OpticsMag is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you.

Gen2 vs Gen3 Night Vision: What’s the Difference?

Last Updated:

gen2 vs gen3 night vision

Image credit: Rich McFadden, US Air Force

If you’re researching night vision or shopping around, you’ve probably stumbled upon a mention of generations, typically classified as Gen1, Gen2, Gen3, or Gen4. But what the heck does this mean? If you’re in the market, you want to know what you’re purchasing before you take the plunge. Because Gen1 is nearly obsolete, and because Gen4 is still in the cost-prohibitive ballpark, we’ve focused on Gen2 and Gen3 for this article. This brief guide will give you an overview of what night vision generations are, and what the difference is between them.

What Makes a Generation?

Night vision generations are designated by the quality of the image intensifier tube (IIT) inside them. In a nutshell, when light enters your night vision device’s lenses, it strikes a photocathode, an object that converts photons into electrons. This is the process that converts light into electronic information for your device to interpret. But to get the maximum information from these electrons, they first need to be amplified and accelerated. This is where the image intensifier tube comes into play, as its role is to maximize the use of those electrons. The technology accompanying the IIT is what determines the generation of night vision.

Gen2 Explained

What separated Gen2 from its ho-hum Gen1 counterpart was the introduction of a microchannel plate. Without diving too deep into snooze-inducing detail, a microchannel plate is an image intensifier with millions of independent channels that detect individual particles (such as electrons) and multiplies them. When manufacturers began including these high-tech plates in night vision, their image quality soared. Gen2 made it possible to see in much lower light conditions, extended viewing range, and provided added clarity and detail.

gen 2 night vision

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Micaiah Anthony

Gen3 Explained

Things get high-tech when you move into Gen3 territory. These are military-grade devices with high performance in low light, any they don’t require added infrared lighting. In addition to the multichannel plate, Gen3 night vision adds gallium arsenide to the photocathode, a crystal-structured chemical that acts as a semiconductor. There’s also an extra ion barrier film added to the microchannel plate, which enhances the device’s lifespan and reduces signal-to-noise ratio (electrical signal interference). The introduction of this generation again boosted distance range and image clarity for a stark improvement in quality.

gen 3 night vision

Image credit: Wayback Machine, Wikimedia

The Next Generation

Technology is a constantly growing field, and Gen4 night vision will likely become more accessible over time. It’ll also be replaced, no doubt, by a Gen5 device. With expensive Gen4 devices, the ion barrier film has been eliminated, and a gating feature has been introduced. An auto-gated system turns the device on and off so rapidly it’s undetectable. This enhances the ability to use night vision in lighted conditions and improves the image quality substantially. If you have over $4,000 to fork out, these will give you top-notch night vision.

Related reads: Is Night Vision or Thermal Optics best suited for hunting?


If you’re using night vision passively, a less-expensive Gen2 device will provide sufficient performance. But if you’re a seasoned night vision user, or if you need your device for your profession, the clarity and enhanced range of Gen3 is well worth your money. Remember to do your research on pricing and features before you decide what’s best for you, and you’ll be navigating the night with ease in no time.

ALSO: How does night vision work? We explain it in this post.