Does The MacBook Pro Support 4K?

By Tim Chesonis •  Updated: 03/17/20 •  6 min read

The MacBook is capable of offering an incredible visual experience with its retina display. The smallest fonts are crisp, and appear to almost be vector-like, similar to a PDF document. But can you please 4K video on a MacBook?

The MacBook Pro does not support 4K video natively. When streaming a 4K video, your MacBook will scale the 4K video to match the resolution of your screen. However, if you were3 to connect a Pro Display XDR to the MacBook, you would be able to view far more than just 4K video output.

In this article, we will discuss why Apple does not implement a 4K display on a MacBook Pro.  We will also discuss the limitations of streaming 4K video when viewing from your MacBook, and finally, how you can attach an external 4K display to your MacBook to watch 4K video natively. Take note, however, that all new MacBook Pro’s allow for the ability to view 4K, 4K HDR, 4K Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and HDR10 content when connecting a Pro Display XDR to the MacBook.

Why Apple does Not Implement a 4K Display on the MacBook Pro?

Apple has never had a 4k display built into a MacBook, and for good reason.  There are three main reasons why Apple does not build a 4k screen into a MacBook Pro.

1) Battery Life Would Take a Huge Hit

Apple squeezes every ounce of juice making the battery as efficient as possible.  This is no easy task, considering that the battery has to power up the CPU, the SSD hard drive, the display, the keyboard, the USB/Thunderbolt 3 ports, the trackpad, the speakers, ensuring that each component has enough power to accomplish its task performing at 100%.  That is no small task.

If you were to add a 4K display into the mix, the power that it would require would significantly decrease the overall battery life, reducing it by about half.  That would mean that your 10 hour battery would end up being about 5 hours.  By today’s standards, that is not acceptable.  Given the constraints and limitations of today’s lithium-ion battery, you probably won’t find a 4K display in a MacBook until batteries undergo a complete revolution in how they maintain power. 

2) Apple Values Lean and Thin

It has been said that Apple is obsessed with making the MacBook as thin as light as possible, and at the same time, providing building materials that are rock solid. 

The 16-inch MacBook Pro has a total height of 0.64 inches (1.62cm).  The display itself is way thinner than a number 2 pencil.  It’s about 1/3 the width of you iPhone!  To give some perspective, take a look at the 16” MacBook below.  I intentionally did not provide a color image, as I don’t want you to be distracted by its beauty.  I just want to you take notice at how thin the display is.  The rigid unibody aluminum case allows for such the thin and yet strong, display.

3) A Better Visual Experience?

Pixels Per Inch (PPI), refers to how many pixels can fit into one square inch, and Apple values the experience you as a user have, when viewing their devices. 

Given the thick requirements that a 4K display would require, and how much battery life it would take to display a 4K display on a MacBook, Apple found a different way to produce an outstanding resolution for the MacBook by introducing the “Retina” display.  It’s not quite 4K, but it makes it impossible to distinguish one pixel from another with the naked eye. 

The Retinal display offered on new MacBooks provide unbelievably crisp fonts and unreal color saturation.  Honestly, the first time I sat down and looked at a MacBook Retina Display, I thought that Apple had somehow partnered with Adobe, because every font, big or small, looks like a PDF document.  Everything has a vector graphic look to it.  It’s just so incredibly crisp and bright.

The latest 16” MacBook Pro offers a 3072‑by‑1920 native resolution at 226 pixels per inch with support for millions of colors.  There are laptop displays that technically offer higher resolutions out there, but for all practical purposes, the Retina display that Apple offers on their MacBook line up is unbelievably refreshing to look at.  

Can I Stream 4K on my MacBook Pro?

When streaming a 4K video, your MacBook will scale the video to match the resolution of your screen, within the confines of maintaining the aspect ratio of the video in question.  So, for example, if you were to watch a Netflix movie on your brand new 16” MacBook Pro, the 4K video would scale down to the limitations of the hardware on your MacBook.

A 4K video looks awesome on a display with a resolution of 3840 × 2160 pixels, which is about 8.3 million pixels.  The latest MacBook on the market, (at the time of this writing), is the 16” MacBook, which again, offers a 3072‑by‑1920 native resolution at 226 PPI.  It’s not quite 4K, but it does a pretty good job, for sure.  

What is the real difference?  Well, if you have every seen a 4K display that shows a normal close-up shot of a person’s face, you’ll notice EVERY single blemish, pimple and even pour on their face.  Scenery is second to none, but close up shots of people in conversation shows just a little too much.  I really didn’t want to be distracted by that in-grown blackhead on their face that I otherwise would not have noticed. 

Can I Attach an External 4K Monitor to my MacBook?

You can attach an external 4K monitor, such as the Pro Display XDR, to the 15” MacBook Pro or 16” MacBook Pro using Thunderbolt 3.  In fact, with the 16” MacBook Pro, you can connect 2 Pro Display XDR displays using the built-in Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Closing Thoughts

Given the fact that Apple values the end user experience above all else, they have built a MacBook that offers an outstanding display, given the limitations that a 4K screen would require.  Until Apple can build a 4K display within the confines of the current MacBook case without diminishing battery life, we will continue to see Retina displays in upcoming MacBook computers.

One last thought on this topic.  4K does not mean that it is, or should be the solution for the MacBook.  4K displays are excellent, but do you need a 4K display to read text, or write an e-mail?  Granted, a 4K display offers an excellent experience for watching movies, but outside of that, it’s really overkill.  This is why Apple has built new MacBooks (requires a 15-inch MacBook Pro [July 2018 or later] or 16-inch MacBook Pro), to support external monitors that can take advantage of 4K videos natively.  The Retina display really offers the best of both worlds and provides an excellent user experience.

Tim Chesonis

Tim has been helping people with computers needs for several years, and he loves to help people succeed. He brings a wealth of wisdom and insight from an entrepreneur's perspective and enjoys freelance writing. In fact, when he's not writing an article, you might find him binge-watching Suits or formatting his computer . . . again, just for fun. To learn more about Tim, click here.