4K gaming started life as a hobby for the one percent and, well, you still need a beast of a PC to push all those pixels. Fortunately, in the fast-paced world of technology, today’s elite options trickle down to tomorrow’s mainstream hardware in the blink of an eye. Over the past few months, new graphics cards from Nvidia and AMD hit the streets, each representing a two-generation technological jump over prior options.
But 4K gaming demands more than a fresh GPU.
When we last updated this article in November 2015, you’d need to drop roughly $1,300 at least on just your graphics card, 4K monitor, and power supply to get your PC up to snuff. A whole new PC would of course cost far more. Has the lower price of 4K displays and the launch of a supercharged new generation of graphics cards taken ultra-high resolution gaming mainstream?
We’ll tell you what you need to start PC gaming at 4K resolution. But before we dig in, this is the end goal: a glorious 4K screenshot from The Witcher 3. Click the image to enlarge it, but be warned that it gets really big on non-4K screens.
Let’s start with the monitor, since that’s the cornerstone of 4K gaming.
While you’re still likely to clutch your chest when you see 4K monitor prices compared to 1080p or even 1440p variants, costs have actually come down significantly over the past few years. The initial batch of Ultra HD displays often sold in the neighborhood of $1,000. (Eep!) Now you can find a large number of 3840x2160-resolution displays in the $350 to $500 range—though you can obviously spend much more than that on premium features.
You’ll want a display that’s at least 27- or 28-inches wide. Some 23-inch 4K displays are floating around—and not for much less cost—but honestly, 3820x2160 pixels don’t fit well on screens that small. Everything looks cramped. Dipping into Windows’ resolution scaling can help but not all programs support it. Go for a full-sized monitor.
The cheapest 4K monitors I can currently find are the 28-inch Samsung U28E590D ($365 on Amazon) and AOC U2879VF ($350 on Newegg). Both pack a TN panel with an ultra-fast 1ms response time and 60Hz refresh rates. That’s great for gaming, but TN panels often have poor viewing angles and inferior color accuracy compared to IPS panels. Upgrading to an IPS display will add at least $100 to the bill, as the most affordable option I can currently find is the LG 27UD58-B ($450 on Newegg) with a 27-inch widescreen display. Check out PCWorld’s 4K monitor guide for everything you need to know about Ultra HD display technology.
All three of those monitors support FreeSync, AMD’s variable refresh rate technology. FreeSync (and G-Sync, Nvidia’s competing technology) synchronize the refresh rates of your graphics card and monitor, which eliminates tearing and stuttering, resulting in a far smoother gameplay experience. Variable refresh rate monitors can make a massive difference in 4K gaming, because even the most potent high-end graphics cards still struggle to hit 60 frames per second in games at that resolution. FreeSync and G-Sync really help smooth out sub-60fps gameplay.
But while FreeSync doesn’t add much cost to a monitor, G-Sync requires the use of a proprietary hardware module. 4K G-Sync panels are much more expensive as a result, though they tend to be loaded with high-end features. The cheapest right now is the 28-inch Acer XB280HK ($520 on Amazon) with a TN panel. They get really pricey if you want an IPS panel. The 28-inch Asus ROG Swift PG27AQ costs $847 on Amazon, while the Acer Predator XB271HK costs $870 on Newegg.
The sky-high street cost of 4K G-Sync monitors is even more of a bummer because Nvidia’s GeForce lineup utterly dominates the world of enthusiast graphics cards. A 4K monitor packs four times as many pixels as a high-definition 1080p display, and you need a fire-breathing GPU to push that resolution while maintaining in-game frame rates that don’t devolve into stuttering garbage.
Last generation’s Nvidia Titan X, GTX 980 Ti, and AMD Fury X were the first single-GPU graphics cards capable of 4K gaming—though the experience wasn’t flawless. The three cards weren’t cheap. The Titan X cost $1,000, while the others launched with $650 MSRPs. What’s more, all three only supplied frames rates hovering between roughly 35- and 45fps at High settings in many games at the time (though they could near 60fps in less strenuous games like Alien: Isolation). We therefore only recommended the first-gen 4K GPUs if you planned to pair them with a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor, driving the cost of entry for 4K gaming even higher, or if you were fine playing games at a console-like 30fps.
The new generation of graphics cards shaves hundreds off that total. Graphics cards like the Gigabyte GTX 1070 Windforce OC deliver performance a hair better than the original $1,000 Titan X for just $400 on Amazon. Meanwhile, AMD has slashed the price of the Fury X to compensate, and you can find that card as cheaply as $380 on Amazon, integrated closed-loop water cooler and all.
Beyond driving down entry costs, other bleeding-edge GeForce graphics cards improve the 4K gaming experience if you’re willing to invest more money. The GeForce GTX 1080 delivers frame rates a full 30 percent higher than the Titan X and Fury X, particularly if you opt for an overclocked, custom-cooled variant like the EVGA GTX 1080 ($680 on Amazon) over a GTX 1080 Founders Edition ($700 on Amazon). Yes, vastly superior custom cards can be cheaper than GTX 1080 reference cards, which highlights how nutty the pricing for the GTX 10-series has been. That said, all GTX 1080 cards tend to feature a high overclocking overhead, allowing you eke out even more crucial frames.
Here’s a look at how a Fury X, Titan X, GTX 1070 Founders Edition, GTX 1080 Founders Edition, and EVGA GTX 1080 FTW stack up at 4K resolution in various games. These were taken with the default settings for the listed graphics fidelity options, and vendor-specific features (like AMD TressFX and Nvidia’s Gameworks) disabled.
You can increase frame rates by varying amounts by reducing antialiasing settings—which aren’t as necessary at pixel-packed 4K resolution—and other options, such as shadow quality. The returns and available options vary greatly game-by-game, though.
If you have deep pockets and a burning desire for a 4K gaming experience with few compromises, there’s an even beefier option: Nvidia’s second-gen Titan X, powered by the company’s new Pascal GPU architecture. While we haven’t reviewed the card at PCWorld—we had to settle for testing a prebuilt Falcon Northwest Fragbox 2 with two Titan Xs in SLI, shucks—evaluations from PC Perspective, Tom’s Hardware, and Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry say Nvidia’s new champion is 30 to 40 percent faster than the GTX 1080, and the first card capable of delivering 4K gameplay at 50 to 60 frames per second with detail settings cranked. It’s the most powerful graphics card ever released, period—and it’s priced like it, fetching a cool $1,200 on GeForce.com.
What we don’t recommend
There are some other avenues into 4K gaming that we don’t recommend at this point.
Some people play at 4K using slightly less potent (and less expensive) graphics cards like the Radeon Fury, GTX 970 or GTX 980, or Radeon R9 390 or R9 390X. Doing so requires some massive compromises, however, as all of those struggle to maintain even 30fps with High graphics in many modern games. (The Fury comes closest, but still isn’t worth the compromise.) You’d need to dip graphics settings down to Medium in many games for them to be playable—and you probably don’t want to do that. The whole point of playing at 4K is the enhanced visuals, after all, and medium textures look extra cruddy at higher resolutions.
Honestly, if you’re fine making those sorts of image quality sacrifices to hit roughly 30fps, the forthcoming PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox “Project Scorpio” consoles would probably be a more cost-effective 4K gaming option (unless you already have a 4K PC monitor). You’d be giving up PC gaming’s other killer benefits, though. Alternatively, even the $200 Radeon RX 480 is likely capable of 4K gaming if you’re willing to use a mix of Medium and High settings at 30fps.
Crossfire (AMD) and SLI (Nvidia) multi-card solutions are more interesting. If you already have a GTX 970 or Radeon R9 390, for example, simply slapping another one in your system could open the door to 4K gaming for much less than buying a new 4K-capable card.
Here’s the thing, though: Support for multi-GPU setups has always been flaky—and it’s getting worse. Numerous big-name games over the past couple of years released with late, buggy, or no SLI or Crossfire support. What’s more, Nvidia and AMD seem ready to shrug even more of the multi-GPU support work off the shoulders of their drivers and onto game developers now that next-gen graphics APIs like DirectX 12 and Vulkan enable deeper hardware access for game makers. Game developers are a notoriously overworked and under-resourced bunch, which doesn’t bode well for SLI and Crossfire support getting more attention in the near future.
When a game doesn’t support multi-GPU, you’re stuck using a single card, rendering your second card a highly expensive paperweight. And like I said, when it does work, it often doesn’t work well. Stay away from multi-GPU setups and buy the best single-GPU graphics card you can afford.
Your graphics card and monitor are the biggest factors in 4K gaming, but depending on your current rig’s setup, you might need to upgrade some other components as well.
The most pressing upgrade would be your power supply. You’ll want a 500 watt power supply for the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080, while the Fury X, Titan X Pascal, and the older Titan X and GTX 980 Ti all recommend 600W. (If you already have a gaming PC there’s a good chance you already have a beefy power supply.)
Decent 500W power supplies—you do not want to risk a no-name power supply—start around $50 for a basic model with 80 Plus Bronze certification, and go up from there as you add features or wattage support. Diving into PSUs is outside the scope of this article, but check out PCWorld’s power supply buying guide for all the info you need about this crucial component.
With graphics cards this powerful, your computer’s processor might also become a bottleneck—there’s a chance your CPU can’t pass instructions to your GPU fast enough, resulting in reduced frame rates. If you’re rocking a four-core Core i5 or Core i7 processor released in the past few years, you should be just fine, but if your PC packs an AMD processor other than the FX-8350 or firebreathing FX-9590, a Core i3, or an older Core chip like the venerable Core i7-920, you’re probably leaving performance on the table.
Add it all up and there’s no question: Getting into 4K gaming is cheaper than ever, propelled by the plummeting costs of monitors and the onward march of graphics technology. But there’s also no question that the cost of a 4K-ready setup is still outside the reach of the majority of PC gamers.
When we examined the issue in November 2015, the minimum you needed to spend to upgrade your rig to a 4K powerhouse was $1,300. Less than a year later, that’s been almost halved. You can snag a “budget” 4K monitor and a 4K-capable graphics card like the GTX 1070 or Fury X for roughly $750. That’s a huge drop in a short time span.
Granted, it’s still hugely expensive—and that’s just the graphics card and the cheapest possible display. If you need to upgrade your power supply, you’ll spend a bit more, or a lot more if you need to upgrade your CPU and motherboard. And if you’re looking to build a whole new 4K gaming PC from scratch, you’ll probably wind up spending closer to $1,400 at a minimum. Add more to that if you want a monitor with extra features (though that $750 can snag you a FreeSync-equipped display to pair with a Fury X).
But what’s almost more exciting than the minimum cost of entry plummeting is what’s happening at the high end.
Before, there was only a single 4K experience available: the solid but sub-60fps gameplay delivered by the Fury X, original Titan X, and GTX 980 Ti. Now, that experience is more affordable, and anyone willing to spend more—a lot more—can get a solid 45fps-plus experience on High graphics with the $700 GTX 1080, or damned near the hallowed 60fps standard with everything cranked on the $1,200 Titan X Pascal. There are actual options now.
Sure, premium 4K gaming setups cost more than many people’s first car. But gaming at the cutting edge has always been for the one percent—and come next graphics-card generation, all of these advances are sure to become even more affordable.
This story, "The state of 4K gaming: What you need to know, from pricing to performance needs" was originally published by PCWorld.