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A resolution revolution is on its way. Ultra HD televisions and monitors are finally starting to drop to reasonable prices and that, of course, means a lot of gamers are thinking about buying one for their PC.

The appeal is obvious. Higher resolution means sharper, more detailed graphics. More pixels can mean more problems, though, and 4K monitors still aren’t cheap. Has Ultra HD matured, or is it still too much money for too little benefit? I spent a month gaming at 4K to find out.

What Your Money Will Buy

In August of 2013 I wrote an article warning readers to stay away from 4K displays Should You Buy A 4K / Ultra HD Television? Should You Buy A 4K / Ultra HD Television? About a decade ago, manufacturers started to sell what's now widely known as an HDTV. But now HD is old news, so the industry has decided to push another new technology; Ultra HD, also known... Read More . Some of the problems that I addressed then, such as poor scaling in Windows, remain, but prices have fallen drastically. Back then a quality 4K monitor would set you back over $1,000, and even spending that much would only net you a display that, in terms of color accuracy and features, was merely on par with 1080p and 1440p monitors sold for half the price.

What a difference a year makes. There are now several reasonably affordable 4K monitors, and some are barely more than 1440p sets with roughly equivalent image quality. Here are the current standouts:

  • CTL X2800: $549
  • Samsung U28D590D: $609
  • ASUS PB287Q: $649
  • Acer B287HK: $699
  • Acer XB280HK: $799

It should be noted, as well, that these listings are MSRP. Monitors frequently go on sale for up to a hundred dollars less than list, so you might be able to snag a solid 4K monitor for under $500 this holiday season. That’s still a lot, but these are all 28-inch monitors. Even budget displays of this size (which make do with 1080p) are barely south of $300.

acerxb280hk

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Lower prices have gone hand-in-hand with an increase in quality. While enthusiasts might balk at the fact many 4K monitors use a TN-panel Understanding The Differences Between LCD Display Panels [Technology Explained] Understanding The Differences Between LCD Display Panels [Technology Explained] Read More , they offer color accuracy and contrast that’s near that of the best IPS-panel alternatives. These monitors also use a single display panel (rather than two placed side by side, as in early 4K models) and support a 60Hz refresh rate. Poor viewing angles are the only downside.

For reference, the displays I used for gaming at 4K were the CTL X2800 and the Acer XB280HK. The latter is unique because it has Nvidia G-Sync, a technology that ties the monitor’s refresh rate with the output of a compatible Nvidia video card. Doing so eliminates stuttering and frame tearing.

A New Look For Older Games

Most reviews about gaming at 4K focus on new and demanding games like Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4. That’s understandable. Better textures and graphics will benefit from a higher resolution, right? Everyone knows that. You might be surprised, however, by what 4K can do for older games.

It’s important to note that by “older” I’m talking about titles like League of Legends and Diablo 3. These games are popular, but they aren’t demanding, so it’s not hard for a modest video card to produce smooth gameplay at 3840×2160.

diablo3-4k

These games also have a well-defined style that looks great at high resolutions. Gaming at 4K reduces the prevalence of anti-aliasing artifacts and makes fine detail more visible, which means art assets have a chance to really shine. League of Legends’ characters, for example, start to look less like 3D models and more like finely detailed sprites drawn from an infinite number of perspectives.

Upgrading from a 24″ 1080p display to a 28″ 4K monitor can provide an obvious visual upgrade without any other hardware involved. This is good news for players who enjoy gaming but don’t care about the latest graphical showcases. Upping isn’t just for twitch-happy FPS gamers – it’s for everyone.

Like Crysis 3? Prepare To Spend!

With that said, 4K resolution still imposes serious limitations on the average computer. I spent most of my month on an Nvidia GTX 780 Ti and then, after its release, a GTX 980. I’ve also tested 4K gaming on the Titan Z and Radeon R9 295X2. These are the pinnacle of modern gaming hardware, but they can still struggle to handle 4K.

In my experience no single video card can run Crysis 3 at an average of 30 frames per second with detail set to very high and resolution set to 3840×2160. There are some review sites with test loops that show the GTX Titan Z barely cresting over 30 FPS, but only by a handful of frames.

Even two GTX 980s in SLI will generally fail to hit a 30 FPS target, never mind the 60 FPS ideal. You’ll have to throw money at a very exotic 3-way or 4-way multi-card gaming rig for a chance of 60 FPS in the world’s most demanding games.

And it’s not just Crysis 3 that’s a problem. I spent a fair amount of time playing Shadows Of Mordor on the GTX 980 at 4K resolution and high detail. This, I think, is an important benchmark 4 Free Game Benchmarks That Will Make Your PC Scream 4 Free Game Benchmarks That Will Make Your PC Scream Graphical quality is still a big deal in the PC gaming world. The newest computer components have raw power and taking advantage of that power can be difficult. Fortunately, there are some game demos that... Read More because it’s at the cutting edge of cross-platform game development. My results aren’t good news for PC gamers. While the game averaged between 35 and 45 FPS in most situations, at times it suffered dips into the 20s that created noticeable stutter in otherwise smooth gameplay.

What it boils down to is this; while monitors are becoming less expensive, the hardware needed to drive them is not. If your motto is “60 FPS or bust,” and you want to play the latest 3D games, you’re going to need a dual-GPU setup that costs at least $1,000. And you’ll still need to turn off a few detail settings in the newest games.

Better Bring Your Bifocals

Image scaling The Basics of How to Properly Resize Images in Photoshop The Basics of How to Properly Resize Images in Photoshop Read More is a problem that plagues 4K monitors to this day. Windows doesn’t handle the resolution well. Text is too hard to read comfortably and legacy programs look ridiculously small or, if enlarged, become a blurry mess (which defeats the point of a sharp 4K display).

Games suffer from similar issues, though to different degrees. Diablo 3 felt quite well prepared for 4K. The game’s many icons looked good at the resolution and all interface elements rendered at a readable, usable size by default. I also saw no issue in Battlefield 4, Crysis 3 and Shadows of Mordor.

shadowsofmordor4k

League of Legends, however, had some problems. Most of the user interface, including the shop interface and mini-map, appeared extremely small by default. The game was far from unplayable on a 28″ display but occasional squinting was required.

The same issue appeared in the massively multiplayer game Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Even its largest interface scaling preset, which renders everything at 140% of normal size, is inadequate. That makes sense given that 4K serves up four times the pixels of 1080p. While the game was playable, some text elements were extremely hard to read and interface icons suffered a blurry look.

4K Gaming Is Still Flawed, But It’ll Blow You Away

All of this no doubt sounds gloomy. Gaming at 4K is still a costly proposition and some games won’t run at 60 FPS, even on an expensive dual-card rig. Worse, certain games are more difficult to play at 4K because of interface scaling issues.

These negatives should not be ignored. I can forgive them, however, for one simple reason; playing my favorite games at 4K was at times a breath-taking experience. Increasing the resolution provides a level of detail that’s unobtainable on a 1080p or 1440p display. Even Diablo 3, a game that’s hardly one of the PC’s most graphically impressive titles, looks incredible. I have no desire to return to 1440p and will only run back to lesser resolutions in games that average below 30 FPS at 3840×2160.

Today’s affordable 4K displays provide a tangible, immediate improvement in image quality to all 3D games that support the resolution. They also don’t suffer from the serious issues that plagued the very first models. Upgrading remains a difficult decision, but choosing to make the leap is now at least a valid choice, and one that provides immediately noticeable results.

Are you thinking about upgrading to a 4K display? Have you already made the jump? Tell us about it in the comments!

  1. Rafael
    November 15, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    You really aren't enjoying 4K unless you watch 4K on it's native resolution. The only way to do that is with a 126inch 16:9 monitor .. 4K is a really big resolution, meant for big displays. However, by using a smaller display format and cramming those tiny pixels natively into a 28inch monitor increases the DPI of the monitor considerably. I think gaming at 4K is just overkill, what's going to happen when 8K comes out? bigger is only better up to a point where it begins to become ridiculous and unnecessary.

  2. Luke Carter
    June 2, 2015 at 12:10 am

    i run my games in 4k on my tv with a evga ftw 970 (factory overclocked). On the witcher 3 i hit about 25 FPS. now, i know that's not alot - infact its an appalling frame rate considering i normally wouldn't be satisfied with a game unless it was at least 70/80 - but the 4K experience is so worth it. i was absolutely blown away (and still am) by the amount detail you can see. i know it seems stupid limiting yourself to less than console FPS but remember you've got ultra settings, and 4 times as many pixels. it's an amazing visual experience and it drastically improves my gaming. and to be honest, after 20 minutes of game play i don't even notice the drop in FPS. but that's just me - i guess at the end of the day it just comes down to preference. resolution vs FPS.

  3. Kosiostin
    April 24, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Well, I bought the uhd monitor for productivity mainly and I dont expect to game at 60hz with my r9 290. First of all, the resolution looks crazy sharp on a 24 inch monitor and browsing/reading text is basically on par with the experience on mobile devices which have by far outpaced PC in terms of resolution. There are some scaling issues but I really dont find them that annoying. I have a 1080p minotor hooked up as well, and the main problem is the scaling on the second monitor is bad as the text looks blurry when I increase the dpi on the uhd monitor, but I hope this will be fixed with W10.
    Even though I can only play older games smoothly on max settings, GRID 2/borderlands 2/even dark souls 2 looked amazing on 4k. The amount of detail you can see is astonishing. I hope I can play on mid settings the Witcher 3 as I definately enjoy the benefits of higher resolution.

  4. Nate
    February 10, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Jazza is correct. Their are many factors that weigh on FPS - specifically if you're using display port or HDMI 2.0

    I don't have experience myself with a 4K - Yet... however, I do work with some super tech guys in a data center and we have conversations about it quite often.

  5. george
    December 29, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    I can't even play games at 2K 2560x1440 with an I7 and 450 dollar graphics card.
    Plays nicely at 1920 though. I was just reading this article to see if 4k would help with my day job of programming. Worried 4k would leave me squinting. I think for now, just stick with three 2k monitors. Anybody using a 28 inch 4K out there for software development?

  6. JazzaAU
    December 27, 2014 at 8:13 am

    I use a MSI GTX 970 with a Samsung 4k moniter and I can EASY get above 60 FPS on demanding games ,
    The forest Mediam to high graphics: 63-70
    War Thunder Maxed: 60- 72
    BattleField 4 Mediam to high: 60 and above
    The trick is the cable, HDMI and DVI cables can work with 4k but only at 30hz, DisplayPort cables however are different. They can run 4k at 60hz

  7. Jasper van Straaten
    December 25, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Well just recently purchased a Asus PB287Q and hooked it up on my computer. Bare in mind, im running a overclocked 4770 with 32 gigs of ram on a asus sabertooth. The gpu in this machine is an EVGA GTX Titan Superclocked.

    One thing that i have noticed is when you turn off Anti Alias (wich you do not need at 4k) most of the games run just fine. Im getting 60 fps constant in games like CoD: Advanced Warfare and what not. Once you begin to tweak settings to lets say ultra and such, this is where you are gonna notice some issues in frames. Far Cry 3 and Battlefield with the settings set to ultra and the render resolution set to 4k (Geforce Experience thingy) becomes unplayable with barely hitting the 30 or even the 20 fps...

    I'm gonna replace my GTX Titan with 2 EVGA GTX 980's to see if that makes any difference...

    Just my 2 cents.

    With kind regards,

    Mercylèss - Jasper van Straaten

  8. Andy
    December 17, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    I just got a 4K TV as my monitor yesterday, and even at 4K, Diablo 3 didn't look all that different, some menu/static image details were better yes, but I was hoping for more real estate on the map during gameplay... of which you get none really, it just scales to the resolution. I want to see 100 yards around my character!
    To me, 4K gaming (blizzard games anyways) wasn't worth it. I think I'd be happier with a good 1440p monitor instead and maintain better FPS.

    As far as Windows GUI, it was mostly good. There are some issues with cursor scaling and text rendering, whether I was at 30Hz 4:4:4, or 60Hz 4:2:2.
    This is powered by a GTX 660, 2GB, which does actually allow for 4K 60Hz over HDMI now. Must have been an update at some point that allowed this. Although it does suffer a bit viewing 4K videos or a lot of action in games.

  9. tikitots
    December 13, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    It is worth it! I just built my new Rigg: 2x sli 980gtx, Intel I7 x5960, Samsung UD590 4k monitor.
    To be exact: 4k = 4,000 dollars or more.
    I always build a new PC about every 4 years. This is by far the biggest jump in technology I've come across. Its beautiful. I belive its a bigger deal than moving from 720p to 1080.

  10. mark r
    December 12, 2014 at 3:44 am

    next year is going to be very exciting for 4k gaming in terms of hardware. We will see hardware that will let you play games at 60 fps while not burning a massive hole in your wallet.

  11. Alberto
    November 14, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    The Benchmarks I have looked at show that GTX 970 on its own does not have enough gpu power to play some games at an acceptable framerate (over 30 fps) at máximum resolution on a 32 4k monitor. So far the best combination would be 780 ti SLI or 980 SLI. My comment is based upon what I have read. I have not had any experience so far with 4k.

    • 4k60
      November 23, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      He said 970sli. It also comes down to your cpu. An i7 4970 oc with dual 970 oc will destroy games at 4k60.

  12. andrew
    November 6, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    I just ordered a 4k monitor. Is 30fps playable? Benchmarks with similar test settings are showing I'll be getting 30-60 fps at 4k in most games with my twin GTX 970's

    Is 30fps even playable?

    • John
      December 17, 2014 at 2:55 pm

      Yes. It may not be as smooth as 60fps, but it's still smooth enough to be playable. You might have to spend an hour to get used to the fps though. I've played some games at 25fps before, so 30fps is definitely playable.

    • Alex
      February 24, 2015 at 11:17 pm

      I know this post comes a bit late based on the date of the comment but I don't want others to make my mistake. I cheaped out and bought a dell 4k monitor with a 30hz refresh rate. With vsync off to get more than 30 fps, there was so much screen tearing that my eyes began to cross. I sed it for 3 days and upgraded to the asus 60 hz 4k monitor. If you're going to drop the money for a computer that will game in 4k buy the monitor to do it right. It's 100x better.

    • Frank
      April 24, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      With a nvidia G sync capable monitor it is i'm currently using 2 gtx 970 at 1.5ghz

  13. Emalie
    November 3, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    I'm going to hold off and wait until there are massive patches and a price drop before I do anything regarding 4K resolution when it comes to PC gaming. I'm happy with 1080 resolution for now.

  14. KT
    October 27, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    Any info on how Open GL Linux handles 4K? I like the Nvidia 3rd party drivers, but I doubt they could handle the task.

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