4K gaming started life as a hobby for the wealthy one percent and, well, you still need a beast of a PC to push all the pixels on a 4K monitor. Fortunately, in the fast-paced world of technology, today’s elite options trickle down to tomorrow’s mainstream hardware in the blink of an eye. Current Nvidia GeForce GTX 10-series and AMD Radeon RX Vega graphics cards represent a two-generation technological jump over prior options, making 4K gaming more viable than ever.
But 4K gaming demands more than a fresh GPU.
Editor’s note: This article is updated frequently, most recently on December 19 to include the Nvidia Titan V.
When we first created this article in November 2015, you needed to drop roughly $1,300 at least on just your graphics card, 4K monitor, and power supply to get your PC up to snuff. These days you can spend a whole lot less to start 4K gaming—or, alternatively, a whole lot more for an even smoother experience.
We’ll tell you what you need to start PC gaming at 4K resolution. But before we dig in, this is the end goal: a glorious 4K screenshot from The Witcher 3. Click the image to enlarge it, but be warned that it gets really big on non-4K screens.
Let’s start with the monitor, the cornerstone of 4K gaming.
While you’re still likely to clutch your chest when you see 4K monitor prices compared to 1080p or even 1440p variants, costs have actually come down significantly over the past few years. The initial batch of Ultra HD displays often sold in the neighborhood of $1,000. (Eep!) Now you can find a large number of 3840×2160-resolution displays in the $300 to $500 range—though you can obviously spend much more than that for premium features.
You’ll want a display that’s at least 27 or 28 inches wide. Some 23-inch 4K displays are floating around—and not for much less money—but honestly, 3820×2160 pixels don’t fit well on screens that small. Everything looks cramped. Dipping into Windows’ resolution scaling can help, but not all programs support it. Go for a full-sized monitor—and before you do, check out PCWorld’s 4K monitor guide for everything you need to know about picking out a 4K “Ultra HD” display.
The cheapest 4K monitors I can currently find hover between $300 and $350. At the time of this writing, the LG 24UD58-B was on sale for $320 on Amazon. It offers a bright IPS display, but at 24 inches you might find it a bit small. The Dell S2817Q costs $300 and the AOC U2879VF is going for $270, and both measure in at 28 inches. They have TN-based panels with faster response times than IPS displays.
The biggest difference between the two 28-inch 4K displays? The AOC model supports FreeSync, AMD’s variable refresh rate technology. FreeSync (and G-Sync, Nvidia’s competing technology) synchronize the refresh rates of your graphics card and monitor, which eliminates tearing and stuttering, resulting in a far smoother gameplay experience. Variable refresh rate monitors can make a massive difference in 4K gaming, because even the most potent high-end graphics cards still struggle to hit 60 frames per second in games at that resolution. FreeSync and G-Sync really help smooth out sub-60-fps gameplay.
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AOC Agon AG271UG 27-Inch 4K IPS G-Sync monitor
While FreeSync doesn’t add much cost to a monitor, G-Sync requires the use of a proprietary hardware module and is treated as a premium feature on premium monitors. 4K G-Sync panels are much more expensive as a result, though they tend to be loaded with high-end features. The most affordable 4K G-Sync display on Newegg right now is the Acer Predator XB281HK, a 28-inch TN monitor that costs $600. The AOC Agon AG271UG, a 27-inch IPS 4K G-Sync monitor, costs $800 on Amazon. By comparison, you’ll find FreeSync on many 4K monitors selling for under $500.
Just be aware of the key differences between FreeSync and G-Sync—all G-Sync monitors offer the same superb experience out of the box, while FreeSync requires a bit more research to find the best monitors. Also know that FreeSync 2 and G-Sync HDR will be limited to high-end monitors with high-dynamic range support when they arrive.
4K gaming graphics cards
A 4K monitor packs four times as many pixels as a high-definition 1080p display. You need a fire-breathing GPU to push that resolution while maintaining in-game frame rates that don’t devolve into stuttering garbage.
Last generation’s Nvidia Titan X, GTX 980 Ti, and AMD Fury X were the first single-GPU graphics cards capable of 4K gaming, though the experience wasn’t flawless. The three cards weren’t cheap: The Titan X cost $1,000, while the others launched at $650. What’s more, all three supplied frames rates hovering only between roughly 35 and 45 fps at High settings in many games at the time (though they could approach 60 fps in less strenuous games like Alien: Isolation). We therefore recommended only the first-gen 4K GPUs if you were fine playing games at a console-like 30 fps, or if you planned to pair them with a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor.
That recommendation holds for the GeForce GTX 1070 and Radeon RX Vega 56, which deliver performance slightly higher than those last-gen powerhouses at a much lower price. The reference versions of those cards sell for $350 and $400—at least in theory. The current cryptocurrency coin boom has drastically inflated prices of graphics cards in this category, and they’re often selling for $100 or more over MSRP at retail. These cards are the bare minimum you’d want for 4K gaming, though, and they might not hold up well pushing 4K resolution as the years go on and games get prettier.
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GTX 1070 Ti SC Black Edition
For a better 4K experience, look to the $450 GeForce GTX 1070 Ti, $500 GeForce GTX 1080, and $500 Radeon RX Vega 64, though the Radeon card is still suffering from limited availability and inflated prices. These cards still won’t hit a consistent 60 fps at 4K resolution in the most strenuous modern games, but they come much closer, hitting 45 fps or higher in the games we’ve tested. You’d still ideally pair them with a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor for the best results.
Customized versions like the superb EVGA GTX 1070 Ti SC Black Edition ($470 on Amazon) offer overclocks and better cooling solutions to push performance even higher. You pay a bit more for them, and custom GTX 1070 Ti models require you to run extra software to hit those higher clocks, but it’s worthwhile.
Only one consumer video card can power 4K games at 60 fps with all (or most) of the graphical bells and whistles enabled: The ferocious GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. It’s an utter beast, delivering a whopping 25 to 35 percent more frames than even the GTX 1080. At $700 MSRP, it’s not cheap, but again you should spend a few dollars more to snag a custom version like the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 to get far better cooling and maxed-out gaming performance.
You can increase gaming frame rates by varying amounts by reducing antialiasing settings—which aren’t as necessary at pixel-packed 4K resolution—and other options, such as shadow quality. The returns and available options vary greatly game-by-game, though.
Nvidia also offers the $1,200 Titan Xp and $3,000 Titan V, both of which push frame rates even further than the GTX 1080 Ti—especially the Titan V, which is built using Nvidia’s next-gen “Volta” GPU architecture. But note the lack of “GeForce” in those names. The Titan series is intended for prosumer use in compute workloads, and priced as such. You’re better off buying a GTX 1080 Ti. Current 4K monitors top out at 60Hz anyway.
Next page: Graphics cards we DON’T recommend, power supply considerations, and the bottom line.
Graphics cards: What we don’t recommend
There are some other avenues into 4K gaming that we don’t recommend at this point.
Some people play at 4K using less potent (and less expensive) graphics cards like the GTX 1060 or Radeon RX 580. Doing so requires some massive compromises, however, as all of those struggle to maintain even 30 fps with High graphics in many modern games. You’d need to dip graphics settings down to Medium in many games for them to be playable—and you probably don’t want to do that. The whole point of playing at 4K is the enhanced visuals, after all, and medium textures look extra-cruddy at higher resolutions.
Crossfire (AMD) and SLI (Nvidia) multi-card solutions are more interesting. If you already have a GTX 970 or Radeon R9 390, for example, simply slapping another one in your system could open the door to 4K gaming for much less than buying a new 4K-capable card.
Here’s the thing, though: Support for multi-GPU setups has always been flaky—and it’s getting worse. Numerous big-name games over the past couple of years released with late, buggy, or no SLI or Crossfire support. What’s more, Nvidia and AMD seem ready to shrug even more of the multi-GPU support work off the shoulders of their drivers and onto game developers now that next-gen graphics APIs like DirectX 12 and Vulkan enable deeper hardware access for game makers. Game developers are a notoriously overworked and under-resourced bunch, which doesn’t bode well for future attention to SLI and Crossfire support.
When a game doesn’t support multi-GPU, you’re stuck using a single card, rendering your second card a highly expensive paperweight. And like I said, when it does work, it often doesn’t work well. Stay away from multi-GPU setups and buy the best single-GPU graphics card you can afford.
4K gaming: Power supply considerations
Your graphics card and monitor are the biggest factors in 4K gaming, but depending on your current rig’s setup, you might need to upgrade some other components as well.
The most pressing upgrade would be your power supply. You’ll want a 500-watt power supply for the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080, while Nvidia recommends a 600W for the GTX 1080 Ti. (If you already have a gaming PC, there’s a good chance you already have a beefy power supply.)
Radeon RX Vega cards consume a lot more power—especially the Vega 64—so AMD suggests more potent PSUs. AMD’s liquid-cooled Vega 64 review box explicitly states that the card needs a minimum of a 1,000W power supply, compared to the air-cooled version’s 750W requirement. The company recommends a 650W unit for the Vega 56. You’ll be able to get by with a less-powerful PSU if you have a quality 80 Plus-rated one, though.
Decent 500W power supplies—you do not want to risk a no-name power supply—start around $50 on Amazon for a basic model with 80 Plus Bronze certification, and go up from there as you add features or wattage support. Sometimes you can find them at cheaper prices on sale, though. Diving into PSUs is outside the scope of this article, but check out PCWorld’s power supply buying guide for all the info you need about this crucial component.
4K gaming: The bottom line
Add it all up and there’s no question: Getting into 4K gaming is cheaper than ever, propelled by the plummeting costs of monitors and the onward march of graphics technology. But there’s also no question that the cost of a 4K-ready setup is still outside the reach of the majority of PC gamers.
When we first examined the issue in November 2015, the minimum you needed to spend to upgrade your rig to a 4K powerhouse was $1,300. Now, that’s been almost halved. You can snag a “budget” 4K monitor and a 4K-capable graphics card like the GTX 1070 or Radeon RX Vega 56 for roughly $700—if you can find the graphics cards when they’re selling near MSRP, at least. That’s a huge drop in two short years!
Granted, it’s still hugely expensive—and that’s just the graphics card and the cheapest possible display. If you need to upgrade your power supply, you’ll spend a bit more. And if you build a whole new 4K gaming PC from scratch, you’ll probably wind up spending closer to $1,400 at a minimum. Add more to that if you want a swanky monitor with extra features and high-end specs.
But what’s almost more exciting than the plummeting minimum cost of entry is what’s happening at the high end.
Until the current graphics card era, there was only a single, pricey 4K experience available: the decent but sub-60-fps gameplay delivered by the Fury X, original Titan X, and GTX 980 Ti. Now, that experience is much more affordable, and anyone willing to spend more—a lot more—can get a solid 45-fps-plus experience on High graphics with the GTX 1080, or even the hallowed 60-fps standard with everything cranked on the monstrous GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. The Titan Xp and Titan V push things even further for deep-pocketed enthusiasts. There are actual options now!
Sure, the highest-end 4K gaming setups still cost more than many people’s first (used) car. But ultra-high resolutions are finally starting to trickle down towards the mainstream—and come next graphics card generation, all of these advances are sure to become even more affordable.
Brad Chacos spends his days digging through desktop PCs and tweeting too much. He specializes in graphics cards and gaming, but covers everything from security to Windows tips and all manner of PC hardware.