Monitors for MacBooks
March 19, 2015 8:09 PM   Subscribe

I have an early 2014 MacBook Pro (HDMI and two Thunderbolt 2 ports). I also have a 20" Dell "UltraSharp" 2007WFP, purchased in 2005 with a resolution of 1680x1050. Retina display has ruined this monitor for me. Have monitors changed much in the past 10 years? Can I get a reasonably priced one that won't look like I took my glasses off? I'd like to pay less than $1,000, hopefully a lot less. Can I afford to get two?
posted by one_bean to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Monitors have gotten better in the last 10 years, yes, but you're not going to find an affordable retina-level monitor, much less 2.

It's not clear if they sell 2K monitors these days--2K is 2048x1536 (with a couple of variations including 1080p), roughly 4:3, and therefore not really a widescreen that the market demands. 1080p resolution is 1920x1080, a 16:9 ratio which does seem to be what the market wants, partly because they can sell a widescreen TV as a computer monitor, and vice-versa, more or less-- HDMI universality and external tuners make them interchangeable. 1080p is what's affordable. Full 4:3 2K, if it exists, is probably not affordable for being rare.

Then there's 4K, which is truly wonderful to behold, and pricy. Retina Macbook Pro is 2880x1800, 4K starts, at its lowest form still considered 4K, at UHD, ultra-high-definition, 3840 x 2160. UHD monitors exist, and in the general 25", give or take, area, you're looking at $500 give or take. So yes, you can afford 1, maybe 2. Shop the around as long as it takes.

Can your MBP actually drive 2 UHD monitors as well as its retina? Yes, at limited refresh rate, typically 30Hz, sometimes 24 for full 4K. Good enough for watching a movie (unless you're watching the Hobbit which was filmed at 48 fps), good for web and web video and most TV and spreadsheets. Gaming won't work great at that framerate, but that's okay, because mostly games will play at reduced resolution, most likely 1080p or 2048 (2K).

Here's where I found Apple's qualifications about using your MBP with 4K monitors.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:51 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Take a look at this link from The Wirecutter. Basically standalone 4K monitors are expensive or not ready for primetime.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:52 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I am aware of 4K monitors, and their price tags. I guess what I'm wondering is about a typical entry level monitor - 1920x1080 doesn't sound appreciably better than what I have. A pixel is a pixel, right? A monitor at that resolution made today is going to be as fuzzy as the one I bought ten years ago?
posted by one_bean at 9:06 PM on March 19, 2015

A monitor you buy today at 1080i will be LED, most likely. It'll look better than 2005's LCD or Plasma, brighter brights and darker darks. Not that you should buy a monitor based on how it looks in the store, but look at a few in the store at least for fuzziness. You can also buy a really big screen (a flatscreen TV is what we're talking about) for well under your budget, probably 2, and you can just stand farther away. Big pixels can make up for there not being a lot of them.

If not, well, 4K/UHD is the place to go.

I know a guy who drinks cognac as his main drink, and he drank VO for years because it's what he could afford. Then someone buys him a pricy bottle of VSOP for his birthday, and now he drinks VSOP. His friends know better than to threaten him with the gift of a bottle of XO, because there's no going back, but habitually drinking XO is not affordable.

I were you, I'd do as my friend does and with the cheaper 1080p, inferior but still good, and keep up a good refresh rate. I work in the video field, and my customers live with lower resolution before they live with lower framerate. Most of them, anyway. Try the new 1080p LED screens and see what you can live with. Then send a bottle of XO cognac to Tim Cook as revenge.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:21 PM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

FWIW, because I don't know much about monitors (I can't keep up with any of the other answers, truthfully), I don't really notice an appreciable difference between this older Mac Cinema Display, Apple MC007LL/A 27-Inch LED Cinema Display (Amazon link) and my late-2013 Retina MacBook Pro working side by side. I'm a (print) graphic designer and am super happy working on detailed stuff using this monitor. You'll need a cheap Magsafe to Magsafe2 adapter for the power cord (or not, I guess, you don't need to power your laptop through the monitor), you don't need an adapter for the display's MiniDisplay connector to work with the Thunderbolt port on your laptop.

Again, I'm not qualified in any way to comment on technical aspects, but as far as what I can see as someone working in a visual field, the Apple Cinema Display looks so much crisper than anything made by Dell. I've had roommates with huge external monitors they paid roughly the same price for as I paid for mine (around $750, but these can be had for cheaper) and they just weren't as nice.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 9:28 PM on March 19, 2015

I don't really notice an appreciable difference between... a 27-Inch LED Cinema Display and my late-2013 Retina MacBook Pro working side by side

Dude. I notice a huge difference between my Cinema Display and my Retina MacBook Pro. I suppose it depends on how good your eyes are and how close you sit, but while the Cinema Display is good, it ain't Retina.
posted by primethyme at 9:59 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can put an Apple Thunderbolt Display into Retina ("HiDPI") mode. They are very nice screens and they dock very nicely with MBPs, but you could only buy one of these displays with the budget you indicate. If your budget can support two, you could get two and either daisy-chain or plug both into your MBP. Or you can spring for one 4K display and put it into HiDPI mode.

Apple's Retina displays have ruined me on other computer displays, as well. I sympathize.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:38 PM on March 19, 2015

Putting a Thunderbolt Display or any other non-HiDPI monitor into HiDPI mode will just make everything on the screen look twice as large as normal, which is probably not what you want.
posted by zsazsa at 11:01 PM on March 19, 2015

Oh, and on normal non-HiDPI screens you should see individual pixels, not blurriness. I have used this model of monitor at work and while it definitely isn't Retina-quality, it's not blurry by any means. If your monitor's display is actually fuzzy, it may not be running at the proper resolution, or may be hooked up via VGA cable and not be auto-adjusted. How is the Dell 2007WFP hooked up to your MacBook? If it's via the DVI port it should be OK, but if it's via VGA you may need to go into settings and have it go through its auto-adjust process.
posted by zsazsa at 11:05 PM on March 19, 2015

Putting a Thunderbolt Display or any other non-HiDPI monitor into HiDPI mode will just make everything on the screen look twice as large as normal

That's true, but that's pretty much the only way you're getting a Retina display, until Apple releases one.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:07 PM on March 19, 2015

A monitor you buy today at 1080i will be LED, most likely. It'll look better than 2005's LCD or Plasma
It'll still be an LCD. The backlights have changed from cold-cathode fluorescents to LEDs, and there will be other improvements as well, but its still an LCD.
posted by Good Brain at 11:30 PM on March 19, 2015

I too am retina-spoiled, and I had the same dilemma as you. After some extensive research, I went with a Dell 24" 4K IPS display, which I too am using with a mid-2014 Macbook Pro Retina (though I also have used it successfully with the mid-2012 pro retina.)
It's the first consumer 4K display that hit all of my must-haves:
  • under $1000 (though ideally under 700)
  • mini-displayport
  • Single Stream Transport (SST)
  • IPS Panel
  • 60 Hz refresh rate
  • stand adjustable to portrait mode (more of a nice-to-have than a must for me)
I chose the 24" over the identically-spec'd 27" both because of cost and because intellectually I liked the increased pixel density of the 24" (though I likely wouldn't be able to see a difference were the 24 and 27 side by side.)

I've been using it for 2 months now with no issues, and definitely recommend it.
posted by namewithoutwords at 1:51 AM on March 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm currently debating between the monitor namewithoutwords mentioned above and Dell's UP2414Q, which has a bit more brightness and better color support. I think the other difference is that the P2415Q can do 60 Hz on HDMI while the UP2414Q can only do 30 Hz (but can do 60 Hz with DisplayPort).
posted by JackBurden at 8:58 AM on March 20, 2015

Retina display quality is, more than anything else, due to pixel density. The HiDPI mode referenced by other commenters is basically a pixel-doubling mode used to make UI elements and text usable and readable.

Realistically, your best be is going to be to get a monitor with good but not great pixel density. Don't think huge in terms of size, but huge in terms of pixels. If you want to really simulate a retina display, you're going to want to put it further away from you than you normally would, and possible turn on HiDPI mode, assuming it doesn't make things comically huge.

Unfortunately, few monitors have that density. The iMac that Apple considers viably Retina-quality is 27" but it's a 5k display.
posted by mikeh at 9:38 AM on March 20, 2015

Using 4K displays and Ultra HD TVs with your Mac

Supported displays and configurations

You can use 4K displays and Ultra HD TVs with these Mac computers.

• MacBook Pro (Retina, Late 2013 and later)
• Mac Pro (Late 2013)
• iMac (27-inch, Late 2013 and later)
• Mac mini (Late 2014)
• MacBook Air (Early 2015)
• MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2015)

posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:27 AM on April 13, 2015

Response by poster: Update: thanks for all the responses. I've decided to suck it up for now and wait for 4K displays to become cheaper / more reliable.
posted by one_bean at 6:29 PM on April 13, 2015

I have an early 2013 MBP and was hoping to get a 4k display at some point, so was disappointed to see a lungful of dragon's note. However, it looks like despite Apple's official lack of support, this model can support 4k displays at 30 hz.
posted by Emanuel at 5:12 AM on April 17, 2015

Emanuel - I have a mid-2012 MBP Retina with discrete graphics which though not on the list, drives my 4K monitor just fine at 60 Hz over mini-displayport (thunderbolt).
posted by namewithoutwords at 10:45 AM on April 17, 2015

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