4K and Mac: Everything you need to know

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You may have seen 4K TVs for sale, or now have a device that records video in 4K (iPhone 6S and 6S Plus) and you’re wanting to know more about it. This guide will help you with what you might want to know about viewing and even editing 4K content on a Mac.

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What the heck is 4K anyway?

Like 720p and 1080p, 4K is a resolution in which images and video can be displayed on a TV or monitor. 4K means there are ~4000 pixels per horizontal line. Not all 4K is the same though. TVs and monitors that say they are 4K UHD, or just UHD, have a resolution of 3840×2160. Full 4K is a resolution of 4096×2304. Both have an aspect ratio of 16:9. Another measurement is Hz. Hz is the refresh rate of the display. The higher the number of Hz the smoother video appears on the display.

The human eye can’t tell the difference between 4K UHD and full 4K, but it can when it comes to the refresh rate (Hz). Watching 4K video shot at 60 FPS on a display with 24Hz will appear choppy compared to a display with 60Hz.

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Which Macs support 4K?

Apple has two computers with built in displays with 4K and even 5K resolution: the new 4K Retina 21.5in iMac and the 5K Retina 27in iMac introduced in late 2014. The resolution of the 4K 21.5in iMac is a full 4K, 4096×2304, and the 5K 27in iMac has a resolution of 5120×2880. Both are 60Hz. They also support external 4K displays using Mini DisplayPort adapters via Thunderbolt.

Other Apple computers support 4K external displays using either the built-in HDMI port and/or using Mini DisplayPort adapters via Thunderbolt. The resolutions and refresh rates are not the same for each machine though. Here’s a breakdown:

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Uses built-in HDMI:

  • Mac Pro (Late 2013)
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 13in, Late 2013 and later)
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 15in, Late 2013 and later)
  • MacBook (Retina,12in)

Resolution options using built-in HDMI are 3840×2160 at 30Hz or 4096×2160 at 24Hz. Mirroring is not supported when using 4096×2160 at 24Hz option. MacBook (Retina, 12in) requires USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter.

Uses Mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort cable adapter or Mini DisplayPort cable via Thunderbolt port with resolution of 3840×2160 at 60Hz:

  • MacBook Air (Early 2015)
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 13in, Early 2015)
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 15in, Mid 2014 and later)

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Uses Mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort cable adapter or Mini DisplayPort cable via Thunderbolt port with resolution of 4096×2160 at 60Hz:

  • Mac Pro (Late 2013)
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 15in, Mid 2015 w/ AMD Radeon R9 M370X)
  • iMac (Retina 4K, 21.5in, Late 2015)
  • iMac (Retina 5K, 27in, Late 2014 and later)

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All of these Macs also support 3840×2160 at 60Hz using a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter via Thunderbolt Adapter.

Mac OS X Yosemite 10.10.3 or higher is required to support these resolutions. The ability to use Target Display Mode has been removed from the Retina iMacs so they are not able to be used as a 4K/5K display themselves now.

What about older Macs?

The only other Macs that support 4K are the older Mac Pro towers from 2008-2012. They don’t support 4K natively though. The stock graphics cards from Apple, and even the upgraded ones they offered, only support a resolution of 2560×1600. You’ll need an aftermarket graphics card to be able to support 4K. The only ones I’m aware of at the time of this writing are the NVIDIA Quadro K5000 and AMD Radeon HD 7950. The NVIDIA card works in Early 2008 Mac Pros and newer, the AMD card only works in Mid 2010 and Mid 2012. The NVIDIA card is much more expensive but has more GDDR and supports CUDA.

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Which display to get?

There are a lot of 4K TVs and displays on the market now and the prices have dropped quite a bit over the past year. Look for a TV or display with at least 60Hz refresh rate for better picture quality.

If you’re wanting the ability to daisy chain displays similar to how the Thunderbolt Display works, then look for ones with Multi-Stream Transport (MST).

These computers support 4K 60Hz MST displays:

  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 15in, Late 2013 and later)
  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 13in, Early 2015)
  • Mac Pro (Late 2013)
  • iMac (Retina 5K, 27in, Late 2014 and later)
  • iMac (Retina 4K, 21.5in, Late 2015)

Only one additional Thunderbolt display is supported when using a 60Hz MST display with the MacBook Pro (Retina, 15in, Late 2013) or iMac (Retina 5K, 27in, Late 2014)

You can find some recommended 4k displays here.

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Let’s edit 4K!

Editing 4K requires a lot more power than just displaying it. A machine with Intel Core i7 or Xeon processors, at least 32GB of RAM, and a graphics card with at least 3GB GDDR is recommended for best performance. Machines that qualify are:

  • Mac Pro (Late 2013 w/ D500 or D700)
  • Mac Pro (Early 2008, Early 2009, Mid 2010, or Mid 2012 w/ NVIDIA Quadro K5000)
  • Mac Pro (Mid 2010 or Mid 2012 w/ AMD Radeon HD 7950)
  • iMac (Retina 5K, 27in, Late 2014 w/ AMD Radeon R9 M295X)
  • iMac (Retina 5K, 27in, Late 2015 w/ AMD Radeon R9 M395X)

These all have i7 or Xeon processors and graphics cards with 3GB GDDR or more.

4K video also takes up a lot of space. Just one hour of 4K footage can be over 40GB! An external RAID with multiple terabytes of storage is highly recommended. These machines (except 2008-2012 Mac Pros) can use Thunderbolt RAID solutions that provide great reliability and performance. Older Mac Pros can use aftermarket PCIe eSATA and USB 3.0 cards for faster data transfer speeds to external RAID storage or use Apple’s PCIe RAID card to use RAID with the internal drives.

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Going beyond 4K…

Dell makes a 27in 5K display (UP2715K) that’s compatible with the Mac Pro (Late 2013), iMac (Retina 5K, 27in, Late 2014 and later), and the MacBook Pro (Retina, 15in, Mid 2015 w/ AMD Radeon R9 M370X) at full 5K resolution, 5120×2880. To be able to take advantage of 5K resolution the monitor does however require the use of 2 Thunderbolt ports.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. hi Chris!
    well.. i live in Brazil and I have an old Mac book pro, i5, Geforce 330M (mid 2010) and as here it’s very very expensive to buy a new one, I’m living with this one. My tv broken and I’m thinking about buying a 4k one. My question is: can i connect my MBP by mini displayport into the 4k tv with a 1080p resolution.. not in 4k?! I don’t know yet but I’m almost sure that my MBP won’t connect in 4k.. but it will recognize the 4k tv connecting in 1080p?
    thanks a lot for your time!

    • Hey there, so glad to hear from you! 
      With your current MacBook Pro i5, it honestly all depends on the TV you buy. Most TVs are usually okay being connected, but with the recent 4K TVs it’s hard for them to to have older generation Macs appear as being connected. It would most likely give you an error sign saying “No signal.”  You may be able to toggle through settings not only on the TV, but also with the Macbook Pro. I do however know a good television brand that connects well with older generation Macbook Pros as I have done it myself. Samsung hasn’t ever done me wrong and I found it to be easy with hookup. 
      Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with, 
      Best,
      Jay 

  2. I would like to use a TLC 43S405 TV (4k UHD HDR LED, with HDMI ports) as a 4k external monitor for my 2017 Macbook air (Intel HD Graphics 6000). What cable or adapter should I use?

  3. Hi I bought at mini display port to hdmi and it support 4k but my macbook pro is from mid 2010 so that don’t support 4k. I can not select sound out hdmi and the display is not good on the tv. Can it be that the mini display port is the problem and buying a disport that don’t support 4k is better to my macbook pro?

  4. Hi,
    Very useful site, much appreciated! I have a 2009 Mac Pro with a Mini Display Port on the NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 512 MB Graphics Card. Assuming I got a MDP to HDMI 2.0 adapter, what would be the highest resolution 4k display I could use with this set up?
    Thanks in advance for your response,

    • Hello Dai,
      By default, one NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 video card can support two 30-inch displays and is capable of supporting digital resolutions up to 2560×1600 and analog resolutions up to 2048×1536.
      Thanks for the inquiry.

  5. is it posiible to connect an HD monitor to a late 2017 iMAC? My old iMac worked fine with the external Samsung HD monitor but with the new iMAC I get no image on it. Please advice.

  6. Thanks for the article! Personally, I use ArkMC app to stream 4k videos wirelessly my music, videos, pics from iPhone/MAC to PS4 or TV.I finally get rid of adapters and cables, that are pretty expensive. But I’ve never faced any problems with app, works perfect without any bugs.

  7. I found your write up difficult to understand.
    I’ve been trying to find out if a rMBP Mid 2015 can be connected to a 4k UHD TV or not. Some places have said no and places like this have said yes.
    What cables do I need to buy to make this happen in the smoothest, most high performing way? I didn’t understand that linked bit about the cables. I was hoping that the link would take me to the items but it didn’t.
    Could you care to elaborate.
    Also what’s the highest resolution I would be able to run on 60FPS?

  8. Hello .. I have the 2.6 GHz i5 8mb ram, 256ssd, Intel 4000 graphics, retina 13 Macbook pro, but EARLY 2013.. I can only find the reference for the LATE 2013 MODEL.Im really close to buy a 4k display. But it is hard to find any information on my model… should I worry??

  9. 4K is the latest and most higher resolution. This resolution is basically 3840×2160 pixels. So now MAc also supports this 4K resolution. Like Mac Pro, MacBook Pro, MacBook Pro Retina etc. So to know more about 4K and MAC anyone can visit us.

  10. Hello. I have a Mac Pro Early 2009 with NVIDIA GeForce GT 120. When i try to use it with an LG 4k tv it displays tne apple logo and progress bar. But then shows “invalid signal type” message on tv. Your article says this Mac Pro is not compatible with 4k. But it still displays the start up screen. Is my machine an exception ro the rule somehow?
    Thank you.

  11. Hi there – I just bought a 32″ LG 4k monitor (32UD59). Its 4K-UHD and promotes itself running at 60Hz. I bought it precisely for these specs. It has 2 HDMI2.0 inputs and 1 Display Port1.2 input.
    I have a 2013 trash can MacPro with D700 graphic cards.
    I have every combination of cabling (HDMI and DP) and cannot get it to run 3840×2160 at 60Hz. The best it will do is 30Hz at this resolution.
    Can someone please help me out here? Have I a dud display?

  12. good overview, thanks!
    According to the article, iMac (Retina 4K, 21.5in, Late 2015) supports 3840×2160 at 60Hz using a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter via Thunderbolt Adapter.
    honestly, I struggle with:
    I have iMAC (Retina 4K, 21.5-inch, Late 2015) Model Identifier 16,2 with resolution 4096×2340,
    using Mini-DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter, HDMI cable and external 4K monitor LG 27UK850/BK85U.
    On the external 4K monitor is resolution 1080p at 60Hz and it is not possible to improve it.
    Do you have any hint on how to improve it?
    thanks a lot!

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