Asus PQ321Q Review

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Asus PQ321Q Review

4K has arrived!

Thirty inches. 2560x1600 resolution. Four million pixels. That was the gold standard in PC displays, but it's just been blown away. Welcome to the wonderful world of ultra-high-definition visuals. With this outrageous $3,500 flat screen, Asus is giving us our first taste of 4K resolutions. It might just be the next big thing in PC graphics. Can it possible live up to the hype?

Maybe. The Asus PQ321Q is the largest true PC monitor we've seen, at 31.5 inches diagonal, and it's also the most expensive, at $3,500. It's therefore tricky to immediately take the Asus PQ321Q seriously. If you're the kind of person fed up with $600 GPUs, what are you supposed to make of a $3,500 monitor? Here's the thing: This panel is so exceptional, so spectacular, that it demands your attention at any price.

Asus PQ321Q

You might recognize the PQ321Q from our Dream Machine 2013. It's that special.

The big news, of course is the 3840x2160 resolution. Strictly speaking, it's not quite 4K (or 4,000 horizontal pixels), but it's close enough not to make a material difference to the viewing experience. It's made possibly by indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) technology, which takes the place of amorphous silicon in standard TFT LCD panels and allows for smaller pixels, while maintaining light transmission. In other words, you can have really high resolutions without losing brightness.

Anyway, it's precisely four times the resolution of a 1080p full-HD panel. To understand how much real estate that is, take a 1920x1080 grid and superimpose it top left on the Asus's 3840x2160 grid. It'll stretch halfway across and halfway down. Then stick another 1920x1080 on the right. You've covered half the screen. Add two more below, and bang - four 1080p grids and four times the resolution.

Advanced mathematics aside, what follows is all manner of goodness. First is general sharpness and image quality. You may be used to seeing high DPI and tight pixel pitches on your mobile devices, but experiencing it on a screen of this scale is truly spectacular.

Admittedly, mobile devices still trump the Asus PQ321Q in sheer pixel density. The Asus sports pixels measuring 0.182mm across, whereas even the low-res iPhone 5's pixels are less than half as big - just 0.07815mm across - but the initial impression is still of staggering clarity and sharpness, the likes of which you've never seen before in a desktop display.

Next up is screen real estate - a metric ton of it. We're accustomed to using 2560x1440 27-inchers and 2560x1600 30-inchers. But this thing blows them away. Yup, somebody has finally come up with a panel that makes those existing high-res panels feel cramped. The inherent quality of the panel is outrageously good, too. If you've been wondering why not many monitor-makers bother with PVA these days, this panel comes along and gives that oft-overlooked panel type a much needed shot in the arm. It matches or bests the top panels out there for contrast, viewing angles, saturation, and black levels, for starters. Then it blows them away with far superior color accuracy and zippy response, free from overdrive-related nasties such as inverse ghosting. It's also worth noting that there's not a whiff of IPS glow and the anti-glare coating is smooth and sparkle-free.

Our next port of call is video quality. What's really interesting here is that high-definition video is typically pegged at 1920 by 1080 pixels. That's currently Full HD, and it's what all our brains are tuned to, so when you fire up some 4K content (there are demo streams on YouTube, among other sources), the results are spectacular.

It genuinely feels like looking through a window into an alternative reality - one that's as sharp as the real world, but brighter and more vibrant. Move over stereoscopic 3D; this is where it's at.

When it comes to games, however, the step up isn't quite so dramatic. The reason for that, of course, is that we're accustomed to seeing games rendered at true 2560x1440 or 2560x1600 on similar size panels. At 3840x2160, the Asus PQ321Q does look tangibly better - it's nothing less than superb - but if you're used to today's beyond 1080p panels, it's not quite a life-altering improvement. 

The bottom line is that the Asus PQ321Q looks utterly sublime, but there are issues, and we're not talking about the 3,500 problems denominated in US dollars. The first is the monumental load that 3840x2160 pixels puts on a graphics chip. Do the math and we are talking about an excess of 8 million pixels on this panel. Ideally, you'd want those pixels updated at a rate of at least 30 times a second - preferably twice as fast. Net result? Your GPU has to process and then pump out roughly 250 million pixels per second. It's a number that's almost beyond comprehension, and it says a lot about modern graphics tech that it's actually doable with a single GPU such as a GeForce GTX 780 TI or Radeon R9 290X. What you really want to know is: Can you get playable frame rates at super-high settings? The answer is: It's borderline. You should really expect to run multi-GPU set ups for this resolution.

The final problem is more of a generic question of 2D support for such a huge resolution. It's beyond what DVI can handle, even in dual-link format, so that's out. A single HDMI connection, using the latest spec, can handle the 3840x2160 resolution, but only at 30Hz refresh. Take it from us, 30Hz is fugly. You need to run this panel at 60Hz.

In theory, you can drive it at 60Hz using dual HDMI connections, but real-world support for that configuration seems patchy. Thus, your main option is DisplayPort. You'll still need to run the display in what's known as multi-stream mode (MST), rather than single-stream mode (SST).

The technicalities are a bit complicated, but MST boils down to a halfway house between a true single pixel grid and running the screen as a pair of virtual displays.

The key thing with MST is that it shows up as one display to the operating system and applications - most critically, games. The problem is that it's not fully compatible with rendering prior to graphics-driver loading. That means thing such as BIOS screens, Windows Safe Mode, and all that jazz. Your mileage will vary depending on the video card. With some, the screen is blank during book. With others, you'll get the BIOS squished into one half of the display, which is at least usable.

The bottom line is, you'll have to switch modes in the PQ321Q's OSD to guarantee you're seeing things correctly outside of a fully drivered-up Windows OS, which you won't enjoy doing because the OSD controls are placed carefully to make them almost impossible to use comfortably. 

This is the new de facto measure for all other screens. OK, hardly anyone will buy this screen, and we do wonder why it's so expensive (the first 30-inch 2560x1600 panels were half this price when they appeared around eight years ago), but for the time being, this monitor is as good as it gets. Well, until someone cooks up a lovely 4K 120Hz panel, that is.

Asus PQ321Q

Reel-to-Reel

Superb color accuracy and response; insane resolution

8-Track

Expensive; can be touchy with how you connect your GPU

9

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