Computers were one of the most important inventions ever. The ease of operability brought in, along with infinite other uses for professional and entertainment purposes are unparalleled. Now, we all go around with one in our pocket, acting as a 6-inch window to the world.
For a lot of us, our computer monitors or smartphone displays get the privilege of our visual attention for many, many hours each day. That is why, the specifications of a display are crucial for the viewing experience. Resolution and display tech has reached a point of maturity, and the next aspect that manufacturers will look to improve upon will be the refresh rate of the displays.
Refresh rate is a term that has only recently been getting attention, especially for smartphones. They are rather common in gaming computers. The refresh rate of a display is the number of times the display can refresh (update) the image on the screen, per second. Every moving content that we see (videos, games, GIFs) are a result of a bunch of static images played in a specific order to simulate motion. Think of it like a slideshow being played really fast, but each slide having a minimal difference from the one preceding it. Basically, every video is just a lot of photos played in a sequence.
Generally, most displays today have a refresh rate of 60 Hz, which means that the display is able to refresh the image on its screen 60 times per second. But that could soon change, as smartphone manufacturers are finally breaking that threshold, by providing us with 90 or even 120 Hz refresh displays. The Razer Phone was famous for this, while the ASUS ROG phone was known for being the first OLED display with a more-than-60 Hz panel. The upcoming OnePlus 7-series should help make this trend really common with its 90Hz AMOLED.
So why is this such a big deal?
Have you ever seen a 60fps video and suddenly thought how much smoother it appeared? Most video content around us (like YouTube or movies) is at 30fps, and hence, the occasional 60fps looks extremely smooth and immersive. That is practically what you’d feel on a display with 30 Hz vs a display with 60 Hz, and even more so at 90 or 120 Hz. Content just looks a lot more fluid as you’ll now be able to see the interim frames in animation that would otherwise be lost. While gaming is one of the most commonly cited examples, very few games will actually be able to run at more than 60fps consistently. However, the additional framerate will also be prevalent in every other aspect of the viewing experience, like scrolling through social media, opening menus, swiping, or just generally moving through the UI. Everything you see will appear extra slick, giving the impression of a ‘faster’ phone.
For the most part, the refresh rate and the frame rate is the same thing visually, but they are not the same thing technically. The refresh rate is the maximum output capability of the display, whereas the framerate is the number of frames being rendered out by your phone or computer. And either can be higher than the other. For example, a game that is running at around 100fps, on a smartphone with a 90 Hz display will practically be outputting only 90fps, but will consume the processing power of all 100. There are other hardware bottlenecks that also affect the maximum output like the kind of port or connector being used.
A difference in the refresh rate and the framerate can cause an issue called ‘Display tearing’ where some parts of the image will be a couple of frames behind the rest of the frame. To avoid this glitch, graphics card manufacturers offer solutions like VSync or G-SYNC which force the frames to synchronise their action with the display.
So why don’t we just move to higher refresh rate on everything, if it’s so cool and smooth? The answer differs according to your use case. For gaming computers, especially for esports, the players opt for refresh rates as high as 240 Hz for their rigs. It helps with a smoother lag-free experience and also improves the response time. These small upgrades are crucial and can be a matter of virtual life and death.
For smartphones, this was the logical next step. The argument over resolution and type of displays is already done and dusted, but consumers’ demands were not. This was the logical next step to provide an interesting and faster consumer experience.
However, for movies and TV shows, this is a huge red flag. Every movie you see is rendered at either 24 or 25fps, as that is the closest to natural human vision without abnormal motion blur. The movie The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was the only major theatrical release to also have an HFR (high frame rate) version, at 48fps while also being 3D. It failed miserably as the visuals were too surreal for most viewers, especially at that big screen. There was much higher motion blur too, taking away from the crispness viewers would expect. Some patrons even reported headaches and nausea because of the prolonged unreal viewing experience. For a film with that level of CGI, the entire magical feel was ruined.
Having said that, higher refresh rate displays are definitely the way to go, for smartphones as well as computers. It faces challenges like a higher cost of manufacturing and difficulty to render bright saturated images, but that will all be figured out as the state of technology moves ahead. Once you move to a smoother display, it’s very difficult to ever go back. Regular ones will appear jittery and will seem as if they are lagging. As much as we can try to explain this to you, this is one of those few pieces that you will have to try out for yourself and be blown away, as the results cannot be recreated in photos or videos.