Have you ever wondered why 60Hz is the standard refresh rate for displays? It started with analog televisions, then their CRT tubes were developed into computer monitors. Then came LCD monitors, but their slow response times meant they couldn’t go above 60Hz. Besides, 60Hz was enough, right?
As PCs got more powerful, they started playing videos – videos recorded and edited using TV equipment, so 60Hz (interlaced, but let’s get out of that rabbit hole). 60Hz is still seen as the “standard” refresh rate in today’s streaming, but high refresh rate (HRR) displays are more common on smartphones as long as they are expected on anything above the entry level.
So today’s story starts with Razer Phone in 2017. Fans of RGB-loaded gaming hardware discovered Nextbit a few months ago. For those who don’t remember, the company was known for the Nextbit Robin, a “Cloud-first” smartphone, built-in only 32GB and no microSD slot – you have to use 100GB of cloud storage files. If we’re being kind, we can say that the idea was already for 2015. Thankfully the Razer Phone ditched the cloud-first approach – it had 64GB of storage and a microSD slot, which was otherwise cutting edge. .
The Razer Phone was equipped with a 5.7-inch IGZO IPS LCD when we first laid eyes on it in late 2017. This Sharp-made panel had a 120Hz refresh rate, twice the refresh rate of other phones at the time.
Even better, the panel is out of the box and supports variable refresh rate (VRR). This allowed the display to adapt to the refresh rate the GPU could handle, resulting in a smoother, tear-free experience. While the Adreno 540 in the Snapdragon 835 is powerful, it can’t keep the FPS at 120. And he doesn’t need it.
By the way, this was a 1440p display, higher than some flagship displays today. And it supported a wide array of colors, something that was starting to catch on at the time. The cherry on top were the front-facing stereo speakers next to the display – this phone was for gaming and multimedia and it let everyone know.
As is often the case, Sharp was at the forefront of new technology (in this case, its own technology). The Sharp Aquos R Compact was announced in October 2017 with a 4.9-inch 1080p 120Hz display. Sharp used to ship HRR monitors to other manufacturers, but none were as well-known as Razer.
The following year, Razer came out with its second-generation smartphone, the Razer Phone 2, which, although it appears to use the same panel, only switches from Gorilla Glass 3 to GG5. The Razer logo on the back now has RGB lighting, but it’s important to that particular fan base.
Asus joined the game with the first Asus ROG Phone, but it had a different approach. It opted for an AMOLED panel with a 90Hz refresh rate – not a variable refresh rate, though. And a lower resolution of 1080p (probably more realistic given the capabilities of the Snapdragon 845 GPU).
Razer Phone 2 • Asus ROG Phone ZS600KL • Sharp Aquos R2 Compact
In the year 2019 has high refresh rate displays in the flagships – Pixel 4 series, OnePlus 7 series, Oppo Reno3 Pro, Realme X2 Pro, Redmi K30, Lenovo Z6 to name a few. ZTE’s relatively new gaming series, Red Magic, also introduced its first HRR phones that same year.
Google Pixel 4 • OnePlus 7 Pro • Oppo Reno3 Pro 5G • Realme X2 Pro
Xiaomi Redmi K30 5G • Lenovo Z6 • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 • Asus ROG Phone II ZS660KL
Most of these phones used AMOLED displays, although the Redmi K30 has an LCD. And they had one thing in common – they didn’t have variable refresh rate support. At the time, only phones equipped with IGZO panels could do this, and seeing as how Razer was left out of the phone business, that meant only the occasional Sharp Echo.
It took a while for VRR to return to smartphones and this came when LTPO AMOLED panels started rolling out of the factory. Those have appeared on several 2021 models from the usual suspects – Google, OnePlus, Oppo and Xiaomi – and some vivo models.
Google Pixel 6 Pro • OnePlus 9 Pro • Oppo Find X3 Pro
Xiaomi 12 Pro • vivo iQOO 8 Pro • Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
VRR is possible on non-LTPO displays, just not as effective. Indeed, that was the first use case for the technology (Apple used it on the Apple Watch Series 4). Apple finally joined the HR party with the iPhone 13 series last year, although it has offered iPads in promotional displays (starting with the second-gen iPad Pro).
As we’ve said before, display HR is something that’s taken for granted in modern mid-range monitors, and especially flagships where 120Hz is the most common number, although there are a few 90Hz models out there.
Gaming phones are mostly on the rise. The Red Magic 5G was the first to hit 144Hz in March 2020, followed by the Red Magic 6 a year later, reaching 165Hz, which is as high as smartphones get now.
ZTE nubia Red Magic 5G • ZTE nubia Red Magic 6
Gaming monitors and laptops now offer 240Hz, 300Hz, 360Hz and so on, so we don’t doubt that some gaming phones will go above 165Hz sooner or later. Whether that’s worth it with a battery-powered GPU is another question.
When it comes to the refresh rate, the phone’s interface clocks in at 90Hz, preferably 120Hz, and then things start to go haywire. Gaming phones want the lowest possible latency to give gamers the best response times, so it’s worth going for them for higher refresh rates.
For general smartphone use, however, we expect 120Hz to be the norm for many years. We think the focus will be on other improvements, such as wider adoption of variable refresh rate panels (which always helps with displays, but also with gaming).