When looking for a new monitor, you may be confused about today's options. In the past five years, the feature list of the average monitor has expanded to include better panels, higher resolutions, and more inputs. It can be quite difficult to figure out if you actually need all of these features, especially if you are not a gamer.
In addition to improved resolutions such as 4K, a high refresh rate is one of the big selling points of many modern monitors. Displays are often marketed with a 120 Hz or 144 Hz panel. This is one of the most confusing features for consumers as the name doesn't provide a lot of explanation and, unlike most improvements, the refresh rates don't improve color accuracy or resolution.
Is it better just because the numbers are higher? Do you need a 120Hz or 240Hz monitor?
If you're just looking to buy one now, here are some of our most popular high-end displays.
What does Hz actually mean?
People often assume that “120 Hz” has something to do with performance, as it seems to be similar to describing processor clock rates. In fact, the term describes something else: update rate.
The refresh rate indicates how often a display updates its image per second. Since the movement is indicated by the difference between the images, the refresh rate effectively sets a fixed upper limit on the viewable frame rate. However, the refresh rate does not match the frame rate. The refresh rate is an attribute of the monitor, while the frame rate is an attribute of the information sent to it. You need to agree on what will be shown on the screen.
If you can run a game at 100 frames per second, you may see a noticeable benefit playing it on a monitor that can be updated that many times per second. However, if you're watching a movie at the classic 24 frames per second, a monitor with a higher refresh rate doesn't make any difference.
If your computer can play a game at a frame rate high enough to match a 120 Hz or 240 Hz monitor, the perceived sharpness of a moving image will change noticeably. Blurring occurs because the human brain processes the set of individual frames that a monitor displays. The brain blurs the series of images to make a reasonable moving image. However, some details are lost.
A higher refresh rate helps reduce the blurring by giving our brains more information to respond to, which in turn reduces the perceived blurring. However, unlike computer hardware, our brains are not all made to the same specification. Some people notice the difference between a 60Hz and 120Hz display right away, while others can't see what everyone is upset about. The difference between 120 Hz and 240 Hz is even more subtle.
Again, it depends a lot on what you are doing on your system. Gamers will notice sharper graphics when taking quick action, and moving a mouse can feel smoother compared to a more typical 60Hz display. Surfing the Internet while quickly scrolling a page can also look a little smoother. However, if you watch online videos and answer emails, you see no benefit.
Since frame rates and frame rates are very different, they often cannot match. In this case, a so-called screen crack can occur. This can happen if the graphics card of a computer spits out frames at a speed that is well above the refresh rate of the monitor connected to it. Because more images are being rendered than the monitor can handle, fields sometimes appear together on the screen. This shows up in an obvious division between two parts, neither of which correctly matches the other. It's a distracting problem that even the least sensitive viewer will usually notice.
In games that aren't particularly strenuous, frame rates can often exceed 100 fps. However, a 60 Hz display is only updated 60 times per second. This means that gamers won't fully benefit from the enhanced responsiveness of the higher frame rate and may experience tearing as the display isn't keeping up with the data being fed to it. A 120 Hz display updates twice as fast as a 60 Hz display, so it can display up to 120 fps, and a 240 Hz display can process up to 240 fps. This will avoid tearing in most games.
Frame sync technologies like V-Sync, Freesync, and G-Sync also prevent screen tearing, but have their own drawbacks. V-Sync limits the performance. Freesync and G-Sync require certain combinations of graphics card and monitor hardware. These technologies keep getting better, but still require some important options for GPUs and displays.
GPUs and refresh rate
Sync technologies work with GPUs to solve problems like screen tears. However, this is far from the only role GPUs play in display performance. If you want 120 to 144 Hz or higher performance, you also need a GPU that can keep up with your game.
There's no perfect choice for a GPU that can output 120 or more frames per second, but more processing power and more faster memory are always good signs. Nvidia's latest generation RTX 3000 series GPUs are excellent candidates, but not the only ones.
You can also play less detailed games or lower the in-game settings for higher frame rates and better use of a high refresh rate display.
Aurelien Meunier / FIFA / Getty Images
The refresh rate of a monitor affects the input delay. For example, a 60 Hz display never has an apparent input delay less than 16.67 milliseconds, as this is the time it takes from one update to the next. A 120 Hz display halves this time to 8.33 ms and a 240 Hz display further reduces it to 4.16 ms.
Reducing the delay by less than 10 ms doesn't seem to matter, and for many people – including gamers – it doesn't. However, it can be worth eliminating the entry lag if you are playing extremely competitive or if you want games to feel as smooth as possible. Again, this is a problem that some people will notice more easily than others.
Do you really need a 120Hz or 240Hz monitor?
If you're a gamer, we'd assume that switching to a high refresh rate monitor is a bigger and more obvious benefit than upgrading to 4K – as both can be overly expensive and stressful on your hardware. Displays with 120 Hz or 144 Hz ensure smoother, tear-free gaming with less input delay. This isn't important in all games, but it makes a difference where quick inputs are key to winning and can be especially important to competitive fighters or shooters, including Fortnite, Overwatch, Mortal Kombat, and others in these genres.
Your best chance of finding a good monitor is to find the ones you are interested in in a physical store. This is a great way to check the displays that are running motion demos. This will display the features correctly so you can see if it's worth improving.
If you're not a gamer, switching to a higher refresh rate won't make that dramatic difference. This will make your desktop look smoother when you move around, but beyond that, it's not much of a benefit. Televisions that also advertise 120 Hz or 240 Hz panelsFurther improve the quality of motion with image processors that modify the inputs sent to them. Many can even add frames, which effectively increases the frame rate of content. However, monitors typically do not have a processor. The input sent is displayed. This minimizes the panel's usefulness when displaying video content. An improved refresh rate does not guarantee the elimination of "ghosting" either.
Ultimately, gamers should definitely consider a high refresh rate display on their next upgrade, but everyone else should look elsewhere for the feature that will really benefit them.