If there’s one product category that still often sees genuine technological advancements at CES, it’s screens — and these days, PC monitors in particular. As someone who enjoys looking at nice displays, I’m always down to check out some even nicer ones, and CES 2020 brought us some of the fastest, brightest, largest, and curviest monitors ever.
The question, though, is when I’ll actually be moved to buy one. A couple years ago I wrote about how monitor shopping sucked through the lens of my quest to find one that checked off all my boxes. It’s harder than you might think! And I’m still pretty much happy with what I have.
That’s why I spent one day at CES specifically tracking down as many monitor “firsts” as I possibly could, in an attempt to gauge the value of all the brand-new features that might push a prospective buyer to snap up a new screen. Here’s my take on how important each one is.
Asus introduced the ROG Swift 360Hz G-Sync monitor at CES, setting a brand-new bar for high refresh rates. Now, I am a huge proponent of VRR (variable refresh rate) technology, and made it a priority when buying my own 165Hz monitor years ago. Theoretically, the faster refresh rate lets players respond even faster than before. That said, 240Hz monitors are already a thing, and I think you hit diminishing returns pretty sharply unless you’re a pro League of Legends player.
Asus had the new 360Hz monitor set up next to a 240Hz model, scrolling through the same MOBA battlefield at high speed. And honestly, I didn’t know which was which until I noticed the frame rate counter in the corner of each screen. After that, I felt like I could just about tell the difference, but I might have been kidding myself.
Put this one down in the “cool that it exists, but you almost certainly don’t need it” column. Especially if you’re considering laptops, which now have optional 300Hz screens, but haven’t yet gotten a powerful new wave of mobile GPUs to drive them.
Between unreliable software support and displays that aren’t quite up to the task, HDR on Windows has been kind of a mess for years. VESA’s DisplayHDR certifications were meant to help sort things out, but now there are lots of 400-nit “HDR-certified” monitors in the market that don’t produce brightness levels anything like what you’d expect from a good HDR TV set.
This year at CES, however, Asus and Acer both announced some of the very first monitors with eye-searing 1,440-nit brightness and support for the DisplayHDR 1400 standard along with Mini LED backlights, which are supposed to offer more accurate local dimming in addition to providing that brightness boost. And yeah, after looking at them in person, I would say that this is legit PC HDR. It’s not perfect — you still get a degree of typical IPS glow on dark screens, and the Mini LED dimming isn’t going to compete with OLED. But for most games and movies, these displays look great.
If I were buying a gaming monitor today, I would probably at least want to future-proof myself with HDR support, and I think that would probably mean considering a high DisplayHDR spec to be essential. As for Mini LED, it’s hard to say how much of a leap forward it represents — the effectiveness of LED dimming solutions can vary from model to model or panel to panel. But if nothing else, it should signal that you’re looking at a monitor with serious HDR support.
Both Samsung and MSI introduced what appear to be the first monitors with screen curvatures of 1000R, which is a measurement I admit I have never heard of, but supposedly replicates the human eye. Samsung’s are available in 27, 32, and 32:9 49-inch sizes, while MSI’s is a 21:9 34-inch model.
I’ve never really been a curved monitor guy. I have been a 21:9 monitor guy, though never at such gigantic sizes. I don’t really think the extra curvature will be much of a bonus for monitors designed for regular desks. But if you do like curved monitors, you probably already know whether you’d like yours to curve even more.
I did, however, think that the curvature was pretty novel on Samsung’s gigantic 49-inch 5120 x 1440 Odyssey G9, a monitor so wide that it truly does benefit from 1000R, up from 1800R for previous monitors. When I sat in front of it, I tried to imagine what it’d be like if it curved less, and it’d just involve pushing the edges of the screen further away from my eyes. The combination of shape and size makes you feel like you’re sitting inside the screen — it’s honestly a cool experience.
At least, it would have been if Samsung hadn’t inexplicably decided to demonstrate it with Overwatch, a game that doesn’t support ultra-wide aspect ratios at all. The 16:9 image was stretched across the display, and frankly it looked terrible. Though, I wonder what the sweeping vistas of Red Dead Redemption 2 would look like.
What I will say about 1000R curvature is that on this specific Samsung monitor, it is not a gimmick if you are okay with dropping what is almost certainly going to be an ungodly amount of money and probably refitting your entire home office at the same time. In other words, you probably shouldn’t allow yourself to want it.
Lots of PC companies are now offering gaming monitors in sizes more commonly associated with TVs, from Asus’ 43-inch VA panel to Acer’s new 55-inch OLED to HP’s Nvidia-endorsed 65-inch LED display from last year.
I thought this was a cool idea when Nvidia introduced it a couple of years ago at CES — blend the best features of TVs and gaming monitors into giant panels with simple interfaces. Obviously they’d be niche products, since most people aren’t going to build PC gaming dens around 65-inch screens, but it felt like a niche worth serving.
Things are a little different at this CES, though, because HDMI 2.1 is one of the big stories of the show. The new specification brings variable refresh rates at high resolutions to standard living room TVs for the first time, and it’ll work with next-gen game consoles as well as PCs. At this point, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t be better served just buying an HDMI 2.1-compatible OLED TV instead of a PC monitor.
When writing about niche technology, I try not to write off potential use cases. I like to imagine who might possibly want a particular thing, even if it seems excessively specific to me at first. After all, we shouldn’t encourage the tech industry only to cater for the most mainstream users imaginable.
That’s why I’m including LG’s new UltraFine Ergo monitor here, because you and I probably have no use for it, but I think the design is great anyway. It clamps onto the back of your desk, and then you’re able to raise, lower, tilt, turn, or swivel the panel more or less however you want. One use case LG suggests is turning the monitor all the way around to show the person sat opposite you at work.
Would I buy it? No, because there are a bunch of things that I personally need a monitor to do that it doesn’t. But I bet there are people out there who put ultimate flexibility at the top of their own list, and they’ll probably be very happy with this.
That’s the thing about monitors. They’re an unavoidably messy market with trade-offs in all directions. You can’t really make a perfect one. But this CES has certainly got me thinking about my next upgrade.