Playing games in 4K is nothing short of stunning. Everything is crisp, tack-sharp, and impossibly clear. Colors are vivid and lush, blacks are as deep as the night sky. Your monitor becomes a window into the game.
Those details are not without their cost, however. If you’re looking to get into 4K PC gaming, you’re in for a bit of a journey. Getting your system up to spec for 4K isn’t as straightforward as it is for 1080p, or even 1440p.
Gearing up for a trek into the unknown
What do you need to run games in 4K? You will need a monster raised from the deep, a dragon with gleaming eyes and glittering scales, a PC with two GPUs and enough VRAM to render a the inner workings of a black hole in real time.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but running games in 4K isn’t something you can tackle idly. It takes a serious investment of time and money. Mostly money. It’s less expensive than it used to be but it’s still not exactly something you can tackle on a budget – not without cutting corners, anyway.
Any time you put together a PC each component will act as a bottleneck on all the others, but this is never more true than when you’re dealing with 4K. Every component needs to be running at peak performance, and to achieve that you need to carefully consider each piece of hardware right down to the cables.
With that in mind, let’s get started.
Behold, the humble monitor in its natural habitat
Your monitor is the window into your computer’s soul, and for 4K it’s important to keep an eye on a couple different specs you might otherwise ignore or take for granted. Of primary concern is the refresh rate. Finding a monitor with a sufficient refresh rate isn’t as hard as it used to be, luckily. Most run at 60Hz. However, gamers sometimes prefer an even higher refresh rate — and your options there are limited. A few 75Hz monitors exist, but that’s as high as you’ll find.
Size is also an important consideration, or at least resolution with regard to overall screen size. The Windows desktop environment starts to suffer from scaling issues as pixel density approaches 200 pixels per inch. A 30-inch, 4K monitor packs a modest 146 PPI, but a 24-incher with the same resolution approaches 184 PPI. That can make desktop icons and webpages look odd, as if they were out of focus.
There are also some scaling problems in certain games, such as League of Legends and World of Warcraft, which have a small default interface scale. Such games provide the option to increase the scale, but that can in turn decrease sharpness. Think of it like blowing up a low resolution image. You sacrifice sharpness for size.
Two GPUs, each forged from the last light of a dying star
While your wallet is open for the 4K monitor, go ahead and keep it open for a high-end graphics card – or two. Hey, we told you this was going to get expensive. Before we start listing which cards to buy for your 4K gaming behemoth, let’s talk about what specs to look for and why 4K gaming is so hard on your GPU.
Gaming in 4K requires your graphics card to process huge, massive, monumental amounts of information in the blink of an eye, and for that you need to make sure your graphics card has the headroom it needs.
Video RAM is the key to 4K gaming, and in our tests even powerful graphics cards with insufficient RAM have trouble handling the amount of processing 4K requires. The AMD Radeon 295X2, a dual-GPU water-cooled monster of a video card, could barely handle running games in 4K. It’s a couple years old, but it’s still a powerful graphics card. Yet poor thing struggled to keep up a paltry 22 FPS in Crysis 3, and a slow-but-playable 37 FPS in Battlefield 4.
The Radeon 295X2 was no slouch when it came to our other benchmarks. It just didn’t have enough bandwidth to reliably send images generated by the GPUs to the monitor in 4K.
Newer cards, of course, fare much better, but you still need to keep an eye on video RAM.
The best, the most expensive, the most obscenely powerful graphics card available now is the latest version Nvidia GTX Titan X, which boasts Nvidia’s coveted “Pascal” architecture. Without going into the details of chip design, Pascal GPUs handle data and graphical rendering in a fundamentally different way than previous Nvidia cards have, and it shows. The Pascal Titan X retails for around $1200, and it’s massively, enormously powerful. With 12GB of RAM, the Titan X is probably the ultimate single-card solution for your 4K gaming rig.
But, if you’d like to spend less than a thousand dollars on a GPU, you’ve got options.
You can save a little money here without cutting too deep into your performance by considering some other single-card solutions.
The Nvidia GTX 1080 is, curiously enough considering its name, a fantastically capable video card for 4K. Some reviews and hardware forums even recommend against picking up the 1080 unless you’re going to use it for 4K, as it’s just a bit overkill for gaming in 1080p or 1440p. It’s got the latest Pascal architecture, an admirable 8GB of RAM, and you can find it for around $600.
If your blood runs Radeon red, and you could never even consider an Nvidia card for your 4K monster, AMD does offer some fairly competitive alternatives to the Nvidia GTX 1000 series, but you’ll be taking another hit to performance. The aforementioned Radeon R9 Fury X performed reasonably well in most of our 4K tests, though usually well under 60 FPS. It’s certainly a viable alternative if you don’t mind paring down your graphics settings in the name of saving some cash – or staying loyal to your chosen brand.
If you’re really looking for a budget option, you could also consider the Radeon RX 480. Based on its benchmarks, you’re in for a serious hit to your performance. It can run most games in 4K, but you’re going to be barely getting by with 30FPS or less. Still, the RX480 retails for around $240, a fraction of the cost of some other cards. We’re looking at you, Titan X.
A dual-GPU setup can look attractive for 4K. It’s the only way to achieve 60 FPS in some titles at maximum detail. However, both Nvidia and AMD are likely to roll out new cards in the coming year, and you’d probably be better off socking away the cash you’d spend on a second card to save up for an upgrade a year or two down the line.
Check the connection
Once you have a 4K monitor and a video card setup that can handle it, you’re done, right? Not quite.
The last hurdle you’ll need to jump through is the connection to the 4K monitor itself. Most PC users are familiar with HDMI, the most common video standard. Almost every 1080p monitor offers HDMI.
Most HDMI connections can’t handle 4K, however. Support for the resolution was only introduced in HDMI 1.4, but even then, only at a maximum of 30 FPS. To drive a 60Hz 4K monitor, you need an HDMI 2.0.
To provide this, you need an HDMI 2.0 compatible source, and HDMI 2.0 compatible display. Existing HDMI cables should work so long as they are “High Speed HDMI” cables. If the source or display isn’t HDMI 2.0 compatible, you’ll still see a picture, but you won’t be able to drive 4K resolution at a 60Hz (or higher) refresh rate.
The Nvidia GTX Titan X, and the bulk of the Nvidia 2016 lineup, all support HDMI 2.0, but the latest AMD Radeon cards do not. So how do they run 4K content at 60 FPS? Radeon cards rely on the latest version of DisplayPort.
HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort are the only connections that can handle 4K resolution at 60Hz and have proper video card support. But even with DisplayPort, there’s an obstacle. You’ll need to pick up a DisplayPort 1.2 cable. Older versions of the standard support a maximum resolution of “only” 2,560 x 1,600.
Connecting a cable that’s inadequate can result in strange on-screen behavior. The display will likely turn on and transmit an image, but it may flicker, suffer from strange scan lines, or rapidly change color. This can cause some alarm and make you wonder if your new 4K monitor is broken, but don’t worry. Choosing the wrong cable won’t do any damage. It just won’t work properly until you buy the right one.
Like we said, going 4K isn’t cheap. Expect to spend upward of $600 on a 4K monitor, and the same on a GTX 1080 video card.
That’s a lot of money, and shelling out that kind of cash doesn’t guarantee a perfect experience. Some of the quickest video cards struggle to keep up with 4K, and there are numerous bugs and scaling issues that may disrupt your experience.
Warnings aside, we can see the appeal. Images are stunningly beautiful at 4K. Even games that are several years old look great, because the high resolution adds details that are simply not visible at lower resolutions. 4K remains too expensive for the average person, but those who can afford it will enjoy jaw-dropping visuals.