For PC gamers, the most important component is the graphics card we choose to jam into our machines. But without a quality screen to go with it, we're not going to be getting the best out of that GPU. So what makes a "gaming" monitor worth the money? What makes it better than the average LCD? We tested more than a dozen monitors to find the best, with the right balance of resolution, refresh rate, color quality and viewing angles.
One of the great things about displays is that, unlike graphics cards where their life span is usually a few years, a good display can keep you going for the better part of a decade. With such a long lifespan, it pays to get something you’ll be happy with for years to come. We put together a list of the technologies and features we want in a good gaming display, with choices for a variety of price points. We cover our testing criteria and 'what to look for' below.
Note that this guide has not yet been updated to account for the new monitors shown off at CES 2017. Look for a comprehensive update in the coming months once we've had a chance to test some of them out ourselves.
The best gaming monitor
- Combines 1440p with 144Hz refresh rate, overclockable to 165Hz
- G-Sync eliminates screen tearing and need for V-Sync
- Extremely fast refresh, low input lag for an IPS screen
- Requires an Nvidia graphics card to use G-Sync
The Asus ROG Swift PG279Q is the best gaming monitor you can buy right now. For years, gamers have been forced to make a choice between picture quality and refresh rate. Cheaper, faster TN panels delivered fast refresh speeds up to 144Hz, while IPS screens offered more vibrant colors and dramatically better viewing angles, but at much slower refresh rates. But as monitor technology has improved, there's now a handful of monitors available that pair an IPS screen with a 144Hz refresh rate.
The PG279Q is a 27-inch monitor with a 2560x1440 resolution, which we currently consider the sweet spot for high-end gaming. It offers substantially more pixels than 1080p without being as demanding as a 4K panel, meaning games look sharp at 27 inches but won’t bring a good GPU to its knees. Plus, you can still get higher than 60Hz refresh rates, which isn't possible on the current crop of 4K displays. You can also comfortably run at 100 percent scaling in Windows, something that isn't always desirable with 4K panels.
The best FreeSync monitor
- IPS, 144Hz, 2560x1440
- Very good picture quality out of the box
- Cheaper than competing G-Sync monitors
- Adaptive refresh range is only 35-90Hz
- No blur reduction mode
Right now there's really no competition for the Asus MG279Q: this is absolutely the best monitor for AMD users who want a FreeSync display. It's a 1440p IPS screen that can refresh up to 144Hz, like our favorite monitor above. But because it uses the open FreeSync technology instead of G-Sync, it doesn't cost as much (though price differences have narrowed of late).
Thanks to that IPS screen, colors look great even from off-angles. The base is sturdy (and allows for lots of tilting, pivoting, and height adjustments) and the bezel is fairly thin, which is nice for a 27-inch monitor that’s already taking up a good deal of space. Like most other gaming displays, it also has a light anti-gloss coating, which I like; some older IPS displays went too heavy on the coating and affected image quality, but the MG279Q doesn’t have that problem.
The best 1080p monitor for gaming
- Fast and affordable
- Supports 144Hz and FreeSync
- Uses a TN panel
- Some reports of FreeSync issues
Sometimes you're forced to make compromises, like not being able to run at high resolutions or maxed out image quality on older graphics cards. For displays, one of the biggest compromises is often giving up features in order to save money. You don't have to lose out on everything in pursuit of lower prices, however, as the AOC G2460PF still supports up to 144Hz refresh rates and FreeSync, all on a 24-inch 1080p TN display.
Finding a great budget gaming display is difficult, and the AOC G2460PF may prove more than a little controversial. It's not the nicest looking display, and the TN panel gives washed out colors compared to the IPS panels we've selected elsewhere, but the inclusion of 144Hz refresh rates makes this a better choice for gaming than most 60Hz 1080p displays.
The best 4K monitor for gaming
- IPS display offers vibrant colors and good viewing angles
- Large enough to appreciate 4K resolution
- G-Sync eliminates screen tearing
- Requires an Nvidia graphics card to use G-Sync
- 4K gaming requires a ton of expensive GPU power
Let's face it, gaming at 4K is a premium endeavour. You need a colossal amount of rendering power to game at decent frame rates and such high resolution. Even the high-end GeForce GTX 1080 fails to consistently produce 60+ fps across all games—that pursuit is better founded with twin 1080s at your disposal. With that in mind, it seems fitting that a super-powerful rig should have an equally exquisite monitor to match.
A good 1440p screen will generally offer around twice the frame rate of a 4K monitor because of the demands it puts on your graphics card (assuming you're playing at native resolution). So, is a G-Sync 4K monitor worth the money or the effort?
The Acer Predator XB321HK answers that question with a resounding yes. At 32 inches, the XB321HK gives you enough screen real-estate to actually put its 3840x2160 4K UHD resolution to good use. (There's also a slightly cheaper 27-inch variant in the XB271HK.) It's also an IPS display, so colors are vibrant, regardless of your viewing angle.
The best widescreen gaming monitor
- Extra wide curved screen is immersive
- IPS panel provides beautiful colors and viewing angles
- 100Hz G-Sync enabled
- Extremely expensive
- 3440x1440 resolution requires beefy GPU
If the price of your display isn't a critical factor, or if you simply want the best monitor you can buy, the Asus ROG PG348Q belongs at the top of the list. It's an absolutely stunning display, with an ultrawide 3440x1440 curved IPS panel. Still not content to end there, the display also features G-Sync technology with up to 100Hz variable refresh rates. If you're looking for something to really turn heads, this is the best widescreen gaming monitor. And boy, is it wide.
The 34-inch span across its diagonal is measured with a 21:9 aspect ratio (even though it's technically 21.5:9). It's the same height as the XB270HU but almost a third again as wide. The native resolution is a nice compromise as well, since it's not as demanding as 4K. More importantly, it's a dramatic change to your gaming experience—in a good way.
How we test gaming monitors and others we tested
The search for the best gaming monitor is a tough challenge. There's no perfect screen, and there's a whole lot of exciting new technology being squeezed into current monitors, so finding a panel that combines everything is an impossible mission. A mission so impossible (because 70’s TV shows have taught us there are gradations of impossibility), we might need to get Leonard Nimoy and Tom Cruise on the case.
You might be reading this on a slow, dull, washed-out TN panel. Our eyeballs are lazy, and they quickly become used to whatever panel they're looking at. Why upgrade? Because a good gaming monitor will improve your gaming experience just as much as a new graphics card. And it will last longer.
Seeing Doom or Rise of the Tomb Raider running on a high-res, 144Hz G-Sync or FreeSync IPS display will make you question why it's taken you so long to make the change. A great panel will likely outlast your entire PC. Possibly twice over. I've got a decade-old 2560x1600 HP LP3065 30-inch panel that's still going strong, and in some ways I prefer it to the modern 28-inch 4K and QHD displays.
There are three main types of panel technology: twisted nematic (TN), vertical alignment (VA), and in-plane switching (IPS).
The Asus RoG Swift PG278Q has a 1ms pixel response, 144Hz refresh rate and instant-on capabilities. It’s the fastest gaming screen in existence. The 2560x1440 panel uses Nvidia’s G-Sync technology to smoothly sync the panel's refresh rate to the graphics card's. Paired with a GeForce GPU, this is the best gaming monitor around.
But the AOC U3477Pqu has a stunning IPS panel and an utterly immersive and vision-filling 21:9 aspect ratio. With a native resolution of 3440x1440, it’s crisper and more vibrant than the Swift’s weaker panel, and when you’ve got proper widescreen content it’s more dramatic than anything else. There are still some issues with ultrawide screens, however, like the need to fiddle with custom resolutions in some games.
What to look for
There are three key items of interest for any gaming monitor. First is the native resolution, but while it's tempting to simply assume that higher resolutions are better, that's not always the case, particularly outside of gaming use. 4K displays for example require seriously powerful graphics cards to run games at higher quality settings at their native resolution, and when you're at the Windows desktop, sometimes the resolution ends up looking a bit too fine. That means you'll need to use DPI scaling, which still isn't a perfect science. And sometimes it's better to step down a notch on resolution in order to get other features.
One item that you have to experience to fully appreciate is high refresh rates. 60Hz was the standard for LCDs for so long that many became blind to its drawbacks, but before the LCD switch, gamers often sought after better refresh rates. I remember owning a 21-inch 1600x1200 CRT back in the mid-90s that had an 85Hz refresh rate, and when I finally upgraded to a 1920x1200 60Hz LCD, the drop in refresh rate was immediately noticeable.
Now we have 144Hz and higher LCDs, though, and even without G-Sync or FreeSync, such displays are preferable to 60Hz panels. Even running at a static refresh rate of 144Hz, for gaming purposes the lower latency and faster updates (screen updates every 6.9ms instead of every 16.7ms) covers a multitude of sins. Gamers all know about disabling V-Sync to reduce latency, but that can cause noticeable image tearing. Here's the thing: tearing with a 144Hz refresh rate is far more difficult to detect, and the pixel response times often make it a non-issue with a 144Hz display.
That brings us back to resolutions, though. 4K generally means giving up high refresh rates...or at least, it does until the next generation displays arrive with DisplayPort 1.3 support. The best current 4K displays are going to be G-Sync or FreeSync, but we should see true 120Hz 4K panels with DP1.3 late this year or early 2017. Just don't be surprised if the price premium is massive.
The final item is the panel technology. TN panels traditionally have the fastest response times, but colors and viewing angles are the worst. IPS is at the other end of the spectrum, with great viewing angles and colors, but they cost more and response times may be slightly lower. In between those two is VA, which offers great contrast and colors, but again slower response times. We're working to do additional validation and testing of gaming displays to really see how fast they are. OLED is another panel type that we'd love to see in more gaming displays, but it can be prohibitively expensive. Dell's UP3017Q is a 4K 120Hz 30-inch OLED that should be out this year, which ticks all the right boxes. It's a real beauty, judging by CES 2016, but it will sell for $5000. We can dream, right?
Testing gaming monitors
There are two main ways to test out our screens to determine the best gaming monitor. The first is by playing games on it, obviously. Subjectively testing the gaming performance of each panel isn’t necessarily going to give you the lowdown on the specifics of a particular screen, but it will let you test the functioning aspect ratio, native resolution, and any particular gamer-centric technologies they’re sporting.
Side-by-side comparative testing in this manner is also incredibly valuable for keying into the sometimes subtle differences between each panel. When you use a screen in isolation it’s easy to become blind to its comparative faults as you simply get used to them. Testing screens back-to-back allows us to discover and highlight specific issues between them.
Objective testing can be great, but it's also far more difficult. To do it properly, you need hardware for testing the true latency, color accuracy, and other metrics. Most gamers don't have access to any of this, but you can do a semblance of objective testing using the LCD calibration pages here. This site offers several test screens you can bring up on any web connected panel to make some qualitative assessments. The days of actual retail space for such things are dwindling, but if you can get a look at a screen before purchasing it, plugging a notebook or such into it and checking out the Lagom pages is very handy.
We tested a huge range of monitors to get a bead on the best panels to recommend, so we can be confident in our choice of the best gaming monitor. We think a gaming monitor is a serious investment, and it's worth spending money now on a great display rather than 'getting by' with a lesser option. A good display will make your gaming experience better and still be great years from now.
Obviously this isn’t a complete list of every single monitor available—not by a long shot—but we’ve covered a wide variety of different panel technologies, sizes, aspect ratios and manufacturers. Right now the Asus PG279Q/MG279Q represent our top choices, depending on your graphics card, with the Asus PG348Q and Acer XR341CK right behind with their mega-wide aspect ratios. But we’re still waiting on the perfect panel.
For my money that would be a 21:9, 40-inch IPS panel, running at 144Hz with either G-Sync or FreeSync capabilities—a guy can dream, right? I like the idea of a larger (taller) display, because I used a 30-inch 2560x1600 display for years and moving to a 28-inch 4K panel actually felt a bit like a step back. And if money is no object, and I mean really no object—keep an eye out for the upcoming Dell UP3017Q, a 4K OLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate and DisplayPort 1.3 support. It should be out within the next few months, but try not to choke when you see the $5000 MSRP. But hey, we remember when 50-inch 720p plasma displays set you back $20,000.
The monitor landscape is moving pretty fast, and new panels will soon arrive and we’ll make sure we take a look at the very best on offer. If there are some we simply must check out, let us know in the comments. We'll be updating this guide as we game on new screens.
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