Gaming Monitors Explained: Panel Types, Refresh Rates, Resolution, And More
Trying to navigate the sea of gaming monitors is difficult, especially when they're so much display technical jargon to wade through. Adaptive refresh rate? In-plane switching? OLED? What do those terms mean? Let us break them down for you.
Whether you want to play a twitch-based shooter that requires a fast response rate panel or need a display that offers accurate colors so that you can do some photo editing on the side, we'll outline what you should look out for.
Table of contents:
- Size and Resolution
- Ultrawide 21:9 Aspect Ratio Monitors
- Flat vs Curve
- Refresh Rate
- Adaptive Refresh Rate
- Panel Types
- Response Time
- Adjustable Stand and VESA Mounts
For more relevant PC guides, check out:
Size and Resolution
One of the first things you want to figure out when purchasing a monitor is the size and resolution. 1080p, 1440p, and 4K are popular resolutions.
1920x1080 is by far the most common gaming resolution today. As the name suggest, its resolution is the sum of 1920 pixels multiplied by 1080. This amounts to a combined 2,073,600 pixels. While it's popular, it's been around for a long time and is beginning to show its age. As a result, it's best suited for smaller panels, where its relatively low pixel count won't be as detrimental. We're talking monitors in the realm of 23 inches and below.
2560x1440p, also referred to as quad-high-definition (QHD), is a sweet spot for many PC gamers with mid to high-end hardware. With its 3,686,400 combined pixel count, it offers 77 percent more pixels than 1920x1080 but isn't nearly as graphically demanding as 4K. Good graphics cards to pair it with include Nvidia's GTX 1070 or AMD's RX Vega 56 and up. Its pixels makes it great for monitors in the 24-30 inch range.
When it comes to gaming monitors, 4K typically equates to a resolution of 3840x2160. It's also referred to as Ultra-High-Definition (UHD), made up of 8,294,400 total pixels. This is four times 1920x1080. As a result, the resolution can be very graphically demanding on GPUs. While the super-sharp resolution can mitigate jaggy aliasing issues on even the biggest 4K panels, we would generally only recommend one to gamers who own a high-end card like Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1080 Ti or those with two high-end graphics cards like Nvidia's GTX 1080 or AMD's RX Vega 64 running in SLI/Crossfire.
Ultrawide 21:9 Aspect Ratio Monitors
The previous monitors we mentioned all used 16:9 aspect ratios, which means they feature a width of 16 units and a height of 9. While they're really popular, ultrawide 21:9 monitors have been gaining a lot of traction in recent years. They can give you an advantage in shooters like Battlefield 1 by allowing you to more easily spot enemies in your peripheral vision with a wider field of view. Not all games take advantage of the wider aspect ratio, however. Older games may present black bars on either side of the screen. Some games like Overwatch will just crop the top and bottom, which actually inhabits your view if you play in fullscreen.
Ultrawide monitors come in a variety of resolutions. The most popular ones include 2560x1080, 3440x1440, and the highest-end 3840x1600. The latter isn't as graphically demanding as 4K, but it is more taxing than the aforementioned 2560x1440p, so you'll want a beefy GPU like the GTX 1080 or RX Vega 64 to run it.
Flat vs Curve
Curved panels are an emerging monitor trend. Paired with an ultrawide aspect ratio, they can make you feel a little more enveloped in the action. While they're often paired with ultrawide displays, you'll sometimes also see 16:9 monitors rocking curved panels..
Most curved monitors typically offer curved angles between 21 and 31 degrees, but there are more aggressive designs that extend beyond. Deciding whether to get a curved monitor or how deep the curve should be comes down to personal preference. We suggest you try one out before you invest. Generally speaking, we'd only recommend a curved monitor when it's paired with an ultrawide panel.
When discussing monitors, hertz is a measurement used to dictate how fast a panel can draw individual frames, or "refresh," a screen. A monitor's refresh rate dictates its frame rate limit. For instance, a 60Hz panel is limited to displaying a maximum of 60 frames per second. We strongly recommend high refresh rate monitors for gaming as a result, but they do typically cost more. While most modern monitors are limited to 60Hz, fancier gaming monitors can go up to 75, 120, 144, and even 240Hz.
High refresh rate monitors are great for competitive fighting games and twitch-based shooters, as they give you more frame data. You will need a powerful rig that can output these high frame rates to take advantage of them, however.
120Hz monitors and above are generally needed for 3D panels that use stereoscopic glasses, but most manufacturers have moved away from 3D as the technology hasn't gained much traction.
Adaptive Refresh Rate
While most monitors are locked to a consistent refresh rate (i.e., 60Hz or 120Hz, etc.), adaptive refresh rate displays allow your graphics card to control the refresh rate of the panel. For instance, if your gaming rig is only able to render 40 frames per second at any given time, your graphics card will lower the refresh rate of your monitor to 40Hz to match it. Similar to enabling V-Sync, this mitigates screen tearing, but without increasing input latency--V-Sync's major drawback. You essentially get the best of both worlds with an adaptive refresh rate screen.
It's a feature that we really recommend. Fortunately, both AMD and Nvidia offer adaptive refresh rate solutions. On AMD's side, there is FreeSync. On Nvidia's side, there is G-Sync. You'll need to pair the monitors with each respective vendor's GPU for the adaptive refresh rate to work.
G-Sync panels require an Nvidia module in the monitor, whereas FreeSync panels only require that a monitor support the DisplayPort 1.2 standard. Because G-Sync panels require a physical module, they typically cost more than their FreeSync counterparts.
When it comes to displays, there are two main types. Most monitors use liquid crystal display LEDs that provide fluorescent backlighting. The other type is the emerging OLED tech.
TN stands for twisted nematic, and it's a popular panel that's cheap to manufacture. Its major benefit is that it offers a fast response time, which is good for gaming, but they generally have inferior viewing angles compared to their IPS equivalents. Their color accuracy also isn't as good.
IPS stands for in-plane switching and they are generally more expensive and superior to their TN counterparts. They offer wider viewing angles and better color accuracy than TN, which makes them great for photo and video editing. Historically, TN panels have offered noticeably faster response times, but manufacturers have been able to bring down IPS response times below five milliseconds, which is more than adequate for most gamers. As a result, it's a panel type that we recommend to most people.
VA stands for vertical alignment. The panel type offers a better contrast ratio than IPS, which means it provides deep black levels. It also offers better color accuracy and viewing angles than TN, though it can't match IPS in either category. As it pertains to gaming, one negative aspect of VA panels is that they are known to produce undesirable ghosting effects, which are more noticeable when there's a lot of movement on screen.
The emerging panel tech to watch out for is organic light emitting diode panels. These OLED screens use a transmissive display that generates its own individually backlit pixels rather than rely on backlighting provided by larger LEDs. This allows them to turn off individual pixels to achieve true black levels. The major downside to OLED panels is that they can't get as bright as their LED equivalents.
While you're starting to see them on high-end TVs and smartphones, they haven't made a significant dent in the gaming monitor scene due to how new the technology is.
HDR stands for high-dynamic range, and it aims to offer a wider color gamut beyond the longstanding sRGB standard. HDR pushes a higher contrast ratio between white and black levels and generally attempts to represent colors more realistically.
According to Nvidia, HDR can expand the color gamut by a factor of two, which amounts to roughly 75 percent of the visible color spectrum.
There are multiple HDR standards. HDR 10 requires panels to reach 2000 nits of brightness, whereas Microsoft's spec is set at 600 nits.
Like OLED, HDR is an emerging technology and is only beginning to make headway in the PC gaming monitor space.
When looking for a monitor geared for gaming, it's important to get one that offers a quick response time. Response time is generally measured by how long it takes for a pixel to turn from one shade of grey to another. You'll want to look for a monitor that offers five milliseconds of latency or below.
Having a high response time will make gameplay look blurry and present undesirable trailing edges. This will be particularly evident when there's a lot of movement on screen. It can also serve as a gaming disadvantage, as you'll have less time to react to in-game occurrences.
When purchasing a gaming monitor, it's a good idea to note whether its video port/s will support your graphics card. For instance, some older video cards may not offer DisplayPort connections, and some newer gaming monitors may lack HDMI inputs.
DVI is an older HD standard that's able to transmit video up to 1920x1200 resolution but many older DVI cables can't deliver audio.
HDMI has superseded DVI and supports audio transmission. The most modern version is HDMI 2.0, which supports 4K video up to 60FPS and HDR. It also supports 21:9 aspect ratio monitors and dual video streams.
HDMI 2.1 is on the horizon, however, and will increase bandwidth from 18Gbps to 48GBps. It's a forward-thinking standard that will allow for resolutions up to 10K and frame rates up to 120FPS.
The latest DisplayPort standard is version 1.4, which enables HDR and supports 8K/60FPS and 4K/120FPS video. DisplayPort 1.4 also supports up to 32 audio channels at a 1536kHz sample rate.
USB and audio jacks
Some monitors offer USB ports and audio jacks. They are appreciated since they will allow you to easily connect gaming controllers, thumb drives, and headsets.
Adjustable Stand And VESA Mounts
One area that many people overlook when purchasing a monitor is the quality of its stand. A good stand will not only allow you to shift the panel up and down, but also tilt it forwards and backwards.
Some monitor stands will also allow you to turn the display 90 degrees so you can get more vertical length when reading long articles. This orientation can also allow you to save desk space.
It's also a good idea to look for monitors that support the VESA mounting standard. This will ensure that it's compatible with a wide array of mounts that will allow you to attach it to walls.