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Refresh rate explained: What does 60Hz, 90Hz, or 120Hz mean?

Refresh rate defines how often your display updates its content. Here's what you need to know about 90Hz and 120Hz screens.
June 18, 2021
Asus ROG Phone 2 screen refresh rate switch

High-end smartphones increasingly boast blazing-fast 90Hz, 120Hz, and even faster refresh rate displays. This sounds great on paper. It’s yet another way that smartphones attempt to differentiate themselves from one another. But should you buy a phone because of this latest display tech trend? It honestly depends.

The benefits of high refresh rate phones and even how they work is rarely well understood. While games and content can look a lot smoother, whether it’s 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.

Opinion: Here’s why I think the refresh rate wars are dumb

What is refresh rate?

Displays aren’t static. Content and motion appear smooth on your phone’s screen because every pixel constantly updates to display the latest content from your handset’s processor. But this doesn’t happen randomly. Panels update their content at regular intervals, known as the refresh rate.

The refresh rate measures how quickly the phone’s display updates. In other words, how often and quickly the content on the screen refreshes. Measured in Hertz (Hz), the refresh rate counts the number of times the display fully refreshes every second it is on. A 60Hz display refreshes 60 times per second, 90Hz is 90 times per second, 120Hz is 120 times per second, and so on. So a 120Hz display refreshes twice as fast as a 60Hz panel, and 4x faster than 30Hz.

Refresh Rates Compared
120Hz refreshed 4x faster than 30Hz and 2x than 60Hz, producing smoother motion and transitions.

Faster update times also mean lower latency, because the pixels are being refreshed more often. For example, it takes 16.6 ms to fully refresh a 60Hz display, 11.1ms for 90Hz, and just 8.3ms for a 120Hz rate. Refresh rate isn’t the only factor in round-trip display latency, but it’s the largest contributor.

See also: 90Hz smartphone display test: Can users really feel the difference?

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.

If you’re interested in seeing how frame rates affect smoothness and motion blur yourself, check out this demo.

A quick note on touch sample rate, a related but different metric. Also measured in Hz, the sample rate tells you how many times per second the touchscreen looks for input from the user’s finger. A higher-touch sample rate means less lag between input (touch or swipe) and action, which is especially important for fast-paced games.

What 60Hz, 90Hz, and 120Hz means for my phone

OnePlus 8 Pro 120Hz display refresh rate setting

Higher refresh rate displays make moving content look and feel smoother and snappier. Even swiping through your emails and interacting with Facebook’s UI can look a little smoother than the standard 60Hz rate. Although that’s not a game-changer for day-to-day smartphone use and there are more meaningful benefits to be found in fast motion content, such as video and gaming.

However, lots of video content plays back at the industry standard 24 frames per second or 24Hz. As such, display processing needs to either adapt the frame rate to the content or upscale the content to the frame rate. 120Hz displays are great because they can playback content at 60Hz, 30Hz, and 24Hz with even frame divisions. Other refresh rates require processing when scaling 24Hz video. Poor quality processing can induce judder into your videos, which obviously isn’t good.

Read more: Not all 120Hz smartphone displays are made equal

Faster displays make a big difference when it comes to gaming too. 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.

Unfortunately, the trade-off with high refresh rates is reduced battery life. During our test on the OnePlus 7 Pro, we noted 200 fewer minutes of browsing time when using the 90Hz mode versus the more standard 60Hz. Newer handsets with more efficient displays provide decent battery life, often thanks to adaptive 90Hz and 120Hz refresh rates. But there’s clearly still a hit to screen on time compared to older 60Hz panels.

As a result, most smartphones offer the option to switch back to 60Hz to save battery life. At the same time, display manufacturing breakthroughs like LTPO panels are helping to improve high-refresh-rate power consumption and offering flexible display rates. The Oppo Find X3 Pro, for example, supports dynamic refresh rates from 120Hz down to 10Hz.

Related video: Does 90Hz really matter?

Should I get a high refresh rate phone?

90Hz and 120Hz displays are now a mainstay in modern smartphones and not just in the ultra-premium market. The feature is also increasingly available in affordable mid-tier handsets as well.

That said, refresh rate is a small part of a smartphone’s display specifications. You shouldn’t buy a fast display is the color are awful, after all. Ultimately, aspects like color gamut, contrast, white point and color temperature, and resolution have an equally large impact on the quality of your phone’s screen. That said, high refresh rates are here to stay and are an increasingly important factor in modern mobile displays.

We asked you told us: You prefer 60Hz OLED over high refresh rate LCD

If you have your heart set on a higher refresh rate, here are just a few of the best phones rocking a high refresh rate panel: