How Far Can The Refresh Rate Race Go?

How Far Can The Refresh Rate Race Go?
At CES, Razer showed off a new 360Hz monitor, which had me wondering, how far is the race for higher refresh rates really going to go? (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

After getting back from CES and having a chance to think about all the fancy new gadgets, there’s one question that keeps popping back into my head: How far is the push for displays with faster refresh rates really going to go?

For anyone who’s been paying attention to modern display tech, you’ve probably noticed a trend across the industry where manufacturers are shoving displays with higher and higher refresh rates into various products. When it comes to TVs, many of the top sets on the market have upgraded to 120Hz including LG’s flagship C9, Samsung’s Q90R sets, and others. It’s a similar situation for Nvidia’s BFGD devices (big format gaming display) like HP’s Omen X Emperium, which is basically a giant computer monitor with a 144Hz display and built-in G-sync support.

Google’s Pixel 4 is just one of a growing number of phones that support higher than “normal” refresh rates. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

Meanwhile, on phones, the OnePlus 7 Pro, Google Pixel 4, and Nubia Red Magic 3 all upgraded to 90HZ displays this year, with Asus’ ROG Phone 2 going all the way to 120Hz. The idea is that by increasing the refresh rate of the display (essentially how many frames per second you see), things will look smoother and react more responsively to various inputs. And with Samsung rumoured to be adding a 120Hz or 144Hz display to at least one version of the Galaxy S20, this trend is only gaining momentum.

But the category pushing high refresh rate displays the most is the gaming one. For gaming, the advantages of high refresh rates are the most obvious, as seeing more frames of a game makes it easier to shoot an enemy with greater precision. In esports, 24-inch monitors with 240Hz refresh rates have basically become standard equipment for professional tournaments. (To get a sense of what different refresh rates actually look like no matter the quality of your own display, check out this demo from the folks over at Blur Busters.) And at CES 2020, we saw a number of companies, including Asus, Acer, and Razer show off laptops and gaming monitors with 300Hz or even 360Hz displays.

One of Razer’s big announcements at CES 2020 was that its next refresh for the Blade and Blade Pro would include optional 300Hz displays. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

But one of the most incredible things about this trend for higher and higher refresh rates is that the jump from 60Hz to 120Hz and above only really started catching on within the last three years or so. For a lot of consumers that makes it incredibly difficult to keep up with the latest and greatest, which has a lot of people wondering when this race stops. Or at the very least, when is a good time to jump in?

The first question is relatively straight forward, but also potentially kind of depressing. For electronics makers, the end goal is 1000Hz, which is the limits of what the human eye can actually perceive, when I talked to an Asus representative at CES, they spoke in no uncertain terms that this is where the industry is heading, eventually.

That said, 1000Hz is kind of a ridiculous number, because while humans theoretically can detect differences at those rates, the value of making displays that can go that high are a bit more nebulous. So when it comes to an average people, you can typically expect to see noticeable differences in refresh rates up to about 144Hz or 150Hz.

Above 150Hz, there are definitely still benefits to be had. Nvidia even commissioned a study that claims that jumping up to 240Hz from 120Hz leads to an improvement in accuracy and kill/death ratio in Fortnite.

Even displays meant for living rooms are getting in on the high refresh rate trend thanks to devices like the HP Omen X Emperium and a number of TV sets from LG, Samsung, and others. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

As for where to jump in? Well that depends a lot on what kind of hardware you have connected to the display in question. Simply having a display that can pump out 300Hz isn’t enough, because you also need your game console or computer to be able to push pixels fast enough to take advantage of said display. On consoles, Nintendo Switch and PS4 owners are fine at 60 fps, because that’s all they can do (though that will probably change with the release of the PS5). However, if you have an Xbox One S or Xbox One X, you may be able to get up to 120Hz depending on the specific game and if your TV has support for 120Hz.

On PC, things are a bit more complicated, because a lot depends on what GPU your computer has, the game your playing, the settings for said game, and the resolution of your display. The higher the resolution, the more graphics power you’ll need to hit a desired frame rate, so ideally, you want to match the performance of your GPU with the capabilities of your display.

If you’re shooting for 120Hz or 144Hz at 1920 x 1080, you probably won’t need more than an AMD RX Vega 56 or 5600XT or Nvidia RTX 2060/GTX 1660, but again, this will depend on the game you intend to play. For 1440p or 4K displays, you’ll need even beefier (and more expensive) GPUs like an Nvidia RTX 2070 Super or 2080TI. Then have you consider the game, because hitting a specific refresh rate will depend on how old the game is and what graphics setting you have enabled. The fancier and more demanding the graphics, the harder time you’ll have hitting 120 fps, 240 fps, or more.

But most importantly, if you’re feeling anxious about getting left behind, you can rest easy. It’s clear the push for higher FPS and refresh rates isn’t going away, and in less than a year, that shiny new 300Hz display probably won’t be quite as impressive.

Right now, shooting for 120HZ or 144Hz is a good target, with 240Hz being an option for serious gamers or people who don’t mind forking over a premium. Anything 300Hz and above is meant for super enthusiasts, as most people won’t have a system powerful enough to match a 300Hz display, and even if you do, you’re going probably going to start to run into diminishing returns on actual performance. But regardless of what you do, don’t feel pressured into buying a display that you can’t afford or properly support, because there’s bound to be a faster one coming out not too long from now.