Macs and 4K displays


Now that world is moving to 4K displays, it's interesting to see what hardware actually works where. This is 4x more pixels than a 1080p display and double (about) that of a retina display (which is 2.8K or 1800p depending on the measurement system). So here is what seems to work. There are two semi-deep technical issues:

  • A 4k display at 60fps needs 18Gbps to run so you need either HDMI 2.0 capable port (there are very few of these right now) or a Thunderbolt 2 connector and then operating system support for Displayport 1.2 (not 1.1). Ironically Windows 8 on Mac hardware can run Displayport 1.2 but the current OS X Mavericks 9.0 does not. So theoretically, any late model MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt 2 can run 4k/60.
  • Then you have to have enough graphics adapter performance to run at 4k/30 or even 4k/60. The short of it is that Intel embedded graphics can sort of handle 4k/30 and the nVidia chips on high end MacBook Pros can handle 4k/30 well, but it is unknown how they will do with 4k/60.
  • The new Mac Pros are being marketed as supporting 4k/60, so that means that it is likely Mavericks will get an update to support Displayport 1.2 on Thunderbolt 2 and of course with their high end AMD graphics cards, they should be able to push lots of frames at 4k/60. In face, the claim is that they can run *three* UltraHD 4k monitors simultaneously!
  • And if you are doing video editing, then you need incredibly fast SSD storage as you huck all that data around.

So given all of this, what is the current state of devices.

  • MacBook Pro 15" with Retina and nVidia Graphics (2012). Good news here is that someone got this to run at 4k/30. It runs very hot and has some lag issues, but it runs. 
  • MacBook Pro 15" with Retina and nVidia Graphics (2013). This should work at 4k/30 out of HDMI 2 and presumably with a Mavericks update would run (probably badly) at 4k/60. This has an HDMI 2.0 port, so the specs say you do 4Kp30 out of that port and the Displayport through Thunderbolt 2 are limited to 2.5K
  • MacBook Pro 15" with Retina and Intel Graphics. Someone (others) tried this at a Seiki 4K display and it actually run OK at 4k/30 with HDMI. The applications are quite laggy though, so probably mainly useful for watching movies I would guess. Given this has the fastest graphics of all previous MacBooks, that probably means it is the slowest thing that will run 4K.
  • MacBook Pro 13" with Retina and Intel Graphics. This uses a less powerful dedicated Intel graphics chip, so no one has tried it but I wouldn't expect great performance with it. It is really meant more as a general purpose computing system.
  • Mac Pro. This is just about out, but the announcement seems to say it will run 4k60 and in fact with run three screens of 4k. Maybe the world moves to transportable computers for a while 😉

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