Apple’s Retina Display on its MacBook Pro laptops is amazing – but we want one on our desktop too. We’ve found a way to get one – and all it requires is a new Mac Pro and a 4K monitor (and a bit of hacking). So if you’re buying those because you’re a professional video editor, visual effects artist – or just have at least £3,500 to drop on some new kit to show off about – here’s how we did it.
The trick was to replicate what Apple does with its Retina Display’s ‘HiDPI’ output, effectively halving the apparent resolution of the screen so that interface elements – the Dock, menu bar and all the bits that make up your application’s UI – appear twice as detailed as before. And the results are crisp and just lovely.
Setting up our 24-inch Retina Display was relatively easy. We paired our review Mac Pro with a Dell UltraSharp 24 UltraHD monitor – the first 4K monitor that we could possibly describe as affordable, costing a mere £1,059 (inc VAT). OK, it’s ‘affordable' next to the 31.5-inch Dell UltraSharp 32 UltraHD, which costs £2,375, or the 4K monitor Apple sells through its Store, the £3,499 32-inch Sharp PN-K321 – or Sony’s 'broadcast-quality’ 30-inch PVMX300, which costs a cool £19,500.
The Dell UltraSharp 24 UltraHD has an ‘Ultra HD’ native resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 – twice as high and wide as HD. So if we can halve the apparent resolution to HD’s 1,920 x 1,080, we can double the level of detail.
To do this, we plugged a DisplayPort cable from the UltraSharp 24 UltraHD into one of the new Mac Pro’s Thunderbolt ports. We installed an Apple developer tool – Quartz Debug.app 4.2, included as part of Graphics Tools for Xcode – but we could have used a freely available third-party shareware tool if we wanted.
There may be a new Mac Pro on its way soon - read more here: 2014 Mac Pro release date, price and specs
To get it working you only need to launch the app, select UI Resolution from the menu bar (or press Cmd + 2), and tick the box. After you log back in to OS X, you should find additional display resolutions available from System Preferences. The highest HiDPI mode will correspond to exactly half the display’s native res; you can go lower if you prefer, at which point the interface starts to ballon to huge proportions. For the Dell 24-inch display, we found a virtual 'full-HD' mode of 1920 x 1080 HiDPI just about right.
This may seem like nerdery for the sake of it – especially as you'd have to spend a minimum of three and a half grand to do this – but it’s also about making a 24-inch 4K display usable. At full-resolution, the Dell UltraSharp 24 UltraHD is uncomfortable when navigating around the OS or applications – The elements are just too small to work with, and text is unreadable until you put your face just inches from the screen. Most video editors working with 4K would probably want to stick to their current monitor for Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer – and use the UltraSharp 24 UltraHD as a reference monitor to view their edited video on as they go. However, at under a grand – once you take off VAT, as they’re likely to work for or run businesses that won’t pay it – some will want two: one as their main display and one for reference.
Allowing HiDPI mode on the desktop is something Apple should let you do on 4K monitors without installing developer tools. Most of the key applications that someone who will buy a new Mac Pro and a 4K monitor (or two) for support HiDPI on Retina Displays – Final Cut Pro X, Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and Premiere Pro – so would benefit the interfaces look crisp and video and images within them look beautifully detailed. Over to you Apple!
Additional reporting: Andrew Harrison