Never mind Retina Displays: Get ready for 4K on the new Mac Pro

Never mind Retina Displays: Get ready for 4K on the new Mac Pro

Last year Apple introduced MacBook Pros with Retina Displays, and many folks watching the Mac market have assumed that it's only a matter of time before the rest of the line has them too. That may be true, but the newly redesigned Mac Pro is going to leapfrog that by offering something that so far, no other Mac can handle - 4K video. And not just 4K video, but 4K video on three screens.

The Mac Pro doesn't have a built-in display, of course. What it does have is Thunderbolt 2 and dual AMD FirePro graphics processing units with up to six gigabytes of dedicated VRAM. That's enough horsepower to drive three 4K displays simultaneously - ideal for pro video workstations, visual effects work in cinema, and film editing.

That only scratches the surface of what the Mac Pro will be able to do. It even has a dedicated HDMI port that conforms to the 1.4 specification, which supports 4K video, so you'll be able to connect it directly to a 4K "broadcast monitor" to see how the images you're working on will look in real life.

Now, 4K processing on the Mac is nothing new. Blackmagic Design, for example, makes switchers, capture and playback cards designed to work with Macs that do 4K. But having 4K native support is an entirely different story.

What is 4K?

4K is also known UHDTV, or Ultra High Definition TV. 4K operates at 3840 x 2160 resolution, four times what today's HDTVs do. That sounds like a lot, and it is. It's 8.3 million individual pixels, compared to 2.0 million pixels for a standard 1080p HD signal. As a point of comparison, Apple's Thunderbolt Display sports a resolution of 2560 x 1440, or about 3.3 million pixels.

4K is a lot of pixels to push, which is why you need something like Thunderbolt 2 or HDMI 1.4 to push them all. It's also why you need powerful graphics processors like the FirePro to process that data.

Some companies have garnered a fair degree of publicity for themselves by introducing 4K televisions for home use, but so far, they're the rarified domain of people with big media rooms who can afford really gargantuan TVs. 84-inch UHD sets were the first to appear; now they've gone down in size to 55-inch or smaller.

Blu-ray Disc (BD) resolution maxes out at 1920 x 1080, for example - that's "standard" HD resolution. Some companies have introduced BD players that will "upscale" to 4K resolution (and 4K TVs will upscale HD content themselves, as well); Sony's also shown off a 4K video player and a download service that provides native 4K content.

Why is 4K important?

4K is used in cinema. The past decade has seen a big switch in most movie theaters from traditional film projection to digital film projection. No longer are movie theater projectionists rolling big spools of film from reels - they're showing movies using LCD projectors, Digital Micromirror Devices (DMDs) and similar technology.

The benefit for you is that the days of seeing scratches and dust are over: you watch a pristine "print" of the movie whether you show up on opening weekend or three weeks later. Digital movies don't wear out like film prints do. The advantage for the film distributors and the movie theaters is that there's no actual bulky, fragile film to transport or maintain - movies can be downloaded, depending on the connection to the theater, or delivered on a hard drive.

Video and film editing, special effects and post-production is still a vital business for Apple, and it's a place where the Mac Pro had done well over the years - but the Mac Pro hasn't aged well for the new era of digital filmmaking. By incorporating the massive bandwidth of Thunderbolt 2 (six ports, each operating at 20 Gbps bandwidth), the prodigious parallel processing power of the Mac Pro's CPUs and GPUs, and by streamlining the throughput as much as possible, Apple's tried to optimize the new Mac Pro to be a digital filmmaking powerhouse.

Still pricy

Small form-factor 4K displays are still pretty expensive. To get a 32-inch 4K monitor, you're still going to spend upwards of $3,000 at the moment. That price will come down as the technology is more broadly used, though.

But Apple's never been known to skimp on monitors. The company advertises only one model at present - the 27-inch Thunderbolt Display. It's available at a wallet-crushing $999. It has some nice features that make it particularly convenient for a Thunderbolt-equipped Apple computer user, like built in MagSafe power adapter for laptops, USB, FireWire, Thunderbolt and Gigabit Ethernet - but it's also squarely in the high end of the 27-inch display market.

Apple probably won't compete on price with any new 4K display right out of the gate. But given the dearth of 4K monitors available today (Asus is one of the few companies to have one in production), it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Apple offer a new screen for the Mac Pro.

Apple is not just making the new Mac Pro ready for 4K but is really pushing the capability as one of the device's big selling points. That should give you some idea of who they think is a key market for the new device - it's squarely aimed at creative professionals in film, television and video. People who are working with 4K content today or preparing to do so, and need a computer that can keep up with them.

4K isn't something that every Mac owner should want or need. In fact, it's going to remain a pretty specialized technology for a while, until the price comes down and programming becomes available for it.

Back to the Retina Display

"Retina Display" is a marketing term invented by Apple to describe displays that have high enough resolution so you don't notice individual pixels at a typical viewing distance. That's a bit subjective, and the pixel density of devices labeled with Retina Displays has varied. The iPhone, for example, sports a 326 pixel per inch density. The 15-inch MacBook Pro has a pixel density of about 220 pixels per inch, while the 13-inch rMBP has about a 227 PPI density.

Right now, Apple's 27-inch Thunderbolt Display has a 109 PPI density. Even Asus' 31.5-inch 4K-native display, the PQ321Q, sports a pixel density of only about 140 pixels per inch. If we accept that you have to go well north of 200 pixels per inch for a screen to be a "Retina Display," none of these even come close. Any way you slice it, it appears that we're still a fair distance still from a Retina Display in a larger form factor.

Retina Display or no, the new Mac Pro is set to push video editing and processing on the Mac in new directions. We'll have to wait to see the fruits of that effort for a while, but make no mistake - the new Mac Pro is set to change things in a big way.

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Peter Cohen

Mac Managing Editor of iMore and weekend Apple Product Professional at a local independent Apple reseller. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Never mind Retina Displays: Get ready for 4K on the new Mac Pro


Exactly. I'm truly hoping for a re-design / upgraded Thunderbolt display with USB 3.0 and TB2 support, maybe 6 USB 3.0 and drop firewire all together and upgraded iSight camera for Facetime.

I'm also REALLY hoping that the Retina MBP gets TB2 spec bump as well as Haswel CPU and please, please please a big Video bump.. nVidia GT 775 w/2 GB memory PLEASE! (/on knee begging)

We've waited.. now take my money! :D

Agree. I'm wondering why the current Thunderbolt Display is so thick. Power supply?

But I think it would add extra splash to the new Mac Pro rollout to show it driving three Apple-branded 4K displays simultaneously. That would seal the deal with the Pixars and ILMs of the world. I can imagine a tag line like "Not just science fiction any more."

That's my guess. The next display from Apple will basically be a 22"-27" iPad thin like display on a stand (but not touch screen). To be honest, I hope there is something like a 22" - I'd rather have two of those over one gigantic 27" or 30". I just prefer it that way. I also hope it doesn't hover around $1k. That just kills me.

You didn't hear that the Mac Pro would be discontinued. What you heard was a rumor pulled straight out of someone's ass and published around the Internet as fact. There's a difference.

A 21.5" 4K display would qualify as Retina in my book. I don't know if anyone is making those panels yet, though.

I am just waiting for them to release a new Thunderbolt Display so I can get the current model. I just don't understand the pricing model for the current display. A thousand bucks for a 27" monitor that isn't retina display is just ridiculous.

2800 x 1440 (1440p?) screens go for around $500-800 depending on quality.. if you consider the TB display is a dock as well, which goes for around $200-400, it's a reasonable price considering the market..

However, pricing on 2800 x1440 screens is going to drop even further.. I'd say the TB display is due for a price drop very soon.. hopefully? I know.. wishful thinking.. :")

My worst nightmare is they drop the TB screen and only sell 4k TB screens for 2-3k.. thats out of my price range.. I don't need that level of resolution.. so I hope they keep the 1440p TB Displays and hope they lower the price some.


Porn is already being shot in 4K so history, once again, repeats itself.

Apple will definitely deliver a 4K display with speakers, controllers, cameras and more and we will all lust over it.

Problem is delivery---especially with data caps from ISPs. If a standard BluRay 1080p with Dolby+ or DTS 7.1 (or 10.2) audio embedded is north of 25GB--->up to 50GB on dual layer, quadrupling the content on a disk itself would be 100-200GB of 'data' for a 4k standard 2 hour movie (with extras;)). While we may see a disc form of delivery forget downloading that type of content---unless you're in KC enjoying Google Fiber, it would take hours and eat up in some cases your entire ISP allotment for the month (I'm in Alaska---and my 22mb down/2mb up service comes with a 200GB a month cap and it's spendy---$119/month. There is a $199/month option for 50down/5 up with 500GB caps....that would get me two movies streamed....I guess).
I know RED just released their 'deck' for playback---and with an appropriate delivery medium (CF card/SD card/SSD), it would make sense....but in those sizes, we're still talking $100-$250 for 200GB. It's going to be interesting to see how they go about compression of 4k content, the delivery mechanism and it's trickle down to the consumer. Right now--it's being used a LOT in cinema for the 'source' is there, but who delivers it and how will be the question, IMO.

Disc deliver is antiquated. The reason why Sony went with Blu-ray is because of the storage and the fact that they own much of the pipeline (OD manufacturing). Having a large disc meant that multiple languages could be included on each disc and other supplementary content. Digital distribution obviates the need for this and when you take a look at the actual digital video data on a Blu-ray disc you see that the actual movie can be easily encapsulated within 15GB. Now we are moving towards h.265 (HEVC) becoming the next generation of codecs which means a further reduction is possible in data rate keeping the same quality.,-Graphics,-an...

We'll get there but we're going to need these compression smarts and further build-out of fiber and cable lines to bump bandwidth to homes.

Can't wait to get this! The news keeps getting better and better and it hasn't even been released yet! Can't innovate my #$!

Apple will definitely offer a new screen with the new Mac Pro whether it's 4K or not.
The reason is obvious. The current offering has the wrong, and the wrong coloured cables for connection to the new Mac Pro.

It's specifically designed for MacBooks and MacBook Airs. Apple is not the kind of company that will allow that kind of mismatch and just let that white magsafe cable dangle against the back of the shiny black machine they created.

you may want to note that when you state that 4k is for cinema, only two movies have been filmed in 4k (neither of them were at the box office). it's basically DOA tech used by an industry that ran out of ideas, or the newest bag of hurt. There's also a chance the new MacPro will be slower for 4k processing than the current MacPro.

What particular brand of glue are you smoking? ALL big budget movies are shot in 4K today, whether they're using an ALEXIA, RED, or SONY cameras. In fact movies are now even being shot at 6K resolution. Not all movies are PROJECTED at 4K, but that's based solely on when the theatre last upgraded it's system. Christie 4K projectors are becoming the new standard, taking over from the older 2K projectors which were the first digital cinema standard.

As to you second point- sure, I guess... if you buy a system that's spec'd lower than a 2010 MacPro. But against the top-end config? I can't imagine why.

oh!. thanks for the education. I have a ultrahd tv and there is simply no native content for it and it's quite frustrating Do you know when any of these 4k films will be released onto media?

You've bought into 4K maybe a year too early for easy access to content.

When you buy a Sony 4K TV, they have their own proprietary 4K delivery system, which has a selection of new and old films.

Beyond that kind of specialized media server, right now there are very few 4K options. In the next year we'll see h.265 (the followup to the current h.264 standard) roll out, which should help with 4K delivery.

Netflix demoed 4K streaming at NAB this past spring, and said they'd be testing 4K content this year in a limited capacity, and start regular delivery to customers sometime next year- probably starting with their own shows.

I'll be picking up a 4K display with my MacPro, and to start with the only 4K content for the screen will probably be my own (I'm a content producer).

good to know. I got the tv from Samsung because it was only $800 more than non 4k (the 4k blu ray wasn't that much more either) and my GoPro can shoot 4k video.

You have to realize, there is a huge difference between production and consumer content delivery. 11th indian is correct. Big budget movies that are shot digitally tend to be shot in 4k, 5k, 6k. In addition, 4k production and 4k content delivery are two different beasts. 4k production is 4096 across. 4k delivery to your 4k TV will be 3840 across. I won't even get into the differences in compression. All of this doesn't make a difference until we have the bandwidth for people to receive the content. With the situation here in the U.S. with the cable ISPs, we'll be lucky to see this bandwidth at an affordable price in a decade. They really need to uproot the whole structure. It's killing innovation with data caps and enormous fees for such small amounts of bandwidth. That is unless you have Google Fiber. Then you could see it right now. Go Google!

I do love the Retina display on my MacBook pro, but I have to say at normal viewing distance my 27" iMac is pretty Retina looking. Things like logic actually almost look better on it, but maybe thats just the screen size.

The term "retina display" does not mean 300 ppi. It refers to the average 20/20 retina's measured ability to resolve discrete pixels 1 arc minute apart (1/60 of 1 degree), which is not a fixed ppi but rather HUGELY dependent on the display's distance from the retina.

At 12" from the retina, 1 arc minute = 287 pixels/inch, but I don't know many who hold their iPhone 11" from their eye (the average adult globe is 24mm deep, for a total of 12" to the retina); at a typical phone viewing distance of 18", 1 arc minute = 191 ppi. At a laptop viewing distance of 24", 1 arc minute would = 144 ppi. So Apple overshoots the retina's abilities by 52-71% (iPhone = 326 vs 191 @ 18", MacBook Pro = 220 vs 145 @ 24"). A 30" diagonal 4K display would just barely be a retina display at a 24" viewing distance (147 ppi vs 144 ppi "retina" resolution); a 31.5" diag = 140 ppi; a 27" diag = 163 ppi.

I'd be ecstatic with a "barely retina" 4K display. With the use of antialiasing, such a display should look just as smooth, if not quite as sharp, as a 600-1200 dpi printout. So I for one am saving my pennies for the 27-30" Apple Retinema Display and the new Mac Pro.

To verify pixel pitch for 1 arc minute at various distances:

All this is correct except that typical desktop viewing distances aren't 24", they are more like 32-36". At those distances the monitors we have always used are "retina" displays (~100 dpi) and a 32" 4K would offer Apple's traditional margin over that. There's a reason for 100 dpi after all...

A 40" 4K monitor would provide ~110 dpi. Monitors of 36-40" would arguably be better than 30-32" once buyers adjust to the size bump. I want a 40" 4K display, not 32".

I tried the cheap Seiki 50" 4K display as a monitor when it came out. It was really too big but not as much as it might seem. I returned it, though, because the quality was so bad. They make a 39" version which would be perfect but I won't risk it, even at $700. Not clear how to get existing macs to generate even the lowly refresh rates the Seiki's are capable of anyway.

Maybe I sit too close or my 20/15 vision is too sharp, but I find Apple's 30" and 27" 2560x1600 Cinema Displays coarse compared to my 15.4" Retina MBP. I very much look forward to Apple's next 30" 4K displays, and some OS-level support for DPI-aware "actual-size" settings, so 100% is always actual size, and 25%, 50%, 150%, 200%, etc. would be consistent across displays, though with varying degrees of smoothness.

I'm sure your fanboy eyes are too sharp, david. That must be it.

It's not your fabulous 20/15 vision that matters, it's your close focus ability. 20/15 isn't special anyway, it's simply better than average. I have 20/15 in each eye but I'm not deluded into thinking I can see things I can't. Enjoyed your "I'm better than you" response though. "Retina" plays to the ego and you're a classic target.

The problem with sitting closer than 32", if your vision allows it, is that it leaves little room for things like mice and keyboards and the arms you use to operate them.

"I very much look forward to Apple's next 30" 4K displays..."

Why? Can't you afford Apple's next 40" 4K displays? Maybe they can release a colored plastic version for you. ;)

"...and some OS-level support for DPI-aware "actual-size" settings, so 100% is always actual size, and 25%, 50%, 150%, 200%, etc. would be consistent across displays, though with varying degrees of smoothness."

Apple will not do this. It's been speculated, even promised, for years. The granularity needed would be much finer than the 25% suggested and that would be difficult considering the manner in which UIs are implemented. Apple solves this problem by controlling the dpi of the displays and will continue to do so.

Craigsj, thanks for your model post on avoiding sounding superior ("I'm better than you," as you put it): name calling; sarcasm; insults; bragging; patronizing. Got it.

Oh david, it's not name calling when it's true.

I guess the eyes can be too sharp yet not too perceptive.

They should make the HDMI port 2.0 compliant which supports 4K at 60 fps.

HDMI 1.4b supports 4K at up to 30 fps only.

One minor error in the story. 4K and UHDTV are not the same thing. 4K is a recording specification and is 4096 x 2160, UHDTV is a broadcast specification and is 3840 x 2160. UHDTV is exactly 4 times the resolution of 1080 and the same aspect ratio: 1.77. 4K is a wider aspect ratio (1.9) and therefore wouldn't fit on 1.7 (16/9) style TVs without letterboxing.

This adds yet another aspect ratio, now we have 16:10, 16:9, and with the 4k specification, approximately 16 to 8.44, oh goodie ain't standards great.

Regarding retina and pixels per inch, you don't need as many pixels per inch on a larger display for them not to be distinguishable because you view a larger display at a greater distance. That is why the pixels per inch will be less on a 15" tablet verses a 13" tablet verses a smartphone.

4K isn't just about not being able to see the pixels, it's about a lot of display space.