4K monitors burst onto the scene a few years back. When they first started showing up in stores and on online retailer websites, they were going for exorbitant prices. In the years since their release, though, they have come down in price considerably. Yet, despite lower prices on 4K monitors, people still really aren’t using them for gaming that much.
So, in this article, we’ll dive into why that may be and whether or not 4K is worth it for gamers.
More Pixels, More Money, More Problems
Right now, there are affordable 4K monitors available on Amazon for as low as $200. Yet, according to Steam’s Hardware Survey, only about 2.5% of Steam users are using a 4K monitor. 1440P monitors fare quite a bit better with just under 11% of Steam users using a 2560×1440 monitor. Overall, right around ~75% of Steam users game on a 1080P or lower resolution monitor. 1080P monitors themselves are used by about 65% of Steam’s user base.
But, with the price of 4K (and 1440P) monitors dropping, why aren’t more gamers chomping at the bits to upgrade their pixel count? The answer, in my opinion, is twofold. First, while 4K and 1440P monitor prices are dropping in general, the cost to get a system that can run them properly is still fairly high. And, second, newer monitor features have emerged that gamers have found to be more beneficial to their gaming experience than having a higher resolution monitor is. Those are, namely, higher refresh rates and variable refresh rate technology (G-Sync and FreeSync.)
Higher Resolutions Result in Lower Framerates and Unhappy Competitive Gamers
With the rise of eSports, competitive gaming has never been more prominent than it is now. And, as today’s most-played games are more about the competitive aspect of the game rather than how detailed the graphics are, it is only natural that gamers have not opted for the higher resolution panels that could actually harm their in-game performance.
That’s because, while higher resolution monitors are dropping in price, the cost of the hardware necessary to run those higher resolution monitors at the level of frames-per-second that most gamers require is still pretty high.
And, the other problem is that a lot of today’s popular titles aren’t really games that benefit from playing at a higher resolution. You don’t really gain anything significant by playing League of Legends, or Rocket League, or Fortnite, or Overwatch on a 4K monitor. These aren’t games that are designed to be visually-pleasing (although, of course, they can be.) They’re designed to offer highly competitive gameplay.
So, while those types of games are easier to run on higher resolution monitors, there really isn’t an advantage gained by doing so.
And, then you have games like PUBG (as an example), that release so poorly optimized that adding any kind of extra demand on your system to run it (like running it at higher resolutions) can put you at a disadvantage. Even pros and popular streamers run competitive titles on lower settings—despite having insanely high-end gaming PCs—because of the advantage (or, rather, the lack of a disadvantage) that having more framerates in the game offers.
All this really boils down to is the fact that, the average modern gamer is probably either mainly playing games where a higher resolution monitor offers no advantage, or who don’t have the budget required to support 4K gaming. And, so, for competitive gamers, they aren’t going to spend an exorbitant amount of money getting high-end systems that can run their favorite games at ultra high-definition resolutions, when there is really no advantage to be gained by doing so. And, for budget gamers, they don’t have the thousands of dollars that are necessary to buy the kind of hardware that is needed to run games on a 4K monitor.
Someday in the near future, next-generation GPUs will be able to handle higher resolution gaming as easily as today’s GPUs handle 1080P gaming. And, when that day comes, 4K monitors will supplant 1080P monitors (and, then we’ll be talking about why nobody is gaming on 8K monitors.)
Higher Refresh Rates Offer Real In-Game Advantages for Competitive Gamers
The other thing that is holding back gamers from opting for higher resolution monitors, is the fact that newer monitor features and technology have emerged that are more beneficial for gamers than playing at higher resolutions is. And, those features and technologies are namely, higher refresh rate panels, and variable refresh technology, like G-Sync and FreeSync.
Again, with the rise of competitive gaming, performance has trumped visual effects. And, as a result, the features that can help improve in-game performance have been adopted by more by competitive gamers than has monitors with higher resolutions.
For G-Sync and FreeSync, we’ve done a couple of pieces on both of the technologies (here and here) that go over the benefits of the two technologies, but the basic gist of what they (and higher refresh rate panels) provide is that they make games run much more smoothly. For casual gamers, the difference of running games on a 60Hz monitor versus running games on a 144Hz G-Sync monitor may not be that noticeable. However, for a competitive FPS gamer, the difference can be night and day.
Just like higher resolution monitors, though, higher refresh rate monitors with either FreeSync or G-Sync come at a premium and are much more demanding to run. The difference, though, is that the premium that they come with and the more demanding nature of running them is actually something gamers are willing to pay for.
For instance, for competitive eSports titles, there is more of a performance advantage to be gained from running a 1080P 144Hz FreeSync monitor (as low as $200), than there is in running a ~$200 4K 60Hz monitor.
Ideally, gamers would get monitors that have both a high resolution and a high refresh rate. And, some do opt to go that route. But, again, the disadvantage there is a hit to performance. For instance, 1440P 144Hz monitors and 1440P 240Hz monitors are actually more demanding to run than 4K 60Hz monitors. And, they typically cost more, too.
So, while 1440P 144Hz+ monitors are kind of the pinnacle of gaming right now (although, 4K 144Hz monitors are starting to enter the scene), they’re not viable options for most of the same reasons laid out above (namely, high costs associated with the hardware necessary to run them, and the difficulty in pushing them to a level where they don’t hurt your in-game performance.)
But, 1080P monitors with higher refresh rates and either FreeSync or G-Sync technologies offer a nice balance between the price they come in at, and the actual performance advantage they offer for modern competitive gamers. That is why 1080P 360Hz monitors are currently getting adopted faster than 4K monitors are.
So, ultimately, where higher resolution monitors have failed to deliver a better experience in competitive games, higher refresh rate panels with G-Sync/FreeSync have given competitive gamers something they can actually utilize.
Who 4K Monitors Do Make Sense For
If you’re a gamer that really isn’t into competitive titles, but who prefers more visually-immersive games, then a 4K monitor might be a better option for you.
While the gameplay of most eSports titles can’t really be improved by playing them on a higher resolution monitor, games that are story-driven and rely just as much on the visual elements and surrounding world as they do on the gameplay can actually be enhanced by playing on a higher resolution monitor.
These are immersive games, where the more you can get immersed in them, the better the experience will be. And, so, the added detail and like-like picture quality that a 4K monitor can offer can really bring these types of games to life.
So, purely from a gaming standpoint, 4K monitors make the most sense for individuals who prefer to play games that have stunning visuals.
Is Gaming on a 4K Monitor Worth it for You?
Ultimately, whether or not you should get a 4K monitor will first depend on the kinds of games you play and on the budget you have to spend on both your monitor and your system’s hardware. If you are serious about playing competitive eSports titles, you would probably benefit more by getting a more affordable 1080P 144Hz monitor.
If you don’t have the budget to buy the high-end gaming computer that will be necessary to playing today’s top games on a 4K monitor, again, an affordable 1080P monitor would be a better option for you.
However, if you do have a powerful system (or the budget to get one) and you like playing visually-immersive games, then a 4K monitor would make sense for you. In the end, 4K probably isn’t currently the best resolution for gaming in the grand scheme of things, but for some users, it can definitely deliver an enhanced in-game experience.