What to Look for in a Gaming Monitor

Looking for the perfect monitor for gaming? There are a lot of great gaming monitors out there, and we’ve covered what’s out there extensively in our myriad guides to gaming monitors. And that’s great if you just want to know what’s on the market, but it won’t help that much if you don’t know all that much about the specs and features that can affect your gaming experience. That’s what we’re going to cover here. We’ll provide you with an understanding of what to look for in a gaming monitor and provide all of that in one convenient guide.

Panel Type

What It Is

How monitors have been manufactured. There are three different panel types, and the panel can affect both the cost of monitors and how many models there are with specific gaming features. The real balancing act is that between resolution on one end and and refresh rates and response times on the other. Make sure when picking a panel type (as well as when evaluating any other pretty specs) that you don’t pay for more than your PC can handle or throttle the capabilities of its graphics card or central processor by investing in monitors that can’t perform.

What to Expect

  • TN panels are the cheapest and most common type of panel used in gaming monitors. Poorer resolution and color reproduction means they don’t look as good as the alternative monitor options, but they’re the cheapest and most prevalent monitor panel type available. And their high refresh rate and low input lag makes TN panels the best choice for competitive gaming.
  • IPS panels are the polar opposite in terms of both pricing and specialization. While IPS panels tend to not excel regarding the specs that focus on gaming performance, they look beautiful. You may pay a premium, but they offer wide viewing angles, wonderful color reproduction, and support for higher resolution. They’re great for couch co-op sessions, immersive roleplaying games, and monitors intended to double as your TV.
  • VA panels fall in between the other two types. They generally offer middle of the road balance between performance and graphical fidelity that falls between IPS and TN panels. They’re also comparably priced to IPS panels. But where they lead the pack is in terms of contrast ratio. That means that they’ll look great in a variety of different lighting and offer a superb distinction between light and dark.

Screen Size

What It Is

This will probably be obvious to most gamers – but just like with watching movies, monitor gaming can be enhanced by a larger screen size. Larger screens mean a lot more real estate for the sort of sumptuous and detailed gaming experience a AAA developer can provide, but it also means higher costs for these gaming monitors.

What to Expect

Relatively modest sizes actually dominate gaming monitors. Game performance is generally better on smaller displays, because it takes less time to read what’s happening in your gaming experience. The one question you need to look at before shopping is how far you sit away from a monitor when gaming.

  • 24-inch gaming monitors are the most prevalent size around, and they arguably make the best gaming monitor for competitive play because they allow you to get a feel for your environment with a quick look while still offering enough graphical fidelity to pick out details. The capacity to look at the corner of the screen easily is especially valuable to players who value performance over immersion, and it makes a 24-inch model ideal for competitive gamers. They’re perfect for people who sit three feet or closer to the monitor.
  • A 27-inch gaming monitor offers the same rough balance of immersion vs. awareness that a 24-inch monitor does, but they’re better suited for gamers who prefer to sit between three and four feet from their monitor. And since they’re one of the most common monitor sizes for gaming, you can usually find one that will suit your budget and come with the features you need.
  • If a 24-inch or 27-inch monitor is the perfect choice for competitive gaming, larger screens are ideal for single player games or MMOs that make the most of high resolution. The most common sizes available for a gaming monitor are 32-inch and 34-inch and you’ll generally find them to have some quality features, especially as far as adaptive sync technology and gaming color modes are concerned. Since it’s recommended for people who sit more than five feet from the monitor, viewing angles will be more important on a larger monitor.
  • Curved screens are also becoming increasingly common. They allow you to get more usage out of a larger monitor, but they’re also available in smaller monitor sizes. Some pros swear by them, but their actual value is still a bit of an open question.

Resolution

What It Is

Resolution simply refers to the number of megapixels that can be packed into your monitor. More megpixels means greater detail on your favorite content. Resolution is often denoted in a format like 1920 x 1080 (where the numbers represent horizontal and vertical megapixels) or a format like 1080p (where only the vertical megapixels are listed).

What to Expect

As is usually the case with a gaming monitor, the right resolution comes down to a balance between fidelity and performance. You need a graphics card and a CPU that can keep up with your monitor if you want to make a step up to a higher resolution. Resolution also offers diminishing returns the smaller a monitor gets, so the ideal resolution for a monitor will be highly predicated on the monitor size.

  • Full HD, also known as 1920 x 1080 or FHD, is the most common resolution that you’ll find in a gaming monitor. They can’t meet the standards of what your new living room or console TV might have, but they’re appropriate for most screens and offer a great amount of balance between value, performance, and refresh rate.
  • 1440p, also known as QHD usually has a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels. For most monitor sizes, a 1440p monitor is going to be the practical luxury option. It may be a (comparatively) iterative step up from FHD, but it’s also the highest resolution where you’re going to see a measurable difference in most sizes of gaming monitors. If your monitor is 35-inches or smaller, 1440p should be all you need.
  • 4K, also known as Ultra HD, UHD, or 3840x 2160 isn’t unheard of in gaming monitors, but it is specific, and it won’t really be a feasible choice for most gaming monitors. We really only recommend it for larger monitors and console gaming TVs.

Refresh Rate

What It Is

The refresh rate is distinct from the frame rate, but the numbers correspond directly. Measured in Hertz, refresh rate tells you how many times per second your monitor updates its buffer. Although they’re rated the same way, the distinction is that you won’t see the frame rate your graphics card can actually render if your screen doesn’t refresh enough times a second to keep up.

What to Expect

If you want a high refresh rate, you’ll probably need to make a sacrifice in resolution, and vice versa. That said, there’s a decent variety of refresh rates supported by game monitors. You’ll want to make sure that your computer can keep up with the refresh rate per second, and it can be incredibly valuable in competitive play.

  • The lowest refresh rates we recommend for a gaming monitor are 60 Hz. Fortunately, you’d be hard pressed to find a model that doesn’t offer 60 refreshes per second.
  • 120 Hz rates are a big step up from the more common and traditional 60 Hz refresh rates, but they aren’t that prevalent. That said, it’s still a high refresh rate, well priced for what is offered, and it’s capable enough for even a lot of competitive gamers.
  • 144 Hz is where the refresh rate tops out for most gamers – even competitive pros. At this point, performance even on high end games is super smooth, and any performance pros could get beyond this would be negligible in terms of actual reflexes. Since they generally come at a comparable price to 120 Hz models, they’re significantly more common.
  • If you absolutely need a higher resolution than 144 Hz, there are some monitors that offer a refresh rate of 240 Hz. That said, even more advanced game rigs have trouble keeping up with that refresh rate. It’s the best of the best, but you should really only look at these models if you’re trying to future proof your setup.

Response Time

What It Is

Response time tells you how long it takes your monitor to switch back from black to white and black again. Since it’s measured in milliseconds, it’s often not even discernible, but response time is one of the bigger considerations you should pay attention to, and that’s especially true when playing competitive games.

What to Expect

As we said, response time is pretty much negligible except in gaming, but it’s critical with games. A higher response time means more lag and ghosting, and that means you’ll have a harder time being accurate, especially in split second moments. That said, these types of monitors offer some variation in terms of response time, and the panel type you choose will have the biggest impact on what you can expect.

  • If you mostly prefer single player experiences and don’t need to worry about hair trigger reflexes, a rate of around 5 milliseconds should be just fine, but more casual gamers can get by even with a rate of up to 7 milliseconds (though we generally don’t recommend it).
  • 3 milliseconds or less is our general consideration for more competitive gamers. Whether you’re into first person shooters, fighting games, or MMOs, a response time of 3 milliseconds will be more than enough for the vast majority of players.
  • 1 millisecond response times are the holy grail. They’re available in some TN panels and often aren’t even that expensive. They probably aren’t really needed unless you want every absolute edge you can get, but they’re unlikely to be surpassed in a noticeable level any time soon.

Input Lag

What It Is

The final component in the performance trifecta is input lag. Hypothetically, it provides you with an understanding of how quickly a monitor recognizes the input from a device like a mouse, keyboard, or controller. As with response time, input lag is measured in milliseconds and the results of input lag will feel instantaneous to most users, even when at high levels. But they’re going to be another consideration in competitive play.

What to Expect

A lot of confusion, generally. There’s no real standardized measure for input lag, so it largely falls on dedicated reviewers to test out the equipment and provide you with actionable specs. While many manufacturers will list an input lag level, it’s typically done in ideal conditions, and it might not be the level of lag you can tolerate if you’re trying to push things with a 120 Hz refresh rate at a high resolution.

But in general terms, we can tell you what to look for in a gaming monitor in terms of input lag. 10 milliseconds is the highest listed input lag you’ll see for most monitors, but gamers should look for something that’s no less than 5 milliseconds. 3 milliseconds or less is a level of performance that should satisfy you no matter how serious you are.

Adaptive Sync Technology

What It Is

A frame rate that’s too low, or even a frame rate that’s too high, can cause some serious issues like screen tearing and jagged edges. And this can be particularly noticeable on screens that optimize performance, leading to blurred edges and a lack of clarity in terms of graphics. Adaptive sync technology can help with that by adjusting the frame rate depending on the demands on your computer and your monitor – getting you better performance out of specs that aren’t quite good enough.

What to Expect

Two options, both of them pretty comparable. Hardware giants AMD and NVIDIA make practically all of the graphics cards on the market (apart from integrated units like those offered by Intel), and they each make use of their own adaptive sync formats. While they use different techniques, they generally achieve the same goal of reducing screen tearing, and they’re generally both equally good at accomplishing that. Adaptive sync can provide a monitor with a big boost to value for games, but you’ll definitely want to make sure that tech is compatible with your PC.

  • NVIDIA G-Sync is only available when paired with a computer that uses a NVIDIA GPU. But since those are the most common GPUs used in PCs and laptops, they’re a natural choice for a monitor attached to a gaming rig.
  • AMD GPUs are relatively more rare in the PC market than NVIDIA chips, but AMD FreeSync has an advantage in the form of console compatibility. The XBox One X already offers FreeSync support – and with the next generation of consoles running on AMD chips, you can expect FreeSync to be the choice for console gaming for quite some time.

Gaming Modes

What It Is

Monitors specifically designed for games often come with a whole host of specialized features. These can include everything from genre specific lighting settings to on screen reticules for first person shooters to complex on screen displays, the options are pretty wide.

What to Expect

An almost limitless amount of different options. Some monitors focus their attention on specific game genres, while others are more general purpose. And different features may be of different quality or even use different names. The sort of modes offered can be a nice addition, but they can also often be replicated by third party software, so they shouldn’t take a priority over more easy to quantify qualities like higher refresh rate or frames per second.

Wrapping Up

Whether you like World of Warcraft or World of Tanks, a monitor can have a big impact on how you play. We recommend that you dig a little deeper and check out our buying guides if you want to take the knowledge you have and apply it to the best gaming monitors on the market today.