A few days ago I made a guide to get the perfect Mac Mini for your budget. Not only I put some good price points to think about, but also to understand what accesories you can get without breaking the bank. One of the points that was very debatable was the monitor selection.
I’m aware that picking a monitor for macOS is not as easy as on PC. That’s why I took the liberty to giving some sane recommendations on specs and cheap models from trustful brands. The problem is that not everyone can follow these recommendations, maybe because they already have one or the only “Amazon” they have near is a bunch of trees.
In this article I will expand on my decision to recommend specific resolutions and sizes, justified given the current state of the market, and how to fix the problem of screen scaling outside these sizes.
Let me state something before you make your picks: getting a monitor will depend always on your budget and your use case. Don’t go wild picking a monitor that is big, but with a color accuracy equivalent to a rave party during an earthquake.
There are three options to get a monitor for your Mac: the ones with Apple tax, those with a good size and resolution, and finally the rest.
Let’s start with the first, the ones Apple wants you to pay for.
The Apple way or the highway
Not everyone can buy one of the three best monitors for macOS, but those who can, will see how they work brilliantly with everything thrown at them:
These monitors are not just a bunch of specs and hefty price tags. Modern macOS will always favors monitors with high pixel density, being 218 pixels-per-inch (PPI) the “sweet spot”. 5K/6K monitors like the above are, indeed, 218PPI.
The engineers at Apple decided that this 218PPI should be the standard for their “Retina Display” technology at desktop, and we peasants are stuck with it.
The main idea of a monitor with a quadruple pixel density is to hide individual pixels from the screen, allowing a more detailed image, but keeping the same screen real state. And it works wonders. Let me recall that time Steve Jobs presented it for the first time.
The (almost) good for macOS
The rest of the market is driven by PC sales, so monitor makers don’t care about PPI but rather size and resolution. It’s normal to see monitors making concessions on color accuracy, brightness, or ergonomics, and adding features that matters to their target, like using high refresh panels for games.
On our end, every choice available will have to be filtered by being 109PPI, or slightly lower first, and just then focus on the features that we need.
Given the Retina Display ratio for desktop, we can land with five types of monitors with a good size and resolution ratio that we should take into account for our next purchase:
- A 1080p monitor between 20-inch and 24-inch
110PPI ~ 91PPI
- A 1080p Ultra-Wide monitor between 25-inch and 30-inch
111PPI ~ 92PPI
- A 1440p monitor between 27-inch and 29-inch
109PPI ~ 91PPI
- A 1440p Utra-Wide monitor between 34-inch and 38-inch
109PPI ~ 98PPI
- A 2160p/4K monitor between 27-inch and 32-inch
163PPI ~ 137PPI
After you pick one of these resolutions and sizes, you should filter for the features that are important to you: color accuracy, brightness uniformity, 60W USB-C Power Delivery (to charge your MacBook), high refresh rate, KVM integrated, HDR, speakers, etc.
There is a method to this madness. I’m not selecting five types of monitors because of my horoscope. Hold your horses, I will explain later.
Is a 1440p monitor too small for macOS?
Some people may not like the interface size at native 1440p on a 27-inch screen. If you’re on the fence trying to decide, my only recommendation is to check with someone who has the same setup and decide by yourself.
Asking Bing and Bard
For example, I decided to tell them both my preferred resolution, size, and budget, but with a context: to use the RTINGS Reviews site to pick. You can find there excellent and up-to-date reviews on monitors and almost every consumer product that you should buy.
The amount of “correctness” in the answer will vary — I think Bard has more access to context and pricing, but Bing will always disclose its sources even if the answer is not entirely correct. In this case of a 1440p monitor, Bard has the upper hand by recommending a superior model according to RTINGS.
For example, you can go ahead and ask: “According to the site rtings.com, what’s the best 1440p Ultra-Wide 34-inch monitor?”.
Given how new monitors models come and go, change in price, and the accessibility to these AI tools, I won’t recommend any monitor here.
Instead, I will introduce you to the technical part you were waiting to fall sleep.
I have a bigger PPI
The modern Mac interface is simple: it will be crisp at 218PPI , or acceptable at 109PPI.
If you land with a monitor over 109PPI, chances are that macOS will activate “Retina Display” (HiDPI) and quadruple the amount of detail. In reality, the UI is rendered at four times the resolution. This is why the three best monitors for Mac look so crisp and detailed.
But we’re on the wild market, and 218PPI monitors are very hard to find, let alone with a good price. We have to settle with 109PPI, and thread cautiously around this pixel density:
- If we get a monitor with lower PPI, like ~70PPI, everything will look weirdly big.
- If we get a monitor with higher PPI, like ~160PPI, everything will look annoyingly small.
For example, a 29-inch 1080p Ultra Wide monitor gives us 96PPI. The default resolution will show macOS interface bigger, and pixels may become evident to the naked eye, but you can easily solve that by moving away from the screen.
On the other hand, a 27-inch monitor with a 4K resolution gives us 163PPI. By using the default resolution, the macOS interface will be unusable given the small pixel density. You will be forced to scale it to “make it bigger”.
Having a monitor that shows the interface bigger is less annoying than one displaying it smaller, especially on a 4K monitor. That’s why users with a high PPI monitor resort to the infamous screen scaling.
Screen scaling a big screen, in a nutshell
When macOS detects a high PPI monitor, like a 27-inch 4K monitor, it will give the user several options to scale the screen. Let’s keep that monitor resolution and size as an example to make a point.
MacOS will offer 5 scaling steps by default.
The first scaling is 2:1, meaning, macOS will fill the 4K frame buffer but make everything two times bigger. You will eventually have an 1080p monitor with incredible crisp graphics, but with less screen real state.
The last scaling is 1:1, meaning, macOS will not scale the interface, and show everything at the right pixel. The interface will be unusable given the so small size. As annoying as a 13-inch Full HD monitor.
This is why the most common scaling to pick is “Looks like 1440p” on a 4K monitor. It gives the user more screen real state and with a crisper image, in exchange of an unperfect image.
That distorted image comes from how macOS scales the screen to this resolution. It creates a 5K frame buffer (double of 1440p), and then shrinks it by 33%. This is known as uneven scaling. Imagine a line of 10 pixels trying to fit in 6,6 pixels.
This is not only for 4K to 1440p, but any uneven scaling no matter the resolution. You can find the details on Bjango’s article.
This gives away to some problems that can only be identified when doing serious graphic works, like photographic manipulation, video editing, 3D modeling and graphic design: uneven patterns and worse 3D performance.
This will be subjectively annoying. Some people will live through that, but others will identify immediately that something is wrong in the text or the image.
Users like Hunter King definitely prefer a 1440p monitor instead of a 4K monitor for the reasons above, as he got worse 3D performance and RAM consumption.
Others like Nilson Creative didn’t have any problem for video editing and liked the 1440p scaling overall. Kyle Erickson showed that there are no perceptible performance penalties on games as long the game renders at a fixed resolution and then is scaled, instead of the internal screen resolution (5K).
4K scaled to 1440p doesn’t seems to be the end of the world, but is not Eden’s garden either.
Scaling with the rest of the bunch
The third group of monitors is “the rest of the bunch”. Monitors with a PPI so off the Retina Display ratio that you’re virtually forced to scale unevenly and receive offputting results.
With these monitors, we have to do what we must with what we have.
Let’s imagine someone gifted you a portable 16-inch monitor with a resolution of 2560 × 1600 (188PPI). macOS will look really small, so you will want to scale that to “Look like 1920 × 1200”. What will happen? Well, macOS will create a frame buffer of 3840 × 2400 and then shrink it to the monitor resolution, with the same problems as before.
We could scale to another comfortable but uneven resolution like 1440 × 900, which would make things bigger, but macOS will return a result so fuzzy and criminally bad that you will have to clean your eyes with a hammer.
The only way to make the scaling more pleasing and performant is with the awesome BetterDisplay app, which offers a lot of tools to your disposal to correct the image. I’ll warn you in this next video to not believe that about 4K and 1440p monitors being crap, because they are not per-sé, but getting one at the wrong size.
The app it’s not without some minor problems, which will depend on the setup, so you should definitely test it if you think it can resolve your scaling problems. If it works wonders for you, you may drop the $15 bucks it costs, which is far cheaper than buying a new monitor, and surely more effective than finding your nearest Tim Cook altar and pray him to fix the damn thing — they haven’t for more than a decade.
Bonus track: Fixing fuzzy and blurry text
It’s known that macOS will not play nice with text rendering on a monitor without a high pixel density, as macOS likes to disable sub-pixel smoothing by default— this is because on HiDPI there is no need for sub-pixel smoothing the text, it will look crisp automatically.
This can be manageable until you start using uneven scaling. Because the framebuffer pixels don’t fit into the physical pixels of the monitor, that sub-pixel information gets lost.
So, if you are using uneven scaling and your text looks like a bakery window at 7:00 AM, then you not only need BetterDisplay, but also re-enable sub-pixel smoothing with a free app called Font Smoothing Adjuster.
If you like more fine-grain control, you can also do it with a command, and see the results on re-login.
defaults write -g CGFontRenderingFontSmoothingDisabled -bool NO
There is a nice video tutorial on how to re-enable text smoothing, if you think it’s disabled in your monitor.
Some people may like the end result, others will think it will look too bold for their tastes, and there will be always someone that will find it worse. The only way to know for sure is to try it out.