Choosing a monitor: 4K, 1440p, ultra wide, or what?

There is an overwhelming number of variations of computer monitors on the market and an equal number of decisions and compromises. The options were less daunting six years ago but even then I can’t say I enjoyed picking out a monitor. Where do you even begin in 2019?

This isn’t going to be a review or a definitive guide to picking a monitor. It’s just my musings and thought process regarding what type of monitor would replace my trusty old 2013-model Eizo Foris FS2333 58 cm (23″) monitor. It has seen better days and I thought it was due for a replacement when it started taking longer and longer to turn on and half a dozen pixels had died.

My old monitor was marketed as a “gaming monitor” but essentially it was just one out of any number of 1080p 16:9 aspect ratio monitors with a spec sheet listing high marketing numbers. Other types of monitors were available but the prices were astronomical, and back then software support for higher resolution displays still left a lot to be desired.

The only thing I was absolutely sure about for picking a new monitor is that I wanted one that was the same height (28.8 cm) as my current monitor. I can’t push the monitor any farther back on my desk and I don’t want to change my posture and ergonomics all that much to allow for a taller monitor.

So, what are the new options?

My trusty AMD Radeon RX 480 graphics card is capable of outputting a 2160p@60Hz signal so going for a higher resolution was definitively an option I wanted to considered. I have no idea what the performance would be like or what detail settings I could run games at even though the graphics card is 4K capable.

Ultra-high resolution 2160p (“4K”) monitors are gorgeous, but somewhat expensive and software support is a mixed bag. Many games and productivity programs will work just great but you always risk that the one program you really need to use won’t scale properly. It’s hard to determine software compatibility without not already having a high resolution monitor to test the software manually. These monitors cost about four times as much as regular high definition monitor.

You can also go for a slight display resolution bump from 1080p to 1440p. This yields 33 % more pixels on a 58 cm monitor like the one I got compared to a doubling with 4K. Software compatibility here is even worse as not all graphical user interface toolkits support decimal scaling options. These cost about twice that of a regular high definition monitor. Any increase in resolution is a net positive, though.

Another option that I found appealing is 21:9 ultra wide monitors; which give you a 33 % wider screen compared to a regular 16:9 wide screen display. A 21:9 monitor at 73 cm (29″) is still as tall as my current monitor with the same pixel density. These monitors cost about 30 % more than a standard high definition monitor. This is an interesting option as I literally get more screen space without getting a taller display.

Some games choose to support ultra wide monitors by giving players a broader field of view. This sounds fantastic in games like Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Cities Skylines. However, some quite a number of games — especially competitive shooters —will letterbox the screen to a standard 16:9 aspect ratio to prevent you from having an unfair competitive advantage. If you play any games like this you may want to reconsider investing in 15 % more black bars on either side of your game.

There is also a few 4K ultra wide monitors available, but these get quite expensive. My graphics card can’t power one of these so I’d need to invest in a new graphics card as well as a new monitor.

Then there are the 32:9 super ultra wide monitors. These are like having two 21:9 monitors strapped together but without no bezel in the middle. I can barely fit one on my desk by getting rid of everything including my speakers. This displays is just too big for me.

The productivity benefits to having a wider monitor is questionable. A very limited number of software will be able to make excellent use of the extra horizontal space. However, the temptation to open multiple things side by side and live in a perpetual state of distraction may be overwhelming if you mainly rely on software designed for narrower displays.

I’m also a bit worried about the ergonomics of having a wider display. I don’t think they’d be much of a problem for gaming, as you’d mostly focus on the middle and get a wider field of view. However, for productivity tasks you’ll risk sitting at with your head at sub-optimal angles for prolonged periods of time.

You can go crazy by reviewing and comparing technical details like the display’s refresh rates, peak brightens, and what have you. For me, those sort of technical details about hardware gets overwhelming after a few minutes. There are just so many marketing numbers to compare and I have no idea what they mean or correspond do in real life. Ultimately, you just need to pick something that seems decent in a price range you can afford.