Selecting a Monitor for Sim-Racing
It seems every week someone is asking me for advice or recommendations on monitors, specifically for sim-racing monitors. There are some common sense aspects and some other obscure aspects of the selection process. I’ll try to cover them all here. Spoiler alert: I will not be giving specific recommendations on brands and models. Models and specifications change on a yearly basis so it would not be wise to make a recommendation in this article.
As we all know from motion pictures, video is actually just a series of slightly different still images flashed in front of our eyes very quickly to give us the illusion that the picture is moving. Each picture is called a frame and the number of frames the monitor can show us each second is the refresh rate and is measured in Hertz (Hz). Therefore, a refresh rate of 60Hz will be able to display up to 60 frames per second. I say “up to” because the graphics processor and other factors can cause the PC to generate less frames than that. It is generally accepted that 60Hz is the minimum acceptable for us to perceive smooth video and for the fast moving objects in sim-racing I tend to agree. There are monitors capable of displaying more frames per second so you will see those advertised as 120Hz or 144Hz and more. Keep in mind that simply because you have a monitor that can display 120 frames per second doesn’t mean your PC can keep up. Look for a monitor that runs at 60Hz minimum, which most do these days, or 120Hz+ if your PC can handle it.
A monitor screen is actually made up of thousands of individual dots, known as pixels. Each pixel is capable of changing its color and brightness. Ideally, these dots are so small and so close together that you can’t even tell the dots are there. When the dots are spaced too far apart you see gaps between the dots when you get up close, this is often called the screen door effect. When the dots are too large you see a blurry image. For the reasons, you must have more pixels spaced closer together as you are seated closer to the screen. The number of pixels on a screen is the resolution. Resolution is commonly documented as the number of columns of pixels multiplied by the number of rows of pixels, such as 1920×1080. Having more pixels creates a smoother looking image, but your PC has to work harder figure out what color and how bright each one needs to be. 1920×1080 is ideal for 24 inch monitors at a 24 inch distance.
I feel the need to talk about the recent introduction of 4K resolution and ultra-widescreen monitors. Ultra-widescreen monitors (21:9) are great for sim-racing, but it takes a 34 inch monitor to approximate the height of a 24 inch standard widescreen (16:9) monitor. These monitors will increase your peripheral visibility on the track and certainly having triple ultra-widescreen monitors is amazing. 4K monitor resolutions on the other hand are not a significant improvement for sim-racing. The increased pixel count and resulting higher density do provide a sharper image, but the added cost of the monitors and the cost of available graphics processors to drive them, particularly for triple screens, is not yet cost effective. In fact, at the time of this writing, a PC built with four of nVidia’s flagship Titan X graphics cards were not able to run triple 4K monitors satisfactorily.
Each pixel of the display may have to change color and brightness with just about every new frame. The pixels take a little bit of time to make the transitions. A 60Hz refresh rate will display a new frame every 16 milliseconds. If the pixels were to take that long to transition to the new color and brightness they need to be, then the picture we see becomes a blur because by the time they are done changing color and brightness, it’s time to begin changing again. For our eyes to see a clear image, the pixels must transition quickly.
The most important aspect when selecting a monitor for sim racing is the response time. Ideally, faster is better, but here are some guidelines. Response time is measured in milliseconds (ms) which is 1/1000 of a second, and it is a measure of how long it takes for a pixel to go from full on to full off. Since the video we see is actually a sequence of pictures flashed at you very quickly, it is very important to make sure the pixels in the images are able to change fast enough. When they don’t change fast enough, objects tend to look blurry when they move. The generally accepted threshold is 5ms response time or faster. Even though the picture sequence only changes every 8 to 16 milliseconds you want the pixels to change much faster so that the fully rendered picture in on long enough for your eye to see it.
There is some marketing hype with this number since it is so important. Some monitors will advertise a more aggressive response time by specifying the grey-to-grey (GTG) response rather than the black-to-white (BTW) response time. GTG is a real-world measurement of what will most likely occur rather than the BTW. It is very seldom that a pixel needs to change from full black to full white, so the GTG is an acceptable measurement. However, if a monitor only advertises a GTG response time, look for 2ms or less.
Monitor size is the question that comes up most frequently. How big is big enough? Well, that depends on how far from your eyes you will be mounting the monitor and how far you want the monitors to wrap around you. Keep in mind that monitors are measured diagonally. As a general rule of thumb when referring to HD 16:9 monitors, the distance to your eyes should be equal to or just under the diagonal measurement of the screen. For instance, if you are considering using 24 inch monitors, it should be placed at about 18 to 24 inches from your eyes. This distance should present a smooth 1920×1080 image without being able to distinguish the individual pixels. The pixels and the gaps between them begin to become noticeable as you get closer than this distance. The sweet spot for price right now is 24 inch monitors, but if you have the budget I recommend 27 inch.
There are some physical characteristics that are important for a sim-racing monitor, particularly for a triple screen arrangement. If you will be starting out with a single monitor and later upgrading to triples, don’t wait too long to get the additional monitors because most models are not on the market for more than a year or so. If you plan to start with a single monitor, consider getting something that can later be relegated to be used on an office computer later so you can get 3 monitors all at once.
When setting up a triple screen arrangement you should be prepared to get three identical model monitors. The reason is simple, as you have seen there are various specifications involved and having all three the same will make for a better experience. Different refresh rate, pixel densities, even LCD panel technologies which are not even discussed in this article make the monitors visibly different which takes away from the experience.
The surface of the screen itself should be an anti-glare type. Many monitors now come with a glossy screen because consumers are attracted to shiny objects. Glossy screens create glare, matte screens do not. Don’t fall for the marketing trick.
The width of the monitor side bezels are an important consideration when it comes to a triple screen setup. Obviously keeping that width as narrow as possible prevents breaks in the image. Truth be told though, after a few minutes of driving, your brain stitches the image together and you can’t even notice the bezels are there. The same happens with the windshield pillars while driving a real car. I do not recommend tucking the side monitors behind the center monitor in an attempt to “hide” their bezels. Placing the monitors at different distances creates a negative effect on the experience and reduces the overall width of the display which is less desirable.
Some monitors have essential controls on the side of the monitor. This is undesirable in a triple screen arrangement since it makes it impossible to reach the controls and may even prevent the monitors from butting up to each other properly.
Look for monitors with a removable stand and a VESA mount on the back side. Most sim-chassis will rely on the monitor having a VESA compatible mounting point to secure the monitors to the chassis. Some monitors don’t have them or require adapters to be purchased separately.
Look for monitors with rear connector orientations that allow the cables to lay flat rather than protrude straight out. This will make the cable management much easier and insures the cable will not get in the way of the mounting brackets.
I am looking forward to the final release of the Oculus Rift, but the ultimate sim-racing display will still be an array of displays without the need for googles.
I hope this article has provided sufficient information to help in the selection of monitors for your sim-racing setup. I welcome comments feedback and questions from anyone wanting to set up an immersive sim-racing experience.