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How do update rates affect games?

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The refresh rate of a monitor is an important specification that you should pay close attention to if you are buying a monitor for PC gaming or using it with a modern console. This is especially true if you are a competitive player looking for an advantage.

What does “refresh rate” mean?

The term “refresh rate” is used to describe how many times a monitor is updated in a single second. This is measured in hertz (Hz), and most regular monitors designed for office use have a 60Hz refresh rate, although higher refresh rates are becoming more common.

All displays use this metric, whether you see it quoted on the box or not. This includes smartphones and tablets, most of which use 60Hz displays. Manufacturers are quick to point out higher refresh rate models that use 90Hz displays (such as Google’s Pixel 5 ), although some manufacturers like Apple hide this number behind marketing terms like “ProMotion”, which is used to describe the 120Hz screen of the iPad Pro.

Apple iPad Pro with ProMotion
Apple

Even televisions now boast higher refresh rates thanks to a 120Hz gaming boost from Microsoft’s Xbox series and Sony’s PlayStation 5 consoles. These gaming machines use the wide bandwidth provided by the HDMI 2.1 standard to run some games on 4K with HDR in 120 Hz mode.

What qualifies as a “high” refresh rate?

A standard desktop monitor, inexpensive smartphone, or entry-level TV will have a refresh rate of around 60 to 75 Hz. This is fine for most activities, such as surfing the web, swiping on social media, or playing in a non-competitive environment.

Generally speaking, anything above 120 Hz is considered a “high” refresh rate display, as it is higher than the established standard of 60 Hz. There is no strict definition for what qualifies as “high” and some may interpret this differently.

120Hz gaming has come into the spotlight with the arrival of a new generation of consoles in 2020. Most TVs that are made around launch still ship with 60Hz panels, but expect to see more models with panels. that flicker at 120Hz (and HDMI 2.1 which are required for 4K games with higher refresh rates).

ASUS ROG Strix XG27UQ
Asus

The next step for PC gamers is 144Hz monitors. The question of why 144Hz is the magic number has many theories, including marketing, the fact that 144Hz is a multiple of 24 (with 24p being the cinema frame rate), and the bandwidth limitations of the DVI connection. Many 144Hz monitors can be “overclocked” to 165Hz simply by forcing the refresh rate in the display settings.

In the high range are 240Hz and 360Hz monitors such as the ASUS ROG Swift PG259QN . At this stage, many gamers can’t tell the difference between the two, although a lower latency at the high end can be beneficial.

High frame rates require high refresh rates

Since the refresh rate of a monitor determines how many times an update is performed every second, the refresh rate of a monitor is closely related to the frame rate (measured in frames per second or fps). If you’re playing a game at 120fps on a 60Hz monitor, your screen can only show you half the frames your GPU is producing.

For the high frame rates to “pay off,” you’ll need a display that can keep up with your GPU, and that means buying a display with a high refresh rate. If your computer can’t produce high refresh rates in the games you play, purchasing a high refresh rate gaming monitor may not be worth it.

Many gamers reject graphics settings, including resolution, texture quality, and post-processing effects, such as antialiasing, to get the best possible frame rate. This is especially true in competitive gaming circles, where higher frame rates can lead to an edge over the competition.

Since higher refresh rates typically require higher price tags, many gamers opt for smaller 24- and 27-inch displays to keep the price down. Many of these monitors do not exceed 1080p or 1440p in terms of resolution, though if you’re on a big budget, you can get your hands on ultrawide 240Hz monitors like the Samsung Odyssey G9 .

Higher refresh rates mean a more responsive screen

A monitor that updates to 60 Hz is capable of displaying a new image every 1/60 of a second. Doubling the refresh rate can produce a new image every 1/120 of a second. Of course, this depends on the ability of your computer or console to deliver a constant frame rate.

Higher frame rates mean lower frame times (or the time it takes to display a new frame). A 60Hz monitor running at 60fps will show a new frame every 16,667 milliseconds (this is because there are 1000 milliseconds in a second and 1000/60 = 16,667). A 120Hz monitor running at 120fps cuts it in half, with a new frame every 8,333 milliseconds.

Doubling the visible frame rate and halving the frame time has a noticeable difference in terms of how smooth the action appears on the screen. In fact, not everyone can see or feel the benefit right away, but most people notice it when they come back to a 60Hz monitor, especially after playing games at 144Hz or higher.

Imagine that you are playing a competitive shooter. Get feedback on what is happening on the screen every 1/60 of a second, including the actions you or your competitors take. You can also take into account the response time of your monitor, which could be a few milliseconds. In theory, a 240Hz monitor could deliver four times as many frames per second, giving you more feedback on what’s going on and a smoother gaming experience to boot.

The YouTube channel Linus Tech Tips analyzed this phenomenon in your video on the effect of the 240Hz rate in games.

Of course, there are other factors, such as how long it takes your computer to process your input and how fast your GPU can prepare a new frame. Monitor refresh rate is only part of the equation, but it is also one of the easiest changes you can make in terms of improving the player experience.

This is why competitive gamers are so keen on maximizing their frame rates, even at the expense of graphical fidelity. The more comments you receive and the more fluid your actions appear on the screen, the better.

Of course, this doesn’t just affect games, everything feels better with higher refresh rates. Even dragging windows around your desktop or scrolling through a timeline in a video editor will be noticeably smoother, with less “wobble” and flickering.

Variable refresh rate is now standard

Variable refresh rate (VRR) technology such as NVIDIA’s G-SYNC, AMD’s FreeSync, and the HDMI 2.1 VRR standard were developed to eliminate screen tearing. Tearing occurs when the GPU cannot draw a frame within the required frame time, so half a frame is sent instead. This means that half of the old frame lingers on the screen, resulting in an unsightly tear.

Logos for AMD FreeSync Technology

By telling the monitor to wait (and double frames if necessary), half frames are never sent and tearing no longer occurs. Fortunately, variable refresh rate technology is now standard on the vast majority of monitors, whether they support high refresh rates or not.

VRR works in conjunction with target refresh rates, such as 120Hz or 240Hz, adjusting the refresh rate on the fly. Be sure to match your monitor’s VRR technology with your graphics card’s capabilities to avoid disappointment.

Choosing a high refresh rate monitor

You should match the refresh rate of your monitor with the performance of your computer. Unless you’re planning to update your computer soon, buying a monitor with an update rate your computer will never achieve could be a waste of money (unless you live for the silky-smooth desktop interface).

You can check our guide to buying a gaming monitor and read more about the features to look for in a gaming TV .

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