment devices.
    I'd try the 5K if work was paying for it.  I'm sticking with 4K coming out of my own pocket.  
    For personal stuff with an Ubuntu desktop... 42" 4K with various tiling so I'm treating it like 2-6 monitors.
    For work 16" macbook + 27" 4K display is effective most of the time.  With two 20" 1080P displays worked better for when I needed to reference code from one code base to work on another... A cricket bat and a plane ticket to encourage the guilty developer into moving some code to a library would have been better.
    40" 4K with the macbook was a fail.  The context switch between quicktile's "tiling keys indicate the general part of the monitor for the window and cycle between different sizes" doesn't match magnet and rectangle's "Yeah, there's a different key combination for every position and size."

  25. Ryan McHale says:

    There a not many 5k monitors out there.  But I definitely noticed when I downgraded from 5k iMac to 4k 27" LG.

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