What is Refresh Rate? How it impacts your smartphone experience?

Specs especially RAM on a phone was the biggest talking point in any smartphone launch event. Especially the ones falling on the Android side of the spectrum. With almost every flagship smartphone coming with 12GB memory, this soon hit a ceiling. And though you may soon hear brands trying to tell you why you need 16GB RAM on phones, refresh rate on displays took prominence and probably a couple of slides in every launch event.

So now that refresh rate has become a major parameter for a new age smartphone buyer, almost every smartphone except the ones in the budget and sub-Rs 15,000 segment, come with a higher refresh rate than normal.

Hence, probably it is a good time for us to deep dive into this piece of technology and try to break it into simpler and easily understandable language.

What is Refresh Rate on a mobile display? 

  • Offers fluid experience
  • Is counted in Hz - Higher the better
  • Defines the number of times the screen is refreshed in a second

Refresh rate basically defines how many times the display of your phone updated every second. These distinct frames that a display can showcase per second is calculated in Hz.

Higher refresh rate also results in smooth graphics and hence is ideal for gaming. For example, a game developer would add extra frames to offer a sharper and detailed image, it would only look good in case your display has support for a higher refresh rate.

There will be a visible difference even when you try to scroll a web page or the way animations are rendered on your phone, in case it has a higher refresh rate. 

As a standard, all smartphone displays come with a 60 Hz refresh rate which, according to the above definition, means that the display will update 60 times in a second. However, smartphones with 90Hz, 120Hz and even 144Hz are available in the market.

Though, refresh rate alone does not mean that the image that you see is crisper and detailed. You’ll also account for the resolution. While 720p is known as HD, it is not considered the ideal resolution for a decent smartphone display. A display panel rocking 1080 pixels or Full HD resolution is the bare minimum requirement here. But, in terms of resolution, remember the thumb rule – higher the better.

But then again, like almost everything in technology, there is a caveat. A display with a higher refresh rate and a higher resolution would mean that it will consume more battery as well. Hence, to solve the battery consumption issue, brands have introduced smartphones with the variable refresh rate.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Aakash Jhaveri)

Variable Refresh Rate 

  • Refresh Rate but with brains
  • Is battery efficient

Now that we know that having your smartphone display refreshing a higher number of times every second may be tough on your smartphone battery health, a way out was required to ensure that users get the best of both the worlds.

Your display doesn’t need to refresh aggressively if you’re looking at a still image and are not using the phone for any graphic intensive activity. Hence, the smartphone’s chipset has become capable of differentiating based on the kind of content being consumed and hence lower down the refresh rate drastically to save the precious battery juice.

Similarly, if you switch from browsing through images and start playing a game, the processor would amp up the refresh rate offering you the smoothest experience possible.

Refresh rate vs Variable refresh rate 

  • VRR but with proper implementation
  • VRR is also called adaptive refresh rate

What the above explanation tells us is that a panel with just a higher refresh rate may not be good as it would keep working industriously hard even when not required.

Thus, by using the chipset, adding some intelligence or brain to the panel not only helps in reducing the strain on the battery and also allows brands to use panels with even higher refresh rate then we’d seen.

Taking an example of Samsung’s latest Galaxy S21 Ultra which comes with a display refresh rate of up to 120 Hz to offer you a fluid experience, however, when you’re using the phone for mundane stuff, the refresh rate is locked down to as low as 10Hz per second.

Though, yet another thing to remember here is that most brands deploy variable refresh rate in their flagship phones while the mid-range and affordable flagship phones may not have the luxury of a display panel with the intelligence to control the refresh rate.

Pixlr

(Image credit: Pixlr)

Does a higher refresh rate guarantee better experience? 

  • A lot goes into defining a great experience
  • Panel quality also matter

Any display with a refresh rate higher than 60Hz, that we’re used to using for a long time, will feel better. The experience is bound to be fluid and buttery smooth. However, like any puzzle, it needs all other pieces to fall in place to offer a better user experience.

When it comes to a standard refresh rate, battery consumption is a major issue though VRR is a viable solution, however, an improper implementation may kill the experience rather than being a useful feature.

That said, there is an endless discussion around the LCD and OLED panel as well. So, the kind of panel used as well can be a deciding factor. While some people prefer the deeper blacks and brighter colour reproduction on OLED panels, a good LCD panel can produce accurate colours as well and may end up offering an equally premium experience, however, may not be as immersive as OLEDs are.

And while we are at it, let us also talk about an important aspect which determines how quickly the display can sense touch input. This is called Touch Sampling rate or Touch Refresh rate and can be defined as the number of times a touchscreen panel looks for a touch input per second and like the Refresh Rate, Touch Sampling rate is also measured in Hz.

Motorola Edge Plus

(Image credit: Future)

Refresh Rate vs Touch Sampling rate 

  • Defines How quick the touch response is registered
  • Higher the better

Often people get confused between the two probably because of clever marketing by brands. While Refresh rate is about refreshing the content on the screen, touch sampling is about how quickly the touch response is registered by the display and is submitted to the processing unit i.e. the chipset for rending the next screen accordingly.

When playing games, higher Touch sampling is as important as the higher refresh rate. Just imagine a scenario where you’re playing a game on your phone and are just a kill away from achieving a chicken dinner or have a virtual monster right in front of you and you keep tapping the shoot button but it doesn’t register the click.

So rather than being the winner, you may end up on the losing side. That is simply how important a higher Touch response rate could be for a gamer.

For both, the Refresh Rate and Touch Sampling rate, it is safe to say that high the number, better the experience and lesser the lag. Further, a smartphone with a 120Hz refresh rate and 240Hz touch sampling rate would be ideal for gaming. As that would mean that the screen is offering a buttery fluid experience while the higher sampling rate would result in registering way faster response from the touchscreen. Case in point is the Asus ROG Phone 3 that is considered to be among the best gaming smartphones ever.

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