Through a series of events which I won’t go into, I ended up giving up my 5K iMac to my wife and making do with a 2016 model MacBook Pro 13″ with TouchBar. The MacBook Pro is slightly less powerful (according to Geekbench) than the iMac, but I wasn’t too concerned about that. What caught me out was the display situation.
For a while I made do with the built-in display, which is very crisp, although not as bright as the iMac. Next, I temporarily added an LG 24″ Full HD monitor that I had previously used with a 2011 MacBook Pro, before finally caving and purchasing a new LG 27″ 4K monitor.
At approximately NZD$700, it is not an expensive monitor, but nor is it bottom of the line. It has an IPS display and apart from a slight dimness at the very bottom, it is bright and crisp. The problem comes from the MacBook Pro.
None of the 13″ MacBook Pros as far back as 2011 have ever had a discrete graphics card, and rely on Intel’s “integrated” graphics capability. Mine has Intel Iris Graphics 550. While that hardware is capable of driving both the built-in 2560 x 1600 Retina display and an external 3840 x 2160 display, there are limitations. Specifically, you pretty much have to run the external display at either native resolution – thus non-retina and with very small controls – or at “full” 2X retina – this limiting the display to an effective “Full HD” 1920 x 1080.
At Full HD, the external display looks fantastic, but doesn’t provide a lot of screen real estate to use. At full native resolution it looks… crazy. There’s plenty of room for windows, but performance noticeably begins to suffer and it’s very clearly not retina. But wait… there are three “scaled” resolutions you can choose in between the two extremes.
When you select any of the three “scaled” options, you get a pretty good balance of “retina-ness” and available screen real estate, but be sure to heed the little note that appears when you do.
They really aren’t kidding with that statement. I use Exposé Spaces quite a bit and when switching between them, the lag, stutter, and display “tearing” is absolutely terrible.
In short, if you want a Mac laptop to use with an external 4K (or 5K) display, get a 15″ MacBook Pro with discrete graphics. Anything else will disappoint.