Fri. Mar 31st, 2023
The state of 4K gaming in 2015

4K, or UHD as it’s also known, has come a long way since the Asus PQ321 monitor launched in 2013 for an eye-popping $3500 (~£2300). can cost as little as £350 (~$500), provided you can handle lesser TN panels rather than their usually superior, but much more expensive IPS and IGZO counterparts.

Aside from the benefits of a larger workspace or greater sharpness with desktop scaling, the PC – not the console – is the only place you can game in native 4K, and at a distance where such high resolution makes a visible difference .

While you can technically play almost any PC game in 4K, this puts a huge strain on resources. Despite huge advancements in GPU technology, 4K is still the domain of the enthusiast, where £500 (~$700) graphics cards are almost necessary to run the latest games. That’s not to say you can’t play in 4K with a mid-range card, but it all depends on the sacrifices you’re willing to make on display quality and frame rate in exchange for all those extra pixels.

Hitting the magic 4K at 60 Hz

For many people, myself included, part of the fun of playing games on a PC is a smooth frame rate of 60 FPS or higher, something the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 struggled to achieve at just 1080p. While budget GPUs like Nvidia’s GTX 750 Ti do an admirable job of 1080p60 in many games, even high-end cards like the GTX 980 can struggle with 4K at 60 FPS. For a solid 60 FPS, an SLI or Crossfire setup is the way to go. The folks at Digital Foundry tested high-end single-card solutions with a range of games on high and ultra settings, with only the $1000 Titan X managing to hit an average frame rate of over 60 FPS in some games. Note that’s one average frame rate. As the proud owner of a Titan X and a 4K monitor, I experience drop-downs as low as 30 FPS while playing.

Sadly, for team red fans, AMD’s high-end R9 290X is still a long way from even that level of performance, which is no surprise considering the card is based on the company’s rapidly aging Hawaii architecture from 2013: only available in Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare manage to get more than 60 FPS. Those wanting an AMD card for 4K would do best to wait for the company’s long-awaited architecture refresh, which will reportedly be released later this year in the form of the R9 390 and 390X. The advent of high-bandwidth memory (HBM) may enable single-GPU 4K gaming, but we’ll have to wait for a new AMD graphics card to arrive at Ars Orbiting HQ for testing.

Moving to a Crossfire or SLI setup will give you the performance you need for 4K gaming, but there are some trade-offs aside from the higher cost.

More GPUs means more heat is dissipated from your PC case, which can affect the performance of other components, especially if you’re using cards that vent air into the case and you’re not pushing enough air through the case to heat up. You also need to ensure that your power supply can handle the increased power consumption of multiple GPUs, while also ensuring that your motherboard and processor provide enough PCIe lanes for the number of cards you are using. This isn’t much of an issue for two- or even three-way setups, but for those determined to use four GPUs – despite the declining performance return – or M.2 SSDs, keep in mind that the latest Nvidia cards are at least an 8X slot to work in SLI.

AMD's R9 295X2 with its two GPUs is ideal for 4K gaming.
Enlarge / AMD’s R9 295X2 with its two GPUs is ideal for 4K gaming.

At around £500 (~$620), AMD’s R9 295X2 (which combines two R9 290Xs on a single card) is the cheapest dual-GPU option, and it works wonders in 4K for Crossfire-optimized games, although you’ll need to to make room for its 30.7 cm length and 120 mm water-cooling radiator, and to meet strict power requirements for its monstrous 500 W TDP. A pair of GTX 970s will give you similar performance for around £530, and at just 165W TDP per card. Keep in mind that the famous VRAM issues are starting to take effect when gaming at 4K, resulting in increased frame time variation and hence the dreaded microstutter, thanks to the much larger textures being loaded into memory.

However, there are some steps you can take to improve performance. Of course, lowering the texture resolution and expensive effects like HBAO+ will give you a few extra frames. If you’re not keen on image quality, turning off antialiasing is a good option. AA is not only one of the most expensive post-processing effects you can use, it’s also one of the least noticeable when gaming at 4K, thanks to its intrinsic effect of high pixel density smoothing out irregularities.

If you can live with 30 FPS, a single GTX 970 or higher paired with a decent quad-core CPU and fast SSD will suffice.

What should I pay attention to with a 4K monitor?

While you won’t currently find a panel that operates above 60 Hz (at least until they ship with DisplayPort 1.3 or higher), you can choose from a range of manufacturers and panel types.

In general, TN gives you the best gray-to-gray response times in exchange for poorer color reproduction and viewing angles, while the opposite is true for IPS, which gives you great color reproduction and viewing angles, but higher response times.

Also keep an eye on the input: until recently, few 4K monitors were equipped with the HDMI 2.0 ports necessary for 60 Hz. This isn’t so much of an issue for the PC, where DisplayPort is king, but it’s worth thinking about if you want to add a 4K streaming box or similar later on.

Acer's 4K2K line of 4K monitors has cheaper TN panels.
Enlarge / Acer’s 4K2K line of 4K monitors has cheaper TN panels.

Beware of 4K monitors which can actually be two 1920×2160 screens stitched together. This was common in the early days of 4K when the required scalers were not available. While these monitors work well because they use DisplayPort’s Multi-Stream Transport (MST) standard, this reduces the number of monitors you can connect to your PC. They also don’t behave well with games that pin menus and UI elements to a particular screen, where they end up looking squished.

Finally, there’s variable refresh rate technology to consider. This matches the screen refresh rate to your game’s frame rate, eliminating artifacts such as screen tearing when v-sync is off, and juddering and input lag when it’s on. Nvidia brands its technology as G-Sync, while AMD’s is called FreeSync. Both have their positives and negatives, but overall, Nvidia’s technology results in an overall smoother experience, thanks to the way it handles lower frame rates. Given how difficult it is to run 4K games at 60 FPS, variable refresh rate technology can deliver excellent results, giving you much smoother gameplay if you’re running above 30 FPS but below 60 FPS.

Right now the only 4K monitors you can buy are G-Sync models, but Samsung will be releasing a range of 4K monitors with FreeSync in the coming months.

By akfire1

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