What do you need to power 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

RTX 2080

While your wallet is open for the 4K monitor, go ahead and keep it open for a high-end graphics card. 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.

Fortunately, there are more cards that are 4K capable today than ever before, even if none of them are cheap. Nvidia’s RTX series of graphics cards, including the RTX 2070 Super, 2080 Super, and 2080 Ti, are all viable options, though the 2080 Ti is by far the most capable of the lot. These cards are priced between $500 and $1,200, with the more expensive options yielding better framerates. All the RTX cards have the benefit of supporting ray tracing and DLSS, too, though don’t expect to be able to run AAA games at 4K with ray tracing enabled.

The GTX 1080 and 1080 Ti are both great 4K cards in their own rights but are almost impossible to find at reasonable prices brand new. Second-hand versions at $400 or less might be worth considering, but be wary as they may have been used for cryptocurrency mining and there’s no guarantee how much life such cards will have left.

Weaker cards like the RTX 2060 Super or 1070 Ti (if you can find it, aren’t really viable for modern-day 4K gaming. If you play older games and can settle for 30 FPS, it’s doable, but not recommendable.

AMD does have some great options if you’d prefer to stick with the red team. Its new range of Navi graphics cards is very competitive. Headlined by the Radeon RX 5700 and 5700XT, they’re both capable of 4K gaming. In our own testing, the $400 5700 XT sits comfortably in between Nvidia’s RTX 2060 Super and 2070 Super in terms of performance. AMD has aggressively priced the Navi cards to undercut Nvidia’s Supers; going as far as cutting the retail price before the cards actually launched.

AMD’s last-generation Vega graphics cards are worth considering if you can find them at a good price, but they will struggle to maintain strong frame rates in modern games. The Radeon VII, based on Vega 20, is the most powerful of AMD’s cards, but it’s very expensive for what you get, only coming in slightly ahead of the 5700 XT. It’s also hit its end of life, so what little stock remains is dwindling fast.

Another option that some consider for 4K gaming is twin graphics cards in SLI or Crossfire configurations. While that was a potential solution in the past, in 2020, there just aren’t that many games that adequately support dual-GPU technologies, so consider wisely before committing to multicard PC setups, as they can be more trouble than they’re worth. You’re almost always better just buying a more expensive single card.

As for laptops, 4K gaming is still rather difficult. Even the best gaming laptops prioritize lower resolutions and higher framerates 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 your 4K monitor with a gaming laptop, you’ll want to buy the most powerful system you can find, something like an Alienware Area 51m. Anything less than a GTX 1080 Max-Q isn’t going to do well in AAA games.

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 sixth-gen chip — and from the Core i5 or Core i7 range of processors.

If you’re looking at AMD CPUs, don’t go for anything pre-first-generation Ryzen, and preferably opt for the latest Ryzen 3000 series as they offer the best bang for the buck and highest overall performance.

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 framerates (especially on AMD hardware) just make sure you have enough for the kind of system you’re running.

Picking the right monitor

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

You’ll need a 4K monitor if you want to be able to run at 4K, 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 frames per second, 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. The minimum you should opt for when buying a 4K display is  27-inch.

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 frames per second. 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 supports up to 120Hz at 4K resolution.

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 framerates, 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.

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