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8K non-gaming and the importance of pixels

33 million pixels...

Yes, yes, I know 8K gaming is an utter irrelevance. Frankly, 4K remains a niche gaming resolution. But hang with me. 8K monitors are popping up from major manufacturers and with them the build-it-and-they-will-come logic of gaming at a preposterous resolution of 7,680 by 4,320 pixels. The fact that gaming at 8K isn’t really viable with current hardware is, up to a point, a separate issue. The mere possibility of gaming at a resolution fully four times higher than 4K begs the question of how much resolution matters and indeed how much it matters compared to other factors including refresh rate, response, colour quality, panel size and more. How important, truly, are pixels?

To quickly bat the 8K gaming thing into touch, it's a couple of 31.5-inch monitors from Dell and Philips that give rise to the notion. Dell, as it happens, cut the price of its 8K UltraSharp UP3218K to a mere $3,899 earlier this year. Both screens also require dual DisplayPort 1.3 connections, which is a bit of an ask.

Needless to say, running a modern game smoothly at 8K isn’t a goer with current graphics cards. Even the fastest current GPUs fail to nail every single game out there at 4K if all the eye candy is switched on. At fully 33 million pixels, 8K is four times the pixels of 4K and thus four times the load on your graphics subsystem. That's too much heavy lifting even for the strongest hardware.

And yet when Philips wheeled out its 8K 328P8K screen at the recent IFA trade show in Germany, it got me thinking. In all candour, it first got me thinking because I adore high DPI when it comes to general computing. I love my 40-inch 4K monitor, but I also love the font rendering on my high-DPI laptop and phone screens, and they both make my desktop monitor look utterly clunky in that regard.

But it also got me thinking about gaming panels on the PC. My personal instinct has usually been that pixels come first. By default, I want more of them and of better quality. Up to a point it’s a little hard to unpick where pixels start and broader panel quality kicks in. Is pixel response a general panel attribute, or exclusively to do with pixels? Likewise viewing angles.

Broadly speaking it’s fair to say there’s a tradeoff to be made between pixel count and other screen specs. The most obvious is refresh rate. Both pixel count (which you can also think of as the native resolution of an LCD panel) and refresh rate have implications when it comes to bandwidth. Every screen has a certain number of pixels and it takes a certain amount of data to describe the colour each pixel contains.

Is 1440p and 144Hz the sweet spot for most of us?

Every time the screen is refreshed, of course, that data is updated. Which is why, currently, you can’t have both a super-high refresh rate like 240Hz and a super-high resolution like 4K in the same screen. Existing video interfaces simply don't have the bandwidth to refresh the eight million pixels of a 4K monitor 240 times a second. That would be nearly two billion pixels refreshed per second. And that’s just the display connector. Your video card has absolutely zero chance of cranking out two billion fully rendered, pixel shaded, bump mapped, anti-aliased - whatevered - modern game engine pixels every second. 4K at 60Hz is half a billion pixels per second and that’s too much for most GPUs.

All of this may seem like an acutely first world problem - the inability to have one’s 4K cake and eat it at 240Hz. But it’s something that causes me genuine, if fleeting and somewhat superficial, anguish. As it is, I choose 4K for the benefits it brings for all-round computing. I like having the sheer screen real estate. But I do miss the slick, buttery responsiveness of a high-refresh rate monitor. Every time I have to knock a game down from 4K to 1440p to get smooth frame rates, I’m also reminded that my monitor is far from the optimal gaming solution.

Then again, for those games where I can achieve smooth frame rates at 4K, the detail and scale of the image is truly a sight to behold, and I find myself reluctant to give up on that for a little more smoothness and response in other titles. You could argue that it depends what kind of game you’re playing. Hair trigger shooter? You’ll want the refresh. Heavy-duty RTS game? Go with the pixels.

Of course, most of us want to play all kinds of different games and that means trade offs must be made. That said, there are other areas where I reckon those trade offs are less vexing. Sure, I’d prefer the sharper response of a TN panel when playing games, but IPS and VA panels are good enough and I much prefer the colour contrast and viewing angles. Likewise, while I appreciate the benefits of adaptive sync, I find the impact it has on gaming smoothness and response marginal when compared to running at lower resolutions and higher refresh rates.

As things stand, then, it primarily comes down to pixels versus refresh rates. Price plays a part, too. Upping either the refresh rate or the pixel count costs, there’s no avoiding that. Upping both while maintaining panel quality costs even more.

I suppose if my day to day life were a little more gamey and a little less worky, I’d lean 1440p and 144Hz on an IPS panel. That’s a pretty sweet spot to be in for all-round gaming. As it is I’m running 4K at 60Hz on a VA panel and I live with the numerous downsides in return for a few pretty spectacular upsides. But that’s me. What about you? Shout out below where you find your screen sweetspot and whether it’s pure preference or more a matter of price.

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