With an investment in the right gear for 4K PC gaming, this is one New Year’s resolution that’ll pay off with delicious eye candy for a long time.
There’s been a lot of chatter about 4K gaming in recent years. This is mostly because of the launch of the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro, not to mention their respective 4K-standard younger next-gen siblings that’ll launch later this year.
But like most console advancements, they’ve already been available on PC for quite a while. Admittedly, it’s a little more costly to tap into the ocular perks of 4K PC gaming, but it’s also an investment in unprecedented quality that the dedicated PC gamer should absolutely consider.
Best bit: you don’t need to spend $4K to immerse yourself in the high-fidelity realities of 4K PC gaming.
The heart of 4K
First things first, you need a 4K-capable rig. Thankfully, manufacturers aren’t shy when it comes to advertising whether a gaming desktop or laptop is ready for 4K gaming. For those seeking a desktop solution, you might start with the MSI Trident A or step up to the next level with the MSI Trident X Plus. The most critical innards component you’re seeking is a graphics card that’s high-end enough to handle the 4K-gaming load.
The more recent the graphics card, and the more onboard memory it has – 8GB should be considered minimum for contemporary 4K gaming – the smoother your 4K gaming experience will be. Like the consoles, you can treat 4K as 30 frames-per-second (fps) – good enough. But, really, 4K 60fps is the goal. Games that use mouse aiming in particular feel a lot better at 60fps.
4K on the go
While desktops give you the flexibility of choosing the right monitor to match your gaming preferences, gaming laptops come with one. And if you want 4K gaming on the go, it gets a little trickier. This is because there’s a push towards making gaming laptops a competitively viable piece of kit. Any time you see ‘competitive’ in relation to PC gaming, that’s shorthand for ‘high refresh-rate screens’.
While 4K gaming monitors that also offer high-refresh-rate panels do exist, they’re incredibly expensive and cost-prohibitive in laptops. That’s why a lot of the recent-model gaming laptops are geared towards high-refresh-rate Full HD (1080p) panels. Look to something like the Razer Blade Stealth with the 4K screen.
Admittedly, its last-gen, 4GB graphics card flies in the face of our advice above, but you can still play most games in 4K. That said, the more recent the game, the more you’ll likely have to sacrifice visual quality to keep the higher resolution. Alternatively, opt for an Alienware M17 R2 with a high-refresh-rate 1080p screen – or go all out on an MSI GT76 Titan 240Hz Full HD gaming laptop – for competitive play while out and about, and connect it to a 4K screen (or TV) at home for high-resolution PC gaming.
The final piece of the puzzle is a 4K screen. For the avid gamer who’s not allowed to hog the TV for gaming, a 4K monitor is also an investment in console gaming (4K or otherwise). Just make sure you have a 4K-capable HDMI or DisplayPort cable (preferably per gaming device) and you’re ready to pick a screen.
Thankfully, higher-fidelity is matched by bigger screen sizes, so expect to start at 27 inches with something like the LG 27UL500 or the HDR-capable 28 inches of the BenQ EL2870U. Alternatively, stretch that screen size all the way up to 32 inches with the mercifully wall-mountable BenQ PD3200U.
4K game face
With all of that gear out of the way, now it’s time to game. The great news is that pretty much every PC game from the last few years offers a 4K resolution, so long as your monitor can support it (and your gaming rig can run it). For some purty recent examples, plunder the respective wastelands of Borderlands 3, Rage 2 or Far Cry: New Dawn. Conquer ancient China in Total War: Three Kingdoms, or get muddy and bloody in the gorgeous graphics of Battlefield V.
The average gaming monitor has a resolution of 1920×1080 (or 1080p), where those numbers refer to the total number of horizontal and vertical pixels, respectively. More pixels equals higher-quality images. The current PC gaming trend is towards 1440p resolutions and monitors: so, 2560×1440. But 4K pushes that to 2160p or 3840×2160 resolution. More pixels also means more processing power is required for playable frame rates (30 frames per second or, ideally, 60fps).
The cost of 4K
Given the thousands of dollars required to buy a 4K-capable PC and monitor, it’s easy for the console crowd to throw shade at the cost-prohibitive nature of 4K gaming on PC. But is it really? Well, kinda. While a 4K-capable console is cheaper, it still requires ownership of a 4K TV.
Like anything, you can skimp on a cheap 4K TV to get the job done but, really, you’d want a gaming-focused 4K TV brand to get the most out of the visuals. This is, after all, the pursuit of fidelity gains. Remember you’re only a really long HDMI cable away from PC gaming on a 4K TV, too.
FreeSync vs G-Sync
It used to be that you had to match an AMD graphics card with a FreeSync screen and an Nvidia graphics card with a G-Sync monitor for the best results. These days, Nvidia has started simplifying things by regularly updating a list of supported FreeSync monitors for its graphics cards.
Because Nvidia’s 20-series graphics cards are 4K ready and future-proofed with newfangled eye-candy tech called ray tracing. It’s taxing to activate ray tracing with 4K, but it sure is gorgeous.
To achieve the best possible 4K experience, you’re likely going to have to sacrifice on other graphical settings. Modern PC games often have an extensive list of graphical settings. Lower them for less eye candy but a higher frame rate; raise them for extra pretty but at the cost of frames.
You can manually tweak, benchmark and, of course, test in-game. But who has time for all that manual labour? Hit up Google for ‘settings guides’ for any PC game you want to play in 4K to find the sweet eye-candy balance between frames and resolution.
Higher frames, higher gains
While playing 4K games at 30fps is certainly achievable and comparable to the console experience, 4K gaming at 60fps offers fantastic fluidity and responsiveness. It has gameplay implications, too. Take Gears 5, for example. Play it at 4K/30fps and you have to anticipate an active reload. Up that frame rate to 60fps, and you can smack that active reload as the moving bar hits the window on the meter.