Guide To Monitor Technologies In 2021: Panel Types, Resolutions, Refresh Rates, And More
Whether you're shopping for your first gaming monitor or looking to upgrade, here's what you need to know about monitor technology.
It's now 2021, and in these glorious days of ray tracing and DLSS technology and such, it's relatively easy for the average gamer to build a rig, grab a 4K display, and be on their merry way. But more pixels isn't necessarily the winning move when thinking about what to look for in a gaming monitor, and all the graphical horsepower in the world doesn't mean much if you can't display it in its full glory. There's an entire alphabet soup of monitor technologies to consider when choosing the display that's going to be your new best friend going forward, and prettiest or more advanced doesn't always mean best for your experience or your wallet. If you're looking to buy a new monitor in 2021, here's what you should know about monitor technologies in order to find the best display for you.
Screen resolutions and sizes
Screen resolution is perhaps the most obvious feature of any monitor panel, and it's likely the first setting many PC gamers go running to as soon as they start a new game. A monitor's screen resolution represents the number of horizontal pixels x the number of vertical pixels they display. Now, as most PC gamers know, PC games support a slew of potential resolutions ranging from 640x480--i.e. your average, ancient CRT monitor, and probably what you played Oregon Trail on in grade school--all the way up to 8K (7680x4320)--which will probably be awesome when there's more than just random nature documentaries on YouTube running it natively. Despite the wild list that comes up when starting a new PC title, though, there are four benchmark resolutions you're most likely to see when choosing a gaming monitor:
|Common screen resolutions||Pixels|
These screen resolutions perfectly conform to the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio that the vast majority of monitor panels are manufactured under and that the vast majority of modern video content--gaming or otherwise--is formatted with. Even among these resolutions, there are some considerations to make. 720p monitors aren't long for this world, but those displays are definitely still out there. For one, they're relatively cheap, and more than that, for folks running super low-spec PC rigs, 720p is a perfectly viable step down to give your CPU/GPU some breathing room while still producing a high-definition image. On the opposite end, 4K resolution is the current gold standard--for now--but running a game at 4K requires a lot of horsepower, and not all 4K monitor technologies are up to the task. Right in the middle is 1080p, which is currently the most common resolution for desktops and laptops the world over.
There's a bit of legwork involved in even hitting that respectable mark and making it look good, however. New in-game technologies like NVIDIA’s DLSS and AMD’s FidelityFX are able to squeeze a bit more power out of even modest GPUs, but even then, pairing a beast of a monitor with a GPU build for a lower resolution can create some weird visual hiccups. The same caution should apply when considering the actual size of your monitor. While larger-sized display panels in the 30 inch and up range do exist, most PC users are doing their gaming on a display that’s only an arm’s length away. Your mother was right as a kid: Sitting too close to a large display doesn’t do your eyes any favors, nor is it particularly kind to a low-resolution image. Scaling your monitor size appropriately to your resolution is just as important as horsepower, and for a 1080p image that’s going to be a few feet in front of your face, 24 inches is the absolute ceiling for how large that image should be before you start literally seeing diminishing returns. A similar scale goes for a 720p image, which peaks on a 13- to 15-inch display, and 4K, which stops playing as nice once you hit 32 inches.
Ports and cables
For starters, before even connecting your rig to a monitor, you need to make sure the connectors will carry the signal you're planning to aim for. You can certainly use HDMI cables to connect your rig to a monitor; just make sure your ports and cords are HDMI 2.2 compliant for the best performance up to 4K. However, the best monitor technology for PC gaming will support DisplayPort 1.4 or better, which can carry up to an 8K signal and a 60Hz (or higher) refresh rate (more on why that's important later). Having DisplayPort support also makes the process of extending monitors--as in making a second or even a third monitor an extension of your desktop--so much simpler, allowing you to simply use input/output DisplayPorts to daisy chain monitors together instead of hoping you have more than one HDMI port on your computer. (See our breakdown of DisplayPort vs. HDMI for the pros and cons of using either display cable).
Of course, you can also avoid that problem altogether by looking into an ultrawide monitor: a single-monitor panel that displays a 21:9 widescreen image--roughly the same screen space as a dual monitor setup, but without the gap between the two images. While either setup has advantages for productivity purposes, for gamers, ultrawide monitors can take things to a whole new level. Titles that fully support the oddball resolutions can feel like a whole new game with the expanded field of vision, especially with curved ultrawide displays. However, the expanded image does demand a bit more from your graphics card, so you definitely want to do your homework before diving in.
Display panel technologies
Once you've determined what your computer can handle and what kind of image you'd like to see, the next question is what kind of screen you'd like to use. While all of them are based around liquid crystal technology--in short, light and an electric current traveling between panels of reflective material--not all displays are alike. There are a few different types of LCD panels to choose from, but here are the three most common display panel technologies along with the advantages and disadvantages of each:
TN (Twisted Nematic)
The oldest and most ubiquitous type of LCD display, TN technology has been around for several decades, and the technique was the very first to be used for liquid crystal displays. A manufacturing method doesn't stick around that long unless it seriously works. To this day, TN displays will still give you the fastest response rate of the three types of LCD. That means image ghosting and unwanted motion blur aren't even an issue, and best of all, input lag is kept to a minimum. TN monitors are also the cheapest and easiest to find, to the point where it's safe to assume if a monitor doesn't even list the LCD type, it's probably TN. TN displays won't necessarily give you the most eye-popping image, though, compared with IPS or VA displays, and the image will look just flat-out odd at oblong angles. Still, for gamers who need to squeeze every split-second of reaction time out of their display, this one's a no-brainer.
IPS (In-Plane Switching)
For those looking for a little more razzle-dazzle from their images, an IPS display like the Razer Raptor 27 will deliver absolutely stunning colors, and from just about any angle. It's the monitor technology of choice for many professional-grade displays and touchscreens these days--particularly with Apple devices--for that reason. And like most tech crafted for professionals, the price tag is appropriately higher for most IPS monitor panels. That price tag's worth it if image quality is the bigger concern; however, most devices do have to work harder to keep up with the enhanced image, introducing a bit of input latency TN displays don't have. There are a few recent monitors that have managed to eliminate that problem, but, again, when it comes to IPS displays, you'll only get what you pay for.
VA (Vertical Alignment)
VA displays are kind of a happy compromise between TN and IPS monitors. A VA display such as the Acer Predator CG437K will give you an image with an IPS's color depth while maintaining the relatively low latency of a TN display. The VA display's big ace, however, is that it excels at contrast, producing deep black images without sacrificing clarity in the process. That's a huge boon, especially for anyone who watches a lot of videos on their computer. VAs do still inherit some of the problems of the other two in turn. Viewing angles aren't the greatest, but are better than those of a TN monitor. VA displays can also have problems with latency. It's not nearly as pronounced as it is in IPS panels, though, and for most games, the latency is within the range of acceptable. For folks playing more fast-paced titles, however, that mileage may vary. For them, there are certainly VA monitors that do an excellent job fixing that issue, but they come with a higher price tag.
Once you've decided what kind of image you want to get out of your monitor, the last thing to consider is how that image will perform in motion. And for gaming, that's a place where the right screen technology is crucial. Let's consider the pipeline here: A game wants to show your character running into a warzone. Every single miniscule aspect of that image gets fed to your CPU and GPU, processed with whatever limitations (or lack thereof) you set, and fed to your monitor to display. It does this so fast that by the time the images reach our eyes, it looks seamless. Or rather, it does as long as you have a good computer and the best monitor technology.
See, frame rate is one thing--that's simply how many images your computer is trying to feed your monitor every second. But refresh rate is the last step. Your monitor has to be able to display every picture or frame from your computer, remove and replace that frame with the next one, and do it at your computer's pace. So when choosing a gaming monitor, you want to pick one that can keep up with your computer's output.
As a baseline, most monitors are calibrated to hit 60 Hertz, or Hz, meaning the screen is able to refresh its image 60 times a second. Match that with a computer running a game that's sending 60 frames per second, and you get a nice, fluid image. However, it's not a perfect one. There's a small amount of blurriness still at play when images are in motion at 60fps, because even 60fps leaves enough time for there to be gaps in perception. Your eyes are still capable of processing more, many PC games can deliver so much more, and most importantly, there are monitor panels that can display more, with refresh rates ranging from 120Hz and 240Hz all the way up to specialized esports displays that can hit up to 360Hz. Just like your computer, however, higher refresh rates mean your monitor has a lot more work to do. And not every monitor can keep up with the load.
Tearing and sync
When the frame rate drops in a game, that's typically an issue with the software or the computer itself. However, screen tearing is the result of a miscommunication between your monitor and computer. Essentially, your computer is sending more information than your monitor was ready for, thus creating a delayed image on the top or bottom of the screen. Especially in fast-paced games, that's one of the most aggravating things that can happen. Most PC games typically have a built-in way to get around this in the form of VSync, a kind of software-based stop sign that tells the computer to hold off sending the next image until the monitor is actually ready. The result is typically a more consistent, stable image. However, it's rather costly on GPU resources and can introduce some input latency since your button press may not correspond with on-screen movements on time.
Once again, it’s Nvidia and AMD to the rescue. Both companies have developed monitor-based solutions to the problem. Nvidia's solution, GSync, is a fancy bit of hardware built into specific monitors that, working in tandem with Nvidia processors (GTX 610 Ti or better), provides all the benefits of VSync without the heavy GPU cost. AMD, on the other hand, has FreeSync, which only requires a computer with an AMD GPU (GCN 1.1 or better) connected to a compatible monitor via a DisplayPort (1.2 or better). While certainly a more powerful machine can avoid having to deal with tearing altogether, when choosing a gaming monitor, it's not a bad idea to pick a display with G-Sync or FreeSync to fall back on.
In between your computer putting together an image and your monitor displaying it, there are an unthinkable number of processing tasks happening in the blink of an eye. Every new process that image has to go through once it leaves your GPU is an extra fraction of a second it spends not being displayed. For gamers, that means a noticeable delay between pressing a button and having your action play out on screen. That delay is called latency. It is the enemy of gamers who rely on split-second reactions to excel, and many players would give anything to slay it for good.
But here’s the irony: Every new bit of technology you introduce to your monitor to get it looking its best is also adding another roadblock for the image from your computer to go through. Yes, features like G-Sync can help, but for every G-Sync, there are other proprietary features that you don't necessarily need. Just like a computer, monitors are working hard behind the scenes to bring your images up on time, but the more bits of coded software that image has to bounce around before it gets to the screen, the more likely it is to register your button presses with a delay. No matter how good your final image actually looks, if it can't perform fast enough for your actions, your monitor is actively working against you.
Though it's helpful to understand all the best monitor technologies available today, what's important to keep in mind is that finding the right monitor isn’t just a matter of having enough money to buy the biggest, most advanced display on the market, but rather the display that’s best for what you actually want to accomplish. Monitor technologies have gotten more advanced, adding HDR and other tech, but knowing exactly what you're trying to get out of your panel display will lead you to a monitor that will treat your eyes right for years to come.
If you're shopping for a new gaming monitor in 2021, we have some recommendations to help you on your search, including the best cheap gaming monitors worth your money. Though we're still waiting for monitors with HDMI 2.1 to release, console owners should also check out the best monitors for PS5 and Xbox Series X available right now (and, of course, the best 4K TVs). And if you're debating between picking up a new monitor or TV this year, we've broken down the pros and cons for both in our gaming monitor vs. gaming TV guide.
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