Monday, October 18, 2021

The Best Gaming Monitors for 2021

Whether you’re a serious PC gamer or a casual after-hours warrior, your hardware can be the pivot point between victory and defeat. To get the most out of the latest first-person shooter (FPS), sports, racing, and other fast-action games, you’ll not only need a gaming PC with a powerful graphics card, but also a monitor that can render the action without subjecting you to blurred images, flicker, tearing, and other motion artifacts.

In this guide, we’ll help you choose a display that gives you an edge over your opponents while delivering a smooth, immersive gaming experience. These are the factors to consider when choosing a gaming monitor. Read on for those, as well as our current favorites derived from testing.

Panel Size and Resolution

When it comes to gaming monitors, bigger is almost always better. That said, in some select cases you’ll want to keep the size of your monitor at 27 inches or under.

If you’ve watched any esports tournaments over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that all the players are playing on screens smaller than that size. (A 24.5-incher seems to be the sweet spot, especially in esports-focused models like the Asus ROG Swift 360Hz PG259QN.) Why? Well, if you’re playing a highly competitive title such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive or League of Legends, having a smaller screen means you can keep the monitor closer to your eyes while also keeping more of the frame in view. Being able to see every element on the screen at once is a vital advantage in a competitive multiplayer environment. The larger you go in screen size, the more difficult it is to keep every enemy combatant in your peripheral vision.

If you have the room and don’t care so much about the competitive gaming world, though, a larger screen provides plenty of space for your onscreen characters to stretch out and offers the opportunity to go beyond full high definition. Many newer models are Wide Quad High-Definition (WQHD) monitors with maximum resolutions of 2,560 by 1,440 pixels (also dubbed “1440p”). The higher pixel count provides much sharper imagery than full HD, but you’ll need a reasonably powerful graphics engine to play the latest games at the higher resolution, especially if you have all the effects enabled.

This holds double for 4K Ultra-High Definition (UHD) monitors, with a resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, such as the Acer Predator XB3. If desk space is an issue, there are plenty of 24-inch monitors out there, but with these, you’ll be limited in most cases to a 1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution.

If you have lots of space, and money is no object, even bigger monitors are available. A 30-inch 4K UHD monitor will deliver a stunning picture with amazing resolution; you can go all out with a 34-inch ultrawide monitor with or without a curved panel; or you can pick up something larger still. (We’ve tested displays up to 65 inches.)

Alienware OLED 65

Ultrawide monitors typically have a 21:9 aspect ratio (as opposed to the usual 16:9) and offer a much wider field of view than a standard widescreen monitor, but they take up a lot of room. A curved-panel ultrawide monitor has enough of a curve to make you feel a bit closer to the action, and in some games will also give you a competitive edge.

Battle-royale titles like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Apex Legends both support full 21:9 resolution. What this means: Rather than simply squashing and stretching the image like some games do, these games (and others that natively support 21:9) will actually display more of the battlefield on either side of the screen than you would see on a 16:9 monitor. Battle-royale players in particular will benefit from this increased real estate. A player on a 16:9 panel may not see an enemy standing on a hill way to the right in the periphery, but a 21:9 player might be able to spot the danger without having to turn their character.

Panel Technology

You’ll see several main monitor-panel technologies used in various gaming monitors, and each has its pluses and minuses.

Twisted nematic (TN) panels are the most affordable and are popular among gamers because they offer fast pixel response times and refresh rates. Their biggest drawback? They are prone to color shifting when viewed from an angle.

Vertical alignment (VA) screens are known for their high native contrast ratios, robust colors, and ability to display deep blacks, but they are also known to produce noticeable ghosting effects, which can hurt gaming performance. (It depends on the model, and that is where reviews come in.)

In-plane switching (IPS) panels provide the best all-around color quality, strong grayscale performance, and wide viewing angles, but they can’t match the pixel response of TN panels and are subject to motion artifacts. They’re the best general-use panel type, but discriminating gamers or competitive esports types may take issue with IPS.

This changed in 2019, though, when LG developed a new IPS panel type (dubbed “Nano IPS” or “Fast IPS” depending on the manufacturer) that claims 1-millisecond gray-to-gray response time with overdrive turned on. These panels use a thin layer of nanoparticles applied to the display’s backlight that enables wider color-gamut coverage and reduces response times, a combo that now makes them the dominant choice for almost every midrange and premium gaming monitor in the second half of 2021. If you have room in your budget, Nano/Fast IPS-based monitors currently offer the best balance of gaming performance to image quality.

Because TN, VA, and IPS each has its own such traits, we recommend looking at samples of each at your local electronics mega-mart, if possible, to get an idea of the “feel” and which specific compromises matter the least to you. Also bear in mind that not all panels of a given type are created equal, so seeing the actual display before you in person, if possible, is always good.

Pixel Response, Input Lag, and Refresh Rate

Gaming monitors should have a fast pixel response time and a high refresh rate, the latter commensurate with the frame rates your PC can push. (More on that in a moment.)

The most commonly used pixel response spec is gray-to-gray, which is measured in milliseconds (ms) and signifies the time it takes a pixel to transition from one shade of gray to another. (A few companies still use the older black-to-white measurement.) A low pixel response will help eliminate the smearing of moving images and provide a smoother overall picture than a higher pixel response. A gray-to-gray response of 2ms or less is ideal, but even a 4ms gray-to-gray response is typically adequate for single-player gaming.

Ultrawide Gaming Monitor

Input lag is another important factor to consider when buying your next gaming monitor, especially for competitive players. Input lag refers to the amount of time it takes for an action (say, a keypress on your keyboard or a mouse click) to appear onscreen. Since the middle of 2019, we’ve been testing all our gaming monitors using the HDFury 4K Diva, and consider any monitors that score under 5ms to be a good fit for players who rely on lightning-quick reflexes to best their opponents.

Then there’s refresh rate. A monitor’s refresh rate refers to the time (per second) it takes to redraw the entire screen and is measured in hertz (Hz). Most standard LCD monitors (including older gaming panels) have a peak 60Hz refresh rate, which means the screen is redrawn 60 times per second. Fast-moving images may appear blurry at this rate, or the panel may suffer from screen tearing, an artifact that occurs when the monitor displays misaligned pieces of two or more screen draws at the same time. (This can be alleviated by a synchronization technique called variable refresh rate, more about which in a moment.)

HP Omen Emperium X Front

The trend in gaming panels over the last couple of years is the wave of models from all major gaming-LCD makers featuring refresh rates higher than 60Hz. The most common refresh-rate increments we are now seeing in these so-called “high refresh” gaming displays are 75Hz, 120Hz, and 144Hz, with panels up to 240Hz and even, in a couple of cases, 360Hz and even 390Hz now on the market.

The 240Hz panels so far are mostly 1080p, while 1440p panels top out at 165Hz, and 4K models max out at 144Hz. This is due to the throughput limitations of the two most popular cable technologies, HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.4b. This should start to change in 2022 when the HDMI 2.1 spec is more widespread, but this could be a while since we only saw the first instance of it on the gaming-graphics end in the GeForce RTX 3080 and subsequent RTX 30 Series cards.

Dual Displays in High Refresh Rate

Games that run at frame rates higher than 60 frames per second (fps) can benefit from one of these monitors. The higher refresh rate can show motion more fluidly, when it is in sync. Esports players who specialize in games that are not too demanding on a video card (and that therefore run at very high frame rates) will especially want to take note.

Just because you have a high refresh rate, however, that does not mean that your gaming graphics will necessarily be free of tearing and artifacts. Which leads us to the other big PC-gaming-centric trend in flux in late-model gaming monitors: G-Sync and FreeSync.

G-Sync and FreeSync: Technologies in Flux

The latest gaming monitors use synchronization technology to help reduce tearing and other motion artifacts while lowering input lag. Displays equipped with Nvidia’s G-Sync or AMD’s FreeSync technology hand off control of the screen’s refresh rate to the graphics card or chip (instead of the monitor), which allows the display to operate at a variable refresh rate (VRR) according to what the card is capable of pushing at any given moment. The result is a smooth gaming experience, with decreased input lag and a lack of tearing. Note, however, that G-Sync and FreeSync monitors require a G-Sync- or FreeSync-compatible graphics card with a DisplayPort 1.2 or HDMI 2.0/2.1 output (an Nvidia card for G-Sync, an AMD card for FreeSync).

ViewSonic Elite XG270

In 2017, AMD announced an enhanced version of FreeSync, FreeSync 2, and higher-end monitors have been transitioning to it since 2018. FreeSync 2 is all about the same basic aim as FreeSync—synchronizing the frame rate of the signal from a compatible AMD graphics card with a monitor’s refresh rate—but it adds HDR support, low input lag (aka latency), and support for low-frame-rate compensation. The latter is the ability to sync the frame rate of a GPU with that of a monitor, even when the GPU’s frame rate falls below the minimum frame rate of the monitor.

Meanwhile, the shape of VRR from the Nvidia side of things took a big turn in early 2019. Then, Nvidia released a new version of its driver for its GeForce cards that allows users of FreeSync monitors to turn on G-Sync in the GeForce driver software. The results may vary, but in essence, owners of FreeSync panels can now try out VRR with an Nvidia card. Nvidia has also extended a sort of G-Sync certification to a select group of FreeSync monitors. At last check (in September 2021), roughly 270 total monitors fall under the company’s G-Sync standard. That should mean no or reduced tearing, ghosting, and other artifacts during VRR gameplay, as well as the ability to support that over a wide range of refresh rates (for example, 60Hz to 144Hz) according to the model’s specs. Certain models at the link above are dubbed “G-Sync Compatible.” Where it is supported, you can try to switch G-Sync on from the Nvidia control panel and see if, and how well, its adaptive sync works.

OSD Controls on Screen Bottom

G-Sync has gotten more complicated in another way, too. The addition of the G-Sync Compatible category brings the number of G-Sync monitor compatibility levels to three. G-Sync Compatible is the lowest tier. In the middle are those monitors that meet Nvidia’s traditional G-Sync standards, containing specialized circuitry to support the standard: They have passed some 300 image-quality tests and are capable of operating over the full VRR range. The top tier is G-Sync Ultimate (formerly known as G-Sync HDR), which in addition to meeting the G-Sync standards combines high-end features such as extreme luminance (1,000 nits) and a refresh rate of at least 144Hz. One of the first panels that qualified as G-Sync Ultimate is the Acer Predator X27, but more have appeared since, especially with the introduction of 65-inch Big Format Gaming Displays (BFGDs) from HP and others. (See our review of the first of these, the HP Omen X Emperium.) Again, see the link above.

HDR: Brightness Deluxe

HDR technology isn’t just for making movies and TV shows look good. It can also turn a dimly lit, washed-out game into something vibrant, full of contrast, with sharply defined edges around every part of the environment. There are four levels of HDR in monitors right now: DisplayHDR 400, DisplayHDR 600, DisplayHDR 1000, and DisplayHDR 1600. The figure refers to the number of nits, or the brightness level, that the display should be capable of maxing out at.

But though there are plenty of HDR 4K monitors to choose from these days, the implementation of HDR within Windows is still…lacking, to say the least. If it does work the way its supposed to, apps that are compatible with Windows (those from the Windows App Store seem to work better with HDR compatibility than those found outside that ecosystem) will get the HDR treatment, and so will Windows itself.

HP Omen X Emperium 65 BFGD

While consoles like the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and PS5 do HDR flawlessly on almost all their games, the PC still lags behind in terms of the number of game titles that support HDR, and only some monitors support it. How well the tech is implemented varies on a case-by-case basis. That said, when done well (especially in titles developed since the technology took off in gaming monitors around the end of 2017), HDR adds a striking aspect to gameplay.

In testing at the PCMag Labs, we’ve found DisplayHDR 400 is generally sufficient to get a nice effect going, but the DisplayHDR 1000 and 1600 specs take the technology to an entirely new level.

Can It Create?

When we test monitors for their PC gaming capabilities, we also look at what they can do in general use cases like watching movies or browsing the web, as well as how well they can reproduce accurate color in a number of different chromaticity tests.

Color Gamut Chart

sRGB acts like a baseline for how all content on the internet will appear, while DCI-P3 is a measure of how well a monitor does at reproducing the color spectrum that movies and TV shows are most often broadcast in. Finally there’s Adobe RGB, which is used as an indicator for how well a monitor might do at reproducing accurate color in key content-editing software like Adobe Photoshop.

Color accuracy is also measured via a figure known as “Delta E,” which expresses the distance between, say, the “most accurate orange,” and the orange that the monitor displays. If you want to watch (or produce) a lot of movies on your gaming monitor, DCI-P3 is the figure you should be the most concerned about; the Delta E and Adobe RGB numbers are the primary figures for creators who work in photography, 3D design, game production, modelling, or other creative fields where color accuracy is necessary.

Video Inputs and Other Features

A gaming monitor should be equipped with a variety of video inputs, so you can stay connected to multiple PCs and gaming consoles. Dual HDMI ports are ideal, since the major game consoles use HDMI, while most higher-end graphics cards released over the past few years offer DisplayPort and HDMI 2.1 connectivity. DVI has all but died out at that tier, though the budget-focused set may still have it depending on the generation.

A few extreme enthusiast monitors capable of 4K resolution, such as the Acer Nitro XV3, actually require two DisplayPort 1.4b cables plugged in at once to pipe a 4K 144Hz signal from a PC to the display. So far this is the only model we’ve seen that has this requirement to get the full signal, but if you plan on buying this display in particular we recommend making sure that your GPU has two DisplayPort 1.4b outputs to support it first.

Sample Monitor Ports

USB ports are also a nice feature, as they make it easy to connect to gaming controllers, mice, thumb drives, and other external peripherals, and in many cases you can charge devices when they are connected to a USB port. Side-mounted USB ports make it easy to plug and unplug peripherals without having to reach around the back of the monitor. A powerful speaker system with a built-in subwoofer will enhance your gaming experience and conserve desktop space, and a stand with height, tilt, and swivel adjustments offers ergonomic comfort for those all-night frag-a-thons. That said, if you tend to game with a gaming headset, a conveniently situated USB port might be more valuable than middling built-in speakers.

Pivot-Adjustable Monitor Stand

Finally, there’s RGB lighting. While some shoppers can’t stand the stuff (to this writer, it washes out the game on the screen), plenty of gamers out there like to sync up their gaming monitor to the rest of their RGB-ness on their PC case, on their video card, or pulsating off their RAM. (Heck, you can even find RGB SSDs these days.)

ViewSonic Elite Monitor RGB

Some of the programs that can sync your monitor to the rest of your RGB setup include Asus Aura SyncAcer DisplayWidget, and MSI Mystic Light, as well as Alienware’s Command Center. Also, more advanced options like SteelSeries’ GameSense work in tandem with monitors like the MSI Optix MPG27CQ to display in-game information like your ammo and health levels via RGB LED strips on the monitor. The number of GameSense-compatible apps and games is limited, but it’s still a neat look into a possible future of functional, not just decorative, RGB.

So, Which Gaming Monitor Should I Buy?

Screen size, panel technology, and features will determine how much you’ll pay for a gaming monitor. You can snag a 24-inch model that uses TN technology with a fast gray-to-gray pixel response time for around $200, but you won’t get much in the way of features or image quality. Expect to pay more than $200 if you want a higher-than-60Hz refresh rate and some subset of perks, such as an adjustable stand, a USB hub, multiple digital video inputs, and either G-Sync or FreeSync technology. A full-blown 27-inch model with all the bells and whistles, including either G-Sync or FreeSync support and a Nano IPS display, can cost north of $500, and a 34-inch UHD monitor will run you more than $700. If you’re looking for a big-screen, ultra-wide monitor with a curved panel, plan on spending even more.

For more of our monitor picks, check out our top monitors overall. Gamers can also check out our top-picks coverage of other peripherals such as gaming keyboards and gaming mice to finish outfitting their game dens.  

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