June 14th, 2020

For several months I experimented with finding a suitable monitor upgrade that would net me good color accuracy for photo editing and extra screen space for everyday use. I'm currently using a single LG 27UK650-W 27" 4K monitor which has been serving me well. It's a beautiful monitor and I highly recommend it. When looking for an upgrade there were two obvious choices. Either purchase a second 4K monitor or go with a single 32" 4K monitor. I tend to be a single monitor user because a) it helps conserve what space I have left on my desk and b) I'm not doing a lot of multitasking that would take advantage of a second monitor anyways. However, I purchased a second 27" monitor just to cover my bases and it was just as I expected; too much monitor for what little space I have. After returning the second monitor, I purchased a 32" 4K monitor. What I expected versus what I got ended up being two very different things and it all came down to one thing, scaling.

I purchased the ViewSonic VP3268-4K Pro 32". It's an incredible monitor. Accurate colors with a beautiful display my LG monitor, while good, didn't look as good by comparison. When I powered on the display, I encountered what I knew to be true, text and icons render extremely small. So small, in fact, that it was nearly unreadable.1 In order to make the monitor useable I had to enable display scaling in the MacOS system display preferences. A quick word on scaling. Enabling scaling does not render your effective display resolution less than what is already native — 4K resolution will remain 4K. What scaling does is that it renders text, icons, and other features at a resolution equivalency. In other words, it makes them bigger. MacOS's implementation of scaling works very well, but it's not perfect. In its defense, MacOS does indicate that scaling may affect performance, but it doesn't mention any specifics. I encountered several.

First, window animation that was once smooth was now noticeably sluggish.2 Second, and more importantly, if not oddly, was a surprising amount of eye strain. This seemed unintuitive considering that the purpose of scaling was to make things larger and more readable. While it does accomplish that, it isn't consistent. Certain programs, such as Adobe Creative Suite, did not handle scaling very elegantly. Some modal windows would have text that was clearly smaller than it should have been, while others had text, or icons, larger than they needed to be. Pin sharp text and icons that you would normally expect to see lost some fidelity that makes 4K monitors enjoyable to use. After a several day’s worth of use the eye strain became a problem and one that was not going to go away by simply 'getting used to it'. Lastly, the purpose of the 32" monitor was to get more screen space to allow for more multi-window use. What did not occur to me until actually using the monitor is that scaling will virtually eliminate the benefits of using a 32" monitor for multi-tasking. Yes, windows are obviously bigger with more information available at a single glance, but multi-window use under scaling was not significantly different than using a 27" 4K monitor at its native resolution. To prove to myself that it wasn't just me, I swapped out monitors. Not only was the effective useable space on my 27" 4K monitor not wildly different than that of the useable space on a scaled 32" 4K monitor, in fact it was nearly identical, but there was immediate relief from the eye strain too. At that point I returned the monitor, begrudgingly, and defaulted back to my LG.

So, is the usability of a 32" 4K monitor a problem? The simplest answer is that it depends. I think the value of them will depend on your use case. For dedicated video or photo editing they're great. For mixed use, you may want to carefully consider your options. Scaling is more of an important factor than you might think. Yes, a scaled 32" 4K monitor will net you an overall larger viewing space, which is maybe what you are ultimately after, but you won't be able to take full advantage of that 32" 4K working space at scaled resolutions. This is one of those scenarios where you truly have to try it out for yourself. A review is only going to tell you so much. You may find scaling a non-issue. On the other hand, if, like me, you find that scaling causes too many issues that aren't worth the literal headache, you will find a way to make space for that secondary computer monitor. Which, in hindsight, was probably the best option all along.

1. It's worth reading this article by Eizo which explains, in detail, why high pixel density monitors render text and other features small and how high pixel density effects the actual working space./

2. My 2018 Mac Mini uses an integrated graphics card rather than a discrete graphics card, so it is possible that a discrete graphics card might handle these issues more smoothly.