There has been a lot changes taking place in the monitor space lately — higher resolutions, refresh rates, more inputs, and higher pixel density just to name a few. If you’re on the market for a new gaming monitor and looking over the abundant options of monitors for gaming it can be a little overwhelming. Especially with all that monitor terminology thrown in. What makes a great gaming monitor? This comprehensive guide will answer that question.
Table of Contents
6 Most Critical Monitor Specifications for Gamers
Sometimes it can feel like you need a PHD in computer engineering to figure out exactly what you need. It’s okay. We’ve got you covered with this ultimate guide to monitor shopping. It will help you identify the best gaming monitors by detailing which monitor specs are most important for gamers to know and why. We’ve heard of some gamers spending months researching and trying to figure out what monitor will be best for them and change their mind every week in the process. It doesn’t have to be this hard. Before we even get started its important to mention one thing. Obviously if you go out and drop $300 on a beautiful new gaming monitor and you don’t have a nice system to back it up (in particular a powerful graphics card), it’s not going to make a big difference in your visual experience. If you already have this base covered and your gaming on that old Dell pack-in monitor, buying a new gaming monitor is going to be a Red Sea parting moment for you.
Monitors at one time were almost exclusively judged by their size and maximum resolution. While these two factors obviously remain important there are a few other monitor characteristics that some manufacturers have started advertising and can be important to achieve optimal gaming performance. There’s no two ways around it, things have gotten a little complex as new features and technology have reared their heads over the last couple years. Here we cover each critical gaming monitor specification that you need to know to make the best monitor decision possible.
The size of the monitor usually measured in inches. Remember size of monitor has nothing to do with performance. If you are playing games on a 15” monitor with 1920×1080 resolution and a 29” 1920X1080 resolution—with all other things equal—the visual quality will be the same. What is optimal gaming size monitor? Well arguments are made for monitors of all sizes. While this mainly comes down to preference, what we do know is that most professional gamers are using monitors between 23” and 27”. That isn’t to say a 30” monitor wouldn’t look totally kickass, but that is the size range most seen in the competitive gaming scene. Most pro gamers prefer a tighter pixel pitch. The fact of the matter is smaller monitors generally have less delay and input lag then their larger relatives, two factors professional gamers take pretty seriously.
HGG recommends: 23” to 27” size monitor
2. Resolution & Aspect Ratio
These two go hand-in-hand. Resolution is the number of distinct pixels displayed (width x height). Aspect ratio is the shape of the display (width x height). For example a 1280 X 720 resolution is 1280 pixels tall and 720 pixels wide for a total of (multiply the two) 921,600 total pixels displayed. A 1280 x 720 resolution screen has an aspect ratio of 16:9 (meaning its width is about 1.8 times its height). A 1280 x 800 resolution has an aspect ratio of 16:10 (meaning its width is about 1.6 times its height). So the difference between these aspect ratios is that the 16:10 is showing 80 more pixels in its height (you can think of this by 40 more pixels to the top and 40 more pixels to the bottom) making the 16:9 a slightly wider aspect ratio. Back in the “olden” days most computer monitors had a 4:3 aspect ratio meaning they were just a little wider than they were tall. The difference between a 4:3 aspect ratio and 16:10/16:9 ratios is that the first is considered standard screen and the latter two are commonly known and marketed to us as widescreen displays.
As technology has moved along, our displays have gotten bigger and bigger. While more pixels are good, denser pixels are better. This introduces the concept of PPI (pixels per inch) and Pixel Density, which are both defined as the number of pixels in a certain space. The difference between having more pixels and denser pixels is nicely captured with the concept of Apple’s marketing term “retina” displays. Retina displays have a higher pixel density than a device without a retina display, so even if a tablet, phone, or monitor may be exactly the same size, one can appear much clearer than the other. This concept holds true in the gaming monitor space.
The maximum resolution of the monitor you buy should ultimately be decided by what gaming system you own. You’ll need a beefy GPU setup to run the highest resolutions without a drop in performance. To run the newest and best resolutions that are even higher than 1920 x 1080 at a decently high frame rate it is best to have a GPU with over 4 GB of ram. As far as aspect ratio goes, it is generally accepted that 16:9 is the best for gaming as it permits the widest FOV (field of view) quite literally giving you a slight edge over your opponents because it will display more of the game world at the edges of the screen. When it comes to gaming, the impact the aspect ratio has on the FOV will be ultimately be determined by the image scaling method used by the video game (most games support 16:9, not all games support 16:10). 16:10 is more of a niche resolution that select game developers support, but if it is supported the vertical viewing area will be slightly increased.
The bottom line: the FOV will normally increase with a wider aspect ratio and 16:9 is the most supported aspect ratio by developers. Most games, movies, and applications are designed for a 16:9 display; for example, Microsoft recommends a 16:9 display for Office 2013. One of the neat things about some of the newest gaming monitors is that you can customize your viewing preference to any size and aspect ratio.
HGG recommends: 16:9 aspect ratio & 1920 X 1080 resolution
3. Refresh Rate
Currently monitor manufactures are offering 60Hz, 75Hz, 100Hz, 120Hz, 144Hz, and even 240Hz options with their gaming monitors. The majority of monitors today are 60Hz. What does a value like 60Hz even mean? It is the refresh rate of the monitor. 60Hz means that your monitor will refresh the display once every 16.7 milliseconds. That means that 120Hz screen will be updating the display twice as fast at 8.33 milliseconds. The higher the refresh rate the more responsive the images in your games will be. This is particularly noticeable in action games where there is a lot of screen movement and motion imaging becomes a big factor.
At the end of the day, it is still only a matter of mere milliseconds. Some people will not notice much of a difference, but for hardcore gamers it can be a pretty big deal. A higher refresh rate will equate to a more seamless, fluid, and smoother visual gaming experience. This is all summed up simply by the phrase “improved motion resolution” or the perceived sharpness of moving images. There have been studies done that indicate high refresh monitors reduce eye strain. In addition, multiple controlled tests show the majority of gamers prefer high refresh rate monitors.
There is an important side to this though, and that’s that your gaming PC must be capable of pumping out about 120FPS to make a 120Hz screen really make a difference. Improving the refresh rate of your monitor will not improve the frame rate unless the frame rate of the content you’re viewing can exceed the refresh rate of your monitor. If your PC is pumping out high FPS well beyond the refresh rate of your monitor than you will get what is known as “screen tearing.” A long story short mainstream consumers that don’t do much gaming won’t have their visual experienced impacted by a high refresh rate, and are likely better off spending their money on improved image quality.
HGG Recommends: 120Hz or higher
4. Input Lag
Input lag is pretty important if you a play a time sensitive genre such as FPS, MOBA, fighting, or RTS. Input lag in basic terms is the difference in time between hitting a button on the keyboard, or clicking the mouse, and when you see the result on the screen. It is measured in milliseconds (ms). All LCDs are going to have a little input lag because their is some image processing that goes on (motion and edge smoothing) before each image is displayed. Unfortunately, oftentimes manufacturers will not inform consumers of the input lag of their monitors. If you look hard enough, you will generally be able to find this data somewhere though! It is generally accepted by the gaming community that an input lag of 30ms or less is not noticeable. Most gaming monitors will have an input lag of 10ms or less.
HGG Recommends: 15ms or less
5. Response Time
The response time sometimes gets confused with input lag but this is a separate factor that adds another form of latency to images displayed by LCD monitors. Once a frame has been processed (which is the cause of input lag time), the final step is for the pixels to display the correct color for the new frame (which is measured using the pixel response time). The response time is how fast on average pixels go from white (active) to black (unactive) and back again to fully active. Response time is also commonly stated as grey-to-grey or “GTG” or “G2G” time. The lower the ms value, the better the pixel responsiveness. The higher the response time, the more likely it is you will see ghosting, smearing, or blurring. The pixel response time is all about how quickly a monitor can make the transition from one image to the next once it receives information for the new image. New gaming screens have vastly improved response times and anything under 10ms should prevent these issues. Gamers who play a lot of fast-paced shooters often prefer monitors with response times under 2ms.
All in all, this is not a perfect measurement as most manufactures measure their response times a little differently. A lot of is going to depend on the manufacturer and how honest they are. Most gaming monitors from top manufacturers will have an excellent response time. If you are trying to decide between two monitors and one has a 4ms response time and the other a 2ms response time, both are perfectly acceptable. It is unlikely the human eye would be able to see a difference. In a situation like that, just go with the one you like better.
HGG Recommends: 5 ms or lower
6. Panel Type
- TN: Twisted Nematic. It’s one of the first types of panels used within monitors and are still widely manufactured because of their low costs of production. Most gaming monitors are built with TN panels. They sport the best response times of all the panel-types. The drawbacks with TN panels are that they don’t look great when viewed from an angle. Obviously, this is a wash if you’re primarily PC gaming and are positioned directly in front of the monitor.
- VA: This is an acronym for Vertical Alignment and it’s another type of panel which is considered the middle ground between TN and IPS panels. Their viewing angles are slightly wider meaning the color and contrast will be a bit more consistent when the monitor is viewed from a side angle. Still, VA panels do not nearly perform as well as IPS panels in this respect.
- IPS: In-Plane Switching panels are an outstanding option for people who will be using their monitor for more than just PC gaming. For example if you’re planning on using it with a console as well, or to watch a lot of movies these panels will deliver great visuals independent of what angle you’re viewing it from. It is the most modern technology and considered the most “media-friendly” of the three panel options. You’re still going to pay in a bit in the response time category though, as even the most improved models still lag behind TN panel options. Generally, these monitors can be a bit more expensive as well.
The bottom line is that in most situations (if you’re not planning on using the monitor for a great deal of console gaming and multimedia) sacrificing better performance from a TN Panel for the improved visual quality of varying viewing angles isn’t worth it.
HGG Recommends: TN Panels
Additional Gaming Monitor Features to Consider
- Stand Adjustability: tilt, height, pivot, swivel
- Internal Speakers: usually complete crap but can be a nice backup
- Connectivity: hdmi, dvi, vga
- USB Hubs
- Functionality of On Screen Display UI
Further Reading – Gaming Monitor Articles
This is our informational guide on gaming monitor tech. If you’re looking at buying a new monitor you can check out one of our “best of” lists: