Flashback: breaking through the 60Hz barrier
Have you ever wondered why 60Hz is the standard refresh rate for displays? It started with analog TVs, then their CRT tubes were repurposed into computer monitors. Then LCD monitors arrived, but their slow response times meant that they couldn’t really go above 60Hz. Plus, 60Hz was good enough, right?
As PCs got more powerful they started playing videos – videos shot and edited using TV equipment, so 60Hz (interlaced, but let’s stay out of that rabbit hole). Fast-forwarding to today, 60Hz is still seen as the “normal” refresh rate, however, high refresh rate (HRR) displays are becoming more and more common on smartphones to the point where they are expected on anything above the entry-level.
So today’s story starts in 2017 with the Razer Phone. The purveyors of RGB-laden gaming hardware had acquired Nextbit a few months earlier. For those who don’t remember, the company was known for the Nextbit Robin, a “cloud-first” smartphone, which came with only 32GB of built-in storage and no microSD slot – you were expected to use the 100GB cloud storage for files. If we’re being kind we can say that the idea was ahead of its time for 2015. Thankfully the Razer Phone did away with the cloud-first approach – it had 64GB storage and a microSD slot, it was cutting-edge in other ways.
The Razer Phone was equipped with a 5.7″ IGZO IPS LCD that was quite a sight when we first laid eyes on it in late 2017. This Sharp-made panel ran at 120Hz, double the refresh rate of other phones at the time.
Even better, the panel got it right out of the gate and supported variable refresh rate (VRR). This allowed the display to adapt to the refresh rate that the GPU could handle, resulting in a smooth, tear-free experience. As powerful as the Adreno 540 inside the Snapdragon 835 was, it couldn’t really keep the FPS pegged at 120. And it didn’t need to.
This was a 1440p display, by the way, sharper than some flagship displays today. And it supported a wide color gamut, something that was just starting to gain traction back then. The cherry on top were the front-facing stereo speakers that flanked the display – this was phone for gaming and multimedia and it let everyone know.
As is often the case, Sharp was an early adopter of new tech (its own tech in this case). The Sharp Aquos R Compact was announced in October 2017 with a 4.9″ 1080p 120Hz display. Sharp had been shipping HRR displays to other manufacturers even before that, but none were as well-known as the Razer.
The following year Razer came out with the second generation handset, the Razor Phone 2, though it seems like it used the same panel, just switching from Gorilla Glass 3 to GG5. The Razer logo on the back now had RGB lighting, though, which matters to that particular fan base.
Asus joined the game with the original 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 it had a lower resolution, 1080p (which was probably more realistic given the capabilities of the Snapdragon 845 GPU).
2019 is when high refresh rate displays went mainstream – the Pixel 4 series had it, the OnePlus 7 series had it, as did the Oppo Reno3 Pro, Realme X2 Pro, Redmi K30, a Lenovo Z6 to name a few. A relatively fresh gaming phone series from ZTE, Red Magic, also introduced its first HRR phones that year.
Most of these phones used AMOLED displays, though the Redmi K30 did have an LCD. And they had something in common – they lacked variable refresh rate support. This was something only phones equipped with IGZO panels could do at the time and seeing how Razer had given up on the phone business, that meant only the occasional Sharp Aquos.
It took a while for VRR to return to smartphones and that came as LTPO AMOLED panels started coming out of the factory. Those were featured on several 2021 models from the usual suspects – Google, OnePlus, Oppo and Xiaomi, plus some vivo models.
It’s possible to do VRR on non-LTPO displays, it’s just not efficient. In fact, that was the original use case for the technology (Apple used it on the Apple Watch Series 4). Apple finally joined the HRR party with the iPhone 13 series last year too, despite offering iPads with ProMotion displays (starting with the second gen iPad Pro).
As we said earlier, a HRR display is something taken for granted on modern mid-rangers and especially for flagships with 120Hz being the most common number, though there are a few 90Hz models out there too.
For the most part it is gaming phones that are pushing higher. The Red Magic 5G was the first to hit 144Hz in March 2020, then the Red Magic 6 got to 165Hz a year later and that is as high as smartphones have gotten for now.
Gaming monitors and laptops now offer 240Hz, 300Hz, 360Hz and so on, so we have no doubt that some gaming phone will go above 165Hz sooner or later. Whether that’s actually useful with a battery-powered GPU is another question.
When it comes to refresh rate, the phone’s interface is noticeably smoother at 90Hz, more so on 120Hz and then things start to taper off. Gaming phones want the lowest latency possible to give players better reaction times, so for them it makes sense to go for higher refresh rates.
For general smartphone use, however, we guess that 120Hz will be the norm for several years. We think that the focus will be on other improvements, e.g. a wider adoption of variable refresh rate panels (which really help with Always On Displays, but with gaming too).