Don't buy the hype on using a 4K TV as a computer monitor

More isn't always more

When unknown television maker Seiki released the world’s cheapest 4K TV, many programmers jumped at the opportunity to gain a cheap 4K monitor. Early reports touted vast screen real estate and sharp picture as a massive productivity boost for developers. The trouble is, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Living a High DPI lifestyle is one thing, but living a TV as a monitor lifestyle is another. I’d read numerous articles and reviews about how great the 50” Seiki 4K TV is as a monitor for programmers and recently the price of one on Amazon was so low ($429) that I couldn’t resist. I’ve grown accustomed to a luxurious 30” Apple Cinema Display, but it is old and starting to fail. If 30” was good, 50” must be even better!

Immediately upon setting up the 50” Seiki 4K TV as a monitor I was disappointed. The reason wasn’t the shockingly bad default calibration and sharpness level (be sure to set the Sharpness setting to 0 first thing), it was the 30Hz refresh rate at 3,840 x 2,160 resolution. This is a limitation of the pre HDMI 2.0 standard and not the fault of Seiki but using a mouse at 30Hz is just plain terrible. It’s slow and laggy which results in imprecise movement and frequently missing your click target. Even the keyboard works on a slight delay. After a week of use however, I got pretty used to the lag and it was no longer the primary pain point. Even so, the 30Hz refresh rate produces a noticeable flicker on dark gray screens which is very annoying.

I spent a couple of days tweaking settings, even going into the advanced service settings and tweaking some more until I felt I had the screen at the best possible calibration. I took time to update the firmware on the TV, update my Nvidia GTX 750 Ti drivers to the latest, run Windows ClearType calibration and color calibration. I then spent a week trying to get used to the screen and hope the benefits of massive desktop space would outweigh the problems. It didn’t.

IMG_20140711_094746.jpg
Lousy photo, but look at the ghosting on the text, especially the U, L, I characters

The reasons I will be dumping this screen as a monitor are the lack of clarity in text and the poor color reproduction. The text issue is maddening. The whole reason I wanted a 4K monitor was for extra clarity but reading a font below 12pt is basically impossible with Windows Display sizing set to 100% (the smallest level). Even larger text is blurry. After 8 - 10 hours in front of the screen I feel dizzy, nauseous, and exhausted. The problem is partly due to the physical size of the screen and the distance I sit away from it. If it were a few feet further, text would appear to be sharper, but I probably couldn’t read it.

Making matters worse is the color blow out on the screen. If a font is in red, especially on a dark background, it bleeds out so bad that you can barely read it. Same with green to a lesser extent. Since I use a dark/vibrant color scheme for my development environment, this is a big and noticeable problem.

The only thing I will miss is the amount of information I can view at once. At 50” and 4K resolution, it’s the same as having 4 23” full HD monitors stacked 2 X 2 with no separation. It is awesome. I think 50” is just too big for computing though. Items toward the top of the screen, especially in the corners, are too far away to be useful and you spend a lot of time tilting your head around. There is a 39” version of this same TV which is probably more appropriate. At 4K, the screen size does need to be big though, otherwise things will be too small to read without jumping up the display zoom.

The ultimate problem and obvious fact of this screen is that it’s a TV, not a monitor. TV’s are designed for a different purpose than computer monitors are. While I’ll be banishing this TV to my basement for its intended use (it’s still a $429 4K TV after all), I will be revisiting 4K in proper monitor form when the price comes down. For now I’ll have a new appreciation of my 6 year old Cinema Display.

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