Retina screens have been a part of my life since the iPhone 4 and iPad 3. Apple achieved something incredible by quadrupling the pixel count—it removed a barrier between the content and its reader. I still remember how I considered the first iPad and iPhone 3GS to have amazing screens. That all changed soon enough and I cannot imagine going back to traditional displays in my mobile devices. Despite the advances in mobile LCDs I was still relegated to using a traditional display on my 27″ iMac and MacBook Air. The former was good enough when viewed at a normal distance while the latter, used as a typewriter, most of the time of my knees, didn’t bother me at all. Despite that, I still longed for a Retina displaying having reviewed a few MacBook Pros.
I received a review unit from Eizo sometime in December 2014, a few weeks after Apple announced the iMac Retina 5K—my dream screen. I wasn’t planning to purchase the iMac however, having had a bad experience with the screen in my 27″ late 2009 model:
I sold the iMac in early 2014 and in those four years, when it was in my possession, it had its screen replaced a total of six times by Apple. The flaw appeared to be related to the LCD screen and radiator on the GPU. I often got the fans to spin up when rendering in Final Cut Pro and Lightroom, and this most probably deposited dust on the rear of the screen, perhaps even on the LED backlight itself. In Apple’s defence, they did replace the screens without any trouble on my part… well, almost. I did have to contact Apple UK at one time, because Apple Poland refused the exchange. Nevertheless, this is an issue which has gone unresolved for many years and some of my friends are already reporting problems on the Retina 5K iMacs.
I did however go to see one in a store and fortunately it was standing next to a regular 27″ iMac—the difference was simply staggering. Once you see Retina 5K in all of its glory, you cannot easily forget the visual experience. 4K screens do not offer the same resolution of course. Most have 3840×2160 piksels which seems much less when compared to the 5120×2880 of the Retina 5K iMac. But they do offer an alternative in a time when external 5K LCDs are still many months away.
Low end 4K monitors have been around for a few months now, most of them being MST1 models which for the operating system and GPU to generate two 1920×2160 images, which are then merged together by the screen itself. High end SST models are just starting to appear and with a starting price of around €2200 for the Eizo Flexscan EV3237, they surely won’t be very popular. NEC’s rival, the PA322UHD has a much higher price tag, which will be surely bested by Eizo’s upcoming CG-318-4K. The new entrants support SST2 however, where each frame is 3840×2160 px in resolution. Whats even more important, the Flexscan EV3237 also supports 60 Hz at 4K, which actually makes it usable. I have tried working in 30 Hz and failed—even the jittering cursor frustrated me to no end, not to mention the lack of smoothness in any OS X animations.
The trouble with 4K at 60 Hz is that barely any Macs support it properly. It doesn’t work over HDMI either—a DisplayPort connection must be used, where the cable is rated as HBR23 or compatible with DisplayPort 1.2. What’s worse, Apple doesn’t currently officially support 60 Hz on SST displays in OS X Yosemite. This results in screen tearing on the right side of the display when a Mac is woken from sleep. This is not terribly frustrating, but I do hope it gets sorted quickly. Glenn Fleischman documented this issue in his recent extensive bug list and the thread regarding the matter on Apple Discussions has over 300 replies.
The Eizo EV3237 comes with a DisplayPort 1.2 to DisplayPort 1.2 cable, but adapters are near impossible to come by—please make sure to also order the DisplayPort to Mini DisplayPort cable from Eizo. It costs around €20/$30.
The Eizo Flexscan EV3237 is a 31.5″ behemoth, but I acclimated to its size surprisingly quickly. Eizo is not known for its design prowess, but comparing the 4K screen to its older siblings, things are going in the right direction. It’s slimmer and more elegant, and the bezels are thinner than ever. While the panel is sourced from the same suppliers as other 31.5″ 4K LCDs, Eizo make their own circuit boards to control everything. The Flexscan is considered a wide gamut monitor despite “only” covering 89% of AdobeRGB; it does however cover 100% of sRGB which is plenty enough for most people. I won’t go into the technical aspects of the EV3237 itself, but I will say that this is one of the best screens that I have had the pleasure of using. It is unfortunately comes a bit short in black levels in comparison to Eizo’s ColorEdge line, but those are meant for people who cannot accept anything less than near perfect image quality.
4K, Retina and OS X
The biggest difference between a 4K screen and the 5K Retina iMac is that the former allows for a “true” Retina experience at 1920×1080 points, where each point is displayed using four physical pixels. The latter can display a 2560×1440 pt workspace at @2x, which is obviously preferable. The EV3237 offers five different resolution equivalents:
- 1504×846 pt @2.55x
- 1920×1080 pt @2x
- 2560×1440 pt @1.5x
- 3008×1692 pt @1.28x
- 3840×2160 pt @1x
The first and last mode is practically unusable—everything is either too large or too small. While the 1920×1080 pt mode looks fantastic, that particular resolution offers too little space for my windows on the desktop. I have opted for the 2560×1440 pt option, which looks great on the 31.5″ despite not being “true” Retina @2x. My eyes are not perfect but at a typical viewing distance I personally cannot discern any pixels—it’s more than good enough and huge step up from 27″ 2560×1440 px panels. The 3008×1692 pt resolution is a curious one—while not ideal for browsing the web, it is extremely useful in Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Lightroom. The controls in both apps are big enough to be usable while the extra space helps display photos and video in their original sizes.
The iMac Retina 5K has the ideal resolution for people looking for a Retina desktop Mac, but for those who need a matte screen, with superior colour accuracy, for their Mac Pro perhaps, I can heartily recommend the Eizo—it’s not cheap, but it is amazing.