Gaming technology is entering a bold, new world. Ever since Apple unveiled their Retina Display some years ago, the compulsion has been for more and more pixels. We’ve seen this push at an alarming rate in the smartphone and tablet world for some time. More recently, desktop and laptop computers are becoming increasingly available with a native 4K display, and 4K gaming on PC has been a reality for a short while now. With the introduction of the Playstation 4 Pro and the future release of Microsoft’s “Project Scorpio” (pictured above), we’re finally seeing the emergence of UHD video gaming in the living room. In fact, even the recent Xbox One S supports a simple up-scaling technique which allows a pseudo-4K image without the horsepower requirement.

So, what’s all the fuss about? And are we really there yet?

The Jargon

If you’re reading this, you likely already understand the terminology. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated, 4K resolution (or UltraHD/UHD) refers to a functional, native display of 3840×2160 pixels. Those of particular savvy may point out that there is more than one standard for 4K resolution, but let’s keep it simple for the purposes of this article. The astute observer will notice that 3840×2160 is actually 1920×1080 times two. This means that 4K gaming presents four times as many pixels as a standard Full-HD/1080p monitor. The practical up-shoot of all this is that your image looks sharper and individual pixels are much more difficult to pick up at a standard seating/viewing distance.

The Benefits of 4K Gaming

As mentioned, the greatest advantage of a 4K resolution is the increased resolution which means sharper images for all content displayed. If you’re completely happy with a standard “Full HD” image, then this may seem a bit nit-picky. Well, that’s because it is. Nevertheless, the combination of resolution and aliasing artifacts are amongst the remaining hurdles that keep modern video games from appearing as life-like as possible.

Another advantage comes with color reproduction. While HDR is a separate standard, the increased resolution of 4K allows more gradual changes between pixels which allows for less noticeable “color banding”. That said, if you happen across a nice display that does support the latest HDR standards, you should be in for an even greater treat. In fact, both the Xbox One S and the Playstation 4 Pro support HDR and 4K gaming. Either one is a compelling purchase if you have the display to really enjoy it.

And the Drawbacks…

Like Virtual Reality (perhaps a subject for another day), 4K Gaming is presently hamstrung by technology. Because of the incredible volume of pixels to be rendered, the amount of processing power required is positively enormous – even compared to 1080p. There’s no getting around it: if you want a true 4K image, you’ll need a lot of oomph! There are shortcuts, however, which are increasingly popular. As an example, Sony is using a checkerboard up-scaling technique which allows them to take an image which is greater than 1080p but less than 4K and re-create it at the full 3840×2160 resolution. The result is actually quite impressive despite the caveats. Microsoft’s Project Scorpio hopes to bring even more rendering capacity to the table and allow for a broader selection of native 4K experiences, but it’s likely many titles will still need to make certain compromises either in resolution, polygon count, or other effects complexity to achieve smooth frame rates and gameplay.

Just as it takes more GPU and CPU power to render such a high-resolution image, it also takes considerably more bandwidth to transfer a 4K image. Streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube have already begun supporting 4K video. If you’re familiar with streaming, however, you’re likely aware that both of these companies (and really any streaming option available) already use heavy compression algorithms to reduce the bandwidth cost of transmitting even Full-HD video. Certainly, a UHD stream will look better than the same video at 1080p, but don’t expect the same visual experience you could enjoy from a UHD Blu-Ray.

“The groundwork is being laid as we speak for incredible experiences yet to come.”

Now, if it takes so much bandwidth to transmit a 4K image, it’s natural to assume that storing assets and videos at such a potent pixel count must also be costly. Of course, you’d be correct to assume. Here too, you can expect video game and entertainment companies to adopt certain compression standards to lower the resources required, but there is only so much to be done.

One more thought: PC gaming and the competitive, e-sports community are pushing ever more aggressively towards monitors and displays with higher refresh rates. The advantage of these devices during competitive play cannot be overstated. While this year’s CES show was promising, the market for 144hz, 3840×2160 monitors has yet to properly develop. It’s likely it’ll be some time before that changes and prices become bearable for the average consumer. Choosing 4K gaming today will likely mean settling for 60hz whether in the PC space or consoles. It’s just as well, however, as you are unlikely to be able to push such a high resolution at framerates above 60, anyways.

So, Now What?

The good news is that support for 4K gaming across all platforms is only going to increase. It’s just going to take time. Processing technology has reached science-fiction levels since my childhood, but there’s still room left to grow. Much like Virtual Reality, we’re very much in the early days of 4K. The concept is there and it works, but the real enjoyment will be predominately for the select few that can afford the incredible buy-in of a super-high-end gaming PC. Playstation 4 Pro and the forthcoming Xbox Project Scorpio should bring a competent experience to the masses. Bear in mind, however, that the current console generation have yet to truly produce consistent 1080p content, so be careful expecting miracles only a few years later.

In summary, it’s fair enough to get excited about the future – the groundwork is being laid as we speak for incredible experiences yet to come. Just make sure you keep your expectations in line with your budget and the technological present. We’ll get there.

Have you experienced 4K gaming? Do you own an uber-rig that pumps frames like something ripped from Tony Stark’s wildest fantasies? Tell us about it in the comments below!