Update

The state of 4K gaming: What you need to know, from pricing to performance needs

4K gaming is cheaper—and more expensive—than ever.

razer project ariana
Razer

4K gaming started life as a hobby for the wealthy one percent and, well, you still need a beast of a PC to push all the pixels on a 4K monitor. 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. Current Nvidia GeForce GTX 10-series and AMD Radeon RX Vega graphics cards represent a two-generation technological jump over prior options, making 4K gaming more viable than ever.

But 4K gaming demands more than a fresh GPU.

Editor’s note: This article is updated frequently, most recently on December 19 to include the Nvidia Titan V.

When we first created this article in November 2015, you needed to drop roughly $1,300 at least on just your graphics card, 4K monitor, and power supply to get your PC up to snuff. These days you can spend a whole lot less to start 4K gaming—or, alternatively, a whole lot more for an even smoother experience.

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.

4k witcher 3 Brad Chacos/IDG

Witcher 3 in 4K.

4K displays

Let’s start with the monitor, 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 $300 to $500 range—though you can obviously spend much more than that for premium features.

4k windows dpi scaling Brad Chacos/IDG

You’ll probably want to adjust how Windows scales text and other features if you use a 4K panel.

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 money—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—and before you do, check out PCWorld’s 4K monitor guide for everything you need to know about picking out a 4K “Ultra HD” display.

The cheapest 4K monitors I can currently find hover between $300 and $350. At the time of this writing, the LG 24UD58-B was on sale for $320 on Amazon. It offers a bright IPS display, but at 24 inches you might find it a bit small. The Dell S2817Q costs $300 and the AOC U2879VF is going for $270, and both measure in at 28 inches. They have TN-based panels with faster response times than IPS displays.

The biggest difference between the two 28-inch 4K displays? The AOC model supports 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-60-fps gameplay.

While FreeSync doesn’t add much cost to a monitor, G-Sync requires the use of a proprietary hardware module and is treated as a premium feature on premium monitors. 4K G-Sync panels are much more expensive as a result, though they tend to be loaded with high-end features. The most affordable 4K G-Sync display on Newegg right now is the Acer Predator XB281HK, a 28-inch TN monitor that costs $600. The AOC Agon AG271UG, a 27-inch IPS 4K G-Sync monitor, costs $800 on Amazon. By comparison, you’ll find FreeSync on many 4K monitors selling for under $500.

Just be aware of the key differences between FreeSync and G-Sync—all G-Sync monitors offer the same superb experience out of the box, while FreeSync requires a bit more research to find the best monitors. Also know that FreeSync 2 and G-Sync HDR will be limited to high-end monitors with high-dynamic range support when they arrive.

4K gaming graphics cards

Nvidia AMD graphics cards Brad Chacos

A 4K monitor packs four times as many pixels as a high-definition 1080p display. You need a fire-breathing GPU to push that resolution while maintaining in-game frame rates that don’t devolve into stuttering garbage.

[ Further reading: The best graphics cards for PC gaming ]

Last generation’s Nvidia Titan XGTX 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 at $650. What’s more, all three supplied frames rates hovering only between roughly 35 and 45 fps at High settings in many games at the time (though they could approach 60 fps in less strenuous games like Alien: Isolation). We therefore recommended only the first-gen 4K GPUs if you were fine playing games at a console-like 30 fps, or if you planned to pair them with a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor.

dsc02091 Brad Chacos/IDG

Radeon RX Vega graphics cards.

That recommendation holds for the GeForce GTX 1070 and Radeon RX Vega 56, which deliver performance slightly higher than those last-gen powerhouses at a much lower price. The reference versions of those cards sell for $350 and $400—at least in theory. The current cryptocurrency coin boom has drastically inflated prices of graphics cards in this category, and they’re often selling for $100 or more over MSRP at retail. These cards are the bare minimum you’d want for 4K gaming, though, and they might not hold up well pushing 4K resolution as the years go on and games get prettier.

For a better 4K experience, look to the $450 GeForce GTX 1070 Ti, $500 GeForce GTX 1080, and $500 Radeon RX Vega 64, though the Radeon card is still suffering from limited availability and inflated prices. These cards still won’t hit a consistent 60 fps at 4K resolution in the most strenuous modern games, but they come much closer, hitting 45 fps or higher in the games we’ve tested. You’d still ideally pair them with a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor for the best results.

Customized versions like the superb EVGA GTX 1070 Ti SC Black Edition ($470 on Amazon) offer overclocks and better cooling solutions to push performance even higher. You pay a bit more for them, and custom GTX 1070 Ti models require you to run extra software to hit those higher clocks, but it’s worthwhile.

geforce gtx 1080 ti 2 Gordon Mah Ung

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 Ti.

Only one consumer video card can power 4K games at 60 fps with all (or most) of the graphical bells and whistles enabled: The ferocious GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. It’s an utter beast, delivering a whopping 25 to 35 percent more frames than even the GTX 1080. At $700 MSRP, it’s not cheap, but again you should spend a few dollars more to snag a custom version like the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 to get far better cooling and maxed-out gaming performance.

aa compare Marco Chiappetta/IDG

The need for antialiasing is diminished at ultra-high resolutions like 4K, especially on smaller displays where the pixels are more densely packed, but it will still improve image quality. (Click to enlarge and compare.)

You can increase gaming 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.

Nvidia also offers the $1,200 Titan Xp and $3,000 Titan V, both of which push frame rates even further than the GTX 1080 Ti—especially the Titan V, which is built using Nvidia’s next-gen “Volta” GPU architecture. But note the lack of “GeForce” in those names. The Titan series is intended for prosumer use in compute workloads, and priced as such. You’re better off buying a GTX 1080 Ti. Current 4K monitors top out at 60Hz anyway.

Next page: Graphics cards we DON’T recommend, power supply considerations, and the bottom line.

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