Gaming at 4K Resolution: Part 1

Not too long ago, people were introduced to “High Definition” TVs, promising ultra-sharp visuals at 720 and 1080p resolutions. At first, like any new technology, these High Definition sets were ultra-expensive and ultra-exclusive. Eventually the HDTV craze filtered down into displays of all types, and 1080p became the standard display resolution for everything. Games, Movies and TV became much clearer, and PC users found themselves with far more desktop real estate for running programs.

Fast forward almost a decade and we find ourselves at the advent of the next big leap in display resolution, commonly referred to as “4K”. To avoid confusion, 1080 refers to 1920x1080 resolution, whereas 4K refers to 3840x2160 resolution (the 3840 is rounded to 4000, hence “4k”). As such, a 4K TV actually only has twice the horizontal and vertical pixels of a 1080 one, rather than 4 times, as the naming might lead you to believe, but overall resolution is still quadrupled, so you can still say “4K has four times the resolution of 1080p”.

Is the effect as dramatic as the jump from Standard Def (360 or 480) to High Def (720 or 1080)? That’s what we’re looking to find out. We’ve acquired a “budget” 4K TV and hooked up a powerful gaming rig to test it out.

To start off, let’s discuss what you get from the increased resolution. At sub 720 type resolutions, the human eye can easily pick out individual pixels if the display takes up a good enough portion of your field of view. Move up to 1080 and it becomes much harder; nearly impossible with a moving image. Scale up again to 4K, and the effect is not as dramatic. To put it simply, upgrading to 1080 made your display look “better”, 4K just makes it look “smoother”. Focusing on text; in order to make a legible letter, you have to use a certain number of pixels, for most websites this is 12px, meaning letters are 12 pixels tall. If you made the text any smaller it would become very difficult to read no matter what your screen size. Moving up to 1080 from 1024×768 meant that you could see a whole lot more text on your screen, and that was great for productivity. The text got substantially smaller, but it was already pretty huge to begin with, and at normal viewing distances it was still easy to read. Jump to 4K, and if you kept the same text size, it would be impossible to read without leaning in towards the screen. Case in point: a (theoretical) 24 inch 4K monitor would result in a windows start button about the size of an eraser on a pencil, and the text would be the size of the app labels on your smart phone. Don’t believe me? Here’s a screenshot of the windows desktop with a notepad window open at 3840×2160, which is the true resolution of most 4K displays. Open it fullscreen and imagine if your icons and text were that small.

The Windows 8 Desktop at 4K resolution with default scaling The Windows 8 Desktop at 4K resolution with default scaling

Luckily, Windows offers decent display scaling options, which increase the relative scale of most of your programs. This is going to be key with the introduction of “Retina” style displays on the windows platform. Its still not perfect, and many programs still have issues, but developers will have to begin modifying to adapt to the new standard. There is a concept called “Resolution Independence”, which scales display elements as ratios of your screen size, rather than by resolution, so no matter what resolution your screen is, the menus are the same relative size. Mac OS X has a head start on windows in this department, since users of the newer Retina Macbook Pro already have a resolution close to 4K.

The same desktop at 150% scaling. Text is much easier to read and has nice smooth edges. The same desktop at 150% scaling. Text is much easier to read and has nice smooth edges.

 

Another rather comical effect which is related to this is that the Windows 7 loading background is of a fixed resolution, so you will see a black surround when booting. Windows 8 does not exhibit this behavior.

4K Windows 7 screen
Windows 7 Splash Screen didn’t see 4K coming

Enough of the technical mumbo jumbo, what is it like to game on such high resolution? It’s amazing!…ish. The games I did try ran incredibly sharp, and there was a level of detail I thought was impossible, but again, you run into problems with the display scaling. A lot of games set static sizes for their UI elements, so as you start to increase the resolution, the UI gets smaller and smaller. Battlefield 3 is a notable example. Note the sizes of the map and other on-screen objects as you increase the resolution. At 4k, it’s quite difficult to focus on these without completely taking your eyes off the action in the middle of the screen (which is of course bad for the gaming experience).

Other games do a better job with this by scaling the UI up with the resolution, compare Battlefield 3 to Crysis 3 at increasing resolutions:

BF3 vs Crysis at 1366x768. BF3 minimap is ok, but text is too big. Crysis looks fine. BF3 vs Crysis at 1366×768. BF3 minimap is ok, but text is too big. Crysis looks fine. BF3 vs Crysis 3 at 1920x1080. Here everything looks just about right. Notice how Crysis's UI has not changed at all. BF3 vs Crysis 3 at 1920×1080. Here everything looks just about right. Notice how Crysis’s UI has not changed at all. BF3 vs Crysis at 3840x2160. The BF3 map is way too small to be useful at this resolution. BF3 vs Crysis at 3840×2160. The BF3 map is way too small to be useful at this resolution.

Other games ran just fine, here are shots of Skyrim and D3, which looked perfectly normal (and super sharp!)

Skyrim looks great at 4K Skyrim looks great at 4K If an engineer tests Diablo 3 on a 4K monitor in the woods, but no one plays anymore, does anyone care? If an engineer tests Diablo 3 on a 4K monitor in the woods, but no one plays anymore, does anyone care?

The unfortunate thing is that if you like playing older titles, you will have to deal with the drawbacks. I don’t see many developers fixing these issues too quickly if ever at all. Many gamers (myself included) have already gone one step higher than 1080p up to 2560×1400 (commonly referred to as 1440p) or 2560×1600. People have been gaming on these resolutions for years, and many games still don’t have good scaling options. The BF3 community has been asking DICE to implement UI scaling since the game’s release, but nothing has come of it.

Assuming the scaling and resolution support gets worked out; the next thing you have to worry about is performance. As I mentioned earlier, a single 4K monitor has the same combined resolution as 4x 1080p monitors in a 2×2 grid. That means that your graphics card has to push 4 times as many pixels, working it much harder. In the next feature, we’ll take a look at what kind of performance you can expect, and what kind of hardware you need to be running.

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by Brad Soken, on September 18, 2013