A Few Depressing Words on 4K Gaming

Current TVs, and most computer monitors, are 1080p, or thereabouts. This is 1,920x1,080. Yes, a few high-end monitors are a bit more than that, but this is the average.

With the incessant push towards 4K, there are a growing number of 3,840x2,160 TVs and monitors hitting the market.

Now first of all, you need to be sitting close enough to one of these TVs (or have a screen big enough) to see the extra detail. Check out Chris Heinonen’s 4K calculator to see what size screen you need for your chosen viewing distance.

Then you need some serious hardware. While many current video cards can technically do 3,840x2,160, that doesn’t mean you can do any decent gaming. Most mid-range cards will only put out acceptable framerates if you turn off all the various goodies that make games pretty. What’s the point of higher-rez if it’s a little better than bare polygons?

But lets say you do have a top-of-the-line gaming PC, and you’re spoiling for some Ultra HD gaming, there are still more issues.

The most common HDMI spec is 1.4, which maxes out at 30 frames per second with 3,840x2,160. 30fps is OK, but probably not as smooth as you’re used to. It’s going to look a little choppy. The new HDMI 2.0 spec ups this to 60 frames per second, but you’re going to need a video card, TV (and likely receiver) that support HDMI 2.0. Not a likely occurrence at the moment (though mercifully, your current HDMI should work fine).

But lets say you do have a 4K TV, a beefy video card, somehow have HDMI 2.0 everything, you’re still probably going to be a little disappointed.

Games, for the most part, aren’t designed to take advantage of this new resolution yet. So the visual aspects of the game, other than resolution, don’t improve much with the increase. Sure, there are finer edges, and you can see smaller, distant objects better (awesome for sniping in BF4), but the look of the game doesn’t get much better. The textures aren’t made for Ultra HD, the complexity of the polygons don’t increase, so it looks sharper, but not actually much “better.”

Or to put it less technically, the realism of the game doesn’t get much better. It doesn’t look more “lifelike.”

I’ve done a fair amount of 4K gaming and while I had high hopes, I was largely disappointed. Will these factors change? Will games be written to take advantage of 4K? No doubt, but widespread adoption is a long way away. Most games are ports of console titles, and the previous generations of consoles hardly ever managed to render at 1080p. Which brings us to…

The new consoles. While the Xbox One and PS4 can output a 4K signal, this is generally for movie and picture playback. Will we see some games that are “4K?” Probably, but if you look at the hardware in each deck, it’s just not capable of putting out the required framerates at such high resolution. We’ll likely see 4K in the same way we saw 1080p in the 360/PS3: rendered lower rez, and upscaled.

Bottom Line

We will see true high resolution games, but right now it’s too early to get the true benefits of higher resolution. Better textures, more polygons, etc, are required to really make games more lifelike. The resolution will just be along for the ride.

And let me be clear: I can’t wait.