High refresh rate gaming is more accessible than ever before and brings some tangible benefits to multiplayer titles. But are these benefits game-changing, and will they improve your performance?
High Refresh Rate Gaming Explained
The refresh rate of a computer monitor or television describes how many times the display updates in a single second. Measured in hertz (Hz), a refresh rate of 60Hz is the baseline found on most “office” monitors designed for productivity and the majority of televisions manufactured up until a few years ago.
By contrast, a high refresh rate monitor of 240Hz updates four times faster than a comparable 60Hz screen. Many new televisions now include 120Hz panels, which update twice as many times per second compared to older displays. If you’re able to take advantage of higher refresh rates, you could be seeing four (or more) times as many frames.
Ultra high-end computer monitors can hit refresh rates of up to 360Hz, but this comes at the cost of resolution and display size. To take advantage of high refresh rates, you’ll need a comparably high frame rate. There’s no point investing in a 240Hz monitor if your computer can’t spit out 240 frames per second in your preferred games, so limiting resolution (and overall image quality) is one way to achieve this.
Consoles like the Xbox Series X (or S) and PlayStation 5 are capable of 120Hz gaming, but these modes often require a downgrade in overall graphical fidelity. There may be a fair bit of fluctuation in the frame rate, but thankfully this isn’t as noticeable at the higher end of the spectrum, especially when variable refresh rate technology is being used.
There are also bandwidth considerations of the HDMI and DisplayPort connections to be considered. For example: HDMI 2.0b supports a total bandwidth of 18Gbps. A 1080p image at a color depth of 10 bits and a refresh rate of 240Hz requires 17.92Gbps. For higher resolutions, you’d need to use HDMI 2.1 or DisplayPort 1.4.
Competitive Advantages of Higher Refresh Rates
A perceptibly sharper image and more fluid motion. This might not help your performance, but it can make playing games a more pleasant experience. This is comparable to a comfortable chair.
More frames, more up-to-date view of what’s going on on-screen. Your monitor may display an on-screen event (like an enemy appearing) up to four times faster than a competitor if you’re using 240Hz and they’re stuck on 60Hz
Reduced delay in translating your movements to updates on the screen, particularly useful when tracking targets in shooters
There is some research on this, with one experiment performed by Korea’s Hanyang University (on a limited sample size of 12 participants) showed a narrow 3 percent speed increase when using higher refresh rates of 144Hz compared to 60Hz. YouTube channel LinusTechTips demonstrated similar results in reaction times when comparing 60Hz, 144Hz, and 240Hz monitors.
An investigation by Aiming.Pro, which describes itself as “the online aim trainer” for keen first-person shooter fans, concluded that “Players with 144hz monitors had 60% higher scores than those with 60hz monitors. Comparing 240hz to 60hz, the performance gain jumped to 80%.”
But the article goes on to state: “Who do you think spends more money on high-end monitors: casual or serious gamers?” This speaks to the idea that more serious, invested gamers with higher levels of skill are the ones who invest in high refresh rate monitors. So does the hardware make a better gamer, or are serious gamers more likely to buy higher-end tech?
While there is some logic to the argument that “frames win games,” it’s good to keep your expectations in check if you’re thinking of spending a lot of money on a high-end monitor.
Don’t Expect Miracles
Skill level is not determined by how fast your monitor refreshes each second but by how good you are at playing the game. Small gains in reaction time and accuracy are going to help, but they won’t transform you from a zero to a hero. Far more important is your level of experience, hand-to-eye coordination, and how well you understand the game.
High refresh rate monitors are favored by eSports fans who want to take advantage of all possible advantages. These are the same gamers who will sacrifice image quality in a bid to get higher frame rates and more fluid gameplay. This is the same crowd that spends big on peripherals like high poll-rate and ultralight mice, fancy mouse pads, expensive mechanical keyboards, and the best gaming headsets.
If you’re mostly playing single-player games, you likely don’t need to worry about investing in a monitor with a ridiculously high refresh rate. “Higher” rates of 90Hz and 120Hz (or even 144Hz) will provide a noticeably smoother and more fluid experience, provided your GPU can keep up. Even using the desktop, scrolling web pages, and moving windows around will be a more pleasant experience.
Investing in a monitor that supports VRR to eliminate screen tearing and getting the benefits of features like low frame rate compensation is arguably more important for the overall experience (especially in single-player applications). Match your monitor’s FreeSync or G-SYNC abilities to your setup. Higher refresh rate monitors consume more power, so if you’re buying a laptop, be aware of the impact these displays can have on your battery life.
High refresh rate monitors with “lower” resolutions (like 1080p) aren’t as expensive as they once were, but if you want a monitor that can do both high resolutions and high refresh rates then you’ll end up paying a lot of money. If you’re on a tight budget it’s better to ask yourself where your priorities lie: graphical fidelity in single-player games or going all-in on a high refresh rate display.
Many gamers can find the sweet spot that works for them and their setup. Refresh rates of 144Hz are now common, even on 1440p and 4K monitors. This can provide impressive single-player fidelity while still allowing you to reap some benefits in terms of reaction time and fluidity in fast-paced multiplayer titles like Valorant or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
High Refresh Rates Need High Frame Rates
Before you buy that high refresh rate monitor you’ve been eyeing, take a good long look at your setup. To reap the benefit of a screen that refreshes 144 or 240 times per second, make sure your graphics card can hit that frame rate. You can do this with an on-screen FPS counter, then tweak your graphical settings to see whether the trade-off is worth it.
Remember that if you’re doing this on a monitor with a standard refresh rate of 60Hz, you won’t see the benefit because you’re limited by your monitor’s ability to only produce 60 refreshes in a second. This is a purely academic exercise so that you understand what benefits you could reap from a better monitor.
You can then take a look at some of the best gaming monitors and match your target resolution to your budget. Understanding what to look for in a gaming monitor can help you understand the terminology and work out which features you need.