How to use multiple 4K displays with your MacBook Pro

How to use multiple 4K displays with your MacBook Pro

I ordered a new Mac Pro but not early enough for it to arrive in a timely fashion. The three Dell UltraSharp 32 UltraHD displays I ordered to go along with it, however, arrived almost immediately. So, I did what any self-respecting geek would do — I connected them to my Retina MacBook Pro. Here's how I got it to work!

I tried plugging all three displays into the two Thunderbolt ports and the HDMI port, but I can't get more than two displays running at 4K at one time. I can plug two 4K displays into either both the Thunderbolt ports, or one of the Thunderbolt ports and the HDMI port, but if I plug in all three at the same time, the HDMI display goes blank. So, I've settled on two 4K displays on the Thunderbolt ports for now (still amazing that the MacBook Pro can push all those pixels!)

You get used to the 30Hz refresh rate pretty quickly. The cursor lag is annoying at first, but eventually becomes the new normal. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to the MacPro and, eventually, proper MST support to enable 60Hz.

One issue with 4k @ 30Hz is that Chrome for some reason becomes unbearably slow. Pages takes minutes to render. Disabling BeamSync fixes that, but causes some tearing while moving windows. An acceptable trade-off for now.

Resolution wise, 3840 x 2160 even at 32" yields a tiny interface (137 dpi vs 108 dpi on iMac), but surprisingly comparable dpi to the 11" MacBook Air (135 dpi). The difference, of course, is that I often sit really close to the MacBook, and more than arms length away from my desktop monitors.

Most apps support scaling well when it comes to text, but interface elements remain at their native resolution. Again, it's surprising how quickly the tiny interface becomes the new "normal".

By installing SwitchResX you can enable 1920 x 1080 HiDPI mode but everything becomes comically large at around 69" dpi.

Using custom resolutions I tried to enable 5760 x 3240 HiDPI mode, shrunken to 3840x2160, which would yield an effective 2880 x 1620 (103 dpi) desktop, but was unsuccessful. Ideally Apple will eventually natively supported interpolated resolutions, like they do on and the Retina MacBooks.

Sitting arms length away at 3840 x 2160 at 32-inches, I can see no pixels. The screen looks identical to the beautiful Retina screen on my MacBook Pro. On my old 2560 x 1600 30-inch setup I could definitely see the pixels. So, overall, it's a huge improvement.

If anyone has any questions about the setup let me know., and anyone else is running 4K off a MacBook Pro, or a Mac Pro, tell me — how's it working for you?

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Marcus Adolfsson

CEO & Founder, Mobile Nations

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Reader comments

How to use multiple 4K displays with your MacBook Pro


Badass. I have a single Thunderbolt display for my rMBP. 4K is tempting, but I'm biding my time for now incase Apple kicks theirs out sooner rather than later.

For multiple monitors, does it bug you having to turn your neck so much to take in everything? Or do you just have lower-frequency content on the periphery?

I've gone to stacking the displays vertically to prevent turning.

I was waiting on Apple's new 4k monitor as well, but my old Dell's were about six years old and had some issues for a while.

Newegg ran a promotion in December for $2499, $1500 below the list price that Dell sells them for, so didn't want to pass that up.

I usually keep Skype and dashboards etc on the side monitors; don't mind the neck turning.

Which bank did you rob and do you have any left to send me a couple of 4K screens?

Very jealous... Every time I go into the Apple store here I can't help but gravitate to the Mac Pro... I have no use what so ever for it but I need one... Damn you reality distortion field!

Rant over, cool setup...

Ugghh, the refresh rate of those monitors is such a deal killer...

I recently purchased the newest version of the 13" Retina Pro and ran into the problem of "plug in two and the third gets knocked out"... I got around it by hooking up a Matrox Triple Head 2 Go (using two of it's outputs) and have two lenovo 22" widescreens and the HDMI output powers a third external monitor, widescreen HP 23".... i'll take "lower resolution" (1920x1200 on each lenovo, 1920x1080 on the HP + the laptops screen at full retina resolution) to not have the choppiness/lag that crappy refresh rate would provide

I can't do the 30 Hz refresh rate. That would just kill my eyes. I'm content with my 27" Cinema Display and my two older 20" Aluminum ACDs. Gets the job done.

if the monitor can support 60 Hz, and has mini display port, a mdp to mdp connection should be able to do 60 Hz refresh as soon as some kinda update comes down the pipeline... like he said MST...

I have been looking to upgrade from my old Mac Pro to a rMBP but have been holding out because I can't find a concrete answer as to whether I can still run my 3 external displays or not.

Right now I have a display stand with 3 LCDs and I want to keep that. Did you try closing the MBP when connecting the 3rd? I've read that this works on the early 2013 model but not the late 2013. Huge bummer if I have to decide between 3 displays and mobility.

My perfect setup would be a MBP closed, connected to 3 displays, and the ability to just pick up and go when I need to.

OMG. I have an early 2013 rMBP, but i'm struggling to get my 4k display to work at native res. 1920x1080 is the highest option i could get. Did you have to do anything other than plug it in? what cable did you use? Thanks in advance!

I'm interested in getting this exact same Setup with the Retina Macbook Pro 15". I want the system spec'd out so I can have it working as efficiently as a desktop and still be mobile. My current choice of monitor has not officially been released but I'm quite certain it will have a 60Hz refresh rate using the mini display port. I'm a bit skeptical of the Macbook's ability to support two 4K Monitors though. I generally work with Photoshop, Illustrator and Lightroom most times simultaneously so I'm not sure if the Intel Iris Pro Graphics and NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M can seamlessly process all those pixels. I'd like to know what your experience is using this setup and if you think the laptop is capable enough to handle that level of workload or if I should settle for less in terms of monitors. Much Appreciated!

How does your Mac run two 4K-displays? Does it run hot? How many percents those monitors eats? Thank you, a lot!

How did you get 2? Did you use both of the included cables? My retina only pushes one, mind sharing how yours is pushing 2?