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What makes a monitor good for gaming and different from regular screens?


The age old question of why some monitors get labeled “gaming” continues to interest people all over the world. Possibly you have a standard monitor right now and feel that it may not support your growing interest in gaming, or you’re already a big gamer but thinking of a new monitor while pondering a non-gaming model because the regular ones tend to be considerably cheaper. We’ll discuss what puts displays designated for gaming apart from standard monitors, what to look for when choosing a screen with gaming as the primary application, and in general the things that make a gaming monitor good. 

And now, some terminology

Like most things in life the concept of a gaming monitor relies on relativity. That’s to say, a monitor becomes a gaming monitor by comparing it to so-called regular or standard screens. Those are all-round monitors that can do an OK job of most tasks. They can even handle gaming and professional graphics work, but they won’t do it well and you’ll always feel like you’re missing out. General use monitors, or “regulars”, do their best work in non-specific home and office jobs. Word processing, web browsing, casual video streaming, light gaming, and so on. If you REALLY want to enjoy gaming and experience everything the latest titles have to offer, you need to look for certain features – the ones that make a monitor a gaming display.

Sure, regular monitors (including the one you may be using to read this article) come in at very affordable price tags, but once you put them to the gaming test you’ll run into issues like screen tearing, input lag, and ghosting, all problems that’ll ruin a gaming experience. Read on to learn why investing in a gaming monitor comes with the territory when you decide to take your hobby to the next level. 

Quick response makes games possible

Read the specs of any monitor and you’ll come upon response time. That’s the speed with which the panel can refresh each pixel, measured in milliseconds. Manufacturers test how fast a pixel can switch between shades of grey, and in gaming monitors you need to be as close to zero as possible, namely 1ms. Up to 5ms should still work, but regular monitors tend to be slower, which isn’t practical for gaming use. If you don’t see a response time spec, don’t buy that monitor, as it’s not meant for gaming at all. Slow screen response times cause numerous issues in games, most notably artifacting, pixel crawl, and ghosting. 

A fresh frame of play

So we’ve covered response time, now it’s refresh rate. That’s the number of times per second a monitor can update its screen, and we use hertz (Hz) for that. In gaming, the bare minimum these days is 60Hz, but you should aspire to get a monitor with 100Hz  or higher for future proofing. Faster refresh rates are great for high speed game titles like first person shooters or any other genre where quick gamer responses are needed. Fast refresh is a must in competitive gaming. If a monitor has slow refresh you don’t only compromise speed, image quality suffers through screen tearing and, once again, ghosting. The latter is especially annoying as it looks like the image smears across the screen because the monitor simply can’t keep up with the demands of gaming hardware. The BenQ EX2780Q, for instance, has a native refresh rate of 144Hz, or frames per second. That’s more than enough for any game available, but select gaming monitors reach 240Hz.

Since resolution puts a burden on gaming hardware, it lowers frame rates.   As of 2019-2020, only games running in 1080p and 1440p go over 100Hz, with 4K (2160p) still presenting too much of a challenge for graphics hardware and thus limited to below 100 frames per second.  That will change in the near future, though.

An affordable general purpose 4K monitor may be appealing but it could also be hiding a 30Hz panel, which will be useless for gaming even if it looks pretty in screenshots. Be aware of this! On a related note, look for adaptive refresh technologies like FreeSync from AMD and G-Sync from NVIDIA. The two ensure your graphics card or console always remains synchronized with your gaming monitor, so screen tearing can’t occur. This ugly issue does happen on regular monitors which try to run games at speeds faster or slower than the native speed of the panel. It looks like the image is tearing in half and you don’t want it.

The less processed the better

One thing about regular monitors is that they’re well-intentioned. They try to be everything to everyone, and so usually do a lot of image processing to make sure they look as best as possible in every scenario. For gaming, that’s really bad. Even worse, cheap models include fixed image processing that can’t be turned off. And remember, every process applied to the image adds a delay, because the monitor’s scaler needs to work. That delay creates input lag, or the time between your game hardware outputting a signal and your monitor displaying it for you. A bunch of processing like image sharpening, noise reduction, dynamic colors, contrast adjustment, movie mode, theater mode, and so on will only serve to slow you down. Sure, those can be great when doing design work or watching a movie, but for gaming you just need a fast, high quality panel that will let the hardware running your games express itself as accurately as possible.

If total input lag exceeds 40ms, and that’s very normal for low cost regular monitors, games become essentially unplayable. Below 25ms should be fine for most people, but faster is always welcome. You’ll know right away if a monitor is completely useless for gaming because you’ll notice a delay between hitting a key or a button and action occurring on the screen. That stuff makes gaming impossible, and is very common on cheap general purpose monitors.

Gaming monitors may have optional processing, but they’ll always feature a dedicated game mode and a PC mode. Both switch processing off, minimize delay, and maximize the freedom given to gaming hardware. Make sure your monitor supports these modes! 

Make the gaming connection

Basic monitors may have just one video out and no audio at all. They may give you just one DisplayPort or a single HDMI. That’s a big no. A gaming monitor will have at least one of the latest HDMI versions (HDMI 2.0b, for example), DisplayPort, and several USB ports to charge stuff like controllers. Of course, good gaming monitors have decent speakers built in plus an output for headphones or an external sound system, since a real gaming monitor takes audio seriously. 

Not just a marketing label

So, here’s the bottom line. Gaming monitors are so-called because they’re built for the very specific needs of video games. They have panels with high speed response and refresh rates – you already know the difference between those two. They keep input lag to a bare minimum and don’t add any fluff to your image. They have audio just in case you want to use it. Plus gaming monitors have the image quality that lets games shine with accurate colors and true HDR on the native level and without any superfluous processing that slows you down. Manufacturers don’t just put “gaming” on a monitor. Any good brand will use premium panels in these models and test them very carefully for speed and accuracy before the gaming designation is applied.

Trying to game on a budget regular monitor is really like taking an economy compact car to the racetrack. It’ll work, but you won’t like the results. And you’ll just waste time and money. So better choose carefully!


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