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An illustration showing three computers with 4K laptop screens.

Do You Really Need a 4K Laptop Screen?

You'll pay more and take a hit to battery life, but for some users it's worth it

For consumers shopping for a brand new TV, it’s hard to argue against upgrading to 4K: With four times the number of pixels found in a 1080p display, the new screens present shows like “Narcos” and “The Grand Tour” in magnificent detail.

Whether such a high-resolution display makes sense on your next laptop, however, is an open question—especially now that companies such as HP, Lenovo, and Asus have begun to offer consumer models with 4K displays. Before you commit to buying one, here are some things to keep in mind:

The Upside: More Pixels

At a glance, you may not see the benefit of a 4K display, but when you place it side by side with a 1080p screen, it’s clearly noticeable. “It just looks beautiful,” says Dan Gookin, author of the most recent edition of “Laptops for Dummies.”

That added detail makes 4K great for photo- and video-editing via apps such as Photoshop and Premiere. It’s also appealing to professionals who work with CAD (computer-aided-design) applications.

And you may find it worthwhile if you stream a lot of 4K movies—especially as the viewing options expand on services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

With all those extra pixels, a 4K screen can even display text more clearly, making marathon Microsoft Word sessions easier on the eyes.

The Downside: Extra Pixels, Extra Money

Consumers can expect to pay a premium for a 4K display.

How much? That depends. HP tacks only $100 onto the cost of a 13-inch Spectre x360 laptop for a 4K display. By contrast, the 4K version of Lenovo’s latest Yoga 920 starts at $1,999, a full $550 more than the most expensive 1080p option. However, that 4K option also includes a 1TB hard drive, an extra 8GB of memory, and a free digital stylus (priced at $70 when sold separately).

“For the average person, I would just never recommend a 4K screen on something as small as a 13-inch computer,” advises YouTube gadget reviewer Dave Lee.

The other big consideration is the power required to operate the screen. “4K displays affect battery life a lot,” says Antonette Asedillo, who oversees laptop testing for Consumer Reports.

With all other specs being equal, the 4K display on this year’s Lenovo Yoga 910 nearly cut the battery life figure logged by last year’s 1080p model in half, according to our recent testing. That means 7.5 hours instead of 14.

Bottom Line

Unlike their desktop counterparts, laptops are designed for optimal portability. Make the device too big and it’s difficult to lug around. Skimp on the battery life and you find yourself sprinting from one power outlet to the next.

When you add a 4K display to the equation, you clearly upset that balance. The question is, are you willing to sacrifice convenience and power to enjoy the benefits of that sharper screen?

To help you decide, take a look at our current laptop ratings, which include 4K models from Asus, Dell, and HP—as well as 1080p models with excellent displays from Acer, Apple, Samsung, and Vaio. The top performers in both categories are below.

 

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We investigate, research, and test so you can choose with confidence.

Top-Rated 4K Laptops

HP Spectre 15-BL012DX x360
Price: $1,500
Overall Score: 73

CR’s Take: Alongside an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of memory, and an Nvidia GPU capable of midrange gaming, this 15.6-inch HP Spectre also doubles as a tablet, allowing users to fold the screen backward on a 360-degree hinge so that it lies flat against the keyboard.

Asus Zenbook Pro UX501VW-DS71T
Price: $1,340
Overall Score: 71

CR’s Take: Asus’ ZenBook Pro earns our recommended rating for combining sleek looks with premium performance. An Intel Core i7 and speedy solid state drive make completing everyday computing tasks a breeze, while the 4K display doubles as a touch screen—handy for easily zooming into and out of all those extra pixels. One sore spot worth noting: At 5 pounds, the 15.6-inch computer might be a little heavy to cart to the office every day.

Dell XPS 15 Touch 6th-Gen.
Price: $1,650
Overall Score: 67

CR’s Take: Dell’s XPS line of high-performance laptops continues to impress our testers, with the 15.6-inch XPS 15 Touch 6th-Gen. earning our recommended rating. This is among the fastest laptops we’ve tested, with an Nvidia GTX 960M that’s powerful enough to handle tasks like video editing and midrange gaming with ease. The 4K display, while Very Good overall, does contribute to the laptop’s merely adequate battery life of 6.75 hours.

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Laptops in Our Ratings.
Current Laptop Ratings