Skip to main content

5K vs. 4K: Which HD display is better for your Mac?

Mac mini vs. iMac vs. iMac Pro vs. Mac Pro: Which Apple desktop should you get?
Mac mini vs. iMac vs. iMac Pro vs. Mac Pro: Which Apple desktop should you get? (Image credit: iMore)

MacBook Pro 2016 can drive not just 4K displays off it's Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports, but 5K displays as well. That should make the choice simple: 5 is more than 4! But there are a number of factors you want to consider before choosing the right high-density (HD) display for your Mac. That includes the number of displays you need, the geometry of your viewing space, the variety of options, and the extras like ports that are available to you.

Sometimes more is better but not always. So, when it comes to 5K vs. 4K on your Mac, here's how to choose the right HD display for you!

Pixels

5K means roughly 5000 pixels wide. 4K means roughly 4000 pixels wide. 5K is obviously bigger than 4K — says so right in the name! — but how much bigger? 5K is 5120 x 2880, which works out to 14,745,600 pixels total. (Phew!) 4K is 4096 x 2304, which works out to 9,437,184. (Phew/2!)

So, while 5K only sounds 25% bigger than 4K based on the name, it's actually over 50% bigger in terms of raw pixel count. So, while 5K only sounds 25% bigger than 4K based on the name, it's actually over 50% bigger in terms of raw pixel count. If you work on 4K video, for example, that's enough to show your video at full resolution and also show all your tools and palettes at the same time.

Here's what the difference looks like:

  • If the sheer quantity of pixels on the panel is important to you, go with 5K.

Size

With great pixels comes great panel size. In other words, 5K displays are typically bigger than 4K displays. Apple seems to have standardized around 21.5-inches for 4K and 27-inches for 5K, that way the pixels remain at a small enough physical size that, when used from a normal working distance, qualify as "Retina". That's Apple's name for when the dots-per-inch (dpi) is high enough that you can no longer see the individual pixels and it looks more like a photo or real-world image.

Note: There are 4K televisions, which can connect over HDMI, that come in a wide range of sizes, including enormous 120-inch models. Those are different beasts and something outside what I'm discussing here.

Whether or not size matters will depend on how much space you available to you on your desk and in your room. In some cases, bigger isn't better at all. Here's how the LG UltraFine 4K display looks next to the LG UltraFine 5K:

  • If you have limited space, go with 4K.
  • If the sky is the limit, go with 5K.

Single vs. multiple

The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 can drive two 4K displays or one 5K display. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 can drive four 4K displays or two 5K displays. That's a lot of pixels.

Multiple displays gives you more flexibility in terms of how you set up your viewing area. You can put them side by side, stack them, angle them, and separate different tasks and apps onto different screens.

See more

A single display gives you unity in terms of one place to look and work and focus on. You put it where you want it and you don't have to worry about turning your chair or your neck to see different things, or taking up even more space on your desk.

See more

Here's how those displays look at scale:

  • If you want a single point of focus, go with one 5K.
  • If you want multiple places to separate out multiple placements or tasks, go with two or more 4K.

Ports

Because of the incredibly bandwidth required for 5K — and the chicanery needed to make it work over DisplayPort 1,2-bound Thunderbolt 3 ports — the LG UltraFine 5K display only leaves you with 3x USB-C ports on the back, and they're restricted to 5 Gbps. Literally every other bit is streaming steady 5K. The same, for some less explicable reason, is true of the LG UltraFine 4K display. In other words, they're freaking great panels that make for freaking crappy hubs.

Also, because all the ports are USB-C, if you want to connect USB-A, Ethernet, or anything else, you'll need a dongle.

(opens in new tab)

Other 4K displays, though, offer more in the way of ports.

See the best 4K displays currently available for the Mac

  • If you don't need a hub but you do need an amazing display, go with the 5K.
  • If you need more and more varied ports, go with one of the other 4K.

Who should get a 5K display for Mac?

If you want the maximum amount of pixels all in one panel, want a focused working environment, don't want to turn your head a lot, like the idea of a single cable connection, and don't care about having extra ports on the display, go with the 5K display.

See at Apple (opens in new tab)

Who should get a 4K display for Mac?

If you size isn't as important to you or you want more displays rather than bigger or denser, prefer the flexibility of multiple panels, like having an ultra-wide working environment with your tasks all neatly split up, or want all the ports a hub provides, check out one of the 4K displays.

See our roundup of the best 4K displays

How many K are right for you?

If you've already made up your mind about 4K vs. 5K, let me know what you chose and why. If you're still having trouble, check out our Apple Display Forum for expert help and advice. If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below!

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

9 Comments
  • Hi Rene,
    Is a 5K display even an option for us 2015 15" MBP owners (with graphics card)?
    If so, I assume I'll have to use up both of my Thunderbolt2 ports to drive it, correct?
  • at this point i can't say either is a concern for me. but i also am fine with my nonretina macbook air. my tv isn't even 4k.
  • Can't say
    Our eyes can't even notice anything 4K or 5k
    It isn't capable Sent from the iMore App
  • I'd rather have a 40" or 43" inch 4K display at a traditional dot pitch. 43" would be comparable dots per inch (100) like the late Apple 30" Cinema HD display and 40" would be comparable to the 27" Thunderbolt display (109 dpi). My opinion is, if the pixels are too small to be seen, what good are they? The clarity of these legacy displays was deemed exemplory in the day. I had one for years.
  • I have owned both the 4k and 5k monitor and returned both. With the 4k I would put my 2016 MBP to sleep and when I woke it I would be notified the computer shut down and restarted due to error. The top Apple Support team could not fix the problem so I returned the monitor. I purchased the 5k hoping the issues would be resolved. It was a horrible experience. When connecting the computer would flicker non stop. The screen would never turn on. The only way I could get it to work is if the computer was also plugged into the USB-C power brick and the USB-C monitor at the same time. Apple had no solution for this problem except return it and don't buy an LG monitor. You can read the 4k monitor reviews on apple.com and see everyone else having the same problems. It is very widespread and so bad Apple had to remove the reviews on the 5k page. I have always been an Apple fan but the amount of issues I have had with the 2016 MBP and now compatibility with external monitors makes this a huge regret as a purchase. iMore...I'm begging you to write an article about this and do research. I understand it's negative news for Apple but it needs to be published once the appropriate journalism is complete.
  • @rdotchin A few things to keep in mind when posting user problems/complaints like this to a General Apple Users forum.
    1) Please specify which MBP you have 13" (with or without touchbar?) or 15"?
    2) Please specify which monitors you tried? I assume they were LG 4K and 5K, the ones Apple advertised?
    3) Rene and the other iMore contributors can not investigate a problem, if they haven't experienced it themselves. He's purchased the 5K monitor and his setup went without a hitch.
    4) If you're going to refer people to another site, please be specific. Provide a full URL. Just saying go to apple.com will turn many of us off.
    I hope you resolve your problems. The 2016 MBP looks like an awesome machine and I would purchase one in a heart beat if I hadn't already bought the 2015 15" version (w/graphics) which I really like.
  • @MG537 Apologies. Yes, I am referring to the LG Ultrafine 4k and 5k monitors. I do regret not taking videos of the problems as that would have more impact then writing in forums. To answer your questions: 1) 2016 MBP 15" with everything maxed except graphics card is Radeon Pro 455 with 2GB memory 2)LG Ultrafine 4k and 5k monitors 3) They can investigate the problem. That is like saying no media outlets should have reported on the Note catching fire unless they experienced it happen. They could contact Apple to ask directly if there is a problem. I'm sure they know others who have the monitors and new laptops and can ask if they are having any issues. They can go into forums and have direct conversations with people having problems and request they post videos of the problems on youtube to confirm. Basically...investigative journalism. 4) here are a few sites. Feel free to google lg ultrafine monitor issues and read more: media slowly starting to report there are issues: http://www.myce.com/news/apple-sold-lg-ultrafine-5k-monitor-serious-conn... LG Ultrafine 4k monitor (I would suggest sorting by recent reviews to save time): https://www.imore.com/e?link=https2F2Fc2F4... LG Ultrafine 5k monitor (Apple disabled the reviews): https://www.imore.com/e?link=https2F2Fc2F4...
  • @rdotchin
    Checked the reviews on the 4K display on Apple's site and two of them give it top marks and the other one gave it two stars. The lower one has to do with a two monitor setup. Not exactly your problem. The 5K reviews aren't there and the 1st page questions/answers has to do with connecting these monitors to older models. As for Rene and iMore, they will on occasion comment and answer questions from the readers. As for investigative journalism, I don't think they've ever advertised that they are. They're an Apple users blog site.
    Besides, scouring the various online forums for problems is a very time consuming exercise and don't believe it's their purpose here at iMore. About the only thing I can suggest is go to an Apple store with your setup (MBP and monitor) and try configuring it at the store. I know it's frustrating at times but the staff is generally friendly and willing to help. Hope it all works out for you.
  • @MG537 imore could have been first to research and report this issue 2 weeks ago. http://iphone.appleinsider.com/articles/17/02/13/apple-suspends-sales-of...