The ‘4K’ UHD (3840 x 2160) Experience

Author: Adam Simmons
Last updated: May 20th 2016

 

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Introduction

A higher resolution has always been a desirable trait for a monitor, increasing the clarity and ‘real estate’ available to the user compared to similarly sized monitors with a lower resolution. The current buzzword for high resolution displays is something that many marketers refer to as 4K, but also more correctly referred to as ‘UHD’ (Ultra High Definition). This resolution offers 3840 horizontal pixels and 2160 vertical pixels – the vertical component is close to 4000, which is where ‘4K’ comes from. This 3840 x 2160 remains in the popular 16:9 aspect ratio which many consumers are now intimately familiar with. To put things in context, this resolution provides 4 times as many pixels as ‘Full HD’ (1920 x 1080 or 1080p) offers and 2.25 times as many as ‘WQHD’ (2560 x 1440).

As you can imagine, such a large number of pixels can provide an impressive pixel density. This article is based on our experiences of the UHD resolution on a 28” monitor, the Samsung U28D590D. UHD monitors come in various sizes, from 24” to 32” at time of writing, and different screen sizes will offer a slightly different experience as it alters the pixel density. This monitor is something of a middle ground and currently one of the more popular screen sizes. The pixel density of a 28” UHD screen is 157.35 Pixels Per Inch (PPI), compared to 108.79 PPI for a 27” 2560 x 1440 model and 81.59 PPI for a 27” 1920 x 1080 monitor.


The desktop experience

The first thing you notice when you fire the monitor up and get onto Windows is how tiny icons on the desktop are. It isn’t just desktop icons that are miniscule, it’s everything else as well – text, buttons in programs, title bars, the taskbar, clock and various other elements. The following photos give an impression of the relative size of the desktop icons and taskbar when running the U28D590D at its native UHD resolution, the WQHD resolution and the Full HD resolution.

The UHD desktop

The WQHD desktop

The Full HD desktop

With everything looking so small and sharp, you have a lot of ‘real estate’ at your disposal. If you consider a program such as Microsoft Word, for example, the default behaviour is for the screen to display the best part of 6 pages from your document on the screen at the same time. But the text doesn’t look obscure and blurred – it is entirely crisp and, eyesight permitting, perfectly readable.

Microsoft Word

Of course such potential is perhaps wasted on a single application – after all, how much of that individual document do you really need to see at the same time? You can instead opt to have two different programs running side by side, for example a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet and Microsoft Word document. As you can see in the example below, you still get a massive amount of useful workspace for each application. You can see many cells on your spreadsheet whilst viewing the best part of two pages on the Office document, without things losing any sharpness.

Excel and Word, side by side

Such multi-tasking potential can also come in useful for simultaneously viewing multiple websites, if you’re that way inclined. When viewing a single website on the monitor there will generally be a great deal of wasted ‘white space’ horizontally. But on this monitor you can view two websites at the same time with a significant amount of crisp and clear content displayed on the screen at the same time.

Two useful websites, side by side

Coming back to our earlier point about how tiny and in many cases quite difficult to read things are, it’s a good idea to check out the scaling capabilities of your operating system to improve the practicality of working with such a high resolution display. We used Windows 8.1 for our testing, which has a number of useful integrated scaling features. These can be accessed in ‘Control Panel – Appearance and Personalisation – Display’. Alternatively you can right click on the desktop, select ‘Screen resolution’ and then click ‘Make text or other items larger or smaller’. The basic options include the ability to scale everything to 125% of the original size (‘Medium’), 150% (‘Larger’), 200% (‘Extra Large’) or 250% (‘Extra Extra Large’). This will scale text and UI elements and also change the default zoom level for applications such as web browsers that have such a control. The zoom control can be altered as required for such applications. Also note that scaling will not affect fullscreen videos. You can also specifically alter the size of different elements, such as icons, title bars and menus etc.

Windows 8.1 scaling options

Windows 10 handles scaling in a similar way, but you have more flexibility with the scaling values on the slider. You can select ‘100%’, ‘125%’, ‘150%’, ‘175%’, ‘200%’, ‘225%’, ‘250%’, ‘300%’ or ‘350%’ These scaling options, shown below, are found under ‘Settings – System – Display’. They can be accessed via ‘Settings’ on the start menu or alternatively by right clicking on the desktop and selecting ‘Display settings’. Again, this scaling only affects UI elements, text and default zoom levels in applications – it will not adversely affect the clarity and resolution of full screen videos or images.

Windows 10 scaling options

Individual preferences are important, but the three people who cast eyes on this 28” UHD monitor during the review found the ‘125%’ scaling option optimal for the balance of viewing comfort and high resolution crispness. Many elements scaled very cleanly, increasing in size but remaining sharp and pleasing on the eye. Microsoft’s own desktop icons and some other icons (for games and other utilities) remained sharp and undistorted, for example. The same was true for other desktop elements such as title bars, text, buttons in most applications (including all of Windows own desktop navigation bits and pieces) and the taskbar. Some desktop icons, such as the AMD Raptr app, Spyder4Elite colorimeter software and F.lux looked a little stretched but not to an extreme degree. Navigational elements on Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome also scaled quite nicely.

In numerical terms, 125% scaling represents such elements at a size that they’d appear on a theoretical 35” UHD screen, with a pixel density of 125.88 PPI. If you recall that is still a greater pixel density than a 27” 2560 x 1440 model would provide (108.79 PPI) so things still have a nice high-resolution feel to them. Even programs specifically mentioned in a little later on that don’t scale ‘cleanly’ (Steam, Adobe Reader etc.) looked decent. The image below shows the relative size of the desktop icons and taskbar on the monitor where 125% scaling is employed. They look smaller than when the monitor is running at 2560 x 1440 (and certainly sharper) and as the PPI would suggest, smaller than on a native 27” WQHD display.

The UHD desktop at '125%' scaling

Irrespective of this scaling setting, you still benefit from the full pixel density of the monitor when viewing text or images or playing games. Most applications also have a ‘zoom’ level which you can alter quite considerably. Zooming out slightly on Microsoft Word, for example, will represent text in the same way as when the monitor displays it natively without any scaling. Text appears just as sharp. If you’ve used scaling in the first place, though, it’s highly likely that you’ll want to increase the text size slightly. Because this is something you can independently control, you’ll likely want to experiment with various settings on your own and perhaps use different zoom levels for different applications. That’s a freedom that you have even if scaling is used. The two image below show Google Chrome and Microsoft Word using a normal and high zoom level, respectively. This is just to give you an idea of how much real-estate you maintain when using this scaling option and won’t give you an indication of sharpness etc. (which is very good for both zoom levels used here).

Chrome and Word '125%'

Chrome and Word '125%' high zoom

Some users may find the ‘150%’ setting preferable in terms of visibility on a 28” display. This presents items as the sort of size they’d appear on a 42” UHD screen, with a pixel density of 104.9 PPI. This drops it below the pixel density of a 27” WQHD screen (108.79 PPI). We found that scaling at this level made some elements look a bit wrong, such as some buttons on the taskbar and navigational elements of web browsers and many other applications. It also made any desktop icons and many buttons look stretched in a far noticeable way than the 125% scaling setting. The image below gives you a rough idea of the relative size of the desktop icons and taskbar using 150% scaling.

The UHD desktop at '150%' scaling

Many of Adobe’s programs, including the popular Adobe Reader, did not scale very cleanly using this setting. It may not be clear from the image below, but the navigational elements were simply enlarged (stretched) and didn’t look particularly pleasing. As with the web browsers, though, you regain independent zoom control for the actual content. So you can scale that as you like whilst maintaining the sharpness benefits of the high resolution.

Adobe Reader '150%'

Another application which suffered similar aesthetically displeasing enlargement was Valve’s Steam, shown in the top image. EA’s Origin and AMD’s Raptr both declined to scale at all, meaning you were left with some pretty tiny elements. On Origin, for example the menu, friends list, game list and Store all looked lovely and crisp – but tiny. You can see how small all of these elements on Origin and Raptr look in the second image, contrasting with Steam shown above it.

Steam '150%'

Origin and Raptr '150%'

Skype for Windows (the main program) and the software for our Spyder4Elite colorimeter also refused to scale. On the colorimeter software the rectangle in the centre of the screen where readings are taken was almost too small for the colorimeter’s sensor to fit over. We also had to move the colorimeter down a few cm from the suggested position to ensure the top part of the sensor covered the rectangle.

Overall we were able to enjoy the desktop at the UHD resolution using Windows 8.1’s ‘125%’ scaling option. But not everything followed the same set of rules, and there is certainly a lot of room for improvement as far as non-Microsoft software goes. Depending on your eyes and the applications you use it could be somewhere between inconvenient and frustrating trying to run your favourite programs at this resolution even if you do use such a scaling option in Windows.


The gaming experience

If you can get around the ‘inconveniences’ that crop up here and there on the desktop, you’re in for some visual treats when gaming. Provided, that is, your system can cope with the immense demands put on it by those 8,294,400 pixels. If you recall that is 2.25 times as many pixels as WQHD and 4 times as many as Full HD, so it requires considerable graphical and computational horsepower. We played a number of game titles at this resolution on our humble Nvidia GTX 780. At time of testing this was one of the more powerful GPUs available, but one that still felt a bit lonely at this ‘4K’ resolution. To help you visualise things we’ll start with our experiences on Battlefield 4 (BF4), a popular First Person Shooter with a fairly up to date game engine. The image below is just to help this visualisation process, it won’t give you any indication of what things actually looked like first hand on the monitor. The same applies to all images on this article – they’re just for setting the scene.

Battlefield 4(K)

We first tried Battlefield 4 multiplayer, where it quickly become apparent that we had to disable MSAA (Multi-Sample Anti-Aliasing) and drop a few settings down a bit to increase the average frame rate on our system from around 30 to something closer to 60fps. There were still dips on some levels and where the action became particularly intense, but this title is well known for this sort of frame rate variation. The following settings were used for a good balance between performance and visual quality on our system (although we did frequently bump things right up just to compare).

BF4 settings

It’s important for users with only moderately powerful or weaker gaming systems to note that the need for MSAA is drastically reduced at the UHD resolution. The pixels are so tiny that the steps of the ‘jaggies’ are very small and generally much less distracting than at lower resolutions. It varies somewhat between different game titles, especially with different filters applies, but on Battlefield 4 we didn’t really find any of these ‘jaggies’ particularly distracting. On some objects, for example those with long straight edges (fences for example) the aliasing was a bit more visible but not to the extent that it would be whilst running without AA at 2560 x 1440 and certainly not at 1920 x 1080 on a screen of roughly this size. The overall smoothness and sharpness of objects, including edges, was excellent though. As you peered into the distance on the game and could make out some really minor object detail it was actually quite surprising that MSAA wasn’t being used.

There were many elements within BF4 multiplayer that had a definite ‘wow’ factor, with a level of crispness and sharpness that is just not possible on displays with a lower pixel density. The weapon, character model and many other textures looked stunningly crisp and detailed. The mottled imperfections of brickwork and crumbling road surfaces with detailed specular highlights were particularly intricately detailed. Metal walls and vehicle bodywork had a similar quality to it. There were some textures that looked impressive as long as you weren’t too close to them (the sort of distance that would cause blurring in real life anyway). Wooden panels, for example, were beautifully detailed and had a realistic look to them that simply isn’t captured at lower resolutions. Some textures, on the other hand, didn’t benefit at all from the high resolution and looked a bit out of place. Many areas of earthy or grassy ground and vegetation were generally the worst offenders.

We also fired up single player on Battlefield 4, finding the experience so engrossing and visually different to what we had seen before that we played through the entire campaign again. Those higher quality textures that really benefited from the ‘4K’ resolution were abundant and the plentiful particle and lighting effects on the title also had an extra layer of detail to them. Perhaps most impressive were the character models, the scarred and dimpled skin of some characters in particular. All of these visual niceties took their toll on performance on our system, even with the reduced settings mentioned above. Of course, as it was single player, we put up with this and simply admired the view. Some of the lower quality textures were there, for example some brickwork looked noticeably flat and unimpressive, but instances of this were few and far between.

It's not Battlefield 4

Another single player game we tried was Wolfenstein: The New Order (above). On the whole this was less impressive than Battlefield 4, visually, as lower quality textures were quite widespread. If you look at the image above you can see a giant robotic creature to the left, a central entrance labelled ‘Schwergut’ (‘heavy cargo’) and some prisoners up against some walls to the left. The robotic creature had fairly impressive textures, which at least from a distance greater than point blank looked far more detailed than when viewed at a lower pixel density. The clothes of the prisoners also looked decent, although didn’t really make full use of the UHD resolution. Many of the wall textures on the other hand appeared fairly low resolution, too smooth and lacking detail. The settings were put as high as possible, with MSAA disabled for the sake of our poor little GTX 780. This image also helps highlight a few areas of aliasing, which is why we’ve kept this one larger than most images on our website. You can see that the girder below the ‘Schwergut’ sign, for example, has a bit of a jagged appearance. Although not obvious in the picture, so do various other elements such as the fences and the wire coming from the megaphone. This appears to ‘crawl’ as you move your character. Again it is less widespread and less noticeable at this resolution, but as you can see even in this image it’s still there.

We tried a number of other games which told a similar story. Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), for example, had some beautiful detail on certain objects in the world and on the characters of the game – clearly some ‘4K only’ stuff going on there. But there were many objects and patches of ground etc. with less impressive textures that really didn’t take advantage of the resolution. There was also a requirement to disable MSAA on our system, with the aforementioned caveats attached. Again this didn’t detract from the experience as much as on a display with lower pixel density. Another game we tested was Warframe (below).

Warframe in glorious UHD

High resolution textures with very nice lighting and very detailed particle effects were plentiful on Warframe. Many metals with specular highlights were particularly impressive, looking very detailed even if your character was close to them. The intricate detail and sharpness of the Warframes themselves was also impressive, something that was on a completely different level to what we’ve seen on even a 27” WQHD monitor. There were some poorer textures, though, most noticeably on various boxes, barrels and areas of ground throughout the game world. This seemed more noticeable outside, although even offending textured looked much if your character was a little distance from them. Inside the flashy lighting and particle effects seemed to mask things more successfully.

So overall we had an enjoyable time gaming on a 28” monitor at the UHD resolution. There were some textures that didn’t really benefit from such a pixel density, but other that really had the ‘wow’ factor. We had to make some sacrifices due to the demands of running the UHD resolution at reasonable frame rate on modern titles, however. The need for MSAA was clearly reduced, something that was easy to disable on most titles with a significant performance gain after doing so. Having done that there were some instances of ‘jaggies’ but the overall smoothness of the game worlds was impressive and at times it was difficult to believe MSAA was actually disabled.


The movie experience

As the previous sections have highlighted, there is a lot of untapped potential in the UHD resolution. That is particularly true when it comes to movie content, because very little ‘4K’ content actually available at time of writing. This is due to the fact that it has yet to be widely adopted for either TVs or monitors. Call us old fashioned but we’re still fans of physical media – and indeed many ‘important people’ in the film industry know that physical media will still be the preferred choice for many viewing content in UHD. The highest resolution physical media we were able to test were Blu-rays, which were played from a Blu ray player and upscaled from their native 1920 x 1080 resolution to the monitors 3840 x 2160 resolution by the GPU. We will not discuss this experience at length as we will do or have done so in individual UHD monitor reviews. As pointed out in our review of the Samsung U28D590D, for example, the experience is very similar to watching such content on a native 1920 x 1080 display of equivalent size really. There is some minor softening of the image but it’s nothing we found at all obvious.

Streaming ‘4K’ media is also an option. YouTube, for example, has an ever-expanding range of videos available to view full screen in ‘2160p’ (UHD). We found the overall impressiveness of this content varied somewhat depending on the camera used to shoot the video, the processing done etc. Some videos simply looked far softer than they should any looked very similar whether viewed on an actual UHD monitor or a Full HD one of similar size. One of the most impressive examples we saw was entitled ‘Awakening- New Zealand 4K/UHD’ which we will kindly embed below. Make sure to watch the video full screen, preferably on a UHD monitor if you have one.


Perhaps we’re just biased because our main reviewer has some kiwi heritage and we think that it is a beautiful country, but this video quite clearly benefited from the high resolution in our eyes. When the camera panned slowly and the focus was right, the detail on rocks and vegetation was truly remarkable and unlike anything we’ve seen on a video of any sort before. What was even more telling was that such details just weren’t apparent when viewing the same video on a 27” Full HD monitor when running the video itself in ‘2160p’ or any other YouTube resolution.


Conclusion

Our experience with the ‘4K’ UHD resolution was something of a mixed bag, much like our experiences with any monitor we review. On the one hand, the massive amount of real-estate provided by the monitor was really nice – everything looked so crisp and small on the desktop and text remained crisp and well defined despite its small size. For the sake of practicality, though, it was necessary to apply some degree of scaling to make things…Well, a bit bigger! Regardless of the scaling setting used, many common applications such as Adobe Reader, Microsoft Word and web browsers have their own independent zoom control. This allows you to make the main content smaller so it looks sharp and more fits on the screen (i.e. it makes good use of the pixel density) whilst the navigation remained readable.

We found the ‘Medium – 125%’ scaling option optimal for a 28” screen, but other users may have different preferences. Even some of Windows own desktop icons and navigational components started looking a bit out of place at higher scaling settings, we found. Programs like Steam and Adobe Reader did not scale ‘cleanly’ at all, simply looking enlarged and quite ugly really at ‘Large – 150%’ or beyond. Then there were programs like Skype and EA Origin, which refused to scale at all. It didn’t matter what Windows scaling setting you used here, things remained sharp but tiny and fairly difficult to read at any setting.

Our gaming experience was also mixed, but we definitely enjoyed it. There were some things in games that really stood out in a brilliant way at the UHD resolution, for example certain textures that were just stunningly crisp and detailed even if you stood your character close to them. There were other elements that looked good from a certain distance, but became less appealing up close. And then there were other things that just didn’t take advantage of the resolution at all – certain flat looking textures for example. Different titles had a different weight of one type of element over the other. It is also important to mention the sheer graphical horsepower required to deliver respectable frame rates at a resolution of 3840 x 2160. We found disabling MSAA helped boost performance considerably (although not always to the most playable levels on our test system) and on the whole didn’t provide the visual hit you might expect from doing so. Although we found the trade-off acceptable, some users may still find some instances of jagged edges distracting, in which case a higher level of AA would be ideal. We can completely understand people wanting to round off the experience with all the bells and whistles (a good amount of MSAA, ‘Ultra’ settings etc.)

We also found the technology a bit ahead of its time when it came to movies, as most content was available at a 1920 x 1080 resolution at most. We did find some very impressive ‘4K’ footage on YouTube, though, which was unlike anything we’ve ever seen on film. It really did give a tasty glimpse of the sort of things we can expect in the future. The UHD resolution will become increasingly popular, spreading not just in the monitor world but also TVs and mobile devices as well. Ultrabooks with high DPI displays, for example. And of course as the hardware becomes increasingly ubiquitous, so will the content that can put it to good use.

At the time this article was published, the 3840 x 2160 resolution was a very new thing, particularly for monitors. We got a lot of enjoyment from gaming at this resolution, watching a slim selection of ‘2160p’ content and enjoying the real-estate on the desktop. But for each of those tasks it was clear that there was a lot of room for the technology to grow. A lot of untapped potential. Anybody reading this article a year or more after its publishing date may well be laughing at how our GPU struggled to maintain 60fps in modern titles at this resolution. Or how we were stuck with Full HD Blu-rays and a small range of streamable content. Or indeed how even how these archaic versions of Windows and the software only offered fairly flaky support for scaling. But we don’t think any of that is a bad thing – if the technology was perfect, what would there be to look forward to?

Further reading

  • Our experiences with UHD on a 23.8″ model. The ‘4K UHD experience’ section of our Dell P2415Q review, around 3/4 of the way through, looks at how the resolution works out on a 23.8″ model. The same section of our U2477PWQ review reinforces these points, with a 23.6″ panel, and also looks at the visual experience in Tom Clancy’s The Division.
  • Also refer to this section of our ViewSonic VP2780-4K review for a look at some more game titles in UHD – namely Battlefield Hardline and Grand Theft Auto 5. We also take a look at the UHD experience in Star Wars Battlefront in the relevant section of our ASUS PG27AQ review.
  • If you prefer larger screens, see how everything looks in UHD on a 32″ screen by referring to the relevant section of our BL3201PT/PH review.
  • For those who prefer very large screens, refer to the relevant review sections of a ~40″ and ~43″ screen.

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