In a bid to improve productivity for the complex design/build stuff that I do, I’ve been trying to integrate a Dell 24″ 4k monitor into my work environment for the past couple of months. This has been a frustrating experience; but finally, I think I’m done, and I’m done spending money.
Just to recap, my previous set up was:
- Dell E7440 with a i7-4600U Intel HD4400 Graphics & 14″ 1920*1080P screen
- Samsung 22″ 1080P TV (HDMI/DVI)
- Benq 24″ 1080P (HDMI/DVI)
And after looking through pretty much every screen on the market I settled on this (affiliate link)
- Dell UP2414Q UltraSharp 24 inch Monitor (affiliate link)
The Intel HD4400 graphics chipset embedded in my laptop can drive a 4K screen at 30 Hz. Whilst this may be ok for 24 FPS video or a very expensive digital photo frame; for all other purposes it is practically worthless. DisplayPort 1.2 must be enabled to get the “benefit” of a 4K screen with a HD4400 GPU. This enables multi stream transport; sending two virtual portrait 1920×2160 screens to the monitor. The monitor then displays these two screens side by side as if they were one.
Most windows can be stretched across the displays; and this is “good enough” for my use case of Visio/Word/Terminal Sessions/Chrome. However, running ANYTHING full screen (especially YouTube) has not proven possible. Of the three screen managers I tried, none of which could maximise a window across two adjacent screens. That said, video stretched across both screens is fine 95% of the time, but I wouldn’t want to watch a film like this.
4K Giveth and Taketh away
MST mode on the HD4400 however has other limitations. The HD4000 series graphics cards can ONLY drive three screens; including the laptop screen. Despite the increase in resolution, usable desktop space was significantly reduced without my tertiary displays. Telling Windows to “Disconnect this display” didn’t allow me to use a “3rd” DisplayPort 1.2 or DVI screen. There appeared to be no solution with the kit I had.
As of Q1 2015, the only mainstream laptops capable of driving 4K @ 60 Hz are those based upon the Intel i7-4712HQ processor with the HD4600 chipset or a discrete graphics card. Essentially the Dell XPS 15 (Which has a QHD+ 3200 x 1800 Screen) or the MacBook Pro 15″ (which has a slightly lower resolution screen). Given that my current work laptop is less than a year old, I’m not going to get a replacement anytime soon. Minimum investment, about £1250..
The considered option was buying/building a desktop with a dedicated graphics. For one that would DEFINITELY drive multiple screens, I was still looking at a £750-£1000 spend. And this is just to drive my existing monitors.
New Years Resolution
Eventually I stumbled across this thing. StarTech USB 3.0 to Display Port External Video Card Multi Monitor Adapter. Rather than act as mere active gender changer; it is a USB 3.0 Video card in it own right. Whilst it does rely on the native GPU for some resources (although I can’t find precisely *what*) it has it’s own video RAM, and neatly side-steps the limitations of the HD4400 chipset. I say neatly, it was a complete mare to get working. As I later discovered; this kit is in fact based upon a reference design from DisplayLink who produce designs for Dell and Lenovo. The kit itself was fine, but there was some aspect of the driver package that refused to install on Windows 8.1 (despite being supported). Full description and eventual resolution can be found here. After an epic amount of tinkering, we finally have it:
Windows 8.1 on a Intel 4400 and three additional screens. A hard-fought victory over technology if there was one.
As you can see I chopped in the Benq for a Dell U2414H; mostly for the DisplayPort feature (which as it turns out I didn’t need). However, my limited desktop space meant that I’m not able to have it side by side, hence the weird triple portrait screen setup. There is a massive and visible difference between the 4K and the 1080P screen. I swear I can see *every* pixel on the U2414H. A fine monitor in it’s own right, but utterly outclassed on by the UP2414Q. At some point I’ll probably get another when money and time allows.
I forget at which point, but I also upgraded to Windows 8.1, mostly because of the display scaling features. After fiddling with this a lot, it now makes all screens work together nicely, resizing windows and text to better the display that’s showing them.
The final resolution
So in summary:
- 4K Screens are beautiful, but the cost of the screen is not the only thing to consider
- They are addictive, once you have one, I guarantee you’ll want another
- Better value can probably be found with multiple 1080P or 2.5k Screens
- Intel HD4400 chipset doesn’t have enough power to successfully drive a 4K screen
- USB dongles are available, but they come with their own issues; especially if you plan on doing intensive such as Video.