What can I see on a 5K display?

Ok, that SHOULD read, “What can I see on an Apple 5K display?” Because, as you’ll see, depending on what you’re looking at, it looks like 5K, or it could be as little as 2.5K. Which, using the “K” vernacular, 2.5K is only 600 more pixels wider than 1080P (1920×1080 vs 2560×1440).

I can hear you already, “but the iMac 5K is 5120×2880, not 2560×1440!”

Well, yes it is, but it “looks like” 2560×1440!

Let’s come back to that.

For starters, let’s look at how a 5K image would look on the display. Here is a simulation of a 5K image, and how much of that image would be visible “pixel for pixel” on a lesser display.


Running through the above simulation, a 5K image, full screen is going to look pretty awesome! 5120×2880 pixels! What’s not to love?

On a 4K display, the same image is almost going to crop the whole of the people off the bottom, unless the image is scaled or you scroll around the screen. Nothing wrong with that.

On the opposite end of the scale, images that are smaller than full resolution are obviously going to have black areas around them. How does a 1920×1080 image look on your screen right now? Is it full screen? Is it at least ALMOST full screen? (I hope that you’re not running a resolution that has to scale that image down to your screen resolution—but then again, mine is—I’m running a MacBook Pro (pre-retina) with a resolution of 1680×1050).

Back to that image 1920×1080. How is that going to look on an Apple iMac 5K?

Well, it’s going to look somthing like this:


That’s an image that is 1920×1080. That’s the same resolution as Bluray! It appears so small on the 5K monitor. How is it going to look watching DVDs and Blurays on it? I have to say, I don’t know. I haven’t tried it yet. I might make a special trip into an Apple Store to try it out.

So what was I saying about the resolution before? It obviously displays 5K images pixel for pixel at 5120×2880, how can it look like anything other than that?

It has to do with the way Apple display text on their retina displays.

The pixels are so fine that (for most of us) you can’t see them. For those of you NOT using a retina display, look at your screen right now. Do you see a fly-wire effect? very little, microscopic black lines separating all the pixels on the screen? That’s normal (unless your eye sight is not up to scratch).

Now take a look at the text on the screen. GENERALLY each dot of a pixel forms part of a letter. A character that is 10 pixels high, takes 10 pixels. You can see each of the individual dots that make up those 10 pixels.

Going back to the fly-wire effect, on a retina display, you’re not going to see that. Not even a little bit. Not at all!

The pixels are so tiny, that one pixel is indistinguishable from the next. So tiny, that if Apple used each individual pixel as it does on a non-retina display to display text, the text would be too tiny to view (this is arguable, but let’s take it as accepted).

Instead, Apple use FOUR of the retina pixels to show ONE pixel of text. (let’s not deal with anti-aliasing. let’s assume the pixel is either on or off, it is a part of the character or the background). Those four pixels (2 high and 2 wide) make up ONE pixel of text. Therefore a 10 pixel high character would actually take 20 pixels on a retina display.

This is nothing new, this is what Apple have been doing with retina displays since the iPhone 4. But what this DOES mean, is that if you had a display that was 1920 pixels wide, and a character used 8 pixels, then disregarding whitespace, a display 1920 pixels wide would be capable of displaying 240 characters. Ok, we do have to account for spaces between the characters, so let’s use 10 pixels. That’s still 192 characters wide.

On a 5K monitor (5120 pixels wide) we could(??? SHOULD???) expect to see 512 characters across the screen. Shouldn’t we?

If your display was a native display and text was parsed pixel by pixel (as it is on most other types of monitors), then yes, you could expect that. But since the retina display uses 4 pixels (2×2) to display ONE pixel, then all of a sudden, we’ve cut the number of characters displayed by half! On a 5120 pixel wide display, we’re only going to see 256 characters!

But still, that’s better than 192! ISn’t it? Well, yes it is. But it’s only 33% wider (as far as text is concerned). It’s not the 166% that I was expecting.

Does it matter?

Well I would argue it doesn’t…. And it does!

If you’re primarily working with photos, illustrations and graphics and general, then this display is MASSIVE! But if you’re a developer and you’re after more screen real estate, you’re going to be disappointed.

And here’s why.

When I first heard about the 5K display, all of a sudden I am thinking about the extra screen real estate I can populate with reference material, web pages, a music player, anything I want. Because (my initial thought was) I am going from 1920×1080 to 5120×2880. That’s 166% wider by 166% higher. I could fit almost three 1920×1080 browsers side-by-side on the desktop.

Sadly, that’s not the case. Let’s illustrate this point.

The first image below represents what a 1920×1080 web browser, or IDE, would look like on a 1080p (HD) monitor. If text was displayed pixel for pixel, this is how it would look.



The first image below represents what a 1920×1080 web browser, or IDE, would look like on a true 5K (pixel for pixel) monitor. If text was displayed pixel for pixel, this is how it would look.


As I have mentioned, the retina uses 4 pixels to display one pixel, so this means that instead of a promised 5120 wide display, I’m getting a display that “looks like” 2560 pixels wide! When I am using a monitor that is potentially already 1920 pixels wide, is (what looks like) 2560 pixels all that much better? It’s only 600 pixels (and change). Vertically, it’s not any better. 1080 pixels vs 1440 pixels. That’s not even 400 pixels higher!

Here is how the same web browser, IDE or other piece of software would look on the iMac 5K.


Apple 5K
“looks like”

That’s a little bit different to what I expect. I WANT the display two images up, instead, I’m getting the display above this paragraph!

Back to my earlier pondering. Is it worth it?

As a graphics artist I would say that it is most definitely worth it. It would be amazing.

As a developer after screen real estate, a native 4K monitor would probably be better.

Do I want one?

Hell yeah!

Will, I get one?

You’ll have to ask the wife that question :(

To close, there is a little “tweak” you ca apply in system preferences, and instead of 2×2 pixels to display a pixel, the screen is scaled and it only uses 1.5 pixels (by 1.5 pixels) to display a pixel. This gives an apparent resolution (looks like) 3200×1800. Now that is a little better, and that would make the same 1920×1080 screen look like this.


Apple 5K
“looks like”

I still want one.

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