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4K monitors: Everything you need to know about UltraHD PC displays

Marco Chiappetta | April 9, 2015
It's finally time to get serious about 4K displays. Let's be honest, the first wave left much to be desired. Some had painfully low refresh rates while others were difficult to configure and get working properly. Prices were all over the map.

It's finally time to get serious about 4K displays. Let's be honest, the first wave left much to be desired. Some had painfully low refresh rates while others were difficult to configure and get working properly. Prices were all over the map.

The situation is much better today, thankfully, but moving up to a 4K display still involves some planning. Everything from the cable type to which applications you use most often can ultimately have a huge impact on your experience. Here's all you need to know before you splurge on a 4K monitor.

UltraHD resolution

First things first: UltraHD 4K PC displays, sometimes referred to as "4K2K" displays, pack a ton of pixels.

A FullHD display with a resolution of 1920x1080 has about 2.1 megapixels. A typical 4K PC display, however, has a native resolution of 3840x2160, or roughly 8.3 megapixels — that's double the resolution and approximately four times as many pixels. All other things being equal, 4K PC displays are capable of producing much sharper on-screen images.

The higher resolution also affords users the ability to view or edit 8MP (or smaller) photos and 4K content at native resolutions, without scaling. That's not a huge deal for most PC users, but for creative professionals hell-bent on accuracy, working with unscaled images is an exciting prospect.

For the most part, powering a 4K display won't be an issue for everyday computing tasks like browsing the web or working in office-type applications, even with today's integrated graphics solutions.

In some scenarios, however, having all of those pixels can pose a problem. Gamers will need a powerful graphics card — and most likely powerful graphics cards — to achieve playable frame rates at 4K resolutions.

In a relatively taxing game like Crysis 3, for example, even a mighty GeForce GTX 980 can only muster about 16 to 20 frames per second when high in-game image quality settings are used, whereas dual GeForce GTX 980 cards operating in SLI mode can break the 30 fps mark. As far as single cards go, only Nvidia's Titan X and AMD's dual-GPU Radeon R9 295x2 are capable of running modern games at 4K resolution at high — not ultra — settings. Even then, frame rates often dwelled above 30 fps, but below the 60 fps many gamers demand, depending on the title.

Older, less taxing games will be more accommodating. The use of variable refresh monitors supporting Nvidia's G-Sync and AMD's FreeSync technologies can also help games run more smoothly at lower frame rates.

Tiled displays and panel types

As with other PC monitors, the current crop of 4K monitors employ an array of different panel types: TN (Twisted Nematic), IPS (In-Plane Switching), and IGZO (Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide), with TN panels usually priced the lowest, followed by IPS panels, then IGZO.

  • TN panels are typically targeted at gamers or mainstream users and offer the fastest response times. Compromises in color accuracy or viewing angles, however, mean they're ill-suited for pro users.
  • IPS panels have very good viewing angles and color reproduction, but response times are somewhat slower than in TN panels. For comparison, Acer recently released separate 2560x1440 FreeSync and G-Sync monitors. The TN-based FreeSync display offered 1-millisecond response times, versus the IPS-based G-Sync display's 4ms.
  • IGZO panels feature a different transistor type in the panel's TFT backplane (versus more commonly used amorphous Silicon, or aSI) that offers better power characteristics and less mass, which is ideal for use in high-density displays like a 4K monitor.

 

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