When it comes to picking a gadget with a display you might look at the size of the screen, the number of pixels it manages to cram in, and even how many colours it produces. But are you paying enough attention to the refresh rate? It’s one of the most crucial specs of any screen, and its importance is growing.
For certain types of electronics, like televisions and gaming monitors, the refresh rate is something potential buyers have considered. It’s not often as talked about when it comes to laptops, tablets, and smartphones, but here too the refresh rate is becoming something that needs to be taken note of.
At the outset, it’s worth going over what the refresh rate actually is. At the simplest level, as the name suggests, it’s how fast the screen refreshes or redraws itself: Particularly important if you’re watching a sports match or trying to pick off enemies in a video game, but not so vital if you’re editing spreadsheets or clicking around the web.
You’ll see refresh rate measured in Hertz or Hz: That gives you the number of refreshes per second, whether it’s 60 or 240. It’s the same principle across televisions, monitors, smartphones, and gadgets, though some of the technical details of the tech differ.
A faster or higher refresh rate is almost always preferable—the screen ‘reacts’ quicker - but it’s also more expensive and more of a technical challenge, which is why manufacturers won’t ramp up the refresh rate of a display unless there’s a good reason to do it (and unless they know people are likely to pay for it).
It’s also not necessarily true that a faster refresh rate will always give a better picture. The quality of what’s put before your eyes also depends on the other characteristics of the display, as well as what it is you’re using the screen to actually watch: A movie running at 60 frames-per-second can be very similar on a 60Hz and a 120Hz display, depending on what other technologies the manufacturers are deploying.
As the frames-per-second rate of the source ramps up, though - as with a video game console, say - that Hz number becomes more important. You’ll see the top refresh rates on PC monitors, all the way up to 240Hz, as PCs are capable of pushing out the highest fps rates. It means you might just see an enemy target a fraction of a second faster than you would on a panel with a slower refresh rate.
If you want to get even more technical, the number of times the frames-per-second figure fits into the Hertz figure matters. A lot of video content is displayed at 24 fps, which fits exactly into a 144Hz rate (6 times) but not a 60Hz rate (2.5 times)—with a 60Hz panel, the hardware would have to vary how long each frame was shown for, which could lead to a poorer viewing experience.
The recently announced and very expensive Apple Pro Display XDR has a lot of drool-worthy specs, but the refresh rate tops out at 60Hz—it’s not likely to be used for gaming anytime soon. (That said, the LED backlights run at a refresh rate ten times that to ensure a smooth and stable picture.)
Manufacturers like to throw around technical jargon and sometimes fudge the figures in order to make their product sound more impressive, and that can make understanding refresh rates a little trickier. For example, two 120Hz TVs may not upscale high-end Netflix content (60 fps max) in the same way, and may not give you the same clarity of picture - you need to delve even further into the specs to work out exactly what’s going on.
You’ll see terms like TruMotion (LG), Motion Rate (Samsung) and MotionFlow XR (Sony) listed on TV specs, but these are all refresh rates that are artificially inflated with some kind of add-on technology. That’s not to say these enhancement measures are bad or ineffective - just make sure you also check what the actual, native refresh rate is when comparing panels against each other in any category.
Some TVs interpolate frames to make up the shortfall (to enable 120 refreshes a second rather than 60). Others insert black frames, which can be another effective way of reducing motion blur.
The resulting quality of your picture depends not just on the refresh rate, but also on how the TV’s onboard processing technology converts content to that refresh rate.
Refresh rates matter in virtual reality as well. The quicker the image in front of you gets redrawn, the less likely it is that being in a virtual environment is going to make you feel nauseous. One of the differences between PC-connected VR headsets and standalone VR headsets is that the former can push faster refresh rates—80Hz in the case of the latest Oculus Rift S.
Being able to redraw the screen more quickly is now becoming more important for phones and tablets too, with the rise of sophisticated, detailed mobile games and accessories like the Apple Pencil (the faster the display updates, the quicker your digital ink appears).
Take the Razer Phone 2, which very proudly boasts a screen with a 120Hz refresh rate. That should, in theory, make videos, animations and games ultra-smooth, but as with TVs there are caveats - it depends on what you’re displaying on the screen, and how well the phone can upscale it (if indeed the source needs upscaling). Only some Android games support 120Hz natively at the moment.
Note that the newest iPhones have a 120Hz touch sample rate, but a 60Hz display rate - they can accept touch input 120 times every second, but can only draw it at half that speed. The latest (2018) iPad Pros, however, do have a true 120Hz refresh rate, for super-smooth scrolling and all that glorious Apple Pencil-powered drawing you want to do.
The OnePlus 7 Pro is another phone with a higher-than-normal refresh rate: It goes up to 90Hz. It makes a difference to how fluid the menus look, and how smooth the scrolling looks, and it may well be one of the ways handsets at the flagship end of the market try and stand out in the years ahead.
No matter what type of gadget you’re buying, make sure it’s a spec you don’t ignore.