A poor man’s alternative to 4K

I use a MacBook Pro running VirtualBox to provide Linux development environment VMs. I recently explored the possibility of getting a 4K monitor to provide a much-needed increase in display capabilities. I learned that while a 4K monitor is currently beyond my humble hardware’s capabilities, Samsung has an affordable option that exceeds the resolution of my current external monitor by 33% and works with my old Mac.

8 million pixels

4K monitors are called that because their horizontal resolution is (nearly) 4K pixels. With 3,840 by 2,160 resolution, these monitors provide more than 8 million pixels of viewing pleasure. That means a 4K monitor can display four discrete 1920 by 1080 displays—at one time. That’s like getting four monitors in one!

fourKMonitor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alas, there are a couple of catches:

  • 4K monitors are expensive. While prices did drop dramatically during 2014, entry-level 4K monitors currently hover at about $500 and go up substantially from there. 4K monitors aren’t quite a commodity yet.
  • Hardware compatibility is iffy, at best, right now. Driving a 4K monitor is beyond the reach of many of today’s PCs and video cards. Carefully check your existing hardware before buying a 4K monitor. Also, beware your cabling needs (more on this in a moment).
  • Read the fine print. It’s important to read all specs very carefully. It might be possible for your current hardware to support 4K, but only at a 30MHz refresh rate. For simple work with a text editor, that might be fine but for tasks that tax video output like video editing or Photoshop, you’ll probably want to ensure your hardware supports a 4K monitor at a 60MHz refresh rate.

It’s not 4K, but…

My personal laptop is a hand-me-down, late 2008, MacBook Pro. The memory’s been bumped to its 8GB max and it sports a 512GB SSD primary drive and its original 750GB SATA drive resides in what was the superdrive slot. Otherwise, it’s box stock, currently running Mavericks. The MacBook’s internal display provides 1440 x 90 but for external monitors it supports a maximum resolution of 2560 x 1080.

Given my old Mac’s constraints I’ve given up on the hunt for a 4K monitor for now. But while Christmas shopping at CostCo the other day, I saw the LG 25UM65 25″ monitor on sale for $199. Generally, anything wider than 23″ or so doesn’t get my attention. At a 1920 x 1080 resolution bigger isn’t always better. At that resolution, the sweet spot seems to be about 23 or 24 inches. After that, you’re not really gaining useful real estate you’re just getting bigger pixels. TheLG 25UM65 got my attention because its maximum resolution is 2560 x 1080. This resolution would provide two side-by-side 1280 x 1920 displays on the LG. Not quite four 1920 x 1080 displays, but better than a single 1920 x 1080 display by 33%.

I rolled the dice on the LG 25UM65; it seemed like a good partner for my old Mac and one of these days when I do get a more capable Mac that supports 4K, I’m hoping the LG will make a good second monitor for that setup. The purchase was a bit of a gamble because not only did I hope for the monitor to provide 2560 x 1080 on my Mac, but I also hoped that VirtualBox would work with the monitor so that I could exploit its screen real estate with Linux VMs.

Get the right cable

Attaching the LG monitor to the Mac required a $10 mini display port to display port cable. Be careful to note that a display port isn’t an HDMI port nor is it a Thunderbolt port. A Best Buy blue-shirt assured me otherwise–don’t believe anything the BB blue shirts say. To get 60MHx refresh rate 2560 x 1080 resolution with the LG monitor on the MacBook Pro, this mini display port to display port cable is an absolute requirement. With that cable, installation was a snap and the monitor did exactly what it claimed it would do. I didn’t need the software included with the monitor and I didn’t need to read any special directions. I just plugged the monitor in, ensured the Mac’s display settings were set to 2560 x 1080 for the external monitor, and got happy.

Linux VMs through VirtualBox play along with the LG monitor nicely, but often, on session start up I need to fiddle with the monitor settings (I’m pretty sure that with a little more effort fixing that can be done scripting xrandr but I haven’t cracked that nut yet). But that’s something I’ve often needed to do when using multiple display sessions with VirtualBox on my old 1920 x 1080 monitor. The result on the LG monitor is a very wide display that is great for having a browser, Sublime Text, a terminal session, and a file manager (and whatever else I need). An example screen shot is of the LG in action is shown below.

wide-screen

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also have the Mac’s internal 1440 x 900 display running another VirtualBox display just in case.

Highly recommended

The LG 25UM65’s colors are bright, its display is crisp, and with nearly the same physical footprint as my old 1920 x 1080 monitor, it provides 33% more viewing area. The LG monitor claims to have speakers but they don’t work through the display port cable on my Mac (having said that, I spent about three seconds trying to make them work).

Overall, the LG 25UM65 is a great value, especially at $200. That’s a little more than a similar-sized 1920 x 1080 monitor but you are getting 33% more pixels. The stand is not height adjustable, but it does adjust for angle. It does work with VESA wall mounts. If you get one of these extended resolution monitors, be sure to confirm your current PC’s video capabilities and carefully research your cabling needs. You’ll not fully exploit the power of this monitor otherwise.

LG 25UM64 monitor at Amazon  mini display port to display port cable

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