Though it wasn’t instantly accessible to the average consumer, 4K resolution has been on the market since 2012. When LG revealed a 3D UHDTV imbued with a capacity for 4K, it seemed like a game-changer. By displaying over twice the number of pixels than 1440p and more than four times 1080p, 4K resolution delivers a clearer image that can really suck viewers into their programming. However, there is a drastic difference between watching movies and TV in 4K and gaming in a higher resolution. Though 4K has slowly become the standard for a viewing experience, the same isn’t necessarily true for the gaming industry.
If you’re in the market for a new gaming monitor, you’re likely facing the question of whether you should make the switch to 4K or save a little money and game in 1440p. The mantra in the gaming industry may be to always go for the newest, but that’s not quite the case here.
Despite 4K being nine years old, the answer isn’t as clear-cut as you’d think. 4K, while it does have its merits, is not quite the gold standard. Developers and publishers may try to push it like it is, but a few things are working against the higher resolution.
Why Isn’t 4K the Gold Standard for Gaming Yet?
As the years progress, so too does the gaming industry. It’s been quite some time since the golden age of 8-bit, and in those years, developers have created visually stunning expansive adventures spread out across massive worlds. No longer do we control the pixelated and blocky protagonists or attack low-resolution monsters. Everything is marketed toward high-definition, photorealism, and life-like representation. Unfortunately, all of that comes with a cost.
Rendering a modern (and big) game like Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 can be taxing for your rig if you don’t have the proper hardware. And even with a newer GPU and processor, you could still see a dip in quality if you try to maximize the resolution to 4K and achieve 120 frames per second (fps) – and with frame rate is where the big problem with 4K shows up. Resolution may dictate how good a game looks, but frame rate can directly impact how well it plays.
While players can improve their setup by buying and installing new hardware, it’s important to note that not all gamers have the wherewithal to upgrade their PC just to play in higher resolutions at a greater frame rate. Oftentimes, a sacrifice must be made, especially when you factor in console gaming, which is far more limited than its desktop counterpart.
When Sony and Microsoft announced the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S, respectively, players started to question whether 4K at 120fps would be a standard across all new titles. What they found is that there is no clear-cut answer. Yes, the consoles are capable of running games at 120fps in 4K, but that hasn’t been the standard since their release. For instance, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla may run at dynamic 4K on the Series X, but that’s at 60fps, which some may consider a sacrifice on a next-gen console. Sometimes, it’s not even the console’s fault.
Developers, particularly for cross-generation titles, have to optimize their game for higher resolutions and more frames per second. In the case of Overwatch, Blizzard was able to optimize the fast-paced shooter to run at 4K on the Series X at the cost of its frame rate.
Alternatively, the developer knew that not all players would want to reduce their frames for the sake of resolution and created a mode that bumps the frames per second to 120 while dropping the resolution to 1440p on the Xbox Series X.
Frame Rate vs. Resolution
As we still often have to choose between resolution and frame rate, it’s difficult to consider 4K a “gold standard.” Since hardware accessible to the average player is more capable of running games at 1440p and 120fps, you may want to skip that 4K monitor. But that’s if you value a higher frame rate over higher resolution, which really boils down to personal preference.
If you’re unsure which should matter most, consider the last game you played. Did you notice any input lag? Did it feel like your movements were slightly delayed or choppy? Was the fast-paced gameplay marred by stuttering? If so, you may want to consider putting your focus on improving the frame rate.
Multiplayer games also benefit more from a higher frame rate than a better resolution. The smoother a game is, the more likely players are to keep steady aim and land the shot they’ve been lining up.
Recommended PC Specs for 4K and 120fps
Though it may not be the standard of modern gaming, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a game running at 4K and 120fps. All it takes is the right hardware. While you have no control over whether your console can achieve a higher resolution and frame rate, that’s not quite the case for PC gaming. Some of it does fall on the developer, but the hardware in your PC and the monitor you play on matter.
In terms of minimum specs, you will need:
16 GB RAM
HDMI 2.1 port
Intel Core i9 9900K or equivalent
NVIDIA RTX 3080 or Dual GeForce RTX 2080 Ti
For the power to be worth it, you also need a monitor capable of low latency and a high refresh rate. We have a few recommendations below (as of March 2021), but be mindful that achieving maximum resolution and frame rate will cost a decent penny:
Is 4K Gaming Even Worth It?
What may be most important to ask when discussing 4K as a standard resolution is whether or not it matters to you. Yes, better visuals make for a more appealing gaming experience, but when you consider the stress on your PC and the likely decrease in frame rate, you have to wonder if upgrading to 4K provides that much of a difference from 1440p.
While it’s impossible to deny that there is a visual boost when you go from 1440p to 4K, more casual players or someone not as invested in graphics may think the change is negligible. In fact, there is little change in some games that don’t warrant spending more money for 4K gaming.
At the end of the day, whether a 4K monitor is worth the extra cost is 100% up to personal preference. But when it comes to a gold standard resolution, 4K isn’t quite there yet. In fact, ask the right people, and you may find that 1080p is still their standard resolution (primarily due to the cost of upgrading). However, that doesn’t mean 2021 can’t be the year it rises to the occasion.
Whatever you may game in, the most crucial element is that you’re enjoying yourself. 4K, 1440p, 1080p: pick what fits your budget and immerse yourself in distant worlds and fantastical lands.