Is capitalism in all its ghastly splendour is to blame? Or is it just us, we first-world punters, who have a problem with our priorities? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that, while parts of the world can’t get the basic human rights thing worked out, we’ve sure as hell nailed it when it comes to choice in the PC monitor market. 4K, adaptive-sync, 144Hz, curved screens, superwide aspect ratio – where to begin? And how can you end up with the right screen for you?
You see, I’m no latter-day socio-economic sage. But I can tell you which of this new-fangled monitor malarkey actually matters. So, who’s with me for some LCD-themed retail therapy?
As I perused the lovely new BenQ GW2765HT the other day, it did rather strike me that this was surely good enough. 27 inches. 2,560 by 1,440 pixels. A pitch-perfect IPS panel. And all for £275 / $375. I’m in.
BenQ’s GW2765HT is probably all the monitor you actually need
Hence the hand wringing and sudden surge of social conscience. Thing is, I also can’t deny that some of the latest monitor technology is rather tasty. It’s awful lot to keep up with, too. So here’s everything you need to know about all the latest screen-based stuff you can buy.
4K is now affordable. Affordable as in £300 / $350 for a 28-inch TN effort (don’t let the TN thing put you off, they’re great panels. Here’s our guide to the various different types of panel available, in case you’re not sure what TN even is) or even less for a 24-inch panel (check out this eye popping IPS Acer job from eBuyer, remarkable).
But here’s the catch. At this kind of panel size, you’ll probably need to change the scaling in Windows. That cocks up anything based on bitmap graphics – so that’ll be a lot of the internet. The benefit in terms of visual detail in games compared to a 27-inch 2,560 by 1,440 screen is marginal, too.
Hooray for 4K. Kinda
I do have a soft spot for 4K. But it needs to be something like the 40-inch Philips BDM4065UC, which is a bit of a bargain at a whisker over £500 / $800. Even then, you’ll need the mother of all graphics cards to drive the panel smoothly in all games. And you can forget about high refresh rates beyond 60Hz.
Status: Early adopter
As above, only worse. Some early 5K models with 5,120 by 2,880 pixels are now available for about £1,500 / $2,000. But that’s even more pixels crammed into a 27-inch form factor and even more work for your graphics card. Forget it.
Status: Somewhere, over the rainbow
Ultrawide 21:9 aspect monitors:
When the original 29-inch superwides appeared with 2,560 by 1,080 pixel grids, the downsides of the limited vertical panel size and resolution outweighed the cinematic upsides. But now you can get 34-inch efforts with 3,440 by 1,440 dots and that little bit more vertical space.
34-inch ultrawide screens like this AOC effort kick off around £525 / $700
No question, they’re glorious things for gaming and very usable for everything else. Critically, with five million pixels to the eight million of 4K, the GPU load is more manageable for affordable graphics cards. Pricing ain’t cheap at around £525 / $700 for something like the AOC U3477PQU. But as a long-term investment, it’s awfully tempting.
The downside is that they’re all limited to 60Hz and don’t support adaptive syncing tech currently. Or do they? Hold that thought.
Status: Premium priced but awfully pretty
As above, but curved. Yeah, curved! My instincts scream ‘gimmickry’. In practice, the wrap-around appeal is absolutely real. The downside is a slightly wonky feel when you’re not playing games. Oh and the aforementioned high-refresh and adaptive sync limitations apply.
Status: Great for games, a bit pants for everything else
High refresh – 120Hz-plus:
If there’s a single screen tech that’s making panel picking a pain, this is surely it. Once you’ve tried 120Hz-plus high refresh monitors, once you’ve experienced the silky smoothness, you just don’t want to go back to 60Hz chugatrons.
Problem is, attempting to combine high refresh with all the other good stuff like IPS panel tech, various screen sizes and shapes and indeed resolutions at best reduces your options dramatically. More likely, it usually just cannot be done.
Asus’s RoG: 144Hz but no IPS panel
To take one example, you can’t have 4K and 120Hz-plus as far as I am aware. And even if you could, imagine trying to drive eight millions pixels at 120 frames per second or more. It’s a non starter with today’s graphics cards. Likewise, even with a 2,560 by 1,440 monitor, you’re going to need one hell of a GPU to drive it at 100Hz or more.
Long story short, I remain hugely conflicted on this. I totally want high refresh. As yet, I haven’t been willing to compromise in other areas to have it.
Status: Glorious for gaming, but usually demands some kind of compromise
Adaptive sync tech:
Yep, we’re talking Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s Freesync. Last time I checked, AMD’s Freesync didn’t feel quite finished. Meanwhile, G-Sync does exactly what it says on the tin, but locks you into Nvidia graphics tech end to end.
Like high refresh, this is another tech that I can’t quite decide on. The benefits are real, if subtle. It does make gaming feel smoother and given the option, I’ll take it.
G-Sync genuinely works, but locks you into to Nvidia graphics
But it’s not an absolute deal breaker and I would buy a monitor without it if all my other boxes were ticked. Put it this way, if I had to pick between it and high refresh, adaptive sync would be sleeping on the floor.
Status: Nice extra. But not a must-have feature
Size and resolution:
Inevitably, there’s overlap here with some of the other categories. But if 4K is too many pixels, what exactly is the sweet spot? Those 3,440 by 1,440 34-inch panels are sweet, no question.
But in the real world, I think 2,560 by 1,440 is the best compromise between cost, detail and GPU load right now. 27 inches is where it’s at in terms of value, currently. That said, if you can find a 30-inch 2,560 by 1,600 panel at the right price, they’re super all-rounders, too.
As for big screens in the 27-inch-plus range with 1,920 by 1,080 pixel panels (AKA 1080p), I’m not feeling them. The pixels are big and ugly at typical PC viewing distances. Big enough to make games look a bit grainy and everything else look downright blocky.
Status: If in doubt, go with 27-inch and 2,560 by 1,440
Panel types – TN, IPS and VA:
We’ve been here before. But suffice to say that my preference remains with IPS. There will be exceptions. Those 28-inch 4K panels prove TN can look great. But IPS is still the best overall compromise.
Acer’s 27-inch Predator does 1440p, 144Hz, IPS and G-Sync in a single screen…
The latest IPS screens are quick enough and have fabulous colours. VA screens usually have response problems and sometimes wonky colours. And TN screens look sludgy and still lack really good viewing angles.
These are, as ever, brutal generalisations. If you could get the panel quality of the 4K TN screens in other form factors, I might change my tune. But you can’t. So it’s academic.
Status: Choose IPS
Buy a 27-inch IPS 2,560 by 1,440 panel for about £275 / $375