Monitors in the Age of VR


My Dell U3415W

With all the hype surrounding virtual and augmented reality, we’ll still be using monitors as our primary visual tool for using our PCs going forward. Given that, I thought a quick update on what’s going on in the world of PC displays might be useful.

First, the good news: IPS and other high quality panels (SVA, etc.) are getting less expensive by the day. You can find 25-inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel (WQHD) displays for under $300 now, if you’re willing to forego amenities such as adjustable stands and VESA mounts. I picked up an Acer G257HU for $258 recently. While the stand is terrible, the display itself, complete with ultra-thin bezel, looks pretty good. Color rendition isn’t all that accurate, but for an inexpensive display, it looks pretty good.

If you want something a bit larger, you can find 27-inch WQHD IPS, MVA, or  SVA panels for under $500. So unless you’re on a super-tight budget, you can avoid those terrible TN panels.

PC gaming monitors continue a trend towards higher refresh rate, but remain locked in a war between Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync. The VESA standards body adopted FreeSync as an optional feature for DisplayPort, but until a universal standard exists, users will need to commit to one brand of video card to exploit the full capabilities of these high-refresh rate displays. G-Sync and FreeSync aren’t just about higher refresh rates, but instead adapts the refresh rate of the display rate to the frame rate of the game. They also incorporate techniques to minimize frame colllision, reducing stutter. This standards battle also comes with another problem: most of these displays are pretty pricey compared to standard 60Hz panels, commanding a 25-100% price premium, depending on manufacturer.

However, if the displays EDID (extended display identification data) exposes the higher refresh rate, you can at least get that higher refresh rate, even if your graphics card can’t take advantage of the more advanced features.

Wider than Ultrawide

I wrote about my woes regarding game support for the new generation of 21:9 displays. Game developers need to get on board with being able to support arbitrary aspect ratios. I’m hoping that Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform will help, since that standard will require games to write to device independent pixels (DIPs) instead of physical pixels, but even that will only partially address the aspect ratio problem. Games need to have the ability to auto-adjust field-of-view (FOV) to the aspect ratio, as well as figure out how to support arbitrary aspect ratios.

This important because aspect ratio variances are only going to get worse.

Let’s look at what we have already:

  • 16:10 (1920 x 1200, 2560 x 1600)
  • 16:9 (1080p, 2560 x 1440)
  • 21:9 (2560 x 1080, 3440 x 1440)
  • 4K DCI (4096 x 2160)
  • 4K UHD (3840 x 2160)

All of these aspect ratios are available in PC displays you can buy today.

It’s going to get worse. According TFTCentral, the excellent UK site focusing on flat panel technology,  LG is readying a 37-inch monitor supporting 3840 x 1600 pixels. At first blush, that seems to be the same 21:9 aspect ratio as 3440 x 1440, but there’s a subtle difference. A 3440 x 1440 display is 2.38:1 (hence, 21:9), while a 3840 x 1600 panel is exactly 2.4:1. The ostensible excuse is to support the upcoming 4K Blu-ray standard, but that subtle difference will throw PC games into a tizzy.

Samsung, meanwhile, has apparently gone off the deep end, and are building 41-inch and 49-inch panels supporting 3840 x 108o pixels, a 32:9 aspect ratio. One of these displays would be wide enough to consume a complete desktop.

Game performance becomes a concern as resolutions scale up. Driving a typical 4K display in demanding game titles requires more graphics horsepower than current high-end GPUs deliver, so users often need to resort to multi-GPU solutions. In other words, you need to buy a pair of expensive graphics cards to drive your already expensive monitor. The 34-inch 3440 x 1440 displays are just 5 megapixels, and perform well with just a single high end GPU.

The 3840 x 1080 displays are just four megapixels, so performance remains within reach of high end GPUs. But the 1080-pixel height seems problematic for productivity use. I often yearn for just a few more vertical pixels on my Dell Ultrasharp U3415W, so a 1080 pixel height seems a little dubious, whatever the glories of the ultra-wide screen.

However, I find I’m drawn to the idea of the 37-inch LG. A potential performance issue lurks, due to the 3840 x 1600 pixel resolution, which translates to 6 megapixels. Sure, a true 4K display has more pixels, but I worry at adding one megapixel will still overstress a single GPU.

That 37-inch panel likely won’t see the light of day as a desktop monitor for a few months, just in time for the launch of new GPUs from Nvidia and AMD. These upcoming GPUs, built on 16nm FinFET process technology will be quite a bit faster than today’s graphics cards, but will no doubt cost a pretty penny.

So continues the endless upgrade cycle.



    • John Dow on April 18, 2016 at 3:38 am
    • Reply

    The 49 inch is NOT 3840×1080 but 5120×1440!

    1. Good to know, thanks. It’s still a wee bit too big for my already pretty large corner desk 😉

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