With the perpetual march of hardware improvements, the day that we’d look at 4K laptops occupying the high-end of the laptop market was basically inevitable. Now that the day of 4K laptops is upon us, we have to ask a big question: is it worth it?
To answer that question we first need to understand 4K displays themselves.
Understanding 4K Displays
Since this article caught your eye, you probably get the gist of 4K already. It’s a massive jump in fidelity when compared to 1080p “Full HD.” HD is 1920 x 1080, and 4K is a whopping 3840 x 2160. Basic math indicates that’s a massive improvement, and the diagram below will make that even more apparent.
So, a bigger number equals a better image, right? Sort of. There’s a bit more to the quality of an image than its resolution – there are a lot more factors that you have to take into account.
One of these factors is the screen itself. Does the display use TN (for faster response time/refresh rate and cost savings) or IPS (for wider viewing angles and greater color reproduction)? How large is the display, and what distance is it usually being viewed from? Does the display support HDR, a high-end standard that’s often paired with 4K in the highest-end TVs?
These are all questions you need to be able to ask, answer and understand before investing in any 4K display, much less a 4K laptop. If you’re buying a 4K laptop, having a large, IPS panel with support for HDR will make the most of your boost in resolution. Boosting resolution with an otherwise substandard display, however, will only provide severely diminishing returns.
Even with a larger laptop display, the practicality of so many pixels in such a small display that’s so close to the user often isn’t very practical. And, depending on your particular usage scenario, it may even be worse for you. For a more detailed look at this particular question, I highly recommend taking a look at this article by RTINGS.
For now, let’s take a look at the main purposes of a 4K laptop and how well-served you will be by one.
The Purposes of a 4K Laptop
Content consumption is the primary purpose of a 4K laptop and arguably the primary purpose of most consumer electronics nowadays. In this context we refer explicitly to high-end video that can push the pixels required to look gorgeous on a 4K display.
Content consumption will have the greatest straight benefits on a 4K laptop, since the only way the content will change is in visual fidelity. Gaming in 4K, for instance, will often require dialing down game settings that may result in a less visually-pleasing experience. Watching a video in 4K instead of 1080p will always be a better experience overall.
The potential for diminishing returns – especially if the display is smaller or doesn’t support IPS or HDR – is still there, though.
Photography and Image Editing
Photography and image editing is very detail-oriented work, and the better the display, the better the work process will be. If you’re a professional who does a lot of image work on the go, a 4K laptop with the right display specs is pretty much a no-brainer, but it’s also worth noting again that a sufficiently vibrant 1080p/1440p display may suffice for this kind of work. Obviously, if two displays are identical in all ways except resolution, the one with the higher resolution will be better. Unfortunately, the value proposition for that improvement won’t always be worth it.
Despite the fact that many gamers are beyond amped for the adoption of 4K, 4K gaming is actually one of the biggest cases of diminishing returns when it comes to this new tech, especially in laptops. The reason behind that is simple: gaming is one of the most hardware-intensive tasks you can perform on a laptop, and laptop hardware is (usually) not particularly well-made for those tasks in the long term.
A laptop capable of playing the latest, greatest games at 4K resolution is going to be extremely expensive. Being able to play these games at a 4K resolution without turning down texture detail, particle effects and other visual flourishes is nearly impossible. Some laptops exist that push the limits, but these laptops also push the limits of what it is to be a laptop – massive machines housing full desktop CPUs and GPUs.
Gaming in 4K or VR is certainly a treat, but this treat isn’t strictly necessary and isn’t very easy to acquire in a laptop experience. I imagine many gamers with 4K laptops will find themselves turning down resolution to 1440 or 1080p instead, so they can keep all their eye candy with only a marginal loss in overall fidelity.
Does the Value Line Up?
Ultimately, the answer to that question is always going to vary on a case-by-case basis. In my case, no. I think 4K is most practical for a living room HDTV setup, while 1440p is better suited for my personal monitor and mobile devices.
If you’re truly passionate about your image quality and have the money to afford a no-compromises experience, a 4K laptop may very well be for you. If you aren’t, or don’t, however, it may be best to wait.