The perfect gaming TV: what you need to know
Did you know the best TV for enjoying films isn’t necessarily the best for your gaming console? The three things you need to be aware of when buying a telly are input lag, game mode and response time.
I’ll be honest, picking a TV that doesn’t leave you with the short end of the deal when it comes to gaming is not so easy. Who’d happily shell out a load of money for a new TV to keep getting gunned down in «Apex Legends» because the opponent seems to have a second’s advantage? And no one wants motion blur so it looks like the ball is smearing across the screen or a jumpy image in every quick camera pan shot of a «Fifa» game. Really, no one wants that.
But don’t worry. I’ve put together some tips on buying a TV for gaming to make sure that very thing doesn’t happen to you.
First and foremost: input lag
For online players, input lag is by far the most important value to look at when buying a gaming TV. It indicates the time your TV needs to express commands on the screen that are sent from an external signal source – from your PS4, for instance. It goes without saying that the less there’s a delay, the better the gaming experience.
To give you an example: it’s annoying when you’re playing «Fortnite» and your opponent appears on the screen milliseconds later than they should and then shoots you down before you’ve even noticed.
Input lag can also disrupt offline games. Imagine you’re playing «Super Mario Bros.» When Mario is nearing the edge of something, the screen shows you the image a few steps before because of the input lag. The result being that Mario falls even though you think you pressed the jump button at the right time.
Basically, input lag makes all the difference. I mean sure, it’s only a matter of a few split seconds. But in first-person shooter (FPS), that can completely change the game. You’re probably now wondering how high the input lag can be on a gaming TV. 20 to 30 milliseconds is OK but for some games that’s already borderline. Anything over that significantly reduces gaming fun. Certainly, professionals won't buy anything above 20 milliseconds.
Next: game mode
Televisions aren’t actually designed for gaming. They’re tailored to films and series. In fact, it’s game mode that minimises input lags on the TV. Here’s how it works:
The console transmits signals to your TV that contain information on colour display, anti-aliasing and contrast range. The more comprehensive the information within the signal, the longer the processing time. Your TV then receives this signal and sends it via various image optimisation programmes before you get the displayed image on screen.
This is where game mode comes into play. It reduces or removes unnecessary image optimisation kerfuffle. Don’t get me wrong, you will want optimisation for your home cinema or box set binging but not for just a round of «CS: Go» in multiplayer mode. By taking this step out of the equation, you’re lessening the processing time and consequently, the input lag.
The following video illustrates it well. The first half is in game mode; from 0:20, game mode is turned off. Notice the sounds in the background while the jump button is pressed. When game mode is on, Ratchet almost jumps up immediately. With game mode switched off, there’s a distinct difference.
«What’s the point of buying an expensive gaming console that’s HDR compatible and featuring 4K resolution if I’m just going to demolish image quality in game mode anyway?» you might ask.
Good question. What sets gaming TVs apart from standard televisions is the fact the image still looks good in gaming mode. The latter reduces or removes any unnecessary optimisation but it keeps the things that are essential for your gaming enjoyment (see video above). That’s why a high performance TV processor is more important than you might think.
Lastly: response time
Response time and input lag are often mixed up or conflated. That’s not surprising really when you consider both values are measured in milliseconds. And both seem to imply there’s a delayed response or answer.
However, response time is the time it takes for a single pixel to change colour. It’s particularly important for quick movements, action scenes and games. Because you have to remember that the image on a TV display is made up of millions of pixels. If something on this image moves a lot, the individual pixels have to respond quickly. You can tell if the pixels aren’t changing colour fast enough because the image will look like it’s sliding.
Not sure what I mean? You’ll probably have seen image sliding like this before, for instance when you’re watching football or tennis and the ball kind of drags behind in a curve. This is called «ghosting». If you switch to football or sport mode, the sliding should disappear. Or at least, happen a lot less.
Game mode won’t reduce the sliding. In some cases, it can even make it worse. This is because game mode shuts down optimisation processes that improve the TV’s input lag. That in turn means faster processing times and a lower input lag.
I’ve included two screenshots from the «Ratchet and Clank» videos above. One is in game mode and the other with game mode turned off. While the input lag is a lot less when game mode is activated, ghosting is a lot more noticeable in the background with pan shots:
If you don’t want sliding crosshairs in «Call of Duty» to become the norm, your gaming TV will need to have reaction times that are so fast you don’t notice any sliding even in game mode. In other words, your TV would need to have a reaction time below 20 milliseconds. Modern televisions usually have a reaction time between 10 and 20 milliseconds so that’s usually not a problem.
Does refresh rate make a difference?
The refresh rate is a number of individual images that are shown per second on the screen. The faster each picture is shown after the other, the more they form a fluent movement.
Refresh rate is measured in Hertz (Hz) or in frames per second (fps). In other words, 60 Hz is 60 fps – both essentially mean the same. From 24 frames per second, the human eye detects a «fluent» or flowing stream of pictures rather than each one individually. The higher the refresh rate, the more «fluent» the image.
Meanwhile, the latest mid-range televisions usually offer 100 Hz panels – don’t tend to be overtaxed. But of course, new TVs with different capabilities are always on the horizon.
The future: HDMI 2.1, VRR and ALLM
The successors to Xbox One and PS4, Xbox Project Scarlet and PS5, are set to launch sometime around the end of 2020, maybe even slightly later. The console manufacturers promise frame rates of 120 Hz in UHD resolution – Microsoft is even talking about 8K resolution for their Xbox. For TV manufacturers that means higher volumes of data have to be transferred from the console to the TV within a reasonable time.
To make sure your TV is future-proof, you’ll want to check that it features an HDMI 2.1 interface before buying it. Otherwise the bandwidth of the cable between the TV and console won’t cut it for exchanging large volumes of data fast enough.
In HDMI 2.1, there are two other predefined features that are of particular interest for gamers:
- Variable refresh rates (HDMI Forum VRR)
- Auto low latency mode (ALLM)
Graphics cards have different rendering rates. Most TVs and monitors, on the other hand, offer a fixed frame rate. If these rates aren’t in sync, the image will stutter and appear to «tear» – something known as tearing. It wasn’t until the introduction of VRR that both frequencies were synchronised and any problems were eliminated. VRR technology in HDMI 2.1 is HDMI Forum VRR.
There are now even TVs that can display VRR via HDMI 2.0a. This is significant for PC gamers as there is (as yet) no graphics card with HDMI 2.1 output. And as a result, the TV has to support either Nvidia G-Sync for Nvidia graphics cards or AMD FreeSync for AMD and more recent Nvidia graphics cards. So it’s always worth checking if your graphics card is compatible with one of those standards before you go out of your way to spend more money on a screen with VRR you probably won’t be able to use.
Meanwhile, ALLM means that game signals from associated devices are recognised and are then switched to a kind of game mode. Imagine your games console is an AV receiver or soundbar and linked to the TV. If all devices support ALLM, unnecessary image processing algorithms are deactivated so the image transfers from the console to the TV with the highest latency possible. This is also important for ensuring low input lag.
Summary: 3 features of the ideal gaming TV
The best TVs for a home cinema are not necessarily good for gaming – and vice versa. As a gamer, you’ll want to look for the following when buying a gaming TV:
- Low input lag – max. 20 milliseconds.
- Game mode that can be activated on the TV – this reduces lag time even further.
- Short response time (max. 20 milliseconds) – so the images don’t slide, even in game mode.
Funnily enough, the refresh rate only plays a secondary role. This is because the source – current consoles – no longer generate images per second in a way that modern TVs can display them. If you want to future-proof your new TV, you’ll still want to look for an HDMI 2.1 interface. Unfortunately, you only get those on very expensive TVs.
Let me know in the comments below or by e-mail if you’d be interested in a buying guide, listing all suitable gaming TVs. If there’s enough demand, I’ll get to work on writing the article.
I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.»
These articles might also interest you