Original URL: https://www.theregister.com/2015/09/04/feature_4k_gaming/

Wangling my way into the 4K gaming club with a water-cooled whopper

Catching a glimpse of uncanny valley

By Lucy Orr

Posted in Personal Tech, 4th September 2015 09:05 GMT

Feature The other week a Viewsonic VX2475Smhl-4K monitor, boasting a 3840x2160 resolution running at 60Hz – though only 24-inches of it – shows up at my door. I’m happy as a clam until it dawns on me that this isn’t a job my faithful little NUC, the Gigabyte Brix Pro, is up to. I was going to need a rig and a half, probably costing more than my last two cars combined, to make use of this number of Pixels Per Degree of Vision (PPD).

Viewsonic VX2475Smhl-4K monitor

With HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.2a, Viewsonic's VX2475Smhl-4K monitor is cheaper than a UHD telly but is a 24-incher enough?

Just when I thought I’d have to send the Viewsonic 4K monitor back, without witnessing The Witcher 3’s glorious sunsets and craven hags in four times as many pixels as usual, a chance encounter with the chaps from Overclockers UK at a Kingston HyperX gaming event put an end to my woes.

Water cooled and to die for, I was sent the beef cake Infinity Vesuvius gaming PC powered by a quad-core Intel Core i7 4770K overclocked to 4.7GHz, with 16GB of RAM.

4K gaming? No sweat, with its AMD dual-Radeon R9 295X2 GPUs configured in quad Crossfire mode, it pumps out the pixels on cue. Just watch your energy bill, this Corsair H105 closed-loop, water-cooled mosasaurus is as quiet as a mouse but runs from a 1500W Silverstone Strider ST1500 power supply. Needless to say, it arrived on a pallet.

Overclockers UK Infinity Vesuvius 4K gaming rig arrives

The Overclockers UK Infinity Vesuvius 4K gaming rig arrives

Booting up this monster rig, I’m well aware there are few who have the resources to equip themselves with such high-end gaming hardware. This may be last year's model that fetched £4,000 at the time but I'm not complaining, as suddenly I’m a member of an elite club.

But for how long? I suspect the financially insecure won’t be closed out of this clique indefinitely as the Viewsonic VX2475Smhl-4K monitor retails at a reasonable £329, and all you need is the kit to run it, which brings me back to where I started.

The GPU will always be the limiting factor and at 4K you can almost smell the cheaper ones burning and falling over. You’ll also need to make sure you are compatible. HDMI 2.0 has only recently appeared on graphics cards with Nvidia's GTX 980/970 being the first. So if you've a capable GPU, you'll most likely be relying on a DisplayPort 1.2 connection to drive the 4K 50/60Hz resolution image.

Earlier incarnations of HDMI weren't up to the 17.28Gbps bandwidth this hi-res, fast refresh output demands. If you waited for HDMI 2.0 – now featuring on most recent 4K sets – then it can handle up to 18Gbps.

HDMI resolution chart - HDMI 2.0 additions in bold

HDMI 4K support showing HDMI 2.0 additions in bold

However, you're still likely to run into headaches if you were hoping to use a DisplayPort to HDMI lead to connect your GPU to work with a 4K telly, as these converter cables don't support the bandwidth either. So, it looks like a choice of buy the latest Nvidia GPU or get 4K capable DisplayPort monitor.

If you're a clever clogs, you might try following the advice of Geforce forum poster Thruput who made an adapter using an Explore EP963E DP 1.2 to HDMI 2.0 converter chip – though it seems he has some expertise in such matters.

He told us he bought the development board from Explore in China for $300 and it worked out of the box. Effective, but not exactly cheap.

There is another alternative. If you've not invested in a 4K telly yet but have this in mind as your main gaming display, then Panasonic does make 4K TVs with DisplayPort 4K 50/60Hz connectivity (as well as HDMI 2.0, of course), but the cheapest appears to be the 50-inch TX-50AX802B which will set you back about a grand.

Incidentally, I asked Startech if it had anything at 60Hz in the offing, the reply was, "we are actively working on a DisplayPort 1.2 to HDMI 2.0 adapter as well as a DisplayPort over USB-C to HDMI 2.0 adapter. Once we launch the adapter we will start to explore cable versions." Encouraging, but don't hold your breath.

Recording at 4K is just becoming viable (watch this space) with options like Geforce Shadowplay but you’ll need a whole lotta RAM if you want to do any serious editing.

Putting on a display

So how does it play? Gaming titles for review copies are typically handed out for consoles these days, so finally it was time to download some previously played games – to actually run on the platform they were developed to be played on – that I thought would do 4K justice.

GTA V graphics tweaks

GTA V graphics tweaks

I was keen to see how high I could push the settings without the frame rate making gameplay comparable to a stop frame animation. GTA V took a while to get running but after downloading the latest AMD Catalyst beta drivers, everything came into focus and I was driving smoothly at a 60fps and a resolution of 3840x2160.

GTA V in game at 4K

GTA V in game at 4K. Click for a full-resolution image

I did have the multi-sample anti-aliasing and shadow enhancements off and no frame scaling but the all settings were on very high. With the draw distances set to maximum, it played outstandingly and brought a tear to my eye ... or maybe that was the 50 hours of gameplay that I lost as my save points were on the MSI GT80 Titan 18.4-inch gaming laptop I'd had the pleasure of recently.

Total War Attila in game at 4K

Total War: Attila in game at 4K. Click for a full-resolution image

Total War: Attila at 4K is a feast for the eyes and the campaign map is really crisp and clear, details on trees and cities were visible that I hadn’t seen before. A frame rate of 44fps on Ultra settings left me feeling that RTS games are where 4K really shines. Here, I have the time to take in the details of the impressive draw distances – these fields of battle have never been so beautiful.

Far Cry 4 in game at 4K

Far Cry 4 in game at 4K. Click for a full-resolution image

Far Cry 4 set in the Himalayas was stunning, from the snow and mist on the mountains, to the hairs on the skinned animal’s hide. Yet when playing this first-person shooter, I saw the frame rate dip more than any of the other games I tested to around 30fps. Consequently, it ran less smoothly and felt more like a console port.

The Witcher 3 in game at 4K

The Witcher 3 in game at 4K. Click for a full-resolution image

The Witcher 3 in 4k brought me crashing down to around 20fps even on the low and middle settings, but gave astonishing clarity to the landscape, amazing graphical fidelity and everything popped, without any lag in the gameplay. I would have really liked a larger screen to feel real immersion in The Northern Realms.

The devil in the detail

Overall, I was impressed with the support for 4K in these games. I found the scaling up, especially with the menus and text, wasn’t as buggy as I thought it might be. Although I have to say, the text in Total War: Attila was minuscule and very hard to read.

So is 4K worth it? At the moment 4K works best for RTS and role playing/strategy games. In fast, first-person shooters I just don’t have the time to slow down and notice the details and 4K isn’t worth the drop in frame rate.

BenQ XR3501 curved 35-inch 21:9 monitor

BenQ XR3501 curved 35-inch 21:9 monitor

The consensus round my gaff is that the size of the thing you’re looking at is more important than the detail. Whether opinion would change radically if we'd been playing through a 55-inch UHD TV, rather than a 24-inch monitor, is a test that will have to wait for another time.

Fortunately, display playback choices are not so cut and dried as just simply HD versus UHD. I came across an alternative for gamers at the recent launch event for the BenQ XR3501, a 35-inch curved cinemascope monitor with a 21:9 aspect ratio.

Even with a resolution of 2560x1080, I found this screen easily as impressive as the Viewsonic VX2475Smhl-4K and – given its size, aspect ratio and curvature – certainly more gratifying. Featuring a 144Hz refresh rate, BenQ's latest is all about teeth clenching, eye juddering action. It also has an eye-watering price of €1,299 – around £950.

Playing Project Cars on three BenQ XR3501 monitors pushed together to form an arc of tarmac was utterly immersive and got my heart racing almost as much as those of the other gaming journalists who saw my pants as I rolled out of the floor level gaming chair.

Project Cars on three BenQ XR3501 curved 35-inch 21:9 monitor

Immersive imagery: Project Cars on three BenQ XR3501 monitors

Unsurprisingly, it’s always a case of cash. If you’ve got enough of it to build a rig like the Overclockers Infinity Vesuvius then, yes, you can run 4K with most of the bells and whistles. However, you'll have endure the early adopter price point pain as there will always be something cheaper or faster coming out further down the line. We've seen it with 4K tellies and monitors, the GPUs will not be too far behind.

4K is the biggest leap I have seen in a long time but I suspect that, for the time being, most gamers will be content with the graphical overhead of HD, which allows full-on tessellation and anti-aliasing.

At the moment, gaming at 4K involves making too many sacrifices for silly money. The Witcher 3 was a classic example of this, with its astonishing clarity traded up against a slow but playable frame rate.

Inside the Overclockers UK Infinity Vesuvius 4K gaming rig

Cool dude: inside the Overclockers UK Infinity Vesuvius 4K gaming rig

I spent my evenings doing a lot of drunken boasting at the pub about draw distances and pixels per degree of vision. Dull moments during work hours involved emailing friends impressive screenshots and pictures of my quad Crossfire AMD R9s.

Then I'd go home and feel all empty inside because I’m basically a member of an elite gaming club (thanks Overclockers) that I know can’t leave without feeling a little lost inside without that realism. Yep, HD just doesn’t cut it anymore, as I may have just had my first glimpse of uncanny valley. ®

Thanks to Overclockers UK for the loan of the Infinity Vesuvius 4K gaming rig.