Gaming monitors are the filter through which everything else, from the pretty new game you're playing to the GPU powering it, reaches you.
Unlike standard PC monitors, gaming monitors place a large emphasis on fast response times and refresh rates – crucial factors that determine just how well a game plays. Some even come loaded with visual enhancement measures that sync directly with your PC's graphics card in order to display the smoothest possible image.
It's easy to view monitors as passively displaying an image created elsewhere inside your PC, but the truth is that your monitor is an integral part of creating that image. A quality monitor can help generate a high resolution, high frame rate, stutter-free gaming experience.
Panel technology: IPS vs TN vs VA
While looking for a gaming monitor, you'll encounter three different LCD panel technologies: in-plane switching (IPS), twisted nematic (TN) and vertical alignment (VA).
It's not important to know the mechanical particulars, but essentially each utilises the liquid crystals inside the display differently, resulting in different visual characteristics. This is where trade-offs come into play, and where knowing whether you value performance or picture quality most is helpful.
Whichever option you choose, as a general rule, the more you spend, the more you'll be able to mitigate the weaknesses of each category.
TN monitors are the speedy performance option. If you're competing in esports, this is your best bet. They have the fastest refresh rates and response times, resulting in gameplay that is more fluid. But they also have less impressive contrast ratios and limited viewing angles, meaning they appear washed out from anywhere other than directly in front. TN monitors are the cheapest.
IPS monitors are suited to graphics aficionados. They can present a sharp, colourful image with good contrast ratios, colour reproduction and viewing angles, but they have the slowest refresh rates and slower response times than TN. They're generally the most expensive monitor type.
VA monitors are considered the jack of all trades option. Viewing angles and colour reproduction sit at the midpoint between TN and IPS panels. They generally have the longest response times, but they can have decent refresh rates at the premium end of the line. VA displays also have the best contrast ratio and can show the blackest blacks and whitest whites.
How to compare gaming monitors
When choosing between gaming monitors, consider the following factors:
The most important part of buying a gaming monitor has nothing to do with the monitor itself. There's little point spending a small fortune on an ultra-fast, ultra-wide, high-resolution monitor if your graphics card can't output at these settings. More pixels, faster frame rates and deeper colours all require more grunt from your GPU. Check to see what your card is capable of and then find a monitor that suits. Or, alternatively, purchase your dream monitor and then upgrade your graphics card to match. Monitors and graphics cards are the core of your PC set-up and work best when they're in harmony.
Curved vs flat screens
The first PC monitors used cathode-ray tubes and were convex shaped. When LCDs replaced them, flat screens became the dominant design. Now, the latest trend in monitor bulge is concave displays. The idea behind these new curved screens is that they envelope more of your field of vision, creating a heightened sense of immersion. They're not necessarily better, it's just a different approach.
We recommend going into a store and trying one out before purchasing because they're definitely not for everyone. It's also worth keeping in mind that, in order to get the full effect, they need to be large and have an ultra-wide aspect ratio, otherwise you've just got a normal screen that happens to warp around the edges.
Larger monitors provide a more immersive, atmospheric gaming experience – but remember, in order to display a clear, sharp image, they need to render more pixels. This, in turn, requires more grunt from your graphics card.
Gaming monitors don't need to be as large as your TV because you sit closer to them. Anything 27 inches or larger will feel impressive.
Resolution and DPI
There are three common resolution options to choose from: full HD (1080p), QHD (2560x1440) or 4K (3840 × 2160). Resolution should be considered alongside screen size because the density of pixels per inch determines how sharp a picture is.
Although 4K is the standard for TVs, it's slightly less important in PC gaming because monitors tend to be smaller. 4K monitors also require an inordinately powerful PC to utilise them at their maximum resolution, so if you want to save some money, we'd recommend checking out QHD screens. Full HD should only be considered if speed and performance are the only things that matter to you and you're opting for a smaller screen.
Response time measures how quickly pixels in a monitor can change colour. Faster response times result in less ghosting and motion blur, particularly when games are moving quickly during action sequences. TN panels, the fastest variety, can have response times as low as 1ms. We'd advise trying to get something no slower than 4ms.
Measured in hertz (Hz), refresh rate is the number of times a monitor can update and display a new image each second. A monitor running at 60Hz is displaying 60 frames per second. Higher refresh rates result in smoother gameplay experiences, but above a certain rate, many people cannot perceive the difference. 240Hz monitors have hit the market, but they're expensive and you'll struggle to run games at 240 frames per second on anything but the latest PC. In terms of price/performance balance, 144Hz is the current sweet spot – this is what you should aim for.
Contrast ratio is the difference between the whitest white and the blackest black. Most gaming monitors tend to hover between 1000:1 and 3000:1. When it comes to contrast ratio, higher is better because colours will be more differentiated; you'll see more shades rather than large uniform colour blocks.
G-Sync vs FreeSync
Screen tearing occurs when your monitor's refresh rate doesn't match the frame rate your PC is outputting; as an example, if your monitor is set to 144Hz but your PC is only running at 60fps, you'll notice stuttering and ghostly vestiges of old frames. G-Sync and FreeSync are competing technologies that solve this problem for you, automatically syncing your monitor with your graphics card. Which one you opt for should depend entirely on which graphics card you own. G-Sync is compatible with Nvidia cards, while FreeSync works with AMD cards. Match them.
Four things to consider
Measure your desk. It's easy to get carried away with the excitement of a flash new widescreen monitor, but always remember it needs to work in the space you have available. (And don't forget to account for the footprint of the display stand.)
HDR isn't quite there yet. Although current-gen consoles and most new TVs support high dynamic range (HDR), getting it to work properly on a PC isn't easy. You need a lot of grunt, and many PC monitors that claim to support HDR aren't bright enough to get the most out of it anyway. What's more, many new PC games don't even support HDR. It will ultimately become ubiquitous, but at this point, this might be a good area to consider skimping on and saving money.
Some monitors have in-built speakers. They're rarely amazing, but it's nice to have the option of playing without your headset or setting up external speakers if you're just having a quick session.
Consider what you're playing. A limited budget could force you to choose between performance and picture quality, so consider the types of games you play most. If fast-paced shooters or competitive multiplayer games take up most of your time, opt for speed. If you're drawn to cinematic narrative-driven games, go for picture quality.
David Milner is an award-winning games journalist, former editor of Game Informer magazine, and regular contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Embarrassingly, he only completed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the first time in 2019. Bloodborne is his favourite game ever.
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