11/13/2015 (updated: 11/20/2015)
[Note: in this post, I’m defining 4K as 3840 by 2160 pixels, not 4096 by 2160 pixels. Also, I make no guarantees that any of this info is accurate or up to date. Do your own research before buying computer equipment. Make sure to find the latest pricing and specifications data, and to look for newer models!]
After deciding it was time to upgrade to a 4K video camera (one that could shoot video at 3840 by 2160 pixels, 4 times the resolution of HD, I went ahead and got the Dell P2415Q monitor, which puts out 3840 by 2160 pixels at up to 60 hz. It was priced at $411 on Amazon when I bought it, and it’s a great display that I plan to use for a long, long time. (http://accessories.dell.com/sna/productdetail.aspx?c=us&cs=19&l=en&sku=860-BBFF ) (For a useful review and in-depth technical info, see https://pcmonitors.info/reviews/dell-p2415q/ )
Now that I had the monitor, my hope was that I could just connect my laptop and play 4K video on it. Unfortunately, my beloved current system (a 2011 Dell N411z with an i5 2430M processor) just didn’t have what it takes to render 4K video at even 30 frames a second. I tried a Plugable USB 3.0 to 4K adapter in hopes that it would give my laptop extra power, but while it worked fine, my computer still couldn’t render 4K footage. The monitor is great—my computer just isn’t up to the task of ultra-HD video rendering.
And so I started hunting for a laptop that could output 4K video, ideally at 60 frames per second (since I do plan to upgrade to a 60fps 4K camera one day). I didn’t realize how hard this would be. Let me explain why.
Currently, to put 4K video on an external monitor/TV at 60 frames per second, you need DisplayPort 1.2, or HDMI 2.0. And, of course, you need a processor and graphics card that will let you output that onto a monitor or TV.
The problem is that at the time I’m writing this (Nov. 12, 2015), HDMI 2.0 isn’t in wide use yet. It seems most new laptops are offering HDMI 1.4, which will at least let you output 3840×2160 pixels at 30hz (for the purposes of this article, hz and fps are interchangeable). But that shouldn’t be a problem, since DisplayPort/miniDP let you output 4K video at 60fps. And hey, that port is nothing new; I even have it on my current laptop.
So that brings up the second problem: DisplayPort has become pretty rare on new laptops. A lot of laptops, including ones with solid video cards and processors, are just offering HDMI 1.4 without any DisplayPort setup. But that effectively blocks me from outputting 4K at 60 fps without some elaborate workaround. Trust me, it’s frustrating that a port that’s on my 2011 laptop isn’t on a lot of 2015 laptops, even though that port can do more than HDMI 1.4!
And by the way, it appears that converting a DisplayPort signal from your computer to HDMI is fairly straightforward—but not the other way around.
This all led me on a hunt for a laptop that would have the processing power to render 4K video at 60 frames per second, and would be able to output that signal via HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort/miniDP, or Thunderbolt (which I believe will accomplish the same things at DisplayPort). Oh, and I didn’t want it to cost $1500. My goal was to find one below $1000.
This wasn’t an easy search. Maybe I’m missing out on a handy website that lets you narrow down a laptop choice from hundreds of products and all manufacturers. (I’m not interested in Apple at this time, by the way.) Instead, I essentially had to visit all the manufacturer’s websites, click on laptops that looked promising, and then see if they had the right ports.
But fortunately, I did find some that meet my criteria—or at least appear to. Please note that some of these are very new, so make sure any online review you check out is looking at these new models, rather than ones released earlier in 2015.
- MSI P Series PE 60 6QE-031US
I’m so glad that I learned about MSI’s new laptop models before making my final choice. The MSI PE60 6QE-031US has a 6th generation i7 processor (i7-6700HX), and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M graphics card with 2 gigabytes of GDDR5 memory. It also comes with 8 GB of memory and a 1 TB hard drive, and still includes a DVD player.
What’s most important (for me) is the laptop’s great connectivity. It has a Mini DisplayPort connector, along with a USB Type C port that supports USB 3.1. The site says that this Type C port (which they’re calling a “Super Port”) can drive 2 4K monitors, so I’m guessing it can also drive one 4K monitor at 60 hz. At any rate, the Mini DisplayPort connector should be able to take care of 4K video at 60 hz.
The MSRP of this laptop is only $999, which I think is a bargain. At this point, it’s the laptop I intend to buy to fulfill my 4K, 60 fps dreams.
(See http://us.msi.com/product/notebook/PE60-Prestige-6th-Gen-GTX-960M.html#hero-specification )
- Dell Alienware 13 R2 (6th generation i5 processor, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M with 2GB GDDR5 memory): http://www.dell.com/us/p/alienware-13-r2/pd
(This is the model I ended up buying, since I liked the smaller 13” form factor.) As far as I know, this gaming computer should play 4K video just fine, even at 60 frames per second. And it has tremendous connectivity: among other ports, it has a Thunderbolt 3 Port (which has support for DisplayPort, and an HDMI 2.0 port.) Both of these will take care of my 60 fps 4K needs. If only they were available on more laptops!
I must say, I especially like this quote from the product page:
“Blow your hair back: Use your USB Type- C™ port as a Thunderbolt 3 port, and experience 40Gbps (4x the USB 3.1 protocol) or drive 4K displays as if the port were a Thunderbolt or DisplayPort. Or maximize your options by daisychaining your Thunderbolt devices together.”
Oh, and in case there was any doubt about the 60hz capability:
“Run 4K resolution content @60Hz using the new HDMI 2.0 port, for better resolution, smoother graphics and an overall upgrade in awesomeness.”
Thunderbolt 3 looks really awesome. It’s based on DisplayPort 1.2, but it doubles the bandwidth, so you can use it to run 1 4K display at 120hz, a 5K display at 60HZ, and 2 4K displays at 60hz! https://thunderbolttechnology.net/tech/faq
Thunderbolt 3 appears to use a USB C port—unlike Thunderbolt 1 and 2 (which used a port like the miniDP). That means that I’ll need to buy some sort of USB C to DisplayPort adapter for my monitor, like this one: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00VTZ7SW8?keywords=usb%20type%20c%20to%20displayport&qid=1447397016&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1
By the way, for a list of Thunderbolt-compatible devices, check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Thunderbolt-compatible_devices .
This laptop is retailing for $949.99 right now, but I’m hoping the price will drop in time for Black Friday. The cheapest ($949) version does have its drawbacks. I will probably want to upgrade the hard drive and RAM, which would cost extra. Also, I’m not sure it has a card reader (???), but I could just buy an external adapter for below $10. What matters is that it has the Thunderbolt and HDMI 2.0 ports—and the new processor and NVIDIA graphics card.
But the Alienware 13 R2 isn’t the only option that meets my needs and costs below $1,000. We also have:
- ROG GL551JW-WH71(WX) (Intel i7 4720HQ Processor, NVIDIA GeForce GTX960M with 2GB RDDR5 memory): http://store.asus.com/us/item/201510AM150007425/A18486
This is what I was planning to buy before I saw the Alienware option. It’s not the latest processor, but I’m sure it will be powerful enough to play 4K videos at 60 fps. And it has a mini DisplayPort, which will let me get the most out of my monitor. (It doesn’t say that the card reader supports SDXC, which is what I’ll be using for my video camera. What is it with the lack of SD card support in these laptops?)
The price right now is just $799 on the ASUS website, and it already comes with a 1 TB HD and 8GB of memory. All of this makes me tempted to choose it over the Alienware laptop above, but I love that the Alienware has the HDMI 2.0 and Thunderbolt 3 ports, and the Alienware’s processor is newer. I think either of these will be great for me, but I’m willing to spend a little extra for HDMI 2.0, which I expect to become standard in the coming years.
Yet another option:
- ASUS ZENBOOK-UX303UA https://www.asus.com/us/Notebooks/ASUS-ZENBOOK-UX303UA/specifications/
This laptop has the 6th generation Intel processors. The graphics are integrated (Intel HD Graphics 520), and I haven’t looked into their power yet. (I do prefer having a dedicated graphics card, not one built into the CPU.) But again, it has the mini displayport, so I think it would fit my needs. Thanks ASUS for including both HDMI and the Mini Displayport!
- Dell XPS 13
This one starts at $799, but that’s for just an i3 processor (albeit 6th gen). You can get an i5 processor and 8GB of memory for $999. It has the Thunderbolt 3 port, which is really what matters here, but strangely, it looks like you need to buy a Dell Adapter for some important features—even Ethernet?
Well, here’s what the page says:
“Charge and connect your XPS to a single data and power source to allow for the ultimate display performance − up to three Full HD displays or two 4K displays − and faster data transfers with the Dell Thunderbolt™ Dock with Intel® Thunderbolt™ 3 cable.”
Also, it doesn’t have the dedicated graphics card that I’m seeing in other laptops, and the fact that Dell’s only offering solid state drives concerns me. Does that mean it won’t support a 2.5” hard drive? I think I’ll ultimately choose the XPS 15 over this one.
Other good-looking options that cost $1000 or more (and remember, prices do change!):
- ASUS N550JX-DS74T http://store.asus.com/us/item/201504AM210000004/A26130
Current price: $1099.00
A great-looking laptop with a mini Display port.
- Dell Precision 15 7000 Series (7510) http://www.dell.com/us/business/p/precision-m7510-workstation/pd?oc=xctomp751015us
Current price: $1195.50 (but apparently the starting price was $1,707.86, so that’s quite a discount)
This is a mobile workstation with a 6th-generation Intel processor and an AMD FirePro W5170M Graphics Card with 2GB GDDR5 memory. It has both HDMI and miniDP, and in January 2016, it will have Thunderbolt 3 support. Just a bit expensive relative to my other options.
- Alienware 15 laptop: http://www.dell.com/us/p/alienware-15-r2/pd?ref=PD_OC
$1199.99. It does come with 8GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive, so the price isn’t too far from the Alienware 13” price. Oh, and the screen is better too. It includes the Thunderbolt 3 port and a 3-in-1 card reader, and as long as you get the NVIDIA processor, you’ll get HDMI 2.0 also. The weight is 7 pounds, which is pretty substantial as far as laptops go.
- Dell XPS15 (i5 option):
Listed price: $1199 (there’s also an i3 model for $999)
The XPS15 gives you a 1 TB Hard Drive, 8GB of memory, a 6th gen. i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and a GeForce GTX 960M graphics card with 2GB of memory. You also get a full-HD display. It also has an HDMI port and Thunderbolt 3, which I believe will let you power DisplayPort displays (although that feature’s not listed explicitly on the page).
The HDMI port is 1.4, but I believe you will be able to convert Thunderbolt 3 to HDMI 2.0, perhaps through an adapter. I’m not certain on this point, though. See: http://www.extremetech.com/computing/181099-next-gen-thunderbolt-details-40gbps-pcie-3-0-hdmi-2-0-and-100w-power-delivery-for-single-cable-pcs
Honestly, if the price drops down to $999, it would be an especially attractive option, if only because I like the design so much.
I would also believe that you can find miniDP on some Lenovo Thinkpads, but I’m not sure they have HDMI as well—and I’d really prefer to have both options, since I don’t think DisplayPort support on TVs is very good.
In the future, I expect to see plenty of options for 4K, 60 fps support. There are two reasons for this: HDMI 2.0 and the USB type C port.
First, I imagine that HDMI 2.0 will become standard, which will allow for an easy connection to an HDMI 2.0 TV or monitor. HDMI 2.0 supports 4K at 60 hz, so that will take care of my audiovisual needs.
Second, and perhaps even more exciting, the USB Type C port is coming out. Now, it’s important to understand that the mere fact that a laptop or other device has a Type C port doesn’t guarantee that it will support one standard or another. The port is just a physical entity.
However, the reason why this is big news is that both Thunderbolt 3 and DisplayPort will be supported over USB Type C for some (not necessarily all) laptops. For instance, the new Dell XPS and Alienware computers that I discussed above have a USB Type C port that supports Thunderbolt 3. This means that once USB Type C becomes commonplace, perhaps Thunderbolt and DisplayPort will enter the laptop mainstream also. (I don’t see why laptops with a USB Type C port wouldn’t include Thunderbolt or Mini Displayport capabilities on that port, provided the hardware (eg processor and chipset) supports it.) For more info on getting DisplayPort via a Type C port, see: http://www.displayport.org/displayport-over-usb-c/
Finally, maybe USB 3.1 Gen 2 will be able to support 60hz 4K video through a video graphics adapter or converter. One article disputes this, but there are USB 3.0 to 4K 30hz adapters out there, and USB 3.1 doubles the speed of 3.0, so perhaps with the proper video graphics adapter, USB 3.1 will indeed support 4K at 60 fps.
In short, I expect USB Type C ports to become common on laptops. And I hope that many (or most) of those ports will support Thunderbolt 3 or Mini DisplayPort. But even if Thunderbolt and Mini DisplayPort don’t become common, there’s always HDMI 2.0 (or maybe even USB 3.1 Gen 2).
In the meantime, I’m glad that there are at least a few laptops with 4K 60 fps external monitor/TV support that you can already buy now.