How to Buy a TV or Monitor For Gaming
No Time, Give Me The Quick Version
- If you aren't sure, then your current TV likely can't support 4K/120FPS content
- If you have a 4K TV made ~3 years old, then you're probably fine for 4K/60FPS.
- Ifyou are a competitive gamer, buy a monitor (lower input lag)
- Use RTings to find a displays with your desired specs
- Console games will likely not be rendered in true 4K/120hz, so keep your FOMO in check.
Firstly, I recognize that this article is low-hanging fruit: there's a million screeching Youtubers and mainstream media outlets like Vice and Polygon writing articles like this one. Their articles are chock full of amazon referral links ($$$ CHA-CHING $$$), and they usually rely on fear and ignorance of the audience to shill expensive and unnecessary upgrades.
But here's the thing: they all get this shit wrong. Repeatedly and consistently. So fear not: I'm not here to sell you anything. Instead, I will be giving you the tools you need to make informed decisions, and then give you short, concise recommendations based on specific use cases.
Secondly, I want to shout out RTings. I've sourced some of their images in this article, and in general, I've used their articles for my own edification and when buying my own gear. They are independently funded, so if you have the means, throw some support their way.
Before making any decision about what to purchase, it's important to understand the basic concepts of display technology so that you can make meaningful comparisons between displays on your own. The main concepts are covered in the subsections below:
Resolution refers to how many pixels are on the screen, often abbreviated to acronyms like "1080p", "4K", etc. Increasing the number of pixels on the screen allows you to discern more detail in any given image. See the chart below illustrating the difference in pixel count between the various resolution categories:
Refresh Rate (or "framerate")
The refresh rate of a display is the maximum amount of frames-per-second that the display supports, often expressed as "60hz", "120hz", etc. This affects the blurriness of objects in motion. When you have high refresh rates, objects will appear very clear and distinct while in motion. When refresh rates are low, objects will appear blurry and indistinct while in motion. To put it another way, think of frame rate like the number of pages in a flipbook:
When there are more pages in a flip book for a given animation, the animation will be smoother. When there are less pages, then the animation will be choppier. The refresh rate of a display functions on the same principal: animations will be smoother when the refresh rate of a monitor is higher, and vice versa.
Note that buying a high refresh-rate display will have little benefit if your games have low framerates. For example, if you only play Xbox One / PS4 games, it makes little sense to buy a 120hz monitor, since both consoles can only output at 60hz.
This marketing point is probably the most-talked-about, yet also the least-understood. It does not measure how fast the monitor responds to your mouse/controller inputs. Instead, it measures how fast a pixel changes colors. In practice, this affects how blurry an object appears as it moves across your screen, which is important for action-oriented games. See the image below, which is taken from RTings's excellent article on response time:
The object in motion is blurrier on the left because of the monitor's worse response time (33.3ms) than the monitor on the right (6.8ms). This metric is usually pretty easy to find in the advertising for a TV or monitor.
Input Latency (or "Input Lag")
This is the time is takes for the display to respond to your mouse/controller*. This is most important in action-oriented games, but frankly, a display with poor input latency feels awful with just about any game: it even makes navigating through menus an absolute chore. See below for an example of very high input latency:
Unfortunately, information about a display's input latency is difficult to find. Companies do everything they can to hide this information from consumers, and to make matters more confusing, input latency has very weak correlations to price: sometimes, very expensive displays will have high latency, while very cheap ones may be lagless. Therefore, you'll have to rely on independent sources for this information. Fortunately, RTings publishes their input lag test results, so you can check their database before you buy anything.
One final thing you'll need to understand is HDMI support. In order to achieve 4K/120hz, your TV or monitor will need to support HDMI 2.1. See the chart below on how the HDMI versions correlate to resolution and framerate:
|HDMI Version||Max Resolution||Max Framerate @ 4K|
The implication of this chart is that, if your TV or monitor is 4K, but only supports HDMI 1.4, then that means that you WONT be able to achieve 4K/60FPS. So double check the highest supported HDMI version before buying something, especially if you plan on purchasing the display for a console.
TV or Monitor?
A major decision you'll need to make is whether you want a TV or monitor. Historically, TVs are usually cheaper since they're more of a commodity, but at the high-end (i.e. 4K 120hz) TVs and monitors are equally, absurdly expensive ($1000+). Regardless, I think the most important factor is your use case:
- Do you need something big to sit in a living room? Or will it go on a table/desk?
- Do you strictly play console games? Or do you play PC games?
- Do you own a laptop? Or do you own a desktop PC and find use in a standalone monitor?
The one major advantage of a monitor, however, is that monitors usually have much better input latency than TVs. Your average monitor will have latency somewhere between 8ms and 30ms, while your average consumer TV (i.e. from Best Buy and the like) may have input latency anywhere between 30ms and 50ms.
I Need a Monitor
If you need a monitor, then you'll need to take note of the HDMI specification chart above, and you'll also need to decide on the type of "display technology" you want. Briefly, they're described below:
- IPS: has the best viewing angles and colors. Slower response times than TN panels, and usually more expensive
- TN: Fastest response times but colors change the most when viewed at an angle. Usually the cheapest
- VA: Somewhere in between IPS and TN. In my opinion, I wouldn't recommend these for anyone.
Note that if you have a somewhat high budget, you can "brute-force" your way to an IPS display that has fast response times and good input latency, so I'd recommend an IPS panel if your budget allows for it. The best way to decide between these three is to simply go to a computer store and check out examples.
What Do I Do With This Information?
With all of this information, you have a choice to make based on what matters to you (unless you have unlimited money, in which case you can buy a 4K/120FPS TV or Monitor and stop reading right now). You'll likely need to mix and match the following features based on your needs and what's important to you:
- Higher Resolutions
- Higher Refresh Rates
- Better Response Times
- Low Input Latency
- Supported HDMI Versions
- Extra Features (i.e. additional inputs like DisplayPort, Roku, Spyware Virtual Assistants).
You won't be able to maximize all of these features without spending a ton of cash, so read on for some general recommendations.
Armed with the knowledge that I've imparted to you, below you'll find my recommendations on what kind of display to purchase based on common use cases:
If you know for a fact that you'll be consuming 4K/120FPS content: purchase a 4K/120FPS monitor or TV with HDMI 2.1. Prices will $1000+, TV or monitor. PS5 and Xbox Series X claim that they'll support this kind of content, but I really don't see this happening, outside of a few games early on the console's lifespan as a "woweee look at what this new console can do!" kind of feature. But at the very least, you'll be future-proofed. Not recommended unless you also own a powerful PC.
If you consider yourself a gamer (primarily console), but not an extreme one: purchase a 4K/60FPS monitor or TV that supports HDMI 2.0. This should be MOST TVs made within the past 3-4 years, so you may not need to purchase one at all if you already own a 4K TV). Prices for 4K monitors should be fairly reasonable, too.
If you see yourself gaming a lot on both console and PC: buy a 1440p monitor with a high refresh rate, like 144hz. This is the sweetspot in terms of price/performance. 1440p offers clear benefits over 1080p, and isn't really that different from 4K. Plus, Xbox Series X supports native 1440p output, and will look great on a 1440p monitor (PS5 currently does not support 1440p, unfortunately). PC games also usually support framerates over 60FPS, so you'll see clear benefits from the higher refresh rate
If you are interested in gaming competitively (i.e. FPS games, fighting games, rhythm games, etc): buy a 1440p monitor with a high refresh rate, like 144hz, and do your homework on RTings.com to find one with low input latency. If your budget is high, you'll be able to get an IPS monitor. If not, you may have to settle for a TN monitor. Monitors usually have much lower input latency than a TV (at the cost of image quality), which is why I would not recommend a TV. I don't recommend a 4K monitor with a high refresh rate because those are very, very expensive.
Input latency is lowest when at native resolution and refresh rate. This is because the monitor needs to do extra processing to convert the image to a non-native resolution or refresh-rate. So, for example, if you'll be playing a lot of Super Smash Bros Ultimate, you may want to consider a 1080p/60hz monitor, since that matches the Nintendo Switch's native output.
Take notes of the manufacturer's warranty policy. Buying a TV is pretty easy: you can usually go to a physical store, pick one out, and return it if something goes amiss. But when buying a gaming monitor, you may have to resort to buying one online. Therefore, when things go wrong, you may be stuck talking directly to the manufacturer. Certain companies like MSI, ASUS, and Razer are an absolute pain to deal with, and some have asinine warranty policies. For example, ASUS believes that selling a monitor with 4 dead pixels is "acceptable", while I happen to think it's "illegal". Therefore, make sure you know what you're getting into, and what your rights are as a consumer.
Be wary of TV's that claim 120FPS. There are some TVs out there that CLAIM to support 120FPS content, but don't actually do so. They instead do something called "motion interpolation", otherwise known as the "soap opera effect", which is an algorithm that takes in 60FPS content and, using math and machine learning, inserts new frames into the content based on the differences between each frame. While this is admittedly cool piece of technology, motion interpolation is flawed because the frame it generates is an approximation, and more importantly, the entire process takes time to compute. Therefore, it adds a TON of input latency. So to ensure that your TV actually supports 120hz content, check for HDMI 2.1 support.
A Counterpoint: Will We Actually Get 4K/120FPS Games?
I need to make one final point before you all go out and by the newest LG ABCD696969 4K3D 120HZ TV. Recall that, during the previous generation (i.e. Xbox One and PS4), we were promised 4K/60FPS, and we never got anywhere NEAR that aside from some indie titles, or titles that were intentionally less-graphically demanding.
Then, when the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro came out, both companies were like, "OK No, for real this time, we gonna do 4K/60FPS", and yet both consoles STILL didn't live up to that claim: they often faked it using techniques like dynamic resolution (i.e. "up to 4K") or checkerboard rendering. Hell, the PS4 Pro barely even reached 1080p/60FPS for many popular titles (See God of War, which needs to run at 1080p to reach 60FPS).
I understand that character models and textures keep increasing in complexity, which eats into the resolution and graphics budget. And I also understand that there's marketing pressure to increase image fidelity over image fluidity, as it's hard to convey 120FPS via static screenshots.
Regardless, overpromising and underdelivering is not a new trend in this space. I vaguely recall being promised 1080p/60FPS as far back as the 360/PS3 generation, so it's slightly hilarious, and a little frustrating, that both Microsoft and Sony are promising 4K/120FPS when they haven't been able to deliver anything NEAR that this generation.
In short, keep your expectations low. Expect games to be rendered up to 4K/120hz, but for the majority of them to render far below that for the majority of the time, save for a few first-party, big-budget titles.
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