By Jeremy Laird on September 23rd, 2013 at 12:00 pm.
It’s been a long, hot summer and there’s only so long one man can stare out over the Med and self-medicate-going-on-immolate on passable local vino (turns out that length of time is three weeks). The wi-fi was rubbish, anyway. So, I’m back with some regular updates on all things hardware related. And I’d like to kick off with 4K gaming. The best thing since the original bilinear-filtered graphics accelerators? Or, like stereoscopic 3D, just another over-hyped irrelevance that’ll give you a hurty head, an empty wallet and the sneaking suspicion that the tech industry is pathologically cynical? I’ve got the answers.
A bit of background
First up, let’s deal with what 4K means. In simple terms it refers to the number of horizontal pixels. Four thousand of ‘em. Geddit? Unlike 1080p and its 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, it’s not a rigidly defined grid. More of a ball park figure with around 4,000 horizontal and 2,000 vertical pixels.
Take my word that it’s not remotely critical whether you have slightly less or slightly more than 4,000 pixels across. What matters is that you have a shed load of them. In fact, you have four times as many of them as a 1,080p panel.
Indeed, for the PC, it’s precisely quad-1080p that appears to be the target resolution. So, that’s 3,840 by 2,160 and a grand total of 8,294,400 pixels. Yup, an eight mega-pixel panel. Within the industry, it what’s known as as an arse-load of pixels and it has all manner of implications – good, bad and possibly even indifferent.
But before we come to those, a quick final word on the quad-1080p thing. In some quarters (Alan, *cough*, you know who you are), there’s been some confusion over the veracity of the four-times metric. After all, it only has twice the pixels across.
Nvidia’s 3D Vision: As good as stereoscopic gets and still a cheap fairground gimmick compared to the wonders of 4K. Really.
You can see where this is going. But hopefully, you can also see we’re talking about geometric squaring and thus if you overlay a 1,920 by 1,080 grid top left on the 4k panel, then another top right and two more below, the result is precisely four 1080p grids therein.
Enough with the advanced non-Euclidean geometry. On to the image quality implications. This is actually a bit of a moving target given you can have 4K displays of wildly varying sizes. But we’re talking mainly about the PC and I can give you the low down on what the latest 31.5-inch 4K panels made for PCs are like.
Absolutely, monumentally, life-altering, cataclysmic, general-superlatively awesome is the short answer. The long answer requires some qualification.
For experienced high-res gaming hands, there is a significant delta between your first 4K gaming experience and 4K movie or video experience. And there’s a good reason for that. It’s because video content beyond 1080p is rare. Games rendered beyond 1080p are not rare.
Put another way, if you have a 2,560 pixel 27 or 30-inch panel, you’ll be used to gaming beyond 1080p. But you’re unlikely to have adjusted to anything beyond 1080p for video content. Because there isn’t much. 4K content, that is.
That’s why watching 4K video on a 30-odd-inch panel with outrageous pixel density blows your mind. It’s like looking through a window into an alternate reality that’s somehow sharper and more vibrant than the real world. More than anything, it makes stereoscopic 3D look like an utter crock.
As for games, much will depend on your experience. For me, the upgrade was a bit more incremental given my daily workhorse involves a couple of 2,560 panels. But the increased sharpness and detail is still absolutely tangible and immediately and utterly wantable. On the other hand, if you’re not suffering from 2,560-pixel fatigue, then I imagine the 4K gaming initiation will be like my 4K video experience. One of a small handful of permanent mental yardsticks.
Resource hogs like Company of Heroes 2 are just a teensy bit of a problem when you’re pumping 500 million pixels per second. Or at least trying to…
Of course, more pixels means a lot more screen real estate. That’s an easy and obvious win for desktop drudgery. But if any of your favourite games have complex on-screen menus, toolbars you can toggle or any of that jazz, a 4K screen just gives you a load more options, a tonne more breathing space.
A final note on image quality involves the possible downside of that crazy pixel pitch. On this subject, it’s tricky to be objective. For me it’s a non-issue in-game or on the desktop. If for whatever reason you suspect or know you struggle with high DPI displays, the simple advice is try before you buy. Not that buying is terribly realistic at this point. More on that momentarily.
The technical bit
With great image quality comes great, well, technical challenges. Most obviously, eight million pixels is an awful lot. And remember, we’re talking 30 frames per second on average as an absolute minimum for decent game play. Preferably 60 frames per second.
Do the maths and we’re talking 250 million pixels per second minimum, 500 million preferably, processed and pumped out to the panel. Honestly, the numbers are so huge, I can’t really make sense of them.
Anyway, the consequence is that there is no single graphics card that’s up to the job of driving the latest games on a 4K display at maximum engine detail. Even a pair of Nvidia Titans isn’t really up to the job. Three? Maybe. I didn’t try three.
In reality, you’ll get games running OK on a Titan (or AMD’s imminent new mega GPU) running reasonably well by turning down the settings a bit. But when you’ve just spent thousands on a graphics subsystem, that’s going to be hard to swallow.
The other issue is just driving the display in 2D terms. DVI can’t cope. Nor can a single HDMI link. Only DisplayPort can do it on a single cable. Even then, it needs to run in a special multi-stream mode to achieve 60Hz (trust me on this, running at 30Hz is total catastrophe) that causes compatibility problems with pre-OS imaging.
Triple-Titan action: Even three of Nvidia’s finest is marginal for max-detail gaming @ 4K resolutions.
In other words, your BIOS screen might be distorted or just invisible. You can switch to a lower res or 30Hz mode briefly should the need arise. But there’s currently a little clunkiness round the edges to be aware of.
But those are utterly piffling caveats compared to the major deal breaker, which is price. The screen I’ve played with is the Asus PQ321Q (you can get my detailed thoughts on that screen over three pages in the next print edition of PC Format mag, by the by) and it costs about £3,000. Which is preposterous and makes 4K look immediately irrelevant.
A number of other big brands including Dell are going to wheel out similar panels with similar pricing, which doesn’t help much. But there’s a possible alternative option. And that’s a 4K TV.
I’ve never been a fan of cheap HDTVs as big PC monitors. 1080p on anything beyond 24 inches means big, fat ugly pixels. But what about 4K on a 39-inch panel? I’ve not experienced that, but we’re talking roughly comparable pixel pitch to a 2,560-pixel 30 incher, so it seems promising.
Already, there are dodgy no-brand Korean 39-inch 4Kers in circulation, apparently for as little as $700. My understanding is that they don’t support beyond 30Hz in full 4K mode, which kills them as prospects for the PC. But the potential is obvious.
In truth, display pricing and graphics hardware are probably a year or two from being ready for anything even resembling the mainstream. And as soon as 4k at 60Hz is attainable, I’m going to want 4k at 120Hz. But let’s try to keep things a bit realistic. For now, if you have any appreciation of high quality visuals in PC games, you’re going to love 4K. Get saving!