Game on for Ultra HD gaming

Game on for Ultra HD gaming

Visit the TV department the next time you step into an electronics store and you will soon realise that the latest must-have feature touted by TV manufacturers is ultra high definition, or UHD.

These 4K TVs have displays with a 3,840 x 2,160-pixel resolution. That is four times the number of pixels on a full-HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) screen.

However, 4K content is currently quite scarce. While Netflix has streamed a handful of 4K shows since April, and Amazon plans to start this month, these services are not available locally.

You can access them only if you subscribe to a virtual private network (VPN) service. More likely than not, you will end up watching full-HD content upscaled to 4K on your brand-new UHD TV.

While 4K certainly sees a huge increase in the number of pixels, the improvement in detail is not obvious when you are seated several metres from the TV.

But when that 4K resolution is put on your desktop monitor, you will immediately see the difference. Everything becomes sharper, clearer and less fuzzy. You also get more desktop real estate, which lets you have more windows and apps open at the same time.

PC games are 4K-ready

More importantly, there is already 4K content for your computer.

The latest flagship smartphones are able to take pictures and videos in 4K resolution. Where else to edit them but on a 4K-capable computer? PC games can be scaled up to 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. Some of the newer titles look great at such high resolutions, too.

Here is the catch: You will need a beefy PC to run the latest games at 4K. The good news is that building a 4K gaming rig is now more feasible than before.

The stars are aligned

Firstly, prices for 4K displays have fallen. Acer, Philips and Samsung all offer 28-inch 4K monitors for about $900. Their image quality may not be the best because they use twisted nematic (TN) technology instead of in-plane switching (IPS).

But these TN monitors make up for their image quality by having low response times (typically 1 millisecond). This means that their pixels change colour quickly, which is desired by gamers who are into fast-action games as this leads to less motion blur or lag.

Coincidentally, a new generation of enthusiast-class PC hardware was launched recently.

In August, Intel introduced its Haswell-E series of desktop processors. Built with enthusiasts in mind, the Haswell-E is the most powerful consumer CPU on the market. The Haswell-E requires a new Intel X99 chipset. One of the X99's new features is support for Thunderbolt 2.

This interface, while not mainstream yet, is already available on Apple's latest Mac Pro. As you might have guessed, the 20Gbps bandwidth provided by Thunderbolt 2 is suitable for 4K content creators.

Meanwhile, PC enthusiasts are likely to be excited about the new DDR4 memory modules used by the Haswell-E. These modules, which produce less heat and are faster than standard DDR3, are handy for those who like to push PC hardware to its limits via overclocking, or operating at higher speeds than official specifications.

Graphics cards have to be the most important part of any 4K gaming system. Note that I use the plural here, because while you may get away with running an older game at 4K resolution with a high-end graphics card, chances are that a single graphics card will be inadequate for the latest games.

However, with two or more graphics cards, one often encounters issues with heat and power consumption. Thankfully, the solution has arrived.

Nvidia's newly launched GeForce GTX 980 and GTX 970 graphics cards offer excellent high-end performance, yet draw much less power than earlier ones. They fare well in benchmarks against the Radeon graphics cards from rival AMD. These Nvidia cards also support HDMI 2.0, which has more bandwidth than the current HDMI 1.4 standard.

The increased bandwidth is required to display 4K resolution at a refresh rate of 60Hz - 60Hz is the magic number here because you need it to run games smoothly at 4K. HDMI 1.4 supports only 30Hz - good enough for movies, but terrible for gaming.

Ultra gaming is still pricey

By now, you have probably got the idea that a 4K gaming rig is expensive.

We are, after all, talking about the latest high-end PC hardware. But prices for tech products tend to head south, while high-end systems stay useful for years.

While our system (excluding the monitor) easily breaks the $4,000 barrier, you can probably halve the cost if you intend to play only older games at 4K resolution. Just upgrade the components piece by piece when prices are favourable.

This article was first published on Oct 8, 2014.
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