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4K monitors: Everything you need to know about UltraHD PC displays

Marco Chiappetta | April 9, 2015
It's finally time to get serious about 4K displays. Let's be honest, the first wave left much to be desired. Some had painfully low refresh rates while others were difficult to configure and get working properly. Prices were all over the map.

Choosing the ideal panel type for your setup will depend on your particular needs, but given the choice between slightly faster response times versus better viewing angles and color accuracy, we'd usually take the latter — budget permitting, of course.

Refresh rates with 4K panels are also somewhat of a concern. A number of the more affordable 4K displays currently on the market offer only 30Hz refresh rates. The typical refresh rate of a mainstream display is 60Hz, and fast gaming-monitors can offer as high as 144Hz. Although some would argue that 30Hz is fast enough for video and image editing, the user experience with a 30Hz display can be nauseating. Mouse and window movements are jerky, and the smoothness we've all become accustomed to using 60Hz (or faster) displays goes right out the window. Stick to a 60Hz or higher display if at all possible.

Another oddity with many 4K PC monitors is that they're recognized as dual displays, each with resolutions of 1920x2160. Many of the most recently released 4K displays feature newer internal scalers than can handle true 4K resolutions. Older tiled displays required dual scalers and need to be connected to a system via two HDMI or DisplayPort cables, or by using a single DisplayPort cable paired with graphics card that could support a feature called MST, or multi-stream transport — all this to achieve a 4K resolution with a 60Hz refresh rate.

While MST was a clever way to get around an early hurdle with 4K displays, the technology can act pretty wonky when you're using software designed to appear only on one screen in a multi-monitor environment — the menus in PC games are one glaring example. Look for a monitor supporting single-stream transport and true 4K resolutions instead.

Cable considerations

Although DisplayPort cables are often labeled with a version number — like 1.1 or 1.2 — the specification was designed in such a way that all certified DP cables are compatible with all DP displays. Going with a certified DisplayPort cable should ensure proper compatibility and the best overall experience. Unfortunately, there are many uncertified DP cables in the wild — some of which were even bundled with displays from large, well-known manufacturers. And wouldn't you know it, these uncertified cables had a defect that could cause all sorts of issues.

Many of the uncertified DP cables connect pin 20, which may cause voltage to be back-fed into your system. Other fun prospects: The video card and display may randomly go out of sync, USB devices (like keyboards or mice) may light up when the system is powered off, or your PC may even exhibit general system instability. Uncertified DP cables may also not push the bandwidth necessary to drive a 4K display at a full 60Hz, forcing you to use a lower refresh rate.

 

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