4K Monitors: Everything You Need to Know

Why it’s a big deal

Just like going from a 24-inch 1080p monitor to a 30-inch 1600p monitor is a life-changing experience, so is going to a 32-inch or smaller 4K panel. The level of detail you can see on the screen is surprising, and when you fire up Battlefield 4 for the first time, you’ll most likely be staring at the screen with your mouth open, and not just because the server dropped you again. Gaming at 4K looks simply incredible. And unlike television, where there’s a dearth of content, almost all PC games support the resolution, and some developers are even including higher resolution textures now, too.

Of course, both Nvidia and AMD are also pushing 4K because you need one hell of a GPU setup to push those pixels around. Since 4K is still extremely new and not quite ready for prime time, the hardware required to run it is in the same embryonic stage, which translates in layman’s terms to “almost there but not quite.” Even a GeForce GTX Titan with its 6GB frame buffer or a Radeon R9 290X and its 4GB frame buffer can barely eclipse 30fps at 4K with all settings maxed. Sure, you can turn down some of the settings and get a flagship GPU to run pretty well at 4K these days, but we’d rather castrate ourselves with a soldering iron than turn down the eye candy. We didn’t spend $3,500 on a monitor, or have our friends die face-down in the muck, to turn down graphics settings, so we’re not budging on that. With all settings turned up, gaming at 4K is truly cutting-edge, and is really the only application that currently stresses today’s crop of high-end GPUs, aside from a multi-monitor setup. Today, getting any single GPU to run 4K at the magical 60fps is not possible. There’s even a telling statement on the Nvidia website: “In order to power games at this resolution (4K) with settings turned up, NVIDIA recommends GTX 780 SLI or better.”

Is 4K 'Retina'?

First off, you have got some balls to compare a glorious 4K display to a marketing term such as "retina display." However, for the sake of argument, we'll humor you. As noted elsewhere, a 4K display can have as many as 185 pixels per inch (PPI), which is almost double what is found in today's 1080p displays. However, the term "Retina" as coined by The Jobs is usually more than 200 PPI for a notebook, and more than 300 for a mobile display. You see, a PPI rating's significance all comes down to how close you are to the display. Apple defines a Retina display as having enough pixels that the human retina can't distinguish between them, which is quite easy to pull off at a distance of 16 inches, but much less so at six inches. Therefore, mobile displays, which are held closer to your face, oftentimes have crazy-high PPI ratings. Interestingly, despite being the first to heavily push high-PPI displays, Apple has been out-Retina’d these days. The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a PPI of 441 PPI, and the Sony Vivo Xplay sits at an insane 490 PPI. The iPhone, with its rating of 326, actually isn't even in the top ten of high-PPI devices. Still, if you ask the average Joe, he’ll say Retina is better. The bottom line: At a far enough distance, everything is a retina display, because pixels are indistinguishable.

Go Big or Go Home

Full HD, Ultra HD, HD HD—what does it all mean?

HD 720p

A resolution with more than 700 horizontal pixels was the original “HD” resolution and was used to sell a zillion television sets the world over. On a 1600x900 20-inch display, you get a reasonable PPI of 92.

Full HD 1080p

After vanilla HD came Full HD, which cranked it up a notch to 1920x1080 resolution. Full HD is just a marketing term, though, as there’s no HD-sanctioning body. Full HD on a 23-inch panel delivers a PPI of 96, so, not much better than HD.

Quad HD

Though usually not referred to by its proper name, Quad HD refers to a panel featuring 2560x1440 resolution, which is four times the pixels of HD. A 27-inch panel at this res features a so-so PPI of 108.

Ultra HD

This is actual 4K resolution, meaning 4,000 horizontal pixels. It is four times the resolution of Full HD, and features a PPI of 144 pixels on a 32-inch panel. The term refers to how professional film is produced and projected though, so it’s not really a PC term since PC displays are slightly less than 4K at 3840x2160.

4K confusion cleared up

How to pick the right 4K monitor

It used to be easy to pick a monitor when your biggest decision was choosing between an IPS or TN panel, and your choice at the high end was either 24 or 30 inches. Today, it isn’t so easy. Besides the thorny question of whether to choose an IPS model for its superior color accuracy and off-axis viewing or going with a speedier TN panel, you now have to factor in very high refresh rates, pixel density, resolution differences, and even such technology as Nvidia’s new G-sync. We can’t pick for you, but we can help you make your decision.

As with all things in computing, there is no one-size-fits-all product. How much monitor you need depends on your specific usage. Are you a gamer? A content creator? A multi-tasker? On a budget, or a baller like Carlos Slim?

For a professional or advanced amateur editing photos or video, the color accuracy of TN panels still isn’t good enough. Today’s budget 4K panels, such as Dell’s $699 P2815Q or Asus’s $799 PB287Q, both use TN panels, so pixel peepers will want to move along. The Dell P2815Q also features a major flaw in that its refresh rate is limited to 30Hz at its native resolution. For professionals, the only real answer for now is to go big (and expensive) with the Asus 32-inch PQ321Q for $3,000, or go dense with the 24-inch Dell UP2414Q for $1,300. The Asus model uses an IPS panel from Sharp with indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) to help it pack the pixels so closely. The Dell is also an IPS panel, but other details of the panel technology have yet to be disclosed. Both will hit 60Hz, but you’d better have a gnarly GPU or two if you want to use these panels for gaming. The Dell’s pixel density is to die for, with 183 pixels per inch. That’s about double that of a standard 24-inch 1920x1080 panel. There are PC panels that are denser, but not in a desktop form factor. Remember: You’ll need bionic vision, too, if you intend to use these monitors without scaling cranked up a few notches, because windows and icons will look like miniatures—and we’re not happy with how Windows scales up right now.

That brings us to the refresh rate debate. For gamers, 60Hz IPS or TN panels are OK, but if you’ve ever played on a 120Hz panel with a powerful GPU pushing it, you know just how beautifully blur-free they can be. We dare say it, if we gamed more than we edited photos or videos, we’d take a pass on the lowly 60Hz panels. The problem with high-refresh monitors has been their pedestrian resolution of 1920x1080 in 24 inches. There are 120Hz 27-inch monitors as well, but their 1920x1080 resolution gives them a remarkably low pixel density of just 81 PPI. Asus thinks it has the gamer’s ultimate fantasy monitor with its new ROG Swift PG278Q. This 27-inch TN monitor has a respectable resolution of 2560x1440 and a refresh rate of 120Hz. While its pixel density doesn’t approach that of a 4K monitor, the 120Hz refresh may compensate for gaming purposes—for those with hefty GPUs.

For those with lesser graphics cards, though, the Asus Swift monitor also boasts Nvidia’s new proprietary G-sync technology. (The Titan, 7-series, and several 6-series are supported in G-sync.) This tech syncs the monitor’s refresh rate to the GPU’s rendering, translating to smoother and sharper images, even if the frame rate dips below 30fps. G-sync, of course, won’t work with AMD cards, but for gamers not hung up on color accuracy or off-axis viewing, the ROG Swift might be the ultimate monitor right now in the green camp. And yes, we know AMD has talked of FreeSync—the free method to sync refresh with GPU rendering. It’s just not clear if FreeSync will work with desktop monitors yet, although it is promising on laptops, which are typically fairly low-powered in the graphics department.

The Asus ROG Swift is the first 2560p monitor with a 120Hz refresh rate.

What about a 120Hz panel that also runs at 4K? That’s coming too, but remember that you’ll need an inordinate amount of graphics grunt to push twice the pixels of a single 4K panel.