Use a 4K Monitor in Retina Mode on Your Mac

2 minute read
| How-To

In the old days when you purchased a monitor you had to decide between higher resolution and larger text. If your monitor’s native resolution was too high, you were plagued with either living with small text or running the screen at a lower resolution. People buying a 4K monitor today see the same issue, but there is now an easy way to get that running in Retina mode.

Apple’s solution to this issue was to introduce what they call “Retina displays” on Macs. That simply means a monitor where your effective number of pixels displayed is less than the actual number of pixels displayed. The screen on the iMac with 5K Retina Display screen will have four actual pixels – two vertical and two horizontal – for each effective pixel. By doing this at high resolutions, the result is text that is crystal clear and print-like without any individual pixels being apparent.

Enabling Retina Mode on your Third-Party 4K Monitor

Your Retina-capable Mac will default to using this Retina mode for its built-in monitor, but it will not do so for any external, third-party monitor. The good news is that a simple System Preferences tweak in Mavericks 10.9.3 and later will allow you to set Retina mode manually for your third-party, 4K monitor. Just confirm that your Mac will drive a 4K monitor before making your purchase.

Two shots of the same 4K monitor, One showing Retina mode, the other showing non-retina mode with smaller text

The same windows on the same 28″ 4K monitor. Left is “Retina” mode, the right is the display’s default resolution.

Go into System Preferences > Displays and you should get a separate window appearing on each of your attached monitors. The “Default for display” option will likely be selected and, as mentioned, on your non-Apple 4K monitor that will result in very small images and text. Here is where you choose “Scaled,” after which you’ll have a series of five options ranging from “Larger Text” to “More Space.” Fear not: regardless of which option you choose here your Mac will still be sending information to your screen at full resolution, it will just be using those extra pixels to smooth out the elements it is displaying. Fonts will be smooth and clear and those jagged edges of your windows will be a thing of the past.

macOS Displays Preference Pane with Retina Scaled resolution showing on a 4k monitor

This is a third-party 4K monitor running in “Retina” mode. Native resolution is 3840×2160, using higher-pixel density to display a 2560×1440 image.

If you want to actually have your Mac send a lower-resolution image on your monitor, or if you simply want to choose an option different from one of the five that are presented, Option-click the word “Scaled” in this preference pane and you’ll get a much longer list. Check the “Show low resolution modes” box to see all your options. Anything with “(low resolution)” displayed will actually send that resolution to your screen. Everything else will send a full-resolution image to your screen in what we’ll call “Retina” mode.

macOS System Preferences Displays Low Resolution options showing on a 4k monitor

Option-click on “Scaled” to see even more choices for your monitor, including “low resolution” mode that actually sends a lower resolution to your monitor.

Low Resolution Mode is Available on Built-In Displays, Too

Even if you don’t have a third-party 4K monitor you can still experiment with these options. The Displays preference pane acts the same way with your Mac’s built-in Retina display, too, except that “Default for display” automatically chooses the Retina mode.

2 Comments Add a comment

  1. jessi451

    thanks Dave , i think one of the best points in Apple’s labtops is their display and it’s really good for graphic works , 4k display in this article is awesome !

  2. This is one of those things I’m surprised I didn’t know about.
    I actually tried this in the past.. could have sworn it was since Mavericks, but I guess not because the option wasn’t there. I tried it with my work laptop and it looks terrific!
    Not knowing this is why I still have an older mac mini driving my media center. So, thanks to you (#thanksdave), I now have to update that mini. (Or possibly.. wait for a 4K ATV, which was plan A.)

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