When you’re looking to buy a new monitor, there are so many factors to consider like size, resolution, and aspect ratio. But one factor you might also hear about is refresh rate.
What exactly is refresh rate, and does it matter to you? Time to find out.
What Is a Refresh Rate?
The refresh rate of a monitor refers to the number of times per second that the displayed image will be updated. It is measured in Hertz (Hz). A higher refresh rate means more information reaches your eyes in the same amount of time, leading to smoother-looking motion.
If you’ve ever had the experience of trying to watch a video over a slow internet connection and the video looks very choppy, jumping from one frame to the next, that’s a low frame rate. Higher refresh rate monitors are capable of playing back at higher frame rates, which is what makes the motion look smoother.
Standard basic monitors are 60Hz, but you can get monitors that have higher rates of 144Hz or even 240Hz.
Why Do Refresh Rates Matter?
So if you want your movies and games to look better, you should simply buy a higher refresh rate monitor? Not quite.
The refresh rate is the maximum rate at which your display can change the image. But whether a program actually changes its output that fast depends on its frame rate. The frame rate means the number of video frames that are sent to your display per second.
To take advantage of a higher refresh rate display, your computer has to send data to the display much faster. Most applications, like productivity tasks or watching movies, won’t be affected by the refresh rate at all. Movies are shown at 24 frames per second (fps), which even basic 60Hz monitors can handle just fine. A higher refresh rate won’t make your videos look any better.
Refresh rates are really only important when you are playing games. Because games generate the data sent to your screen on your graphics card, if you have a fast enough card it can send data to the screen more quickly. This means you can play games at higher frame rates like 100fps and above.
The Problem of Screen Tearing
As frame rates and refresh rates are often different, a common PC gaming problem you can run into is screen tearing. This happens when your graphics card is sending out frames at a higher rate than your monitor can handle. If you try to play a game at a high frame rate on a low refresh rate monitor, you’ll run into this problem. It will look as if the screen has half-loaded or been “torn” along the middle.
To avoid this, games are usually automatically capped at your monitor’s refresh rate. So if you have a 60Hz refresh rate monitor, your games should not run at more than 60fps.
There are solutions to this problem like G-Sync, V-Sync, and Freesync. To learn more about these visit our guide to common video game graphics settings explained.
Who Benefits From High Refresh Rate Monitors?
The main group of people who will benefit from a high refresh rate monitor are eSports players. For competitive players of first person shooters like Counter-Strike GO or Overwatch, a higher refresh rate will mean a smoother picture, and that can make it easier to track fast-paced action. Some people say higher refresh rates make it easier to aim as targets move more smoothly, but this varies by individual based on how good your eyesight is.
The issue is with blurring. When our eyes see a series of frames, our brains fill in the changes from one frame to the next, making the frames look like a continuous video instead of the series of still images they actually are. But this filling in process results in blurring. If there is more information sent to our brains in the form of more frequent frames, movement looks sharper.
Another issue in serious gaming is input lag, or the delay between you making an input (like a mouse movement or pressing a key) and that input being recognized by the game. High refresh rate monitors can reduce input lag because there is a small amount of time passing between the input and the change being reflected on screen. This difference is tiny, in the order of milliseconds, but that can make a difference in competitive scenarios.
For professionals and very serious players of games, every tiny advantage matters. And it’s certainly true that if money is no object, gamers can benefit from the small edge that a high refresh rate monitor can provide.
But what about the rest of us? If you’re a casual at-home gamer, is a high refresh rate worth the extra cost?
Are High Refresh Rate Monitors Worth the Money?
When deciding whether to buy a high refresh rate monitor, it helps to consider what else you could spend your money on.
A typical 240Hz refresh rate monitor at 1080p resolution in a 24.5″ size will cost you around $400. For that same $400, you could buy a larger 27″ monitor at 1440p resolution with a still impressive 144Hz refresh rate. Or if refresh rates don’t matter to you, you could buy a huge 34″ monitor with 4K resolution and a standard 60Hz refresh rate for $400 instead.
To learn more about monitor resolutions, we have a guide to how 4K resolution compares to 8K, 2K, UHD, 1440p, and 1080p.
What About Other Upgrades?
Alternatively, you could buy a cheaper monitor for $100 and take the $300 you save and put it toward a better graphics card. $300 will let you upgrade from an impressive GeForce RTX 2070 (costing around $550) to a beastly GeForce RTX 2080 (costing around $800), for example. In that case, you’ll see a bump in CUDA cores from 2304 to 2944. In a game like Far Cry 5 at 1440p that means a jump from 84fps to 105fps.
Remember that your monitor needs to have a refresh rate fast enough to show those extra frames per second. So there’s no point in upgrading to a super fast graphics card if you’ve only got a 60Hz monitor. But you might see more benefits from combining a middle-ground 144Hz monitor and a top-end graphics card then you would from combining a 240Hz monitor and a less good graphics card.
What’s the Most Important Factor When Choosing a Monitor?
When it comes down to it, what type of monitor you should buy depends on what you’ll be using it for.
If you want a monitor for your living room and you’re planning to watch movies and play games while sitting on your couch, say from around eight to ten feet away, you’ll benefit most from a larger screen. You won’t be close enough to the screen to really see high resolutions or to benefit from higher refresh rates but you will definitely notice the larger size.
If you want a monitor for your desk for general purposes, in most cases you’ll want a higher resolution to make the picture look sharper. This will be beneficial when you’re watching movies, doing productivity tasks and needing a lot of space on your desktop, and playing many games.
Finally, if you want a monitor for your desk primarily for playing games and you’re serious about your gameplay, you may want a higher refresh rate. Some people find higher refresh rates look and feel far smoother than low refresh rates, while other people don’t notice much difference. Try to find a high refresh rate monitor at a store which you can try for yourself and see if you find it helpful.
Do Refresh Rates Matter?
Refresh rates are really only important for serious gamers. Casual gamers and general PC users will usually be better off spending their money on a bigger, higher resolution monitor instead.
If you’re trying to decide on what monitor you should buy, see our guide to which specs matter when choosing an HDTV for gaming.