I have resolution anxiety. Not in the New Year’s sense of a promise to myself I could not keep, but in the total number of pixels sense. Lately, I’ve been feeling self conscious about the resolution that I play all PC games at: 1080p. It started a few months ago when the PC Gamer graphics card review I was perusing described the card’s strong framerate capabilities at “low resolutions” like 1080p.
Low? 1080p? When did that happen?
It feels like not that long ago that 1080p was the gold standard for videogames, while 1440p and 4K were considered aspirational, even overkill targets for games to hit. But as I look around, this no longer reflects my reality. Most of my friends and the majority of my coworkers have at least a 1440p monitor. Some even have a 4K screen on their desk, but not many. I, meanwhile, use two 1080p monitors: one 60Hz Dell screen from 2013 that my dad “borrowed” from his last job, and one 144Hz screen that I bought in 2019.
I considered the 1080p 144Hz monitor I’m using right now a splurge when I bought it. It seemed indulgent to spend a few hundred bucks and set aside a perfectly functional screen just so I could see Rainbow Six Siege at 100+ fps (absolutely worth it). As a shooter fan I’m generally more concerned with framerate than resolution, but I’m not one of those fps maximalists who sets everything to low to see how high the frames can go. My eyes won’t settle for anything lower than 1080p—a criteria that I thought meant “I want games to look good,” not “I want the bare minimum.”
Maybe I should’ve taken the hint earlier. When a 2022 videogame releases its official system requirements, I do assume “Minimum” means 1080p, even though publishers rarely list the exact resolutions listed specs are meant for. In the world of TVs, 4K HDR has been the default for a few years. When I was tasked with updating our roundup of Black Friday monitor deals, I saw 1440p and 4K monitors flying off the digital shelves while 1080p screens went untouched. It’s true: 2K and 4K gaming is no longer PC gaming’s future, it’s PC gaming’s present. Apologies if this is old news, I’m catching up here.
What the data says
So yes, in a poll of my friends and peers, I’m the weird one. Though that’s not really saying much—it’s no surprise the staff of PC Gamer has a taste for the finer things of our hobby, and of course manufacturers want people to believe their expensive monitors are the new standard. But what does the data say?
According to Steam’s latest hardware survey for November 2022, likely the largest freely-available aggregation of PC hardware usage on the internet, I’m hardly the only one sticking to my 1080p guns: In fact, over 65% of surveyed Steam users primarily play games at 1080p. That makes 1080p orders of magnitude more popular than any other resolution tracked by Valve. The next most popular resolution, 1440p, makes up just 11.34% of the survey pool. Surprisingly, 4K comes in fifth place at 2.60%, behind both 1366×758 at 5.70% (it’s like 720p, but slightly better) and “Other” at 2.66% (perhaps an amalgamation of uncommon widescreen setups and windowed players).
Interestingly, 65% at 1080p doesn’t totally square with the number of surveyed Steam users theoretically capable of achieving higher resolutions. Of the 10 most popular GPUs tracked (making up ~36% of the survey pool), six are older Nvidia 10-series cards best suited for 1080p and four are newer 30-series or 20-series capable of 1440p/4K. There are lots of older cards out there, but lots of newer ones too.
Far from a scientific conclusion, but what I’m taking away is that most Steam users still play at 1080p because it’s what their hardware is best at in 2022, and there are also lots of folks holding onto 1080p monitors even though they could theoretically benefit from an upgrade. I’m packing a 3060, so you can lump me in with them. The Valve stats do leave me with a few big questions though, like: How many users are actually a part of this survey? Do increasingly common tools like DLSS, which uses AI upscaling to make lower resolutions appear higher, mess with the numbers? And who the heck is still repping 720p?
If nothing else, Steam’s numbers certainly speak to the longevity of 1080p, a standard that has persisted for over 15 years. HD really was a major moment, wasn’t it? They don’t do technical leaps quite like they used to.
On a personal level, looking at the numbers is making me feel better about my mediocre picture quality. I’d like to say I feel vindicated for my personal choice, but honestly, it’s not stubbornness guiding me—just good ol’ procrastination. I can look around my office and spot four other things I should’ve reasonably upgraded months or years ago, like this wobbly desk that a screw fell off of last week, my single pair of shoes that have been more brown than black since last year, the Mass Effect mouse pad I spilled soda on, or the shorts that are one sketchy bend away from a ripped pants scenario. I’ve thought about a monitor upgrade plenty, especially when I catch a glimpse at my partner’s 1440p screen running something as simple as Overwatch 2 and think “damn, that looks way better than my garbage.”
Maybe I’m due for a resolution, in the New Years sense. A resolution resolution. I still think games look really good at 1080p, and I certainly don’t feel weird for it (neither should you), but 2023 feels like a good time to take the plunge.