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I am trying to get an external monitor for my MacBook. I have two requirements:

  • Items on the monitor will be about the same size as items on the MacBook screen
  • Text and other objects will not be blurry

However, I have heard that not all monitors will provide these two things—the monitor needs to be a specific size and resolution. Otherwise either the scaling or sharpness will be off—with certain combinations of resolutions and screen sizes, you would need to choose between proper scaling (how large something appears on a native screen versus the external screen), and good sharpness (how clear the text and images appear on the screen).

To test this, I tried looking at current display offerings that Apple provides. I noticed an interesting trend: most Apple displays have a pixel per inch (PPI) value of ~220. For examples, the 21.5 inch and 27 inch iMacs, all of the retina MacBooks and MacBook Pros, the Pro Display XDR, and both LG 4K and 5K displays.

Older, non-retina displays have a PPI of around 110.

I have a 24-inch 1080p screen, which is the same size but half the resolution of the 4K LG display. It scales perfectly, which makes sense since it has exactly half the resolution which having the same size. Edit: the sizes of objects on my internal screen and external monitor are not exactly the same. This was leading me to a lot of confusion. It turns out you'll only get exactly the same size with very specific panel size and resolution combinations (as described below).

I assume that a 1440p display that is 27-inch will also provide perfect scaling on macOS, since it is exactly half the resolution, but exactly the same size of a 5K display. These two resolution-screen size pairs I can thus add to my list.

Is there a list of complete resolution and screen size pairs available which provides perfect scaling on macOS? For example, would a 1440p or a 4K display that is 27 inches provide good scaling?

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I had to make a similar decision for myself. In summary: after lots of researching and testing, I found an LG 27 inch 4k display to be the best balance from price/performance point of view for now. I tried to explain in following sub-topics:

Ideal PPI for laptops and desktop screens are different

First of all, Apple adjusts its desktop monitor default PPI values to look like 110 PPI, however for laptops, they tend to use higher PPI values. For example:

  • Default scaled resolution for Macbook Pro 16 is 1792x1120. On an 16 inch display, this results in 132 PPI.
  • Default scaled resolution for current Macbook pro 13 is 1440x900, which results in around 128 PPI on 13.3 inch screen.

Therefore, you should first accept the fact that, on a large screen, expecting the same PPI values (thus same size of fonts) as the macbook screen won't be an ideal solution (unless you have eagle eyes). After that point, you should be hunting for a display, which would give you a good scaled resolution which gets closer to 110 PPI.

On a desktop screen you should aim for something between 90-110 PPI

If you follow Apple's desktop scaling habits, ideally, you would like to get that 110 PPI on a non-scaled, pixel doubled resolution. This means that, if the screen resolution is X by Y, when you calculate the resulting PPI for X/2 by Y/2 resolution on particular display size, you should get 110 PPI. This is called the pixel doubled HiDpi mode.

However, one of the most popular size: 24 inch 1920x1200 16:10 aspect ratio monitor is 94 PPI. This size has been very popular for productivity. Therefore, we can assume that anything between 90-110 ppi will be good.

Using the pixel doubled mode will have two benefits:

  1. The text on the screen will be sharpest, because MacOs will use exactly 4 pixels to render 1 pixel of graphical elements.
  2. It will put on the least amount of stress on your GPU and CPU, which will make the computer run much cooler/quieter and all the gui animations to run smoothly. This is especially important if you have an older mac.

27 Inch 5K is the best, but not widely available

Without no doubt, according to the above criteria, a 27 inch 5K screen, or a 20 inch 4K screen would be the best option. Unfortunately, both options are not available unless you buy an IMac. You can use the DPI/PPI calculator to check the actual PPI values you'll get for a resolution and screen size. Remember to divide the native resolution of the screen by 2 to find out the PPI values which result when the display is used in pixel doubled HiDPI mode.

Dell p2415q is one of the 4K monitors which come close according to the specs. It is 24 inch and 4K, which results in 91.8 PPI. Since you are already happy with the 1080p resolution on 24 inch display, getting p2415q will be a safe choice regarding sizes of UI elements. However, this monitor has an older design, and reportedly, its compatibility with mac is not very good. You can still try.

Next best option is a 4K 27 inch monitor

On the other hand, you can buy a 27 inch 4K monitor and use it in:

  • pixel doubled mode 1080p: 81.5 PPI
  • 2304x1296 scaled mode: 98 PPI
  • 2560x1440 scaled mode: 109 PPI

I tried all three of the modes, and from a sharpness point of view, I was quite happy with all of them. However, the sharpness advantage of the pixel doubled mode is definitely perceivable. Since I am using a 2015 macbook pro 13, choosing the pixel doubled mode gives me performance advantage, therefore I use it in that mode. Note that the perceived sharpness difference between pixel doubled and scaled modes will also depend on the distance you will be looking at the display. On that regard, I recommend using the Is this retina? calculation tool. If you will be using the display beyond the distance the monitor's pixel density becomes retina, you will realize less decrease of sharpness in scaled modes. For a 27 inch 4K monitor, this distance is 53 cm. (Right now, as I am writing this, I am looking at my 27 inch 4K LG monitor from 63 cm distance. )

Sharpness depends on how distant you look at

Note that even Apple started to use scaled resolutions on their macbook pro line up in recent years, so as long as you are looking at the display from a distance greater than the retina limit, you should not be afraid of the decreased sharpness. However, the performance drawback of scaled resolutions are real. For example, in order to display 2560x1440 scaled resolution on a 4K display, MacOs first renders a 5120x2880 canvas, then downscales it to 4K. Remember that this is done 60 times each second. I have made lots of tests with Intel Power Gadget to test for the impact, and the result was clearly elevated CPU/GPU temperatures combined with fans spinning in higher RPMs. This tests was on a 2015 13 inch Macbook pro. For newer hardware and/or discrete graphics, your milage will vary.

Sharpness wise, 27 Inch 5K > 27 Inch 4K > 27 Inch QHD

To sum up, a 27 Inch 5K would be the best. However, 27 Inch 4K used at scaled 2560x1440 will be a lot sharper than 27 Inch QHD monitor when used with MacOS.

Because of the lack of ideal affordable solution, the best solution which worked for me was to get an affordable 27 inch 4K monitor, at least until 5K or higher resolutions become the standard.

Consequently, I would not not recommend buying a QHD monitor (2560x1440 native), since you will loose the ability to scale and actual native pixel density will be much lower. I believe modern MacOs versions depend too much on having a dense array of pixels to render text smoothly.

On the other hand, as an added bonus, Windows 10 scales beautifully with a 27 inch 4K monitor, too.

Note: I did not put Pro display XDR into consideration, since its price, and requirement for the newest hardware to drive 6K display.

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  • 5
    Excellent Answer! But I struggle to understand why you are so unambiguous in recommending 4K over QHD. You say that 4K used at scaled QHD is sharper than native QHD. Ok. But you also say that it has clear performance drawbacks. One might add the cost factor, QHD is a lot cheaper. Is 4K really worth it if you use it at 2560x1440? (Genuine question!) Also: If I struggle to understand why scaled QHD should be better than native QHD and why the lower native pixel density would matter. I'll search for some images to better understand...
    – Christoph
    Jan 31 at 22:51
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You are right with your research and assumptions. MacOS doesn't provide scaling options for all external screens. RDM enables you to access unavailable resolutions. Though you won't get a perfect image, since you always want to use the full resolution, but different scaling. But if the native scaling is not good enough, and MacOS doesn't provide other scaling options, you will end up with a sub par image. Either not sharp or not properly scaled elements, as you described.

This is a problem many people had before: E.g. here, here and probably the best solution in here. To make it short: Apparently you can get the system to be scaled using this and set RDM to a high resolution. But I never tested this.

I understand that you want to buy a new monitor, that is capable to be sharp and scaled correctly using macOS out of the box. Makes sense. Unfortunately there is no reference or overview of scaling supported displays to my knowledge. It seems to be mostly trial and error. So I can share my experiences:

Helpful overview of display resolution standards

Displays that don't work properly on a Mac

  • 27" UHD: 3840 x 2160, 163.18ppi - which is almost every UHD screen available
  • 25" QHD - like this Benq 25", 117.49ppi (only native scaling available, therefore everything is quite small)

Apple Screens

  • 13.3" MacBooks: 2560 × 1600, 227ppi
  • 16" MBP: 3072 x 1920 (16:10), 226ppi
  • iMac 21.5" (Full HD): 1920 x 1080, 102.5ppi
  • iMac 21.5" (4K): 4096 x 2304, 219ppi
  • LG Ultrafine 23.7": 3840 x 2160, 185.9ppi
  • LG Ultrafine 27" and iMac (27"): 5120 x 2880, 218ppi
  • Pro Display XDR (32"): 6016 x 3384 (16:9), 218ppi

Other screens that work properly on a Mac

  • 24" Full HD, 91.79ppi
  • ...more?

It would be great to hear others experiences with different screen sizes and resolutions, to help you with your decision.

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  • 24'' Full HD definitely does not work well with Mac unless you use it at 1280x720.. The text will be very blurry. Jun 10 at 1:58
  • I disagree. I'm using different 24" Full HD screens for more than 10 years on my Macbooks in 1920x1080 and the text is sharp. Obviously retina screens are better.
    – iOSapps.de
    Jun 11 at 8:54
  • What MacOS version are you using? In Big Sur, a 24'' full hd external monitor is very fuzzy.. Jun 11 at 14:01
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I have the same questions since RTINGS resigned from reviewing DELL monitors in the Monitors for MacBook Pro here. I really like DELL U2520D from 2020, but when I saw comment from @youngpilot here about BENQ which has same 117.5 ppi, now will have to continue my research.

Guys on youtube last week made some reviews for 25 inch DELL, but they do not review it from developers perspective, when you look at the text whole day. It should be really nice scaled to have no eye strain by the end of the day.

Also worth mentioning:

  1. Macbook Pro Display Requirements, like 110/220 ppi, etc here

  2. Mac external displays for designers and developers here has broader explanation

  3. And link to ppi calculator: https://www.sven.de/dpi/

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