Refresh Rate: Feature or Gimmick?

Do you need a screen with the best refresh rate? Or is it another manufacturer tactic to have the best specs on paper? Let’s find out.

It’s human nature for anyone buying a monitor to be swayed by the size, shape, crispness and color of a display. But depending on the task, one of its most important attributes might be a less flashy figure: the screen’s refresh rate. For many smartphone enthusiasts, specs are everything. Benchmarks and performance are constantly compared, discussed or argued over.

So, it should come as no surprise that the newest spec that has seen major changes — screen refresh rate — is the latest battleground for both manufacturers and diehard consumers.

The advantages of high refresh rate phones and how they work is rarely given value to by many consumers. But with the launch of OnePlus 7 series, screen refresh rate became a major factor to consider. While games and content look a lot smoother, whether using refresh rate is worth the extra battery consumption depends a lot on the user and the handset. With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about display refresh rates.

What is Refresh Rate?

A screen display is never a static unit. It’s always the combination of multiple pixels. Content on your screen appears smooth because every pixel updates to display the latest content from your device’s processor. But this doesn’t happen randomly. Panels update their content at regular intervals, known as the refresh rate.

The refresh rate is the number of times the device’s screen updates with new images each second. Viewers may see a solid visual on a screen, but to achieve that crystal clear stable view, your screen’s pixels are updating every second. The higher the refresh rate, the smoother the delivered visuals.

Your smartphone’s screen doesn’t refresh all at once each cycle though. Instead, each horizontal row of pixels refreshes in turn until the whole display updates at the required rate. You can see this in action if you film a display in slow motion and it’s the reason why displays flicker if you view them through your smartphone camera’s viewfinder. In other words, your display is constantly updating and refreshing, but it takes the cycle time to complete one full refresh.

60Hz screens display 60 frames per second, 90Hz screens show 90 frames per second, and so on. Until recently, 60Hz was the standard for most smartphones. Things changed when gaming phones entered the scene, but they weren’t fully responsible for popularizing the new feature. 

The onset of 90Hz displays with the OnePlus 7 Pro and the Pixel 4 amassed a huge user base considering screen refresh rate as an important factor. Since then, many manufacturers have followed their example, with a number of devices now featuring faster and smoother screens. 

Refresh Rate comparision
120Hz refreshes four times faster than 30Hz and two times quicker than 60Hz, producing smoother motion and transitions.

But, do you need a screen with the best refresh rate? Or is it another manufacturer tactic to have the best specs on paper? Let’s find out.

The ideal Refresh Rate for your screen

Simply buying a high refresh rate monitor doesn’t mean what’s on the screen will magically improve. The refresh rate for the monitor reflects the maximum rate at which the display can change the visuals. What happens on the screen depends on the frame rate of the output — the number of video frames that are sent to a display each second.

For example, the majority of movies are shot and produced at 24 frames per second (FPS). So a 60Hz monitor will play that back smoothly with ease.  Lots of video content plays back at the industry standard 24 frames per second, or 24Hz. Having a 120Hz or even faster monitor will provide no visible benefit to playback quality. Yet apps and content with lots of graphical motion appear smoother with a higher refresh rate display.

The benefits are obvious, though, for modern gaming platforms that animate at 100 FPS or higher. A high refresh rate helps the screen keep pace with the high-twitch inputs of players and translate them into super smooth actions. Faster displays make the most noticeable difference when it comes to gaming.

Higher frame rates and faster display response times can have a noticeable impact because visual latency is lower and gameplay appears smoother. PC gamers regularly swear by 120Hz and even 144Hz displays. Now mobile gamers can benefit too, albeit on a much smaller screen. However, high frame rate gaming requires a beefy, energy-hungry processor too. This ensures that the graphics frame rate keeps up with the high display refresh rate.

When refresh rates and frame rates are mismatched, it can result in screen tearing. If a computer’s graphics card is pushing out more frames than the device’s refresh rate can handle in a given moment, users may see two half-frames on a screen at once, bisected horizontally and slightly misaligned.

Refresh rate: what is screen tearing?
When refresh rates and frame rates are mismatched, it can result in screen tearing.

90Hz and 120Hz displays are increasingly popular in modern smartphones, particularly in the premium market. The feature is also increasingly available in affordable mid-tier handsets as well. That said, the refresh rate is a small part of a smartphone’s display specifications. It’s certainly not a major enough feature to base your entire purchase on. Ultimately, aspects like color gamut, contrast, white temperature, and resolution have an equally large impact on the quality of your phone’s screen.

Unfortunately, the tradeoff with 120Hz and above displays is substantially reduced battery life. The trade-off is simply not worth it if you need your device for word processing, spreadsheets or endless emails. But in more visual professions like creative and game development, high refresh rate monitors are invaluable.

Also Read: OLEDs aren’t the GOLD standard anymore



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