When putting together a gaming rig, we as PC gamers usually spending the most time obsessing over high-end graphics cards. But without a quality screen to go with it, we're not going to be getting the best visuals 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.
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.
There are three main types of panel technology: twisted nematic (TN), vertical alignment (VA), and in-plane switching (IPS).
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.
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. 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 later this year. 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 XB321HK right behind with their mega-wide aspect ratios.
The monitor landscape is moving pretty fast, and new panels will soon arrive, so we’ll make sure we take a look at the very best on offer. In particular, we're looking forward to testing the ultra-fast 240Hz Asus ROG Swift PG258Q, as well as the pair of upcoming 4K 144Hz displays that were unveiled at CES earlier this year: the Asus ROG Swift PG27UQ and the Acer Predator XB272-HDR, both of which are expected in Q2 2017.
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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