Pixel response times
The Myth of the 8 ms Panel
The techie in all of us wants a monitor with the fastest possible pixel refresh rate. After all, the faster the better, right? Well, it turns out it is not quite that simple. Itís obvious that if your pixel refresh is too slow, thereís too much blurring. Itíll interfere with your gaming. However, when the motion blur reaches a threshold point, itís no longer a hindrance to your gaming performance and actually helps to smooth out the framerates. On the other hand, monitors that are too aggressive with the pixel refresh times donít have anywhere near the same color or contrast.
The real problem is that rated pixel refresh times are rarely quoted as ďaverages.Ē Theyíre often quoting the best-case scenario. This is further complicated by the fact that there are different types of LCD panels on the market: S-IPS, TN-film, and PVA/MVA. Think of them as being different CPU types (like a Pentium 4 vs. Athlon64). Depending on the type of LCD panel, there can be large differences in the pixel refresh depending on whether itís going from black to white, or rom gray to gray. It can actually be slower to transition from black to gray than it is to go from black to white for some panels. That can be a bit counter-intuitive.
What this means for you is that a 25 ms S-IPS LCD panel works as fast as a 16 ms ďTN-filmĒ based LCD technology for the wide range of black to light gray. Only when a pixel is going from pure black to pure white is the TN-film actually faster. So in nearly every real-world application including first person shooters, the difference in smearing will be minimal. On the other hand, a PVA or MVA monitor that may be advertised as doing 25 ms when going from black to white may very well need 80 ms to transition from black to dark gray!
Speed isnít everything. IPS panels typically offer better viewing angles with more accurate color, however contrast is poorer. TN-Film technology (the 8, 12 and 16 ms) panels only display 18-bit color. PVA/MVA panels on the other hand are famed for deep black levels and superb contrast ratios that typically come the expense of speed.
So, while pixel refresh is important, the way itís advertised, itís about as useful as megahertz ratings for CPUs or watts for amplifiers. Itíll help you decide within a panel type only. That is, an 8 ms TN-film screen is better than a 12 ms TN-film screen, but a 20 ms MVA screen will have significantly worse ghosting than a 25 ms IPS panel. In addition, all things equal 17-inch LCD panels tend to exhibit less smearing than 19-inch panels with the same advertised pixel refresh.
With CRT monitors, it was important to have a high refresh rate to avoid flicker. This isnít a problem with LCD panels anymore because instead of using an electron gun to energize phosphors, the LCD itself is a transparent film (like a 35mm slide) with a static light source behind the panel. The cold cathodes fluorescent tubes that light LCD panels operate at tens of thousands of hertz. Many LCD panels have a native display refresh of 60Hz, and if so, itís actually better to run your LCD display at 60Hz rather than 75Hz. Both will be flicker free.
Does this mean that you only need a video card that does 60 fps? No, FiringSquad was one of the original proponents of 100+ frames per second benchmark scores when evaluating 3D graphics cards. The most common explanation for wanting this speed is that benchmarks reflect an average framerate, whereas itís the minimum framerate under heavy load that matters for gaming. However, a more subtle distinction is the idea that games synchronize their display to user input as well. Having a higher framerate acts in a similar way as having a higher mouse refresh rate.
Even an 8 ms TN film panel is not immune to smearing (neither are CRTs). Fortunately at 12 ms or faster, we found the smearing associated with TN-film panels to be non-intrusive. Youíll be able to see the smearing when youíre looking for it, but itís not at a point where it interferes with gaming, even at the professional competitive level. 16 ms TN-film is a good starting point as a minimum spec and most gamers will be happy with this level of blurring. We found the 12 ms PVA panels to perform similarly to the 16 ms TN-film panels. So, you will see smearing if you look for it, and for a skilled gamer, itíll occasionally get in the way. By skilled gamer, thatís someone who consistently is in the top 2 spots for any given match. 25ms PVA panels were too slow for high-speed gaming and even casual gamers will notice the difference. That said, DVD movies will look fine. 25 ms IPS panels were on par with 16 ms TN-film panels.