Gaming monitors come with the fastest refresh rates.

When you’re shopping for a new monitor, you’ll be inundated with a lot of technical specs. And while things like the screen size and resolution are fairly obvious, there’s another important factor that isn’t: response time. Here’s how it works.

Response time is the time it takes your monitor to shift from one color to another. Usually, this is measured in terms of going from black to white to black again, in terms of milliseconds. A typical LCD response time is under ten milliseconds (10 ms), with some being as fast as one millisecond.

The exact method of measuring this statistic isn’t agreed upon: some manufacturers express it in terms of an LCD’s panel going black to white, or black to white to black, or more commonly “gray to gray.” That means going through the same full spectrum, but starting and ending on finer, more difficult gray values. In all cases, lower response times are better, because they cut down on image issues like blurring or “ghosting.”

The spec sheet for a Dell monitor. Note the difference between refresh rate and response time.
The spec sheet for a Dell monitor. Note the difference between refresh rate and response time. Dell

Response time shouldn’t be confused with a monitor’s refresh rate. They sound similar, but the refresh rate is the number of times a screen displays a new image every second, expressed in Hertz. Most monitors use a 60 Hertz refresh rate, though some go higher—and higher is better. In contrast, for response time lower is better.

Why Do You Want a Low Response Time?

Most computer users won’t even be aware of the response time for their monitor or screen, because most of the time it doesn’t matter. For web surfing, writing an email or Word document, or editing photos, the delay between your screen shifting colors is so fast that you won’t even notice it. Even video, on modern computer monitors and televisions, usually doesn’t have a delay significant enough for the viewer to notice.

Fast-paced multiplayer games like Street Fighter benefit from low response times.
Fast-paced multiplayer games like Street Fighter benefit from low response times. Steam

The exception is gaming. For gamers, every single millisecond counts—the difference between winning and losing a fighting match, landing a long-range sniper shot, or even getting that perfect line in a racing game can indeed be a single millisecond. So for gamers who are looking for every possible competitive edge, a low refresh rate between 1 and 5 milliseconds is worth the expense of a more pricey, gaming-focused monitor.

What Kinds of Monitors Are the Fastest?

For your laptop or phone, you typically don’t have a choice for a low response time on the screen, though there are exceptions. But if you’re buying a new monitor for your gaming desktop, you’ll want the fastest panel you can afford.

At the time of writing, there are three different kinds of LCD panel that cover 99% of the monitors sold today.

  • TN (Twisted Nematic) screen panels: Inexpensive, but generally have a poor color range. These are among the fastest on the market in terms of response time, and gaming monitors often choose less colorful TN panels to be faster.
  • IPS (In-Plane Switching) screen panels: More expensive and with more accurate colors, IPS monitors are valued by graphic designers, photographers, video editors, and anyone for whom accurate colors are important. They have higher response times than TN panels, so are rarely marketed as “gaming” monitors.
  • VA (Vertical Alignment) screen panels: A newer design that attempts to pair the fast response time of TN and the more accurate, vivid color of IPS. It’s something of a middle ground, but many gaming monitors are now made with VA panels that have refresh rates as low as one millisecond.

If you want a monitor that can keep up with even the fastest of games, get one with a TN or VA screen panel. IPS gaming monitors exist, but they’re rare and expensive, and still not as fast as the alternatives. You can usually find the panel type in the monitor’s specifications on the online listing, or on the box at a retail store.

RELATED: What Is an In-Plane Switching (IPS) Panel?

What Are the Downsides of a Fast Response Time?

To cut down on response time, gaming monitors often forego more complex image processing that gets in between the signal from the computer. This includes color-correcting portions of the monitor itself, boosted brightness, eyestrain-reducing blue light filters, and similar features. If you choose a gaming monitor and set it to the fastest possible response time, you’re probably going to see reduced brightness and duller colors.

Should You Buy a Monitor With a Low Response Time?

Is it worth it? For a lot of games, not really. If you’re playing in a single-player mode and the only foe you have to face is a computer, that occasional blur or ghost image might not be worth the aesthetic hit you take for buying a gaming monitor and setting it to the fastest mode. More casual games like Minecraft just don’t benefit from that hyper-low image delay, even when played online.

Speaking of online: if the connection to your multiplayer game is poor, then the time it takes your computer to send information to the game’s server and get information back is probably much higher than your response time anyway. Even on a “slow” monitor with a response time of 10 ms, if your game has a 100 ms ping to the server (one-tenth of a second), image delay issues aren’t going to be a deciding factor in your victory.

Gaming monitors have special low response time modes.
Gaming monitors have special low response time modes. Michael Crider / How-To Geek

But if you have a fast internet connection, and you frequently play fast-paced multiplayer games like Fortnight, Overwatch, Rocket League, or Street Fighter, you’ll want to get every last millisecond you can on your side. The same is true for game consoles and televisions (many of which have a “game mode” that lowers response time) and remains true if you plug a console into your computer monitor.

Profile Photo for Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider is a veteran technology journalist with a decade of experience. He spent five years writing for Android Police and his work has appeared on Digital Trends and Lifehacker. He’s covered industry events like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Mobile World Congress in person.
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