Monitors for Console Gaming
Author: Adam Simmons
Last updated: October 29th 2016
As the name suggests, this website is about ‘PC Monitors’. That is, screens that are intended to be used with computers. But what is considered a ‘computer’ can of course be a rather broad term. For the purposes of our testing and the data gathered for the reviews and articles, this simply means a desktop PC. That is what we have access to, our preferred tool for serious computing (ahem) and it is the perspective from which our reviews are written. A good chunk of each review is dedicated to the gaming experience on a particular monitor, because that is what we like to test and indulge in ourselves and so do many of our readers.
But some people prefer to use games consoles for gaming, machines that are designed for specifically for that purpose. Modern machines such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (PS4) are essentially just fairly bog standard gaming PCs with a price and simplicity that really appeals to many users. This article is essentially an acknowledgement of that fact and is designed to give specific ‘Q+A style’ guidance to users who are considering a monitor for such use. There is a lot of crossover between what we might recommend to PC gamers ‘on a budget’ and for console gamers, but there are some limitations which have to be considered that don’t apply to all PCs.
Shouldn’t I get a 120Hz+ monitor?
Refresh rate is limited to 60Hz maximum on current games consoles. This may come as a shock to some people as you can get TVs with higher refresh rates (120Hz, 240Hz or even much higher numbers). Those refresh rates are usually achieved using an interpolation or frame duplication technique, meaning that there are up to 60 unique frames (60fps at 60Hz) with the rest of the refresh rate filled up with ‘padding’. This padding is essentially duplicated or artificially created intermediate frames. This can make motion appear smoother, usually in a rather artificial way, but it is a completely different experience to seeing 120 or more discrete frames per second. Even on rare TVs or less rare monitors that support ‘true’ 120Hz+, the output of the console is always limited to 60Hz maximum and the frame rate of the game is only ever going to be 60fps at the very most.
In contrast, serious (or should we say, competitive) PC gamers generally appreciate and can use monitors with raised refresh rates such as 120Hz or 144Hz. They will want to run their titles at the highest possible frame rates with their monitor able to keep up. Users who game more casually may also appreciate raised refresh rates, and whether considered a casual or competitive gamer, there is now a lot of interest in variable refresh rate technologies to help smooth out those times when the frame rate can’t meet the refresh rate. So keep it simple and keep it 60Hz.
120Hz+ is off the cards
‘4K’ or 21:9 is better, right?
Not to tease, but ‘4K’ is another technology that only PC gamers can actually take advantage of at the moment. And the investment (in graphics cards, primarily) that they have to make to be able to run their favourite modern titles in ‘4K’ at decent graphics settings and respectable frame rates is quite considerable. Whilst future machines such as the Xbox Scorpio and PS4 Pro will push the resolution up to ‘4K’ (or more likely 3840 x 2160 UHD – Ultra High Definition), the latest current consoles will only run games at 1920 x 1080 (‘1080P’ Full HD) at the very most. If you wish to use a monitor to run with a PC at 3840 x 2160 and use a console on the side at 1920 x 1080, you will have to carefully consider how the monitor handles displaying this non-native resolution. This equally applies if you are looking to purchase one of the ‘4K capable’ consoles further down the line but keep the same monitor. People mistakenly believe that such monitors should be able to display those pixels ‘perfectly’ due to the perfect mathematical divisions involved. In the real world things aren’t done that way and you should refer to the ‘Interpolation and upscaling’ section of any relevant monitor reviews that we’ve done for analysis on this.
As with ‘4K’ UHD monitors, you can’t take advantage of monitors with ‘UltraWide’ aspect ratios such as 21:9 on current console either. Aside from the fact that the resolution will always exceed 1920 x 1080 (being either 2560 x 1080 or 3440 x 1440 most commonly) and that isn’t supported, the games themselves are generally designed to display at the expected modern 16:9 aspect ratio. It is difficult to predict whether future machines will support such an aspect ratio and indeed it’s something that is only slowly taking flight on the PC as well. It’s certainly a nice option for the PC gamer to have, but not something you will have to even consider otherwise.
Keep it wide, not UltraWide
So I just need a monitor with 1-2ms response time then?
The pixel response time is only one piece of the ‘responsiveness jigsaw’, and on modern LCDs is certainly not the biggest one. To understand more about the factors affecting the responsiveness of a monitor and how they interconnect, we’d highly recommend reading our dedicated article on exactly that topic. Some important take-home messages from the article with respect to this aspect of a screen:
- Our eyes move as we track motion on a monitor, and the degree to which this occurs on a sample and hold monitor (i.e. your typical LCD) is closely tied to the refresh rate of the screen and frame rate of the content.
- It is this eye movement rather than pixel responsiveness which accounts for most of the perceived blur we see on a sample and hold monitor (i.e. your typical LCD). This is demonstrated beautifully by ‘Pursuit photography’ – refer to the ‘Pursuit photography approach’ section of our responsiveness article.
- Specified response times are very misleading, as the speed of a pixel response varies depending on the shades involved in the transition (i.e. the grey levels involved).
- On a monitor where a 1-2ms response time is quoted, that will usually apply to some of the fastest transitions the monitor will perform (i.e. best case). And even on a snappy TN panel those super-speedy transitions are generally achieved using aggressive grey to grey acceleration or pixel overdrive. This leads to a condition called ‘overshoot’ and the presence of ‘inverse ghosting’ – unsightly artifacts during motion which some users very much dislike.
- On a 60Hz sample and hold monitor (your typical LCD) the movement of your eye masks pixel responses faster than around 8ms. They are essentially hidden by a ‘mask of blur’. You would therefore see no difference between an 8ms pixel transition and that same transition occurring at 1ms, 2ms or even a theoretical 0.001ms.
With these concepts in mind, it’s quite clear that going for a monitor that has a quoted ‘1ms’ or ‘2ms’ response time is not necessarily going to benefit you over going for a model which may, on paper, be slower. It’s important to consider the spread of response times and the fact that you are limited to a 60Hz refresh rate – where the need for super-fast pixel responses simply doesn’t exist. As mentioned it’s also possible that a monitor that pushes for really fast pixel transitions actually hinders rather than helps the visual fluidity due to overshoot.
1ms, at what cost?
Depending on the pixel overdrive implementation and flexibility given to the user it may or may not be possible to select a more moderate level of acceleration that is free from such eyesores, without the overdrive being essentially being turned off. BenQ’s ‘AMA’ implementation on some of their ‘RL’ and ‘XL’ series is an example of this, where the ‘High’ setting (lowest level of pixel overdrive without disabling it) can produce a degree of overshoot that some users would find unpleasant.
Why should I care about viewing angles when I sit in front of the screen?
Some console gamers like to sit back from their screen a bit, perhaps in a posture that could be described as a ‘dynamic slouch’. With this in mind it might make sense to consider screens with strong viewing angle performance, the kings of which in the LCD world are undoubtedly the IPS-type (In-Plane Switching and similar) panels. But even if you sit right in front of your monitor, at a desk, and keep your head in one position, you can still observe weaknesses in viewing angle performance. Different sections of the screen are viewed at different viewing angles and can therefore be affected by relative weaknesses in this area. This is especially true for larger screens (27”+) but is certainly still a factor for smaller screens (21.5 – 24”) as well.
As explored in our panel types article, the relatively weak vertical viewing angles of TN (Twisted Nematic) panels means that a given shade tends to appear much less saturated at the bottom of the screen compared to the top. There are also some lesser shifts horizontally. A properly calibrated monitor with TN panel can produce very accurate shades in the centre of the screen, which is where the colorimeter or calibration device takes its readings and makes its adjustments. But that same shade will appear darker (more saturated) further up the screen and lighter (less saturated) further down the screen. For this reason this panel type is shunned for colour critical work. The effect is best explored and explained by viewing large areas of an individual shade or by viewing tests specifically designed to demonstrate it. The following photo was captured on the ASUS PG278Q (a generally highly regarded TN model) showing the movie ‘Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder’. It gives quite a decent representation of what you would actually see when viewing that particular scene on that monitor from a normal viewing position.
Of course, when gaming, you don’t generally see large blocks of a single colour like this so the ‘effect’ may not be quite so obvious. But the weakening saturation still occurs all the same and some users will notice this quite readily. Consider green vegetation in the environment on a game (who doesn’t like a bit of natural eye-candy?), for example. The intention is often for there to be a variety of distinct but closely matching green shades for different vegetation types or parts of the same tree or plant. On a properly calibrated IPS-type panel without uniformity problems, everything that is meant to be a particular shade will be that shade. It will be distinct from other shades even if the differences are intended to be subtle. Generally lush greens will appear just as lush at the top of the screen as the bottom whilst paler greens will appear an appropriate pastel shade throughout. On a TN panel all shades appear more saturated towards the top and less saturated towards the bottom of the screen, even if the screen is calibrated to display the correct shade centrally. Closely matching shades lose their ‘identity’ and individuality and there is ‘shade-crossover’. That is to say the lush and deep greens may even look weaker (less saturated and paler) at some parts of the screen than what are supposed to be paler greens elsewhere on the screen. Of course this doesn’t just apply to greens and vegetation – that was just to give an example. And there are plenty more ‘real-world’ examples given in our subjective analysis on relevant reviews.
Do I need a ‘Black eQualizer’?
The ‘Black eQualizer’ feature is simply a fancy way of saying that the monitor can mess up the gamma curve such that games do not look as the director intended, but rather some of those dark shades can be made lighter. This improves visibility in dark areas on games, which is where the competitive advantage comes in, but it also kills any sense of atmosphere the game is trying to convey. The image below shows a star field, as it should look (roughly – it depends on the calibration of your own monitor amongst other things). This is actually a desktop wallpaper but could equally be a scene in a game where there are plenty of dark shades.
The intended image
And the image below shows that same image with the ‘Black eQualizer’ feature ramped up all the way. This example is from our review of the BenQ XL2411T, but the behaviour of this feature and end result is largely the same on other more recent models that sport it. You can see a lot of ‘unintended’ detail is revealed. Near-black shades are raised so that they look lighter than they should and stand out, giving something of an ‘oil-slick’ appearance and really a rather unnatural look.
Add a dash of Black eQualizer
Although we feel this feature creates an ugly image, and many would agree with us, it is a feature we can see some benefit in for competitive gamers. Then again, for those who prefer enhanced visibility at the expense of accuracy, many monitors offer adjustable gamma settings or different gamma tracking in certain presets that replicates this sort of behaviour. And these are monitors which will provide superior image quality in other departments for those games that you want looking their best.
How do I set up my monitor for console gaming?
As noted earlier in the article, modern systems are essentially simple low(ish) powered PCs internally. The setup we recommend in our reviews, for PC users, therefore applies equally to console gaming. Of course there are some aspects that muddy the waters a little bit, most notably the colour signal. In this article we explain how to correct the colour signal on both the monitor and GPU. The ‘monitor’ bit still applies equally – if there is such an option, you should set the RGB Range (‘HDMI Black Level’) to ‘Full’, ‘Normal’, ‘0-255’ or something to that effect. Not all monitors have this option and will configure it automatically (or will simply use Full Range RGB by default). Refer to the article for more on this setting, or alternatively refer to the calibration section of a particular review on our website for monitor-specific advice on this setting. With your console you obviously don’t have a GPU driver to mess around with, but instead should have some sort of menu with some settings you can tweak (or in some cases, are better off leaving alone). The image below shows the ‘Display & sound’ menu of Microsoft’s Xbox One. We will include any guidance on future Microsoft systems if it becomes apparent that the process or desirable settings have changed sufficiently.
There are two particular settings of note here. There is a ‘Color Space’ setting, which rather counter-intuitively should be left at the default, which is referred to as ‘Standard (Recommended)’ or ‘TV’ depending on where you look. You should not set this to ‘PC’ or anything else that suggests a ‘Full Range RGB’ or ‘0-255’ signal. According to this discussion and several more like it, the ‘Standard’ setting is the one to go for regardless of whether you’re using a monitor with ‘Full Range RGB’ or not. There is also an option for ‘Color depth’, which should be left at the default ’24 bits per pixel’. All of the models we currently recommend and are likely to recommend for the foreseeable future use at most 8-bits per subpixel (24-bit total) colour processing. And indeed that is the maximum games themselves currently support. If you select ’36 bits per pixel’ on your Xbox menu you will not gain anything and in fact seems to cause the Xbox to perform some extra processing with undesirable consequences (dodgy colours and latency).
For the Sony PlayStation 4, navigate to ‘Sound and Screen – Video Output Settings’ (shown below). There is an ‘RGB Range’ setting here, which should be set to ‘Full’ alongside the appropriate corresponding setting on your monitor. If you leave this set to ‘Automatic’ then it will default to a ‘Limited Range 16-235’ signal which is not desirable for the PS4 when connected to a PC monitor. You may also see a menu setting here called ‘Deep Colour Output’, which is similar to the corresponding ‘Color depth’ setting on the Xbox. You should leave this alone (disabled) for the reasons mentioned previously. Again, we will review the guidance given here if required when Sony launch their successor to the PS4.
Conclusion and recommendations
Monitor manufacturers are doing a lot to try to pump out products which appeal to PC users. They are continuing to push up resolutions, increase refresh rates and expand their range of models with wider aspect ratios than 16:9. But some users simply don’t want to spend that much on a monitor – whilst others simply can’t use these features. Fortunately there is still a huge market for the humble 60Hz monitor with 1920 x 1080 resolution, and there are plenty of models being churned out with those capabilities. The models that tend to be marketed most heavily and are generally most broadly known within gaming circles are the likes of the BenQ RL Series. The manufacturer sponsors popular E-Sports events, providing monitors to be used at said events in exchange for recognition and publicity. They also pad out their product pages with plenty of hype surrounding ‘super fast’ (1ms) response times and features designed to give you a competitive edge when gaming, such as the ‘Black eQualizer’.
Our dedicated recommendations section includes a range of attractive alternatives. It is frequently updated, so be assured that we constantly assess changes in technology and new screens that are released. These recommendations are clearly marked with ‘console gaming’ in the ‘Good for’ line for each model, with a link to this article. These recommendations look past the marketing hype and are born out of years of research, experience with a broad range of models and engaging with users about their own experiences of various models. There are generally two main distinct paths that we recommend non-PC gamers go down if their main goal is to have their games looking their best; VA (Vertical Alignment) or IPS-type (In-Plane Switching and related technologies). We review many of the models we recommend and you should really take a look at those in-depth reviews for a brilliant idea of how VA and IPS-type panels give quite a different experience. There is also a brief description of the key differences in our panel types article and some important concepts explored in this post on our forum.