How to Choose the Right Monitor
Whether it’s for gaming, office productivity, or creative work—or just to stream your favorite movies—a 4K monitor is a must-have upgrade for some shoppers in 2020. But the 4K monitors on the market today are far from alike. Some are built to deliver speedy refresh rates to benefit PC gamers. Others are designed for graphics pros, with extreme color accuracy and support for wide color ranges in mind. And selected models pack workflow-enhancing features that can make managing your desktop much easier.
Here’s everything you need to know about the benefits (and possible pitfalls) of getting a new 4K panel today. We’ve also ranked the 4K monitors that have made the cut according to our detailed testing. They’re a great starter set for your search.
First Off: Do You Even Need a 4K Monitor?
Let’s define 4K first. A 4K monitor is a display with a native resolution of 3,840 pixels across by 2,160 pixels on the vertical. That’s four times as many as a 1,920-by-1,080-pixel monitor—and that’s a lot of pixels. These panels remain a premium choice, but they are becoming increasingly common on desks at work, at home, or in gamers’ frag dens.
But before we get too deep into the topic, we should first help you answer a key question: Is a 4K monitor right for you in the first place? Depending on what you do most with your monitor, and where you’ll place it, the extra money you’d pay versus a lower-resolution display may not be necessary.
For starters, let’s take gaming. While gorgeous to look at, gaming in 4K with modern games requires loads of graphics horsepower to get above 60 frames per second (fps), today’s generally acknowledged minimum for serious gamers. Right now, only a handful of graphics cards can reliably power a 4K screen with leading-edge, AAA game titles at top settings. And you’d want to crank everything up to make the 4K investment worthwhile. (If you’re turning down the detail settings in a game to make it run better in 4K, that defeats much of the point of 4K in the first place.) These elite cards are the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, the GeForce RTX 2080 Super, and the AMD Radeon VII—all of them expensive, $700-plus video cards. If you don’t have one, gaming at 4K is going to demand compromises—and it may not be worth the splurge. (Of course, you can always turn down the resolution if you need the 4K resolution for things other than gaming.)
Similarly, if you want a 4K monitor solely for entertainment purposes that don’t center on PC gaming, a 4K TV would likely be a cheaper option. That’s because many 4K TVs aren’t beholden to the same standards that 4K monitors are, such as the need for boosted refresh rates (for gaming models), high-level or specialized color accuracy (for content-creative ones), or low levels of input lag. (See our picks for the best TVs, now uniformly 4K models.)
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If one of those scenarios fits your needs, though, the next step is to figure out whether or not a 4K monitor is right for you for different reasons: your desk configuration, and your eyesight.
Next Question: Can You See in 4K?
With TVs, the answer to whether or not you should opt for a 4K model today is almost always “yes,” because we sit much closer to our monitors than we do our TVs. It’s not quite as simple with 4K monitors. If you get really serious about that question in the monitor world, it comes down to algebra, and it raises issues like pixel pitch, pixels per inch (ppi), and “angular resolutions.” Let’s keep it simple, though.
A good example of the pixel-pitch problem arises in VR headsets, with an issue known as the “screen door” effect. In essence, the lower the maximum resolution that a screen is capable of displaying, and the closer you sit to the screen, the easier it is to see its individual pixels. In the case of VR headsets, it makes the image look as though it’s being seen through mesh, and it’s why 2019’s new VR headsets have seen resolution upticks. When something’s that close to your eyes, you can more clearly see the difference.
The same issues apply to monitors, just across a larger viewing distance than inches from your eyes. The tricky bit is that viewing distance isn’t fixed; it depends on the size and layout of your desk. Whether you can make out the difference in resolution on a 4K panel versus, say, a 1440p one (that’s 2,560 by 1,440 pixels) depends on your eyesight, that viewing distance, and the screen size. The screen size, at a 4K resolution, calculates out to a certain number of ppi, in essence the pixel density of the screen. You can see how it scales here at each common resolution…
Lucky for us, we don’t have to do any of the hard math on our own. The team over at Puget Systems has designed a helpful Google Sheet that will automatically help you figure out the optimal display size and resolution for you, depending on your personal level of visual acuity. All you have to do is plug in your target screen size and resolution, the distance from the panel to your eyes, and the specifics of your eyesight. You can then try different numbers and see how the output changes, helping you figure out if a certain screen size or viewing distance makes more or less sense. (If you haven’t been to the eye doctor lately and don’t know your prescription strength, a few more hand calculations, using some of the formulas on this page, are all you need.)
Of course, less scientifically, you can also look at 4K panels of various screen sizes in a local store to see if you can tell the difference. But you’ll want to observe the same screen image, scaled the same amount, to see a meaningful comparison, and that may not always be practical. Still, to summarize: before you buy a 4K monitor, make sure you’ll actually be able to see the benefit of the increased pixel density in your particular seating setup. Have 20/15 vision, already own a 27-inch, 2,560-by-1,440-pixel (1440p) monitor, and will sit three feet from the screen? A 4K monitor probably won’t offer a big enough boost in clarity to justify the cost at the same screen size and distance. It all depends on how big your 4K panel, how close or how far you’ll sit, and your eyesight.
What Screen Type of 4K Monitor Should You Buy?
Before you buy a new 4K monitor, you should know the benefits and drawbacks of the different display technologies that power them. Most of the time, it’s easy to find what kind of panel a given 4K monitor has simply by looking at the manufacturer spec sheet. Let’s run through the most common kinds.
Vertical Alignment (VA). VA panels are some of the oldest in the game. But they’re still around because, despite better display technologies coming along since, they “just work.” VA panels offer some of the highest contrast ratios outside of OLED ones (more about which in a moment), and they also offer better viewing angles and color reproduction than TN panels. However, they’re also the slowest of all the display technologies, offering the pokiest response times and input-lag numbers of the bunch. That makes them subpar for gaming.
Twisted Nematic (TN). TN displays, on the other hand, are extremely fast in terms of pixel response, averaging anywhere between 1-millisecond (ms) and 5ms response times, and they are relatively inexpensive to produce versus other panel types, making them ideal for gamers. The tradeoffs with TN, however? Uneven color production, limited off-center viewing angles, and ho-hum contrast ratios. That’s quite a bit to give up in the name of speed, which means that you’ll typically see 4K TN displays only in gamer-centric models.
In-Plane-Switching (IPS). IPS panels are common in the world of 4K displays. They tend to be slightly more expensive to produce than VA or TN panels, but they offer the best “all-around” experience for most users: strong color reproduction, moderately quick response times, and the widest viewing angles of any display type outside of OLED. This comes at a price, though, with IPS models costing anywhere between $50 and $300 more than their equivalent non-IPS counterparts.
Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED). OLED is the newest display technology in stand-alone monitors. Offering a theoretically infinite contrast ratio, gorgeous color for film and TV, and superb black levels for gaming in dark scenarios, OLED sounds like a great display technology that every monitor manufacturer should be pumping out in droves, and in the OLED TV samples we’ve seen, it looks stupendous.
But although 4K OLED panels have been all the rage for several years now in the TV market (and are starting to make their way into laptop displays), we haven’t seen a single OLED desktop computer monitor released outside of the professional-level Asus ProArt PQ22UC, a 21.6-inch 4K panel at $3,999, and the Alienware 55 OLED. In the case of the latter, due to burn-in issues and problems with brightness, we rated this “monitor” as more of an OLED TV that happens to run at 120Hz, rather than a panel you’d be likely to use as your desktop’s daily driver.
Mini LED: Finally, there’s mini LED. Rather than edge-lighting an LCD-based panel with a ring of LEDs that sit around the display and light each scene globally, mini LED embeds hundreds, even thousands of small LEDs behind the panel itself. This allows for a lighting technique known as “full-array local dimming” to work, which for now, is the closest you can get to OLED’s infinite contrast without having to actually spend the money that OLED displays demand.
As of this writing, there is only one widely available desktop monitor that supports mini LED technology (the Asus ProArt PA32UCX), though that will change sometime later this year with the launch of what might be the ultimate gaming monitor, the Asus PG32UQX. No word has been made on firm availability or pricing, but keep keep an eye out for a review of that much-anticipated display at some point during 2020.
The Real Gaming Elite: Should You Play Games in 4K?
Though 4K displays are still far from the norm in the gaming-monitor market, the top models are adopting rapid pixel-response times and blisteringly quick refresh rates. As the technologies in the panels (and the GPUs needed to power them properly) advance ever forward, what are the main features that a potential 4K gamer needs to keep an eye out for? Let’s lay them out.
Input Lag. In broad strokes, input lag is measured as the amount of time it takes for your monitor to display an external action. For example, if I click a button on my mouse, the input-lag number (measured in milliseconds) expresses how long it took for the click to appear as an onscreen action. Some of the best gaming monitors out there can achieve input-lag figures below 2ms, though this often is slower in 4K displays, simply because the number of pixels being drawn by the display on each pass is greater than it would be on a lower-resolution monitor.
Refresh Rate. Refresh rates are where things have really kicked into high gear over the past few years, especially on monitors with native resolutions below 4K. Lower-resolution monitors have been pushing rapidly from 60Hz (the standard in everyday displays for ages) to 144Hz, 144Hz to 165Hz, and all the way up to 240Hz in certain esports-focused models.
Like so much else, it’s more complicated with 4K. Due to the bandwidth limits of the HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.4b interfaces and their cables, early 4K monitors were limited to just 60Hz. In the past two years, however, several models have been officially released that push that ceiling as high as 144Hz. These include, at this writing, Acer’s Predator X27, Nitro XV273K, and Predator XB3.
Also in that illustrious company are the HP Omen X65 Emperium (the first Nvidia “Big Format Gaming Display,” or BFGD), and the Asus PG27UQ. How do they do it? With a technique called “chroma subsampling,” which you can read more about in our breakdown of the challenges and pitfalls of gaming at 4K and 144Hz.
Response Time. Not to be confused with input lag, response time refers to the amount of time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white, or from one shade of gray to another. In practical terms, you should expect a response time of less than 20ms in even the slowest 4K panels, and when shopping for a gaming panel in particular, it’s better to aim for 5ms or lower to keep yourself competitive in the long term.
Adaptive-Sync Technologies. Nvidia G-Sync, AMD FreeSync, and AMD FreeSync2 are all flavors of what are known as “adaptive sync” technologies. Without getting too deep in the weeds, all three are designed to prevent screen tearing (that is, screen draws with parts of the image misaligned) and stuttering. These maladies can happen on monitors—gaming-focused or otherwise—in scenes with lots of fast-moving action.
They achieve this by aligning the refresh rate of the monitor on the fly with the frame-rate output of the video card, only drawing a frame when a full one is delivered, rather than at a fixed rate. Though adaptive sync is not essential for gamers who mostly play single-player, slow-paced titles, it’s great for anyone taking his or her skills into the online multiplayer arena in serious, competitive fashion.
Note that you need a compatible graphics card to work with G-Sync or FreeSync. G-Sync requires a compatible Nvidia GeForce card (all late-model cards support it), and FreeSync needs an AMD Radeon RX one. Note that a relatively new subset of monitors, dubbed G-Sync Compatible, have been designated by Nvidia to also work with the adaptive-sync tech on its cards despite not having the specific and exclusive G-Sync-enabling circuitry of earlier G-Sync monitors.
Creating in 4K: Pro Graphics Panels
Seeing as the monitor industry is ramping up the move toward 4K, and consumers are adding millions of them to their desks, content creators need to be able to master their creations in 4K too, right? This is where professional 4K monitors come in.
Professionals were among the first folks to get monitors that featured true 4K-pixel-count panels, and these buyers continue to drive the market forward with 5K, 6K, and even 8K monitors peeking out just over the horizon.
A 4K monitor is a nice addition to any amateur or professional creator’s arsenal, though it should be noted that in terms of color reproduction or accuracy, there’s nothing inherently better about 4K monitors than 1440p or 1080p displays. Instead, the main benefit is for those who work in high detail, notably in photography, 3D visual arts, or cinematography. In those areas, having more pixels to work with gives you a greater level of accuracy, whether you’re drawing angel wings on an image of a model, creating vector art, mastering a movie, or anything that requires zooming in and retaining as much visual fidelity as possible.
Another benefit is simply sheer workspace. Even if your ultimate output isn’t in 4K, working on a 4K panel can let you look at your content at full target resolution while leaving screen space for palettes, control menus, timelines, and other creation tools. Of course, you could relegate that stuff to a second monitor if you need the space, but a 4K panel can enable single-display workflows that were not possible or simply were more awkward before.
Color-gamut coverage is a key specification for many folks in this space. A number of 4K professional monitors achieve industry specifications of covering 100 percent of sRGB, as well as strong results with the Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 color gamuts. Good examples of these panels that we have tested include the BenQ EW3270U and the ViewSonic VP2785-4K.
4K for the Office: Panels With Productivity Features
Keeping busy on a 4K monitor isn’t much different from doing general work on a monitor of a lesser resolution, but for one key difference: effective screen space. Because a 4K monitor has four times the available pixels than a 1080p monitor, this gives you, in theory, four times as much elbow room to mount windows side by side.
The reason we say “in theory”? The idea is sound, but in practice it’s almost impossible to make out the same text scaled 1:1 in 4K versus 1080p at the same screen size. This is why both Windows and Mac machines come with a feature known as “DPI scaling” (DPI being short for “dots per inch”). For example, when you switch your resolution from 1080p to 4K in Windows 10, by default Windows 10 will auto-scale your content to 150 percent of its standard DPI.
This increases the size of all rendered elements on the screen by that percentage. At 150 percent scaling, it’s more likely that you’d be able to fit two or three standard browser windows side by side and still clearly read their text. With four windows, one per corner of the screen? Not so likely.
To help simplify your workflow even more, some 4K monitors, such as the business-centric Dell U3219Q pictured above, come with built-in features like an automatic window-sizing tool. (It sections off parts of your screen that programs in Windows will resize to on their own.) Similarly, these monitors can accept video signals from multiple sources and display them side by side (“picture by picture”) or inlaid in a larger window (“picture in picture”). This can be useful, say, if you have a PC that you’re developing on, but you need to test your changes in your program on a separately connected Mac at the same time.
Connections, Adjustments & HDR
Some specs are not as front-and-center as the display type or the refresh rate, but they will affect how you work with your 4K display day to day.
The stand’s allowable adjustability might seem trivial, but it can affect your comfort, depending on where and how you use your panel. A range of tilt is pretty standard (usually, the monitor maker will express it in degrees forward and back), but you’ll want to look for the ability to swivel the panel left and right on its stand or rotate it between landscape and portrait modes. (The latter is uncommon and mostly for serious photo editors.)
Connectivity is another thing to check, though for most folks, it comes down to an HDMI or DisplayPort input, and most 4K panels will have both, sometimes several. Watch for a match with your video source. A few panels support input via Thunderbolt 3, suited for input from certain laptops, notably late-model MacBook Pros. A few nongaming models in recent months have ditched HDMI and Displayport altogether in favor of Thunderbolt 3 exclusively.
One note: To get a 4K display running above the 60Hz refresh-rate threshold (mostly of interest to gamers or game developers), you need a video card capable of outputting its signal over a DisplayPort 1.4b cable, and with some 4K 144Hz monitors (such as the Acer Nitro XV273K), you’ll need two such connections plugged in concurrently.
Finally, there’s the issue of HDR. High-dynamic range (see our HDR primer) is a color specification common on modern 4K TVs, but it has made inroads into monitors only over the past couple of years. On PCs, HDR is exclusive to 4K monitors, and it makes images, videos, and games look flat-out spectacular. Of course, you’ll need media recorded in HDR, or games that support the spec, in order to enjoy it.
But there’s a catch with HDR on desktop monitors: The Windows implementation of HDR needs a lot of work. Not only can it make Windows itself look gray, muted, and washed out, but many apps that launch outside of the Windows Store (like non-Edge web browsers or creative applications) will carry that same muddled palette. HDR on Windows has a long way to go before it looks like it should, and until then we recommend not giving it too much weight in your monitor buying until Microsoft finds a better way to implement it universally across all apps, or if you have a very specific need for it. That said, if you have a dual-purpose monitor that also plugs into, say, an Xbox One X, that console will display all kinds of HDR content just fine.
So, Which 4K Monitor Should I Buy?
Upgrading to a 4K monitor, as you can see, entails a lot more than just a simple resolution uptick. But now, armed with our overview, it’s time to shop. We’ve tested a host of 4K monitors out there and pulled out a selection of the very best that represents all the main usage classes: business-facing monitors, gaming ones, and creative/professional panels. Let’s dig in…
Acer Predator X27
Pros: 4K UHD resolution.
Supports HDR content.
Very high rated and tested brightness.
Excellent contrast ratio for an IPS monitor.
Stylish, ergonomic mount provides height, tilt, and swivel control.
Cons: Stratospheric pricing.
Requires high-performance hardware to get the most out of it.
Bottom Line: Acer’s formidable (and formidably pricey) Predator X27 is an elite-performing 27-inch gaming monitor that provides 4K UHD resolution, very high brightness, lofty refresh rates, and G-Sync support.
It’s the ultimate gaming panel.
Asus ROG Strix XG438Q
Pros: Gaming performance is top-notch. Larger screen size makes seeing enemies easier. Display Widget software is highly customizable. Future-proof for next-gen consoles.
Cons: Display Stream Compression feature not integrated. Big enough to make some users motion-sick. Not ideal for pro content creators. BGR profile might make text a little fuzzy.
Bottom Line: If a TV or an Nvidia BFGD is too big for your gaming, but a regular monitor is too small, the 43-inch Asus ROG Strix XG438Q is a lustworthy alternative for serious players. It’s not cheap, but its panel is nimble and eye-popping.
Pros: Crisp Ultra-High-Definition (UHD) picture.
Solid grayscale performance.
Robust feature set.
Finicky settings controller.
Limited advanced color options.
Bottom Line: The BenQ PD3200U is a well-equipped 32-inch display that delivers very good color, grayscale, and viewing-angle performance, as well as a highly detailed UHD picture.
Pros: Crisp, clear images.
HDR color profiles fit well to their tasks.
Solid color results in most tests.
Exceeded brightness specs.
Low input lag.
Cons: Low DCI-P3 color accuracy.
Bottom Line: Dell’s UltraSharp 32 U3219Q is a big, beautiful 4K display aimed squarely at the business set, but it could still find a home on any gamer’s desk with, we suspect, no complaints.
HP Omen X Emperium 65
Pros: Astounding image quality.
Size and refresh rate combo is unique for a 4K gaming monitor.
Nvidia Shield streaming built in.
Matching, bundled soundbar.
Nifty proximity lighting on ports.
Cons: Wildly expensive.
Shield UI can be obtuse in places.
Soundbar audio is ho-hum considering display cost.
Meager default warranty.
Bottom Line: The HP Omen X Emperium 65, the first Nvidia Big Format Gaming Display (BFGD), is an epic, extravagant high-refresh mega-monitor.
It’s impossibly pricey and far from flawless, but play on it is unmatched, if you have the monster PC to support it.
Predator XB3 (XB273K)
Pros: Great color reproduction.
Low input lag.
Good price for the features you get.
Cons: Limited number of ports.
Black levels could be better.
Moderate light bleed.
Bottom Line: The Acer Predator XB3 is a nearly perfect compromise between the lowest and highest ends of the 4K 144Hz monitor market.
Pros: 4K UHD resolution.
Good selection of ports, including USB-C.
Covers 99 percent of the Adobe RGB color palette and 95 percent of DCI-P3.
Highly adjustable stand.
Cons: No built-in speakers.
HDR effect is relatively modest.
No adaptive sync support.
Bottom Line: ViewSonic’s VP2785-4K is a prime-pick monitor for video editors, photographers, and other graphics pros, packing great color accuracy and factory calibration for a host of color spaces.
Acer Nitro XV3 (XV273K)
Pros: Cheaper than any other 4K 144Hz display.
Good color results.
Strong brightness readings.
Design accommodates unconventional keyboard placements.
Cons: Significant backlight bleed.
Tinny onboard speakers.
Requires two DisplayPort cables for 4K 144Hz mode.
Unable to maintain HDR or G-Sync at 144Hz refresh rate.
Bottom Line: Despite its strong color results and moderate price for a 4K, 144Hz-capable panel, Acer’s Nitro XV3 has some shortfalls that keep it just shy of gaming-monitor glory.
Dell 28 Ultra HD 4K Monitor (S2817Q)
Pros: Reasonably priced.
Sharp 4K picture.
Good selection of I/O ports.
Strong audio output.
Cons: Narrow viewing angles.
Bottom Line: The moderately priced Dell 28 Ultra HD 4K Monitor (S2817Q) is a 28-inch Ultra-High-Definition (UHD) display that delivers razor-sharp imagery and is equipped with a solid selection of I/O ports.
LG UltraFine 4K Display (24MD4KL-B)
Pros: Super-high pixel density. Lofty brightness ceiling. Seamless integration with macOS. USB-C port can charge devices, including laptops. Good color accuracy. Decent built-in speakers.
Cons: On the pricey side. Aesthetic doesn’t quite sync with current Macs. Limited port selection. Meager warranty. Functions may be limited with Windows PCs.
Bottom Line: LG’s UltraFine 4K Display (24MD4KL-B) is a pin-sharp, if pricey, pick as a Mac-friendly monitor, designed to pair with an Apple desktop or laptop equipped with Thunderbolt 3.
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