Finding a good gaming monitor isn’t easy, and manufacturers aren’t keen to make it any easier. Here’s everything you need to know to track down a good one.
What Makes a Monitor a Gaming Monitor?
To answer the question in the headline without any further ado: it’s hard to shop for a gaming monitor because the definition of “gaming monitor” is somewhat fluid. There are specific features that are good for gaming, or to be more accurate, are more conducive to a positive gaming experience on a PC. And those features don’t always align with what makes a monitor “good” for conventional uses of a desktop or laptop PC, like accurate colors or the most resolution.
Things aren’t helped by marketing. If you browse Amazon or an electronics store shelf (if you can find one), you might think every monitor is “good for gaming.” But that’s only true in the sense that every TV is “good for sports,” because technically, you can watch sports on any TV. It’s sort of true, but all those flashy graphics and buzzwords are misleading.
There are a few features that are specifically designed to make a monitor perform better for games. Here’s what you want to look for.
Almost any monitor will tell you it has good colors on the store description, but there are degrees of this: vibrancy, brightness, color accuracy, etc. Here’s the odd thing about image quality: it’s not necessarily what you want if you’re playing PC games.
Super-expensive monitors, aimed at professional graphic designers and printers, use a ton of advanced tech to get colors as accurate as possible. But all of that tech has to go between your PC and the image you see with your eyeballs, which slows down the time between when your computer renders the image and when you actually see it. The time is minuscule—a few thousandths of a second—but it’s enough to make a difference in fast-paced games like shooters, racers, and fighters. Gamers also tend to set their monitors with more vibrancy and saturation, prioritizing an appealing image over one that’s more technically accurate.
For this reason, inexpensive monitors and those focused on gaming usually use the less expensive and “faster” TN screen panels, as opposed to more color-accurate but slower IPS panels. A new middle ground is getting popular, the VA panel, which has better colors than TN but faster image display than IPS.
What do I mean when I say that a monitor is “fast?” Two things: display response time and hertz. Let’s talk about the first one.
Response time is the amount of time it takes between when your monitor receives an image from your PC and when it can display that image on the screen. Most monitors have a response time of under 10ms (one one-hundredth of a second), a trivial interval if you’re surfing the web or answering email. But in fast-paced games, that can be several frames of animation, and the difference between winning and losing.
“Gaming” monitors have LCD panels that focus on shorter response time, usually below 5ms, some as low as 1ms. That means less time between the game rendering the image and you reacting to it. That means (hopefully) you win.
Hertz is a different matter. Most monitors and TVs use 60hz panels: the computer renders sixty frames of animation every second. Some gaming monitors go higher, up to 120Hz, 144Hz, or even 240Hz. More frames of animation per second mean a smoother, more enjoyable game. These panels and the monitors that use them are, naturally, more expensive.
Keep in mind that a game running at 120 frames per second needs a beefier, more powerful PC than the same game running at 60 frames. Don’t break the bank on a fancy gaming monitor if your PC can’t actually use those features.
What About Resolution?
Screen size is an easy choice to make: get the biggest one you can afford (and which fits on your desk). Resolution is more tricky. Like hertz and frames per second, the more resolution you have, the better your games can look—and the more powerful your PC needs to be to get the game to run well.
1080p (1920×1080) is the standard PC resolution for the moment, and you can find 1080p panels in sizes from 20 inches up to 32 inches. 4K is another popular resolution, with four times the display area of 1080p, but it needs a much more powerful PC to use it well. 4K monitors start at around the 25-inch mark and go way up from there. 2K (2560×1440) is a happy middle ground, with many gaming monitors offering this resolution that combines good performance with sharp graphics. You can find these monitors in the 25-32-inch range.
There are also “ultrawide” monitors, which use the vertical resolution of a 1080p, 2K, or 4K monitor, but stretch them extra-wide for a more immersive experience. These are neat, but naturally, more expensive, and the extra resolution means your PC needs to work harder to render the image.
There are a few other features that are often included on gaming monitors. Let’s touch on them briefly:
- RGB Lighting: The monitor lights up on the sides or back, usually synced with a program on your desktop. Neat-looking, but entirely cosmetic.
- G-Sync and FreeSync: Special monitor tech that lets the image “pause” a millisecond or so for the PC to finish rendering a full-frame, eliminating screen tearing. Most gaming monitors support FreeSync, with some more expensive versions supporting NVIDIA’s proprietary G-Sync with extra hardware. But now there’s a version of G-Sync that doesn’t need additional hardware, but only for some monitors (it’s getting really complicated).
- HDR: High Dynamic Range. Support for extra-vivid colors in some games, just like HDR televisions. This used to be rarer, but it’s coming equipped on cheaper monitors now. Not all games support HDR graphics.
- VESA: A mounting standard. This doesn’t have anything to do with games, but if you want to use a fancy monitor mount or mount multiple monitors at once, make sure it supports VESA.
- Video inputs: All modern monitors should support at least an HDMI input. Gaming monitors should also have a DisplayPort so that they can take advantage of advanced graphics card hardware.
- Curved screen panel: It looks neat, and it’s supposed to improve viewing angles. The evidence for that isn’t clear-cut, though it makes sense on bigger, super-wide monitors.
The Specs You Should Focus On
So after all of this, you’re armed with the knowledge you need to find the gaming monitor that fits your PC and your budget. Here’s a checklist of what you want to focus on.
- Size and resolution: Whatever you can afford or fit on your desk. Keep in mind that larger monitors don’t always mean higher resolution. And if your gaming PC doesn’t have the latest hardware, it might have trouble keeping those framerates up at anything sharper than 1080p.
- Monitor panel type: Go for TN or VA panels, not IPS, unless you need better color accuracy in your everyday work.
- Hertz (Hz): 60Hz is fine; 120Hz or 144Hz is better. Again, don’t invest in a monitor with a super-fast panel if your PC isn’t powerful enough to render games that fast.
- Response time: Something below 5ms is ideal.
- G-Sync or FreeSync: Most gaming monitors support FreeSync to diminish screen tearing. Super-expensive gaming monitors support G-Sync. You only want to pay extra for G-Sync if you use an NVIDIA graphics card.
Our Gaming Monitor Picks
With the information above, you should be able to evaluate your needs and find a monitor within your budget. But if you’re in a hurry, we’ve made a few selections from the best gaming monitors on the market at the moment. All of them have high refresh rates, lightning-fast response times, compatibility with either G-Sync or FreeSync, and both DisplayPort and HDMI ports to make the most of your PC’s capabilities.
Premium Gaming Monitor Recommendation: Acer Predator X34
If your gaming PC (and your desk) can handle this massive ultrawide, you won’t find a better gaming monitor on the market at the moment. Thirty-four inches across with an enormous 3440×1440 resolution, it also includes a 120Hz refresh rate (which is hard to do at this size), G-Sync compatibility, and a super-fast 1ms response time.
Acer Predator Gaming X34 Pbmiphzx Curved 34" UltraWide QHD Monitor with NVIDIA G-SYNC Technology (Display Port & HDMI Port)
This enormous Acer ultrawide has everything you could want in a no-compromise monitor for PC games.
Mid-Range Gaming Monitor Recommendation: MSI Optix MAG321CQR
If your budget won’t stretch for a top-of-the-line model, this MSI option still gives you huge 32-inch screen real estate and plenty of gaming-focused features. Those include 144Hz refresh rate, 1ms response time, a GPU-friendly 2560×1440 resolution, and integrated RGB LEDs. The stand is also surprisingly robust.
MSI 32" Full HD RGB LED Non-Glare Super Narrow Bezel 1ms 2560 x 1440 144Hz Refresh Rate FreeSync Height Adjustable Curved Gaming Monitor (Optix MAG321CQR)
MSI's 32-inch monitor has an ideal balance between size, features, and price.
Budget Gaming Monitor Recommendation: Dell D2719HGF
At under $200 from most retailers, this Dell monitor would be a steal even if it didn’t include gaming features. Its 27-inch 1080p panel isn’t the biggest or sharpest, but it’s easy for even a mid-range setup to take advantage of its 144Hz refresh rate. 2ms of response time is great for gaming, but grab some dedicated speakers—the ones included in the monitor won’t blow you away.
Dell Gaming LED-Lit Monitor 27" Black (D2719HGF), FHD (1920 x 1080) at 144 Hz, 2 ms response time, DP 1.2, HDMI, USB, 2W x 2 speakers, AMD FreeSync
This Dell monitor will give you great gaming performance that won't break the bank---or your mid-range PC.