Here’s everything you need to run 4K games and movies

Here's what you need to play games and watch movies in 4K on your PC

HP Dreamcolor Z32x
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Whether you’re watching movies, playing games, or merely working at 4K resolution, it all looks fantastic. Everything is crisp, tack-sharp, and impossibly clear. Colors are vivid and lush, blacks are as deep as the night sky. But details are not without their cost. If you’re looking to get into 4K PC gaming or movie watching, 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, so read on to find out what you need to run 4K.

A powerful graphics card is a must

Nvidia GeForce Titan X

While your wallet is open for the 4K monitor, go ahead and keep it open for a high-end graphics card – or two. Gaming in 4K requires your graphics card to process huge 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, anything but the most powerful graphics cards have trouble handling the amount of processing 4K requires. With 12GB of GDDR5X, Nvidia’s GTX Titan XP is the most powerful single card out there and can handle 4K gaming better than just about any other set up in the world. At $1,200 though, it’s out of reach of almost everyone — fortunately, it’s not the only option.

The Nvidia GTX 1080 and its slightly more-powerful brother, the GTX 1080 Ti, are also fantastically capable for 4K. As long as prices are reasonable, you should find them for $550 and $700 respectively. If you dip down into 1070 and below, only older games or those with very low settings will be playable. Even the Alienware Area-51 with its twin GTX 1080Tis couldn’t hit 60 FPS in Deus Ex Mankind Divided at 4K.

AMD does have some options if you’d prefer to stick with the red team. Its Vega 64 graphics card is perfectly capable of single-card 4K gaming for around $580. The Vega 56 isn’t quite as viable, though can deliver passable 4K gaming experiences.

As for laptops, 4K gaming is still rather difficult. Even the best gaming laptops prioritize lower resolutions and higher frame rates because gaming at 4K is incredibly taxing on even desktop hardware and laptop graphics chips don’t tend to measure up. You’re also unlikely to be able to truly appreciate 4K detail on a sub-20-inch laptop screen anyway. But if you do plan on powering you 4K monitor with a gaming laptop, you’ll want to buy the most powerful system you can find, something like an Alienware 17 R5. Anything less than a GTX 1080 isn’t going to do well in AAA games.

It is worth bearing in mind that Nvidia is expected to debut a brand new generation of graphics cards in 2018 and AMD its own new-tech in early 2019, so it might be a good idea to wait a few months to see how those turn out. After all, Nvidia’s GTX 10-series graphics cards are in some cases as much as two years old at this point.

Another option that some consider with 4K gaming is twin graphics cards in SLI or Crossfire configurations. While that is viable and often necessary to hit high frame rates at maximum detail levels in the most taxing of games, know that the gains aren’t linear. You aren’t going to get double performance by paying through the nose for two GTX Titan XPs. There aren’t also that many games that adequately support dual-GPU technologies, so consider wisely before committing to multi-card PC setups as they can be more trouble than they’re worth.

Processors and RAM aren’t as important

Although typically gaming PCs will pack a powerful central processor and high-speed memory, they aren’t quite as important for running a system at 4K as a decent graphics card is. That said, they are the hardware that feeds your monstrous graphics card what it needs to display games and certain applications at 4K resolution, so you’ll want to make sure they aren’t a bottleneck.

When it comes to selecting a CPU to pair up with your graphics card, you’ll want to ensure that it’s fairly recent, though it doesn’t need to be top end. If you’re opting for an Intel CPU, make sure it’s from the last few generations — at least a fourth-gen chip — and from the Core i5 or Core i7 range of processors. If you’re looking at AMD CPUs, the big jump in performance that was made with its Ryzen line up means that your best bet is starting with the Ryzen 5 chips and working your way up depending on your budget.

For a look at some specific CPUs we recommend, here are our guides to the best gaming CPUs, and the best Intel and AMD CPUs available today.

As for RAM, while faster speeds can help boost frame rates in some games by a percent point or two, just make sure you have enough for the kind of system you’re running.

Using the right port

Acer TA272HUL review hdmi ports

With a 4K monitor ready to roll and a powerful graphics card champing at the bit, all you need to do is connect them up to enjoy your beautiful new 4K set up. How you do that though, can have a drastic effect on your experience.

Most HDMI connections can’t handle 4K. 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 HDMI 2.0, and that’s far from adequate if you’re running a high-refresh-rate 4K monitor like the Acer Predator x27.

To support that, you’ll need to use a DisplayPort 1.3 or 1.4 port, which support up to 120Hz at 4K resolution.

Picking the right monitor

LG 32UD99-W review full
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Lastly, you’ll need a 4K monitor. But picking one out today isn’t as simple as it used to be. You could spend over one thousand dollars on high refresh rates and syncing technologies, or a couple of hundred on a more entry-level offering. What you opt for is going to be dependent on budget, as much as it is desired features and specifications.

If you’re planning to game on your new 4K display, higher refresh rates are useful, but unless you have very deep pockets, you’re going to struggle to push games over the more common 60 FPS anyhow. All of our favorite 4K monitors are geared more towards image quality than they are faster gameplay.

Size is an important consideration too. If you buy a display that’s too small, you aren’t going to be able to appreciate all of that extra pixel detail. There are also some scaling problems in certain games and professional software. Some allow you to scale the interface up, but that can reduce sharpness, which is half the reason people buy 4K monitors in the first place. 27-inch should be the minimum you opt for when buying a 4K display.

4K isn’t cheap, but it’s getting cheaper

Gaming and working at 4K isn’t the monumental expense it used to be, but you are going to need to spend around $1,000 to get the kind of experience that’s worth upgrading for. That’s a lot of money, and shelling out that kind of cash doesn’t guarantee a perfect experience, as there are still some scaling issues in certain games and software. You may also miss out on higher frame rates, which are much more affordable at lower resolutions and some would argue are more important for a better gaming experience.

That said, 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. It’s worth considering, just make sure you know what you’re in for before opening up your wallet.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: inflatable backpacks and robotic submarines

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Product Review

Dell's classic 4K P2715Q monitor still holds up today

The Dell P2715Q might not be the most modern of 4K displays, but its IPS panel, extensive connectivity, and easily adjusted stand make it more than competitive with the newest crop of screens.
Computing

Gaming on a laptop has never been better. These are your best options

Gaming desktops are powerful, but they tie you down to your desk. For those of us who prefer a more mobile experience, here are the best gaming laptops on the market, ranging from budget machines to maxed-out, wallet-emptying PCs.
Home Theater

From game consoles to high-grade spinners, these are the best Blu-ray players

Streaming may be popular, but the disc isn't dead yet! To get the very best picture and sound quality from your system, you need to be watching Blu-ray or 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. Here are the best Blu-ray players you can buy right now.
Computing

Steam survey shows PC gamers are still mostly playing in 1080p and lower

Valve Software’s latest hardware and software survey for July 2reveals that 63.72 percent of Steam’s registered members still play games with a 1080p resolution. Even more, only 1.14 percent are playing at a 4K resolution.
Product Review

Dell's XPS 15 is the PC every laptop wishes it could be

Not everyone needs the power that a laptop like the Dell XPS 15 provides. But if you need a computer that can handle the heavy workload you use every day, the XPS 15 might be the best you can buy.
Product Review

Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe (late 2017) review

As our Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe (late 2017) review shows, adding an 8th-gen Intel Core processor to an excellent thin and light chassis makes for a great combination.
Computing

Reluctant to give your email address away? Here's how to make a disposable one

Want to sign up for something without the risk of flooding your inbox with copious amounts of spam and unwanted email? You might want to consider using disposable email addresses with one of these handy services.
Computing

Both the Razer Blade and XPS 15 are capable laptops, but which is better?

We pit the latest Dell XPS 15 against the latest Razer Blade 15 to see which machine meets the needs of most people. Both are a fast, attractive, and well-built, but they still appeal to different users.
Computing

Use one of these password managers to stay safe online

The internet can be a scary place, especially if you don't have a proper passcode manager. This guide will show you the best password managers you can get right now, including both premium and free options. Find the right password software…
Computing

Logitech’s distinctive new ergonomic mouse looks as good as it feels

Logitech's first true ergonomic mouse sports an interesting tilted design that encourages less muscle strain. We spent some time with the MX Vertical to see how comfortable it is and determine whether or not we'd prefer it to a standard…
Mobile

Airport’s low-tech solution to digital chaos involves the humble whiteboard

A U.K. airport has suffered a major computer error, caused by data connection problems, which has stopped flight boards from showing crucial passenger information. The solution is wonderfully low-tech.
Computing

Here’s how to watch Nvidia’s GeForce event at Gamescom

Today is August 20, and that means Nvidia may showcase its GeForce RTX 20 Series of add-in graphics cards for gamers. We’re sticking with that name rather than the previous GTX 11 Series brand due to today’s date.
Computing

HTC breaks down VR barriers by bringing Oculus Rift titles to Viveport

HTC's Viveport store and subscription service will be opened to Oculus Rift users in September this year, letting them buy titles directly and take advantage of the monthly game-delivery service.