Most computer components have a life span measured in a few years. That shiny new processor or graphics card? It will last an enthusiast at most two or three years before they start pining for an upgrade. But where most of us are used to the biannual system upgrade cycle, if there’s one aspect of your PC that you can use for five or more years, it’s your display. Buy a good display and it can last through three or more computer upgrades. With such a long lifespan, then, it pays to get something you’ll be happy with for years to come. We put together a list of ideal technologies and features for a display, but sadly we can’t quite hit every element. Crap. But we can at least come close.
The Acer XB270HU is the "who's who" of gaming LCDs, with a high resolution, high refresh rates, G-SYNC, a fully featured stand, and a wide viewing angle IPS panel. For gamers with NVIDIA GPUs, this is currently as good as it gets. It works with AMD GPUs as well, just not with dynamic refresh rates.
Let’s start by putting together our wish list for a new display. First we want a reasonable resolution; 4K and higher might be desirable on some levels, but 2560x1440 is a better target for 27-inch displays with no DPI scaling, and fans of ultrawide 21:9 aspect ratio displays [like me] want 3440x1440. Second, we want a high quality panel, preferably not TN (Twisted Nematic); however, we also want fast response times, 1ms or 2ms ideally, which is one area where TN still leads.
We don’t need perfect colors, but we don’t want washed out or overly blue images, and we also want full sRGB coverage. Finally, we want a good range of variable refresh rates (VRR), and that means we need either G-SYNC for NVIDIA users or FreeSync for AMD users. 30–40 Hz at the low end is fine, but the upper boundary should ideally be much higher than 60Hz and at least double the minimum refresh rate.
The best current display hits all our requirements, but only for NVIDIA users as it’s a G-SYNC panel: the Acer XB270HU. This is a 27-inch 2560x1440 (QHD) IPS display with a VRR range of 40–144 Hz. The QHD resolution means you won’t need a Titan X to hit playable frame rates, and the wide VRR range means you’ll get smooth gaming without constantly bumping into the maximum refresh rate (and let's be honest: most people won't see a difference at more than 144 FPS). Colors are decent if not perfect, the IPS panel provides good viewing angles, and reviews have been very positive so far. The one drawback is the price: with a $900 MSRP, the XB270HU costs more than twice as much as 60 Hz static refresh rate displays with otherwise similar characteristics.
AMD GPU users on the other hand will want to wait—see below for an upcoming alternative with FreeSync support. Not also that the XB270HU—like all current G-SYNC displays—only supports a single DisplayPort input. DisplayPort is required to take advantage of VRR, and adding hardware to support other inputs can have a negative impact on latency, but if you want a display that can work with more than one device this isn’t it.
Note that there’s still some blurring present in fast motion on most displays, but there are ways to get around that via strobing (turning on/off) the backlight. The Acer XB270HU supports ULMB (Ultra Low Motion Blur) mode, but only if you disable G-SYNC and run at 85 Hz or 100 Hz. For maximum clarity, Lightboost or ULMB tends to work best on TN panels, thanks to their faster response times, in which case the ASUS PG278Q is worth considering. It’s a TN QHD G-SYNC display, and the price of $750 is quite high for a TN panel, but for gaming it’s still a good alternative.
The ASUS MG279Q is the closest AMD users will get to the XB270HU. It uses the same resolution, an IPS panel, and supports AMD’s FreeSync. It started shipping in June 2015, and we're working on our full review. The price is a much more palatable $600; however, the VRR range is 35–90 Hz instead of 40–144 Hz.
Given the other FreeSync alternatives consist of TN panels on the one hand or ultrawide 2560x1080 IPS displays with a limited VRR range of 48–75 Hz on the other (which is too narrow a range), the MG279Q is the best available option.
Besides the manner in which VRR is handled, there are potentially other differences between G-SYNC and FreeSync displays. NVIDIA’s G-SYNC module acts as the hardware scaler, and in addition to VRR it has some “special sauce” that helps determine what to do when frame rates are not in the VRR range.
Simply put, the G-SYNC module tends to be better when you fall below the minimum VRR range, working with the NVIDIA GPU drivers to refresh the display two or more times as needed. FreeSync at present will default to VSYNC on/off behavior, which means if you fall below the minimum VRR you’ll get either judder or tearing, somewhat defeating the point of FreeSync.
ASUS partially overcomes this by supporting a minimum VRR of 35 Hz, and since most gamers want to run at 40+ FPS it shouldn’t be a problem. However, if you’re running at the native QHD resolution, you’ll want at least a single R9 290 or R9 290X in many titles. And if you have CrossFire AMD GPUs, AMD hasn’t released a working FreeSync driver for such configurations, meaning you have to wait regardless.
TN panels are cheaper and generally have faster response times, so if you’re willing to lose the IPS panels of the above options and save some money, the XG270HU is a good alternative. It also supports AMD’s FreeSync as a bonus.
We’ve been fans of IPS and other wide viewing angle displays for a long time, but for gaming purposes a TN panel still has some benefits. Besides lower response times (1ms vs. 5ms), you’ll also save some money as the XG270HU costs several hundred dollars less than the XB270HU. There are compromises besides TN, however.
The colors are merely okay and the stand lacks many adjustment options—it only provides tilt with no height, swivel, or pivot support; there’s not even a VESA mount. The thin side bezels are great, particularly for those that run multi-monitor setups, but the bright metallic orange on the bottom bezel and the X-shaped stand may be too in-your-face for some people.
Caveats aside, for gaming, particularly on AMD GPUs, this is a great option. NVIDIA users aren’t completely left out either, as the high 144Hz refresh rates are still available, and in our experience that gets you 90 percent of the way to the smoothness of adaptive sync. The reason is that with a typical 60 Hz display, the content on screen gets updated every 17ms whereas a 144 Hz display is updated every 7ms. Even if there is some tearing, the frequency of screen updates tends to make it less noticeable, and judder likewise isn’t as much of a problem.
Did you know you can overclock certain displays? Well, you can, and the QNIX QX2710 can be pushed from the standard 60 Hz static refresh rate to as high as 120 Hz. You’ll need the right GPU, a software utility, and you can only do this with a dual-link DVI connection. You might not be able to reliably hit 120 Hz either, but even 90 or 100 Hz can make a big difference.
If you’re looking for something that will save you money, skip past all the G-SYNC vs. FreeSync hullabaloo, and still give higher than normal refresh rates without stooping to a TN panel, the QNIX QX2710 is definitely worth a look. It uses a Samsung PLS panel and most users are reporting 100+ Hz refresh rate overclocks. Wide viewing angles, reasonable color accuracy, and high refresh rates make this a good compromise, though it’s not without flaws.
The stand is pretty bad, with some users reporting that it’s so loose the hinge will tilt back simply due to the weight of the monitor. Also, QNIX is a Korean company that doesn’t have US support, so you’ll want to buy from a site that accepts returns, e.g. Amazon. One of the real concerns with the overclocking monitors is that some don’t really overclock the display, simply dropping extra frames over 60 Hz. This seems to be a problem mostly on displays with multiple inputs, so we recommend sticking with displays that have a single DL-DVI input—no HDMI or DisplayPort. Note that not using a hardware scaler for multiple inputs also means less latency for rendering frames.
Is it even worth considering a “value” display? We generally recommend against going this route, but there are a few options that are still worth considering. The LG 25UM57-P is interesting in that it’s an ultrawide 21:9 aspect ratio display with a native 2560x1080 resolution; it has an IPS panel as well. Since the display is the one element of your PC you will always see, you want it to look good and work well, and for a budget price of $200 the LG display does exactly that.
Running a 21:9 aspect ratio can be good or bad, depending on your particular application. If you watch anamorphic widescreen movies it’s great, and in normal use it can easily accommodate two applications running side by side, each with an effective 1280x1080 resolution. In that case, it’s almost like having two older 1280x1024 displays next to each other, only with no bezel in between. Many games will work fine with the native resolution as well, but some don’t support the necessary settings and will require registry hacks or other shenanigans to run properly without looking stretched—and there are bound to be a few games that simply won’t look right at 2560x1080.
The larger 21:9 2560x1080 don’t make as much sense, as they lack the vertical pixels we like, but at 25 inches it’s not as much of a concern. The LG 25UM57-P is about 1.5 inches shorter than a 23-inch 1920x1080 display, but it’s also about three inches wider, and it still provides a respectable 110 DPI—basically the same DPI as a 27-inch QHD panel. The colors are decent if not exceptional, but you already know that was going to be the case, right? The display stand is about as basic as it gets, with no adjustments other than tilt, but a VESA mount at least is supported. Given the other compromises needed to keep the price to $200 or less, this is the best value display right now—we’d take it over the more common 1080p offerings.
If you’re looking to save even more money, you can go with a standard 1920x1080 23-inch IPS display for around $150 (e.g. the Acer H236HLbid), but all of the budget LCDs end up being flawed in one or more ways. The stand quality is always a concern, and color quality is almost uniformly suspect. Many of the budget IPS panels also have poor response times, making them less suitable for gaming. TN panels typically have better response times but are worse in other areas, like colors and viewing angles. Longevity of the budget displays is also questionable; some might last five years but others could fail after a couple years, likely just after the warranty has expired.
If you can’t afford something better, fine. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you!
What we’d really like to see at the high end unfortunately doesn’t exist. The LG 34UM67 FreeSync display has been in our labs, and there’s a lot to like. The 21:9 aspect ratio, good color quality, and IPS viewing angles for example hit all the right notes. Unfortunately, the limited VRR range and the 1080 pixel height are both limitations. LG already makes the 34UM95 that runs at 3440x1440. Give us a 34-inch display with that panel and 100 Hz maximum refresh rates and we would be happy for a very long time.
There’s also the question of what will happen with display resolutions over the coming years. Windows DPI scaling still isn’t perfect, or at least there are applications—including games!—where setting DPI scaling to something other than 100% can create issues. With Windows 8/8.1, Microsoft made some improvements and Windows 10 should do even better. Meanwhile, OS X users are able to enjoy “Retina” resolutions with the OS handling DPI scaling much more elegantly than Windows users currently enjoy. Hopefully everything gets sorted out in the coming years, and if it does then you might wish you had a 4K display. But even the best 4K displays don’t support higher than 60 Hz refresh rates and it might be a couple years before that changes.
Users that want 4Kp60 should look at Acer’s XB280HK G-SYNC display. Samsung will have their UE850 and UE590 4Kp60 FreeSync displays in the coming months as well. In the meantime, for gaming most people will continue to be best served by one of the QHD displays discussed above.