The Best Display for Programming?

By Wm Leler

My new work monitor.

[If you’re the kind of person who loves programming on your smallish laptop, you can stop reading now.]

If you are a software developer and you’re like me, you may find that you are far more productive when you have enough real estate. I’m not talking about cubicle space, I’m talking about screen real estate: large monitors and usually more than one of ’em (at least until now).

I own three 30-inch Apple Cinema displays, but I typically used only two of them on a single computer (most laptops can only drive two of them at once; some can only drive a single monitor).

When 4K monitors came out I was intrigued. When they came down in price I was excited. And when my wife and I moved into a one-room condo downtown and realized that we had to significantly downsize, I had an idea: get a single 4K monitor and use it instead of multiple monitors (and use it for watching movies too, so we wouldn’t need a separate TV).

I liked the resolution of the 30-inch monitors, which is 2560 by 1600 pixels. That is 100.63 pixels per inch (PPI). For programming I didn’t care about having a high pixel density (like Retina displays do, which have a device pixel ratio greater than one). I wanted more text characters, not slightly smoother looking ones. A 4K display has a resolution of 3840 by 2160, more than the number of pixels on two 30-inch monitors. My question was, in order to ensure that the pixels would have the same PPI, what size 4K monitor should I buy?

30 vs 43 inches — more than twice as many pixels

I calculated that the proper size for a 4K monitor was around 43 inches (diagonal). I quickly found one, the Dell P4317Q, and it had a reasonable price and good reviews. It has a TFT active matrix panel that looks really sharp with good color. Despite being called a 43-inch monitor it is actually 42.5 inches, so it has 103.7 PPI, but that difference is negligible (and I think I actually like the slightly smaller physical size better).

I had been worried that a 43-inch monitor might feel too huge. I used to own a 42-inch 1080p HDTV set (we gave it away before moving into the condo). I couldn’t imagine sitting close enough to use it as a monitor, however at 4K resolution a monitor that size is fine.

My 43-inch monitor is around 70% of the physical width of two 30-inch monitors placed side-by-side, so it takes up less desk space (which is important on my new, smaller desk). And my eyes don’t have to move left or right as far anymore.

My home setup: one 43-inch monitor, two laptops, and a KVM.

I quickly found other advantages to this setup. The MacOS feature of having multiple desktop spaces became easier to use with a single large monitor. I can put my social media pages in a separate space so they don’t distract me while I’m working.

The only thing I don’t like about the Dell monitor are that its HDMI inputs are version 1.4, which can only do a 30Hz refresh rate at full resolution. But it also has DisplayPort inputs, which can do 60Hz, so I use DisplayPort (or mini-DisplayPort) to connect to my computer. DisplayPort and mini-DisplayPort are well supported on Apple, Windows, and Linux computers.

The next problem was that I liked it so much that I wanted the same setup at work (where I still used two 30-inch monitors). Just about that time, Viewsonic came out with a very similar monitor, the VX4380 (in fact, so similar that I believe it uses the same panel). So I bought one of those too.

How do these two monitors compare?

  • The Viewsonic has the advantage that it has HDMI 2.0 inputs instead of 1.4, so it can use the HDMI inputs at 60Hz. It is also cheaper and I like its menu system better, although its control buttons are inconveniently located on the back of the monitor instead of the front.
  • The Dell is more expensive, but it feels better built, with a nicer stand with more adjustments and some cable routing.

Both have four inputs: two DisplayPort and two HDMI. Both are excellent monitors. In fact, both are pretty much perfect!

I’ve been using them for a few months, and I like using one 43-inch 4K monitor far better than using two 30-inch monitors. As a programmer, I can have a large IDE window, program output, debugging window, github, gitter, terminals, logs, multiple documentation windows, and various other windows open and usable at all times. If I need to edit a large diagram or photograph I can really enlarge it without having to stretch it across multiple monitors.

And through the miracle of mass production for the consumer 4K TV market, you’ll probably pay less for a 4K monitor than if you bought a single 30-inch monitor with a resolution of 2560 by 1600 (let alone two).

By the time you read this, there might be other 43-inch 4K monitors available. You should check them out too. I just noticed the LG 43UD79-B, which even has a USB-C video input (Thunderbolt 3 or DisplayPort over USB-C) , but I haven’t tried it. It too appears to use the same panel as the Dell and Viewsonic monitors.

If you are looking at other monitors, note that I would avoid buying a display sold mainly for home viewing of TV and movies. They usually don’t have the inputs you want, and are usually less sharp because you don’t typically sit two feet away from them. You may pay slightly more for a real computer monitor, but it is worth it. As a bonus, a large computer monitor will work great for watching movies (although depending on the monitor, you may need to get some good self-powered speakers). If you want to watch TV you will need to plug it into a cable box or a streaming box of some kind (HDMI inputs will come in handy for that).

Your computer must be able to drive the required resolution and scan rate (3840 by 2160 at 60Hz). In fact, I had to upgrade one of my work computers (a 2014 MacBook Air; my employer traded it for a used 2015 one that works fine). Your computer’s video connectors should be:

  • DisplayPort (mini or regular, at least version 1.2),
  • HDMI (at least version 2.0), or
  • the new USB-C video (Thunderbolt 3 or DisplayPort over USB-C), which provides a DisplayPort 1.2 signal.

I’ve seen a couple of cases on the internet where people could not get a 4K monitor to work, even though the computer should have been able to drive it. According to them, the problem turned out to be old or bad cables. Unfortunately, most monitor cables are not labeled so it is difficult to know if they are the proper DisplayPort 1.2 or HDMI 2.0 (or higher). If you have problems, trying buying a new cable of the right version. One person I read about even found that the cable that came with their monitor was the wrong version, and wouldn’t work at 60Hz. And don’t even think about using DVI or VGA.

Finally, keep the number of adapters between your computer and monitor to a minimum: a single cable with no adapters if possible. My work computer has Thunderbolt 3 with USB-C connectors for video (the new Apple standard), so I bought a USB-C to DisplayPort cable. My home computer is mini-DisplayPort (the old Apple standard), so I use a mini-DisplayPort to DisplayPort cable. Both work great, which should be no surprise because the Thunderbolt 3 video signal is the same as DisplayPort, and mini-DisplayPort is just a smaller connector for DisplayPort.

I also bought a DisplayPort KVM so I can use one keyboard, video (monitor), and mouse with two different computers. It works fine with two computers that have mini-DisplayPort outputs, but when I tried to use it with my computer that has Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) output, it would not work. Apparently, having a Thunderbolt 3 to mini-DisplayPort adapter followed by the KVM was just too much. My workaround was to use a USB-C to DisplayPort cable, skip the KVM and plug it directly into a separate input on the monitor. If anyone has figured out how to use a KVM with Thunderbolt 3, let me know in the comments.

tl;dr 43-inch 4K computer monitors should be the new hotness for people who like big monitors. And they should work well with almost any computer made in the last couple of years, as long as you use the proper cables.