What to look for in a gaming monitor: The specs that matter
Gaming monitors are awesome, but which one is right for you? Let us guide you through the specs you should care about.
By Ian Paul
PCWorldDec 9, 2020 3:00 am PST
Running a gaming PC is a lot like being a car enthusiast. You want to get the best parts available, tune them to your liking, and then get out onto the open road, so to speak. The funny thing is, even with the best graphics card and CPU, a gaming PC can’t demonstrate its full glory without a solid gaming monitor to bear witness.
But what to look for? Display shelves are packed with myriad choices, and a variety of specs: 1080p, 2160p, 4K, HDR, refresh rate, response time, color gamut, IPS, ultrawide, curved, and so on.
With so many options, where do you begin and how do know what matters most? Choosing the ideal gaming monitor gets easier once you decide on the resolution you want, and understand how different features will affect your experience. Price matters too, of course, but with sale periods like Black Friday, Prime Day, and general deals throughout the year, pricing can be more flexible for the patient shopper.
Here’s a look at the key features you want in a monitor, as well as some recommendations on what to buy.
The first thing to think about is the monitor’s resolution, and this depends entirely on what your graphics card is capable of. There’s no point getting a 4K monitor, for example, if your graphics card can only handle the lower resolution of 1080p. The only caveat to that would be if you plan on upgrading soon and want to “future proof” by getting a higher-resolution monitor before you get the new GPU.
The benefit of 1080p is that it’s the most affordable kind of monitor you can get and is readily available pretty much anywhere.
1440P: The step up from 1080p is 2560×1440 pixels, a nice middle ground between 1080p and 4K. These 1440p monitors are widely considered PC gaming’s sweet spot, providing a noticeable fidelity boost over 1080p monitors without forcing you to break your budget. Solid choices for graphics card in this range include our favorite 1440p graphics card the GeForce RTX 3070, as well as the Radeon RX 6800.
4K: Finally, there’s 4K, which is also called UHD (ultra-high definition) and has a resolution of 3860×2160 pixels, offering four times the number of pixels of 1080p (double the density in both width and height). It’s the most coveted resolution because of its supreme clarity and, when paired with HDR (high dynamic range), 4K offers an incredible image. To game on a 4K display without visual compromises, you need a high-end graphics card such as the GeForce RTX 3080 or AMD’s Radeon RX 6800XT.
8K: We’re also in the very early days of 8K, which offers four times the pixel count of 4K. But gaming at 8K is expensive, and the gaming industry isn’t there yet. Enthusiasts can, of course, adopt early with the GeForce RTX 3090, but it’s not cheap and you’re likely to get better value from 4K at the moment.
Refresh rate and response time
Refresh rate is one of the key features for gaming since it’s so closely tied to frame rates. A monitor’s refresh rate indicates how often it displays a new image measured in hertz. Essentially there’s a 1:1 relationship between the refresh rate produced by the display and the frames per second (fps) pushed out by the graphics card. So a monitor with a refresh rate of 60Hz can display up to 60 frames per second, which is considered the minimum standard frames-per-second for PC gaming. A game at 30fps is still playable, but 60fps is always the goal.
In general, with higher frame rates, game motion appears smoother, responds faster, and just generally looks better. That’s why higher refresh rate monitors are popular choices. A 144Hz monitor, for example, can display more than double the frames of a 60Hz monitor with the appropriate graphics card.
Once you’ve tried a 120Hz or 144Hz, it’s hard to go back to 60Hz, even for productivity tasks. If you’re an e-sports enthusiast, blistering 240Hz and even 360Hz panels are available, but they’re very expensive and limited to 1080p resolution.
In addition to refresh rate, response times are also an important factor. It dictates how fast it takes a monitor at the pixel level to shift from one color to the next. A lower number is better here, as a poor response time can cause ghosting and other visual artifacts to appear. Many monitors have a 5ms or 4ms response time, which is acceptable, although 1ms (or sometimes even lower) is best for gaming.
Here are some good high refresh-rate monitors:
Asus ROG Swift PG279Q ($849). This 1440p monitor has a refresh rate of 165 Hz, it’s rocking G-Sync and it supports the full sRGB color gamut, with 4ms response time.
Next up we have adaptive sync. This feature syncs the refresh rate between your graphics card and your display. The idea is that when both the graphics card and your monitor are synced up there is less chance of screen tearing and stutter for what we love to call “buttery-smooth gaming.”
Adaptive sync comes in two flavors: Nvidia G-Sync and AMD’s royalty-free FreeSync. The latter is by far the most common and the cheapest for manufacturers to add, which is perhaps why Nvidia’s GeForce graphics cards now work with FreeSync. Using FreeSync with a GeForce card is fine, but for the truly best performance it’s still better to use G-Sync with Nvidia cards.
Here are two good monitors to consider, one rocking FreeSync and one with G-Sync:
Dell S2417DG ($470). This is a 24-inch 1440p monitor with a 165Hz refresh rate and a 1ms response time. It also supports G-Sync.
AOC G2590FX ($214). This 25-inch 1080p monitor features FreeSync, a 144Hz refresh rate, and a 1ms response time.
Display size for computer gaming really comes down to personal preference. The one thing to keep in mind is that screen size, resolution, and pixel density are all related. Generally, the larger the number of pixels per inch (ppi), the better the image. Density correlates with sharpness. There are all kinds of ppi calculators online to figure out what you can expect at each resolution.
If you have a 24-inch 1080p display, for example, then your count is going to be a little less than 92 ppi, which is respectable for 1080p. At 32-inches, however, the ppi drops below 70. Upgrade to 1440p, and a 32-inch monitor gets about the same ppi as that 1080p 24-inch monitor, and a 4K monitor at 32 inches is nearly 138 ppi.
In general, any modern monitor that’s between 24 and 32 inches will be just fine for gaming. Obviously, the higher the resolution, the higher the pixel count, which does improve image quality. But if you love the notion of a large display, and can only afford a 1080p display at that size, just go for it.
Dell S2421HGF ($171). A 24-inch 1080p monitor with a 144Hz refresh rate, FreeSync, and a 1ms response time.
AsusVG278QR ($249). Going up in size, we have this 27-inch 1080p display with FreeSync, a 165Hz refresh rate, and a 0.5ms refresh rate.
AOC C32V1Q ($200). Go big or go home with this budget 31.5-inch 1080p monitor with an above-average refresh rate, and a 4ms response time.
High dynamic range
Anyone in the market for a 4K monitor should seriously consider the addition of high dynamic range if they can afford it—HDR monitors come at a steep premium. HDR allows for a drastically wider range of color variation, which means a better picture overall. The difference between HDR and non-HDR is simply stunning.
The secret, however, is that the quality of HDR is dependent on the display’s brightness level. If an HDR monitor is less than 1,000 nits, you’re really just buying into marketing hype. The picture on an “HDR-ready” monitor may be marginally better than an average 4K monitor, but to get true HDR you need a bright display and that will cost you.
Here are some good choices for monitors with 4K resolution and HDR:
Acer Predator CG437LK ($1,300). This is one heck of a display at 43-inches, with G-Sync, a 120Hz refresh rate, a 1ms response time, and DisplayHDR 1000.
There are two major types of panels used for gaming displays: TN and IPS (short for twisted nematic and in-plane switching, respectively, which describes their different underlying pixel-rendering technology.) Both can be suitable for gaming, so it really comes down to what you prefer. (There’s a third panel type called VA—vertical alignment—which largely splits the difference between TN speeds and IPS color reproduction, with excellent contrast ratios.)
TN panels tend to have lower response times, which means less chance for “ghosting” issues, where visual artifacts briefly remain on the screen. But TN panels have a narrower viewing angle, so if you are viewing from outside the sweet spot—say, your monitor is angled slightly—it might be harder to see details, especially in darkly lit scenes.
TN panels also have a more “washed out” look, where the colors don’t pop the same way they do on an IPS display. Still, some gamers prefer having those lower response times despite the color and viewing angle tradeoffs.
IPS, meanwhile, is a visual treat, but you don’t get those 1 millisecond response times as with TN. At least, not typically. For about a year now, there have been IPS displays with 1ms response times, but they tend to be more expensive.
Color space, meanwhile, is how faithful a monitor is to a defined set of colors such as sRGB or AdobeRGB. Accurate colors are always better, but it’s most important for content creation work.
Here are some good TN panels for gaming:
BenQ Zowie XL2411P ($200). A 24-inch 1080p monitor with a 144Hz refresh rate, and a 1ms response time. It lacks FreeSync or G-Sync, but it does come with a height- and tilt-adjustable stand.
Acer KG271 ($260). This 27-inch 1080p monitor features a 144Hz refresh rate, FreeSync, and the TN panel’s tell-tale 1ms response time.
If you want to go with an IPS display, give these a try:
LG 27GL850-B ($447). This is one of the early IPS displays featuring a 1ms response time. It also has a 1440p resolution, a 144Hz refresh rate, and FreeSync.
HP VH240a ($125). A classic example of a budget monitor. It’s 24 inches, 1080p, a 60Hz refresh rate, and a 5ms response time. It’s not powerful, but for a little over $100, it’ll do a respectable job.
Curved displays, ultrawide monitors, and aspect ratios
For the most part, when you look at a standard display, you are looking at a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. But when you start looking at curved displays, you’ll come across ultrawide monitors with aspect ratios like 21:9. These types of displays are generally more immersive, but they do look different than what you’re used to, and have a “learning curve” of a few days before they feel natural.
Curved monitors are intriguing since they add depth simply by changing the shape of the screen. The curve of a monitor is displayed as “R,” which stands for radius, or how big the monitor would be if it formed a complete circle. A 1000R monitor would form a circle with a radius of 1,000mm, or 1 meter, for example.
Some people love these types of monitors, especially with games that feature large vistas, such as driving games or flight simulators.
Curved monitors and ultrawides are nice to look at, but they are also 100 percent a “luxury” features. Specs such as adaptive sync, display resolution, and HDR are all things that should take priority before venturing into this territory. Admittedly, many of these important features are common on premium curved and ultrawide monitors.
Samsung Odyssey G5 ($290). This 32-inch monitor has an immersive 1000R curvature, a 144Hz refresh rate, 1440p resolution, a 1ms response time, and FreeSync. This monitor is still within the usual range of viewing ratio at 16:9.
Acer Nitro XZ342CK ($500). A 34-inch display with a 1500R curvature, 1440p resolution, FreeSync, a 144Hz refresh rate, a 1ms response time, and a 21:9 aspect ratio.
eBay CouponeBay Best Price Guarantee: Save 10% on any item