Most 5K displays don’t just get you a slightly-larger-than-4K resolution but also attempt to solve one of 4K’s biggest shortcomings: pixel density. Let’s take a look at what that means, what your options are, and whether you should consider buying one.
What is a “5K” Monitor?
A “5K” monitor is a monitor that has a horizontal resolution of around 5,000 pixels. There’s no “official” 5K resolution though the most common resolution that fits this description is 5120×2880 which fits the traditional 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. The most common 5K resolution offers a 33% increase in horizontal and vertical over what is commonly known as 4K in the monitor world (3840×2160).
Since 5K can refer to any resolution with around 5,000 pixels on the horizontal axis, some (super) ultrawide displays also qualify. A resolution of 5120×1440 technically counts as 5K, though the aspect ratio would be 32:9, which means the vertical resolution is exactly half that of the most common resolution.
Monitors that use a 5K resolution are typically 27 inches or larger, with some 40-inch (16:9) and 49-inch (32:9) options available. Display scaling is usually necessary to increase the size of on-screen elements since using Windows or macOS at “native” 5K would result in interface elements and text that is too small to see.
Why Choose 5K?
The biggest benefit to most 5K monitors (at least those that use the common 5120×2880 resolution) is in pixel density. This results in a pixel density of around 218 ppi, which meets Apple’s specifications for what the company refers to as a “Retina” display. The philosophy behind these high pixel densities is that, from a normal viewing distance, individual pixels can’t be discerned by the naked eye.
This means that text and interface elements are very sharp, much like the built-in displays on most modern smartphones. This is great for Mac users who own a Retina-quality MacBook model since plugging in an external display traditionally means accepting a lower pixel density (and thus inferior image quality) compared with using the native display on a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. The same can be said for iMac users who want to add additional displays to their setup.
Existing 27-inch 4K displays fall short of the 220 ppi target for Retina quality that Apple strives for. Apple’s non-Retina UI can appear too small above 110 ppi but too large below 220 ppi, while text can appear blurry. This phenomenon caused Mac and iOS developer Bjango to coin “the bad zone” as a term for unsatisfactory pixel density in a blog post about the challenges these displays pose for designers.
5K also means slightly more room on the panel to display whatever it is you’re working on, compared to comparable 4K displays. That extra 33% of screen real estate allows you to work on a 4K image at 100% resolution, while still having room on the screen for UI elements like a video timeline or photo editing controls. You’ll also have more room for browser windows, documents, communication tools like Slack or Teams, social media feeds, and so on.
There’s also no reason for a 5K monitor to necessarily take up more room than its 4K counterpart. This means you won’t have to sacrifice more desk space, since the goal is to squeeze more pixels into the same diagonal (often 27-inch) display.
What Are the Drawbacks to 5K Monitors?
Unfortunately, there aren’t too many options when it comes to 5K monitors. The lack of competition means that prices have remained stubbornly high. In terms of high pixel-density 27-inch models, only Apple and LG have serious offerings. These are aimed squarely at Mac users, which might explain why there’s not a lot of choice (especially with how slow Windows was to add proper high DPI support).
Since these monitors are aimed at creatives and business types, they rarely offer refresh rates higher than 60 Hz. The obvious exceptions here are the gaming-focused ultrawides, though they also lack pixel density and are anything but affordable for most budgets.
Lastly, connectivity can present a problem since higher resolutions require more bandwidth. Some 5K monitors have used dual DisplayPort 1.2 adapters, others rely on DisplayPort 1.4, and many of the newer models opt for Thunderbolt 3’s USB-C connector instead. You’ll need a Mac or PC that supports Thunderbolt displays to use these models.
What 5K Monitors Are Available to Buy?
Apple has spearheaded the 5K monitor trend, with its Studio Display and the (now discontinued) 27-inch iMac both hitting 5K. This is to get “Retina” quality pixel density of 218 ppi, the same pixel density as the much more expensive 6K 32-inch Pro Display XDR.
The Apple Studio Display remains the premium choice, especially for Mac owners. It’s a 16:9 widescreen monitor with an IPS panel that uses a refresh rate of 60Hz. It doesn’t do HDR, there’s no local dimming to improve contrast ratio, and it’s incredibly expensive. On the flip side it is incredibly sharp on account of its high pixel density, has excellent brightness (nearly 600 nits), good viewing angles, and it’s built like a tank.
Apple Studio Display
Apple Studio Display (Standard Glass, No Stand)
The Apple Studio Display is a premium 5K display that doesn’t even come with a stand, but offers a bright and color-accurate viewing experience out of the box. It works over Thunderbolt with your MacBook too.
If you want something similar to the Apple Studio Display but for less money, give the LG 27MD5KL-B a look. It’s a 27-inch 5K monitor with the same pixel density, Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, and 99% coverage of the DCI-P3 color space. It also comes with a stand and will save you a couple of hundred dollars.
The LG27MD5KL-B is a 27-inch 5K monitor with Thunderbolt connectivity and a wide color gamut. It also comes with built-in speakers, microphone, and a webcam.
Since 5K is a somewhat nebulous term, any monitor with over 5,000 pixels on the horizontal axis could qualify. Samsung’s Odyssey Neo G9 is a monster of a gaming monitor with a 5120×1440 resolution and 49-inch curved display. It has a refresh rate of 240Hz, impressive HDR performance, and a VA panel. It costs more than an Apple Studio Display, but it does at least come with a stand.
Samsung Odyssey Neo G9
Samsung Odyssey Neo G9
If you’ve got a lot of desk space and deep pockets the Samsung Odyssey Neo G9 is the super-ultrawide gaming monitor for you. Highlights include a 240Hz refresh rate, 49-inches of screen real estate, and Mini LED backlighting.
More High Pixel Density Monitors Are on the Way
At CES 2023 Dell and Samsung both announced new monitors aimed at closing the pixel density gap, which should be available later in the year for purchase. This is excellent news for anyone who appreciates higher pixel densities, notably MacBook users who aren’t satisfied with a downgrade in fidelity when plugging in an external display.
Samsung announced the ViewFinity S9, a 27-inch 5K monitor designed to compete with Apple’s Studio Display. It matches Apple’s offering in terms of its brightness and color space coverage, not to mention pixel density. It also comes with a built-in webcam and has Thunderbolt 4, HDMI, and DisplayPort connectivity. It also comes with a matte display coating out of the box, a finish that Apple charges more for.
Dell also made an announcement at CES for the UltraSharp 32, a 6K (6144×3456) monitor designed to give the pricey Apple Pro Display XDR some competition. It hits 220 ppi, but lacks the 1,600 nits peak brightness seen on Apple’s top dog. It manages 600 nits peak brightness, has a built-in webcam, Thunderbolt 4 (with up to 140w power delivery), and hub-like connectivity for extra devices.
More competition should be good for you as the consumer so it’s good to see Samsung and Dell should give Apple and LG some competition to improve their offerings in the high-pixel-density monitor space. Perhaps this could result in more “4.5K” 24-inch monitors arriving for those who are short on space, to compete with Apple’s 24-inch iMac (4480×2520 at 218 ppi).
The first Retina MacBook arrived in 2012, with even the entry-level M1 MacBook Air sporting a pixel density of 225 ppi. To say we’re long overdue for affordable and commonly available “Retina” quality external displays is an understatement.
Should You Buy a 5K Monitor?
If you’re a MacBook owner who is frustrated by the image quality downgrade you encounter when plugging in an external display, a 5K 16:9 27-inch monitor should put a smile on your face. Many Windows users will also appreciate the increase in display quality, just make sure you’ve got the right output on your laptop or GPU before you make the purchase.
5K monitors also aren’t a great choice for gamers since you’ll need a powerful system to run games at a native 5K resolution (though cutting the resolution in half and making use of temporal upscalers like NVIDIA’s DLSS will help). You’re also stuck at 60Hz on most models, which isn’t an issue for creative or professional use cases but may frustrate you if you play fast-paced games.
For now, 4K monitors are much more common and affordable. Check out our best computer monitor recommendations.