It’s true. Running modern games on a vintage CRT monitor produces absolutely outstanding results – subjectively superior to anything from the LCD era, up to and including the latest OLED displays. Best suited for PC players, getting an optimal CRT set-up isn’t easy, and prices vary dramatically, but the results can be simply phenomenal.
The advantages of CRT technology over modern flat panels are well-documented. CRTs do not operate from a fixed pixel grid in the way an LCD does – instead three ‘guns’ beam light directly onto the tube. So there’s no upscaling blur and no need to run at any specific native resolution as such. On lower resolutions, you may notice ‘scan lines’ more readily, but the fact is that even lower resolution game outputs like 1024×768 or 1280×960 can look wonderful. Of course, higher-end CRTs can input and process higher resolutions, but the main takeaway here is that liberation from a set native resolution is a gamechanger – why spend so many GPU resources on the amount of pixels drawn when you can concentrate on quality instead without having to worry about upscale blurring?
The second advantage is motion resolution. LCD technologies all use a technique known as ‘sample and hold’ which results in motion rendering at a significantly lower resolution than static imagery. Ever noticed how left/right panning in a football match looks blurrier than static shots on an LCD? This is a classic example of poor motion resolution – something that simply isn’t an issue on a CRT. Motion handling on CRT is on another level compared to modern technologies in that every aspect of every frame is rendered identically, to the point where even a 768p presentation may well be delivering more detail in motion than a 4K LCD.
Then there’s display lag, or rather, the complete lack of it. Imagery is beamed directly onto the screen at the speed of light, meaning zero delay. Even compared to 240Hz LCDs I’ve tested, the classic mouse pointer response test feels different, faster. The advantages in terms of game response – particularly with an input mechanism as precise as the mouse – need no further explanation.
On a more general level, there’s a sense that games and hardware have ‘grown’ into CRT technology over the years. Visuals are more realistic than they’ve ever been, and there’s something about the look of a CRT presentation that further emphasises that realism – aliasing in particular is much less of an issue compared to a fixed pixel grid LCD. Secondly, PC hardware has evolved now to the point where running at higher refresh rates than 60Hz is relatively simple – and a great many CRT monitors can easily run at much faster frequencies, up to 160Hz and even beyond, depending on the display and the input resolution. This is all pretty good for a technology that essentially became obsolete soon after the turn of the millenium.
And that’s where the negatives of CRT gaming start to hit home. The technology is outdated, which presents many pitfalls. The most obvious concerns form-factor: CRT displays are big, bulky and weigh a lot. I invested in a display widely considered to be one of the greatest CRTs ever made – the Sony Trinitron FW900 – a 16:10 24-inch screen. As the video hopefully demonstrates, picture quality is immense, but so is the heft of the screen. It weighs 42kg and with a 600x550mm footprint, the amount of real estate required is not insignificant.
Then there’s the input situation. CRT monitors use VGA, DVI-I or component RGB BNC inputs – and pretty much the most powerful modern GPU still to offer support there is the GTX 980 Ti or Titan X Maxwell. Thankfully HDMI, USB-C and DisplayPort to VGA adapters are available, but you’ll be spending a lot of time online looking for the right one to handle high pixel-rates if you intend to go past 1920×1200 at 60Hz. Very few widescreen CRTs are available and even the Sony FW900 has a 16:10 aspect ratio, meaning that console gaming isn’t really a good fit for CRT displays – 4:3 screens, even less so. Yes, you can run consoles on a CRT, but my feeling is that for many reasons, this is a pursuit best suited to PC users.
Finally, there’s the cost – which can cut both ways – along with the quality of the display you’ll actually get. The FW900 is a legendary screen with massive asking prices to match. However, John Linneman’s 19-inch 4:3 Sony Trinitron G400 cost him just 10 Euros (!) and still looks amazing. However, the fact is that in both John’s case and mine, the screens weren’t in optimal condition when we bought them – which is to be expected for screens well into their second decade of life. Suffice to say, getting image quality to the expected levels can take a lot of time, effort and plenty of research. And on a more basic level, CRT screens are made of glass and glare can be an issue. In shooting the video on this page, I had to film at night in order to show the screen in the best possible light.
There are plenty of pitfalls then – but the end results while gaming are highly satisfactory. Modern titles on a CRT can look sensational, you have the benefits of high refresh rates if you want them, you can turn up all the eye candy and you don’t need to worry so much about resolution as a major defining factor of image quality. Today’s premium-priced gaming LCDs are trying very hard to recapture CRT’s major benefits – low latency, high refresh rates and reduced input lag – but as good as many of these screens are, for our money nothing beats a good old-fashioned cathode ray tube display for desktop gaming – not even the very best LCD screens on the market.