What do you need to power 4K games and movies?

Matthew S. Smith
·9 min read

Whether you’re watching movies, playing games, or merely working at 4K resolution, it all looks fantastic. Everything is crisp, tack-sharp, and impossibly clear. Colors are vivid and lush, blacks are as deep as the night sky. But details are not without their cost. If you’re looking to get into 4K PC gaming or movie watching, you’re in for a bit of a journey.

Getting your system up to spec for 4K isn’t as straightforward as it is for 1080p, or even 1440p. Worry not, though: We’ve rounded up everything you need to play 4K games and movies.

A powerful graphics card is a must

nvidia-geforce-rtx-3080-4k
nvidia-geforce-rtx-3080-4k

Gaming in 4K requires your graphics card to process huge amounts of information in the blink of an eye, and for that, you need to make sure your graphics card has the headroom it needs.

Fortunately, there are more cards that are 4K-capable today than ever before, even if none of them are cheap.

Nvidia’s new RTX 3080 is directly targeted at 4K, able to hit 4K at 60 FPS in titles like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at max settings. Comparatively, last-gen’s 2080 Ti hits around 50 FPS in the same benchmark, all while costing nearly twice as much as the 3080: $1,199. For that price, you’re in RTX 3090 range, which is capable of hitting 8K with a little help from DLSS.

As of late 2020, though, the RTX 3080 and 3090 are out of stock everywhere. If you’re willing to give up a little performance — and save a few bucks in the process — Nvidia’s high-end 20-series cards are capable of 4K gaming. Based on our testing, the RTX 2060 Super and 2070 Super are able to run games like Fortnite and Civilization VI at 4K above 60 FPS. More demanding titles, such as the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Battlefield V, struggle at 4K.

The more expensive RTX 2080 Super and 2080 Ti are both capable of playing those more demanding titles at 4K, though you may not hit 60 FPS consistently. If you’re interested in a 20-series card, however, we recommend shopping secondhand. Not only are prices dropping with the release of 30-series GPUs, but the newer cards can be very hard to find.

AMD has some great options if you’d prefer to stick with the red team. Its range of RDNA Navi graphics cards is very competitive.

Headlined by the Radeon RX 5700 and 5700 XT, they’re both capable of 4K gaming. In our own testing, the $400 5700 XT sits comfortably in between Nvidia’s RTX 2060 Super and 2070 Super in terms of performance. AMD has aggressively priced the Navi cards to undercut Nvidia’s Supers, going as far as cutting the retail price before the cards actually launched.

AMD’s last-generation Vega graphics cards are worth considering if you can find them at a good price, but they will struggle to maintain strong frame rates in modern games. The Radeon VII, based on Vega 20, is the most powerful of AMD’s cards, but it’s very expensive for what you get, only coming in slightly ahead of the 5700 XT. It’s also hit its end of life, so what little stock remains is dwindling fast.

Another option that some consider for 4K gaming is twin graphics cards in SLI or Crossfire configurations. While that was a potential solution in the past, in 2020, there just aren’t that many games that adequately support dual-GPU technologies, so consider wisely before committing to multi-card PC setups, as they can be more trouble than they’re worth. Short of the 3090, Nvidia’s 30-series GPUs don’t even support SLI.

As for laptops, 4K gaming is still rather difficult. Even the best gaming laptops prioritize lower resolutions and higher frame rates because gaming at 4K is incredibly taxing on desktop hardware, and laptop graphics chips don’t tend to measure up. You’re also unlikely to be able to truly appreciate 4K detail on a sub-20-inch laptop screen anyway.

But if you do plan on powering your 4K monitor with a gaming laptop, you’ll want to buy the most powerful system you can find, something like MSI’s GE66 Raider packing an RTX 2080 Super Max-Q GPU. Anything less than a GTX 1080 Max-Q isn’t going to do well in AAA games.

If you’re willing to wait a month or two, GPUs based on AMD’s Radeon DNA 2 (or RDNA 2) are expected to appear in 2020. Dubbed as “Big Navi,” they will likely launch before the end of the year, with AMD set to reveal them on October 28. The high-end cards will supposedly include hardware-based ray tracing, following Nvidia’s RTX 30-series lead, along with 4K gaming. This will be the same GPU core technology powering the upcoming Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles arriving this November.

The 3080 could remain the king of 4K, though. During its Zen 3 reveal, AMD teased performance benchmarks for the upcoming 6000-series GPUs. AMD’s benchmarks show Borderlands 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Gears of War 5 all running above 60 FPS at 4K. However, based on ours and others’ benchmarks, the 3080 still edges out a frame advantage in all three titles.

Processors and RAM aren’t as important

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Gaming PCs typically pack a powerful central processor and high-speed memory, but they take a secondary role behind the graphics card when running a system at 4K. They are the hardware that feeds your monstrous graphics card what it needs to display games and certain applications at 4K resolution, so you’ll want to make sure they aren’t a bottleneck.

When it comes to selecting a CPU to pair up with your graphics card, you’ll want to ensure that it’s fairly recent, though it doesn’t need to be top end. If you’re opting for an Intel CPU, make sure it’s from the last few generations — at least an eighth-gen chip — and from the Core i5, Core i7, or Core i9 range of processors.

If you’re looking at AMD CPUs, don’t go for anything pre-first-generation Ryzen, and preferably opt for the latest Ryzen 3000 series as they offer the best bang for the buck and highest overall performance. That is until Ryzen 5000 CPUs release on November 5. Although we’ll need benchmarks to make a final judgment, it’s clear that upcoming processors like the 5900X will offer substantial performance improvement over Ryzen 3000.

For a look at some specific CPUs we recommend, here are our guides to the best gaming CPUs and the best Intel and AMD CPUs available today. You can also read our AMD vs. Intel argument, which essentially compares their current and future presence in the desktop and laptop markets.

As for RAM, while faster speeds can help boost frame rates (especially on AMD hardware), make sure you have enough for the system you’re running.

Picking the right monitor

LG 32UD99-W review full
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

You’ll need a 4K monitor if you want to run at 4K, but picking one out today isn’t as simple as it used to be. You could spend over $1,000 on high refresh rates and syncing technologies, or a couple of hundred on a more entry-level offering. What you opt for is going to depend on your budget, as much as its desired features and specifications.

If you’re planning to game on your new 4K display, higher refresh rates are useful, but unless you have very deep pockets, you’re going to struggle to push games over the more common 60 frames per second. All of our favorite 4K monitors are geared more toward image quality than they are faster gameplay.

Size is an important consideration too. If you buy a display that’s too small, you aren’t going to be able to appreciate all of that extra pixel detail. There are also some scaling problems in certain games and professional software. Some allow you to scale the interface up, but that can reduce sharpness, which is half the reason people buy 4K monitors in the first place. The minimum you should opt for when buying a 4K display is 27-inch.

We haven’t touched on 4K movie watching yet, and that’s because it’s not nearly as demanding as 4K gaming. Here, however, the screen makes the difference. HDR support is important if you’re mainly interested in watching movies, and although high refresh rates are preferred, they’re not essential. Also, an IPS panel is usually best for watching movies. IPS panels aren’t as responsive as other panels — which doesn’t really matter for watching movies — but they’re usually color accurate and have wide viewing angles.

Using the right port

Acer TA272HUL review hdmi ports
Acer TA272HUL review hdmi ports

With a 4K monitor ready to roll and a powerful graphics card chomping at the bit, all you need to do is connect them to enjoy your beautiful new 4K setup. How you do that can have a drastic effect on your experience.

Most HDMI connections can’t handle 4K. Support for the resolution was only introduced in HDMI 1.4, but even then, only at a maximum of 30 frames per second. To drive a 60Hz 4K monitor, you need HDMI 2.0, and that’s far from adequate if you’re running a high-refresh-rate 4K monitor like the Acer Predator x27.

Instead, we suggest using a DisplayPort 1.3 or 1.4 port, both of which support up to 120Hz at 4K resolution. The new HDMI 2.1 standard is also capable of 4K at 120Hz, and even 8K at 60Hz. Adoption is still low for HDMI 2.1 as of late 2020, though we expect to see it much more in the next year.

4K isn’t cheap, but it’s getting cheaper

As 4K has become more commonplace in the digital world, it’s not as expensive as it used to be, but you should still expect to dish out at least $1,000. That’s a lot of money, and shelling out that kind of cash doesn’t guarantee a perfect experience, as there are still some scaling issues in certain games and software. You may also miss out on higher frame rates, which are much more affordable at lower resolutions and some would argue are more important for a better gaming experience.

However, if you can justify spending the cash, the images you’ll get at 4K are often worth the price tag. Even games that are several years old look great because the high resolution adds details that are simply not visible at lower resolutions. If nothing else, 4K is worth a look, but you might want to seriously think about it before you pull out a credit card.