Should You Buy a 4K Laptop in 2017?

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.

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.

4k-laptops-resolution-diagram

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.

Content Consumption

4k-laptops-netflix

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

4k-laptops-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.

Gaming

4k-laptops-gaming

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.

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.

18 comments

  1. You buy a 4k laptop for bragging rights. Just to say that you piss further up a wall than anybody else.

    Watching content on a laptop, even a 4k laptop, is like watching it on a 15 inch TV. You need a magnifying glass to see anything. I’d much rather watch content on a 40, 50 or a 60 inch TV.

    • I’m using a Dell laptop with a 3840 x 2160 screen, after having replaced Windows by Linux Mint 18. I do not use it for playing games or viewing TV though. It offers a very pleasing viewing experience; I could not switch back to anything less than this. The letters appear like on printed paper – no pixels. I think it deserves the money I paid for it and I recommend it to everyone who can afford it.

  2. I am so tempted to upgrade to a 4K laptop with all the editing work I do! Thanks for such an insightful post!

    • Wouldn’t a PC with a large (28″-31″) monitor be better for editing? It might also be cheaper. The author did not mention a price for 4k laptops but I’m sure they will be quite expensive.

    • Adding onto what dragonmouth is saying here, I’d recommend a 4K IPS monitor if you’re a serious editor and do this work from home. If you’re on the go frequently, a 4K laptop may be worth the investment, but be sure to keep what else I said in the article in mind.

  3. Thank you for this post. I’m upgrading my computer system at home and getting two new monitors, and your article has made it clear that for me , 4K is not worth it.

  4. Common mistake: 4K is 4096 x 2160 , not 3840 x 2160. The lower number is the “consumer” grade. We need to speak up against this marketing ploy and call out manufacturers who skimp out on giving people what they’re supposedly paying for.

    • The consumer grade has the same 16:9 aspect ratio as the rest of what we consume and are used to consuming on our devices. Consumer 4K is 4K UHD, while the form you mention is DCI 4K, used in cinema. Both standards can be correctly referred to as “4K”, so I fail to see either the mistake here or the point in speaking out about it, because it really doesn’t matter. You can even see DCI 4K in the image I posted in this article.

      • While I understand your reply, I say you’re wrong. 3840 is not 4K because 1024 is multiple which has been around since the dawn of computing, so why are we suddenly accepting 960 as an acceptable replacement. No other resolution is divisible by 960, so why should we accept it for 4K? 720p is 720, not 672; 1080p is 1080, not 810, my iMac is 5K, 5120, not 4830. Why should I accept losing 552,960 pixels of screen real estate because you don’t feel it’s worth pointing out? 3840 cannot be “correctly” referred to as 4K because it’s not 4K. You can accept this compromise, but I will not! Good day to you sir.

        • Both 4K standards have a vertical resolution of 2160. The numbers in 1080p and 720p both refer to vertical resolution as well- 1920×1080 and 1280×720, respectively. These are both 16:9 aspect ratios, which 3840×2160 (UHD) matches but DCI 4K does not.

          A DCI 4K solution for consumers would break aspect ratio of the rest of our devices and would result in additional black bars for all content that isn’t built for that aspect ratio, which is most content.

          You seem to also be operating under the mistaken assumption that the “4” in “4K” must refer to the width of the image. For the DCI standard, this is accurate, but for UHD it refers to size in comparison to 1080p- 4 x 1080p = a 2160p image.

          DCI 2K is also a standard that theaters used prior to their adoption of DCI 4K. Should consumers have adopted DCI 2K instead of 16:9 1080p? Were they being deceived or lied to?

  5. I think this would be amazing for my gamer husband and gamer son. They are always wanting better graphics and 4K would probably really help with that.

    • Not necessarily. What kind of budget do you have, and what devices are you playing on? A 4K display for gaming is meaningless if you don’t have the hardware power to push high-to-max settings to it, since at that point you’d either have to turn down the settings (sacrificing visual fidelity) or the resolution (ruining the point of the display upgrade entirely).

  6. Great post! We resisted the urge to go 4K with all but one of our TVs and only purchased it for the one we use to entertain the most. We love it! I think I would love a 4K laptop since I do use it for work but I also love to watch videos and movies on it. Either way you definitely shared a great bit of info to help me make the decision when the time comes!

  7. I tend to agree with Dragonmouth on the utility of a 4k laptop, though I think one other argument against it in 95%+ use cases is battery life. A higher resolution, with the components to push that resolution is going to consume considerably more power than a HD display setup would. If you’re shlepping your laptop from hotel room to hotel room as a graphic professional or from tournament to tournament as a pro gamer maybe it’s worth it, but for the way most people use laptops it’d be annoying to be more reliant on finding a plug just so netflix is a tiny bit crisper..

    • Not all 4k UHD panels are the same with regards to power consumption. IGZO-TFT panels use less power due to reduced need for backlighting intensity or illumination.

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