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The Long and Tedious Road to 4K

My Desk 2015

For the past year or so, I had been slowly becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the pixel density of computer monitors that I've been using for the past few years. As can be seen from last year's desk photo, I've accumulated three 24" displays over the years: an Apple Cinema Display flanked by two Dells. But after being spoiled by the high PPI displays on the cell phones and tablets of today, the low pixel density of the displays from yesteryear were starting to grate on my eyes.

Being that I'm still running my beloved "old but reliable" Mac Pro (that I've had since 2009), my options were more limited to begin with. I've beefed the machine up throughout the years though so currently it's running as a v5,1 w/2x3.33Ghz 6-Core Westmere as opposed to its original v4,1 2x2.26Ghz Quad Core Nehalems. 64GB RAM and stuffed to the gills with 6 internal drives. My original plan was to swap out the Apple display w/the updated, but still old, 27" LED Cinema Display. It's no longer manufactured, having been replaced in recent years by the updated Thunderbolt version, so I would have to wait until more refurb units hit Apple's store or pick up an used one via craigslist. The more I thought about it though, the less appealing this option became. As a refurb, the price was still more than I wanted to pay, especially for an outdated model. I figured it wouldn't have been a very cost-effective purchase.

So I started looking at some 4K displays. Since I've historically used, and have no issue with, Dell displays, that was the first place I looked. While I've never been a fan of their computers/laptops, their displays have always given good bang for the buck. And their current 4K offerings are no exception. I figured I'd up the overall size of the display a bit too while I was at it so that pointed me to their P2715q model.

However, there was one major concern that I still had to face: whether or not my current video card could handle driving a display with such high resolution. I wasn't particularly optimistic, until I came across this reddit post that gave me some hope. While the author in that post was using an AMD Radeon HD 5870 and I was running the lower powered 5770 that had the same amount of RAM and clock speed, but fewer SPUs and smaller bus, I figured it would most likely work. Worst case I figured I'd have to shell out for a new vid card as well. Wasn't entirely enthused about that prospect since I had just added the 5770 four years ago but if it needed to be done, it'd get done.

After waffling for quite some time, I finally pulled the trigger after I discovered that Best Buy was selling them (yay for 12-month, no interest financing) and that they'd price match TigerDirect, who had a pretty darn good price for them at the time. The cost would be just a little over what I would have paid if I had stuck with an used 27" Apple LED display and significantly lower than a refurb unit direct from Apple.

So I was pretty psyched when I received it after about a week. Until of course, I hooked everything up (Mini DisplayPort from vid card to DisplayPort on display) and was greeted by a blank screen. F*CK... Out of the box, the display was receiving no signal from the video card even though for some reason, MacOS was detecting the display just fine. When I went into System Preferences > Displays, a configuration window for the P2715q display popped up. So why no signal. *sigh* Back to the drawing board, aka Google.

After perusing mainly Apple's discussion boards, I discovered a possible fix. Namely, a particular setting on the display itself had to be turned off. Unfortunately, for some reason, the majority of menu options on Dell's displays are not accessible unless it's receiving a signal from a video card. Without a signal, the only things you can do is switch input ports. Fortunately, the docking station for my HP work laptop had a DisplayPort port. So I just reversed the cable I had and connected my work laptop to the display first, which worked. Then I was able to access the display's full menu options and disable DDC/CI.

Once that was done, I plugged the display back to my Mac and HALLELUJAH, I finally saw the light. And what a glorious light it was. But, wasn't completely out of the woods yet. With the Radeon 5770, the max resolution achievable is full 3840x2160. But only at 30Hz. Normally you want to run a display at 60Hz. If you're a gamer, you don't want to run anything at 30Hz. I'm no longer much of a gamer on computers but still, I'd prefer to have it running at 60Hz. The limiting factor was the video card as I had originally feared, but at least I was getting something to display instead of nothing so I could at least continue to use my computer until a better vid card was acquired.

Another thing to note is that under Mac OS X (10.10.3 and .4), I couldn't actually choose the full 3840x2160 res from the Displays preferences. MacOS automatically shows only the high PPI resolutions available by default. Which in my case was 1920x1080, 1280x720 and 1152x648. The "Default for display" was 1920x1080. Which was absolutely fine with me cause coming from the old 24" Apple display that had the same max resolution, the new high PPI 1920x1080 looks absolutely fantastic. One of the major annoyances I had with my old displays was that I'd be post-processing photos and saving them at 264 PPI and they'd look like crap on my computer. They'd look damn great on an iPad but then I'd switch back to the computer and cry. No more, thank god, no more.

I downloaded SwitchResX which lets you play around with more resolution settings and yeah, 1920x1080 still looks best. Everything was soooooo tiny at 3840x2160. Pretty much unusable unless you wear magnifying glasses. =p

But as usual, there were other issues that cropped up. The biggest one was that overall usage performance took a noticeable hit. Performance of EVERYTHING was very slow. Couldn't run videos at full screen without lost frames. Significant lag when moving & resizing windows (you'll see why this was an even bigger problem later). I hadn't even bothered trying to game yet. I figured the 5770 vid card was being taxed to its limit. After more web perusal, I tried a couple of things like deleting the existing windowserver.plist and zapping my NVRAM (PRAM for all you old-school Mac users). But the one thing that seemed to help the most was reducing transparency via the Accessibility preferences. Was like night and day. Response-wise, everything seemed pretty much back to normal when that transparency option was checked. I don't even miss the transparency.

The last quirk that has yet to be resolved is that my Safari windows, which I primarily place on the new display's screen, would lose their size and position after I wake the displays from sleep. Whenever I came back to use the computer after a long while, I'd find all my Safari windows down towards the bottom left of my primary display. So then I'd have to drag them all back into place and resize them. This turned out to be quite a chore, especially back when I hadn't resolved the aforementioned slowness issue yet. I think I discovered why it happens though. Basically the P2715q display wakes up later than the flanking displays so the computer switches the main display over to either of the flanking displays for a brief moment. And because my flanking displays are vertically oriented, any existing windows being moved gets resized to fit within the new resolution. But once the P2715q wakes up, MacOS switches main display back to it but doesn't resize the window again because they already fit within the horizontal resolution of the main display. But they unfortunately also don't get moved back to their original positions on the main display. Not entirely sure if there's a way to fix this but the quick workaround is just to hide Safari before I leave for an extended period of time. I just need to remember to do that every time. =\ Plus this workaround doesn't seem to work 100% either as I sometimes come back to the windows all messed up again.

So last week I picked up an used MSI AMD Radeon HD 7950 from eBay as an upgrade for the 5770. After installing it and hooking everything up, I was happy to see that the available scaled resolutions via MacOS had doubled, with 2560x1440, the one I wanted, available. Oddly though, it was still running only at 30Hz. After further research I discovered I had to set the MST (Multi-Stream Transport) setting on the display to "Off" in order to get 60Hz. So it was exciting times... until the video card started randomly freaking out. Its fan would suddenly kick into high gear and the cursor would do the spinning beachball. Sometimes this would go on for a few minutes before I was inexplicably sent to the MacOS X login screen. Other times it went on for so long I was forced to shut down the machine. After determining that this was not expected behavior with this video card, I returned it for another one.

Pretty sure the screen shouldn't look like this. =p

Also around this time, my ancient Dell 2407WFP display (the one running on the left) decided that it was a good time to act up even more. I've had ongoing issues with it for awhile now where it would decide to not wake from sleep. Usually a reboot of the computer or re-plugging of the DVI cable fixed things. Now neither fix was working. After much cussing and switching of connections from one video card to another, I finally got it to display via the DVI port again. Unfortunately it would no longer work from the DVI port on the even older NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 card that I originally had both flanking monitors running off of. I had to move it over to the more powerful 5770 instead.

The second AMD Radeon HD 7950 card (this time a Sapphire version) came in over the weekend and after installation, it seemed much better. So far has been absolutely stable when running at the scaled 2560x1440 resolution which obviously is a huge plus. One final issue popped up where basically any HD Youtube vid was pretty much unwatchable. Not entirely sure what the cause was but it seemed like the computer couldn't download the video fast enough to keep from stopping every few seconds. Was very strange. Didn't matter if it was Safari or Chrome. After fiddling around with the recent usual suspects: resolution, MST/SST, rebooting router and Time Capsule, etc., the thing that seems to have fixed it was just reinstalling the latest version of Flash. Either that or Verizon finally decided to stop throttling my FiOS connection in the middle of the night. =p

So for now, my latest computer upgrade is finally complete. Some minor issues remain: computer won't boot while P2715q display is running in SST mode (which it has to in order to achieve 60Hz performance @ high resolutions), and browser windows losing their position when waking from sleep because the P2715q is the last display to power back up. The boot issue can be dealt with by just leaving the monitor off until the computer has finished its boot sequence. Or switching the display over to MST as secondary before rebooting. And the window issue can be mostly resolved by hiding the browser before I leave for lengthy periods of time.

As for the 4K display, I like it. A lot. I mean, c'mon, a 27" Retina Display? Who wouldn't like that? ;-p

And on a side note, while getting the 4K display to work under Windows 7 with a more modern (<1yr old) laptop was much more of a breeze (through a DisplayPort to Mini DisplayPort cable from a HP laptop dock), it's scaling support really sucks. As I mentioned previously, actually setting the screen to its native 3840x2160 resolution makes things pretty much unusable. On Windows, native resolution is where the screen will look the sharpest at though. So shifting the resolution down to 2560x1440 just makes everything look a little soft. It doesn't do the whole HiDPI thing that MacOS does. Another option is to use the "Make it easier to read what's on your screen" configuration and bump things up to 150% while keeping the screen resolution to the native 3840x2160. Which would be fine I guess if the 4K display is your only screen. But I like using the laptop screen in addition and using this option makes everything on the laptop screen bigger by 150% as well. It's a global setting across all displays so not a good option if you have more than one display.

UPDATE [10/13/2015]: Thought I'd add a quick update now that I've been running under MacOS X 10.11 El Capitan for a few weeks. Basically, something happened w/the Nvidia drivers in El Capitan. At least for me. After upgrading, I noticed that every now and then screen refreshing would just slow down to a crawl. Sometimes it righted itself, sometimes it'd do a soft crash and send back to the login screen. After some console log diving I noticed that the Nvidia drivers were erroring when this happened. Not sure if this is just an issue w/my system or a more global issue. But I don't really feel like doing a fresh OS install to see if that fixes things. So I chose to take out the Nvidia GeForce GT 120 card completely. Now all 3 monitors are run off of the AMD which doesn't seem to mind one bit. At least this opened up the second 16x PCI-E slot for my 4-port USB 3.0 card.

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Comments (1)

Christine:

Ben! Have you lost your mind?! I just lost mine reading this!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 14, 2015 10:43 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Getting Wet With the iPhone 6.

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