As a PC gamer, you may spend a lot of time thinking about the guts of your computer – the CPU, GPU, and other performance components. However, all that computing power is presented to your senses as imagery on a monitor; that’s where the metaphorical rubber hits the road. There’s no point in having a kickass gaming machine if your monitor is going to butcher the experience.

So, if you’re a gamer and you want to use a monitor (as opposed to a television) in order to bring your games to life, what should you be looking for?

Why a Gaming Monitor?

The first thing we have to establish is whether you should buy a gaming monitor at all. Most of us use our computers for more than just one thing and any monitor can do all of those jobs to one degree or another. What’s important is to figure out if you are mainly going to use your monitor for gaming and whether there are other mission critical uses for it that could interfere with what you need from it.

For example, if you are a content creator you may need a color-calibrated monitor that won’t match other gamer-grade metrics. Of course, you can always have a multi-monitor system, but not everyone’s budget can stretch that far.

If you are mainly a gamer, then gaming monitors offer specific features that enhance the look and feel of your games, which we’ll get into next.

What Kind of Gamer Am I?

Within the community of gamers there’s a lot of variety. People play different sorts of games for different reasons. The needs of someone who mainly plays single-player RPGs is very different from someone who plays competitive eSports. So it’s important that you look at your gaming habits and what sorts of features you honestly need. Every gaming-specific feature in a monitor comes with a cost and some sort of tradeoff. There’s no point in paying for a feature you don’t want or need.

Refresh Rate

The “refresh rate” of a monitor is a measure of how many times the image on screen can be completely redrawn. Almost universally, the slowest figure you’ll see on any monitor these days is 60hz. That’s 60 completely new images every second. Monitor refresh rate is related to another very important number: frames per second.

“Frames per second” refers to how many completely new images are present each second in your content. A Hollywood film is typically made at 24 frames per second. Most console games aim for 30 frames per second and right now the gold standard for playability is the 60 frames per second mark, which is typical for PC gaming.

So what’s the connection between refresh rate and frames per second? Well, a monitor with a refresh rate of 60hz can’t display more than 60 frames in a second. So if your content is running at a higher framerate than the monitor’s refresh rate, you’re losing frames.

Does it matter? For competitive gamers who rely on split-second reflexes it can actually make a difference. This is why the gold standard for pro-gaming monitors is 144Hz.

Now, there’s more to it than just competitive advantage. Displaying more frames also leads to much smoother motion. So you’ll be treated to butter-smooth imagery as well. The thing is, 60Hz is already plenty smooth and eminently playable and there are some sacrifices those high-speed monitors make in order to hit those numbers.

Personally, my advice is to go for a 60Hz or 75Hz monitor if you’re someone who plays single-player games or multiplayer just for fun. If you are an absolutely hardcore gamer with a monstrous top-tier machine or play competitively where money is on the line, then those 144hz and 120Hz screens make sense.

Response Time and Input Lag

The “response time” of a monitor is basically how long it takes the LCD pixels to change state. In the bad old days LCD monitors had horrible response times, which lead to severe image ghosting. Gaming monitors typically have response times of between 1 and 5 milliseconds, with lower numbers being better. Five milliseconds is a perfectly fine number on a 60Hz or 75Hz display because at those refresh rates it only takes about a third of a frame for pixels to change states. However, on 144Hz displays numbers lower than 5ms are preferable, although it should still be fine in theory.

Input lag is a harder number to define and isn’t something you’ll see on a spec sheet. Input lag is the time it takes from where the monitor received the signal from your graphics output to where it shows that information on screen. Display devices have to process the signal they receive and this takes time. The more processing the monitor does, the more lag is introduced. This is a problem that televisions suffer from to a greater extent than computer monitors, but gaming monitors often have some sort of “game mode” that strips away some image processing to reduce lag, but at the cost of image quality. If you are considering a particular monitor, search for input lag tests for that model to see whether it has noticeable issues.

razer gaming monitor

Panel Technology

All LCD panels use technology that works according to the same basic principle, but there are different approaches to LCD technology that deal with different issues in a variety of ways. It’s pretty important to know the most common LCD panel technologies, because their characteristics can have a severe effect on the image beamed to your eyeballs.

TN or “twisted nematic” panels were at one time the only practical LCD monitors for gamers. That’s because they’re relatively affordable and also have some of the fastest response times possible. So there’s no ghosting at all. The main sacrifices are significant, though. TN panels have the worst color reproduction, poor viewing angles, and a generally inferior picture. For absolutely hardcore, response-dependent competitive gaming there may still be a place for TN panels, but other technologies with much better picture attributes have been catching up, so there isn’t a strong argument for these panels anymore outside of those specific gaming contexts.

VA or “vertical alignment” monitors can have very high refresh rates and are superior in terms of contrast, showing the best blacks. However, their response times are quite poor relative to other panels technologies. This has been improving, but there are still issues with image ghosting in some cases. If you care about image quality over fast response times (e.g. you play gorgeous RPGs) then VA panels may work for you, but it’s not the best choice for gamers.

The last choice is IPS or “in-plane switching” displays. These monitors have great response times, good color reproduction, and good contrast – certainly much better than TN and comparable to VA. The main issue here is that IPS panels can’t hit those high refresh rates, with 60Hz or 75Hz being typical. Personally, I think IPS monitors should be the go-to choice for non-competitive gamers who want a great balance between performance and image quality. The only additional downside to IPS screens is that they’re comparatively expensive, which is why you’ll also find them in premium devices such as the latest iPads.

Gaming Vertical Sync Technology

Remember when I said that the FPS and refresh rate of a monitor are related? Well, there’s more to that story. You see, if the refresh rate and FPS of your media isn’t matched properly, it can lead to some nasty visual artifacts. The most common one is “screen tearing”. This happens when the graphics chip sends a new frame to be drawn before the monitor is done drawing the current frame. So you’ll see part of one frame and the next, out of alignment.

This often happens when the game is running at a higher framerate than the display can handle. The solution to this is “vertical sync”, which lets the graphics hardware and monitor speak to each other so that frames are synced to the monitor refresh. There are downsides to this. It can introduce latency due to buffering, and with some implementations can cause massive frame drops if the frame rate goes out of a defined range, with no middle ground.

To address these issues there are two technologies – one known as Gsync and the other as Freesync. A monitor and GPU that both support the same iteration of these technologies can keep everything in sync, while also dynamically adapting to the framerate. This is a feature well worth having.

Gsync only works with Nvidia cards. A select number of Freesync monitors also work with some Nvidia cards. AMD cards only work with Freesync monitors. Of course, you can mix and match any monitor and GPU and it will work, it’s only these syncing features that need careful matching of hardware and software. When buying a gaming monitor, watch out for the presence of these technologies and be aware of what your current hardware supports.

Aspect Ratio

These days you have an absolutely massive variety of choices when it comes to the shapes and sizes of the gaming monitors you can buy. The first attribute we should tackle is “aspect ratio”, since this influences the other two numbers fundamentally. What is an aspect ratio? It’s the ratio between the length and width of the display.

For a long time, the standard computer monitor aspect ratio was 4:3. That meant for every four horizontal units of length, you’d get three vertical units of length. In that ratio you’d get a screen only slightly wider than it is tall. The only place this aspect ratio is prominently in use is with the Apple iPad. Older TV content and games from the pre-HD era are usually designed for this ratio.

The most common aspect ratio is 16:9, which most people know as “widescreen”. Almost every laptop, computer monitor, and TV uses this aspect ratio. Most modern TV shows and many films are made in 16:9.

We are now also seeing an increase in 21:9 monitors, which are usually referred to as “ultrawide” screens. This is the same aspect ratio used with many blockbuster films that are “anamorphic”. These anamorphic films show without black bars on an ultrawide screen, with both 4:3 and 16:9 content exhibiting them.

While ultrawide monitors might not be great for watching anything but anamorphic content, they are excellent for modern gaming and productivity. You get a lot of horizontal space, making the need for dual-monitor setups a thing of the past. The wider screen ratio also works a treat with games. Unfortunately, support for ultrawide screens is still hit-or-miss even with new games, although there’s usually a patch or tweak to get around the issue.

Screen Size

Screen size is measured diagonally, which means you can’t compare sizes between different aspect ratios. A 29” ultrawide screen has about the same actual surface area as a 27” 16:9 monitor. So keep that in mind when buying. What size you prefer is really a matter of taste. Many pro gamers make use of high-end 24” panels with insane refresh rates and almost no latency. 27” 16:9 screens are still pretty popular for general-purpose gaming, but ultrawide monitors are gaining ground. There 29” is a mainstream size, with 34” ultrawide monitors representing the elite gaming bracket. The bigger the screen, the more immersive the experience, but costs can climb quickly as you pile on the inches.

Asus gaming monitor

Resolution

The last attribute is the resolution. This is the actual number of pixels the monitor can display. The more pixels, the more detail. The same resolution on two screens of different sizes will yield a grainier image on the larger screen because the pixels are more spread out. This means you need to sit a bit further back if you do notice.

Resolution is a crucial consideration for gamers. It’s always best to render games at the native resolution of the screen. However, running games at higher resolutions puts a lot of load on your hardware. So when you buy a screen, you need to be sure that your computer can render the games you want to play at good enough frame rates.

At the time of writing, there is no single GPU setup that will drive a 4K game at 60 frames per second. So gamers should really avoid 4K screens for gaming purposes, unless they are happy to live with the fuzziness of non-native resolution gaming. The sweet spot seems to be “2K” screens, with resolutions such as 2560×1440 pixels. Ultrawide monitors with 2560×1080 resolutions also fall in this category. Most mid-range cards work swimmingly at these resolutions.

Monitors for Consoles

While most console gamers will simply use an LCD television for their gaming needs, it is possible to use a computer monitor instead. After all, TVs and monitors use the same connection technology and standards. While computer monitors tend to be smaller than TVs, they usually have much less input lag and sharper picture quality up close. Plenty of people don’t have the space for a large TV, so using a sub-32” monitor makes a lot of sense.

There are some things you need to think about in this case, especially if you are buying the monitor just for the use of the console, rather than sharing one between your computer and console.

First of all, ultrawide screens and consoles are a poor combination. No current consoles support the ultrawide aspect ratio. So you’ll end up either with a horizontally stretched picture or two black pillar boxes on either side of the screen.

You also need to consider what to do about sound. Most monitors do have a headphone out jack, so you can hook up any PC speakers. There’s also the option to buy a monitor with built-in speakers, but these are almost always junk.

Seeing is Believing

Monitor technology has come such a long way that if you haven’t bought anything for years, you’ll be blown away by how beautiful displays now are. This progress is showing no signs of stopping, either. While LCD technology still rules the roost, we might see true LED screens at some point in the future. High-end OLED TVs are starting to come to market, which means that we may one day soon have the option of buying OLED monitors – something which might address just about all the respective weaknesses of the different LCD panel types.

Until then, the information above should get you something very pleasing to the eyeballs indeed, which simply leaves you to enjoy your games as best possible.