Does Refresh Rate Matter?

Kaya Systems

We pit a 60Hz refresh rate panel against a 144Hz refresh rate panel to see if hype over the higher spec is warranted

We all know how the game is played when it comes to selling tech products. Six cores are better than four, two GPUs are better than one, and 1GHz is better than 500MHz. Besides the underlying pixel technology, monitors have really only been sold on either size or resolution—until now. In the last few years, manufacturers have begun marketing panels with more than double the refresh rate of a standard LCD panel. Rather than the 60Hz refresh rate that LCDs have been stuck with since, well, forever, these new monitors push the refresh rate to 120Hz and even 144Hz. A high refresh rate promises smoother scrolling and less blur in games, but these qualities may not be for everyone.

Doubling the frame rate in The Hobbit from 24fps to 48fps, for example, is widely blamed for giving the movie its odd look that turned off many viewers. (While refresh rate and frame rate aren’t completely synonymous, they effectively produce the same result on the PC.) Is the same true of content on a high-refresh-rate PC monitor? To find out whether people prefer the effect of a high refresh rate or the familiar 60Hz experience, we set up two identical PCs, with a 60Hz panel hooked up to one and a 144Hz panel hooked up to the other, and tasked a handful of gamers, editors, and other test subjects to pick their pixel-pushing poison.

The Testing Methodology

It’s said that humans perceive reality at about 66 frames per second. Would watching a movie or game at more than double that hurt or help the experience?

For our tests, we built two nearly identical X79-based machines. Each was outfitted with a stock 3.6GHz Core i7-3820, 8GB of DDR3/1600, an OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, and a GeForce GTX 580 card. Each machine was loaded with a clean install of Windows 8 and the identical Nvidia drivers were installed on both. We say “nearly identical” because the motherboards in our two boxes did differ. One featured an Asus P9X79 WS and the other an Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard.

The Contenders

Representing the high-refresh-rate camp was Asus ’s new 24-inch VG248QE . This is the first monitor to bring a 144Hz refresh rate to a consumer panel. The monitor is commonly found for $300 but one reputable e-tailer had the panel listed for $265. The 1920x1080 VG248QE is LED-backlit and has a rated 1ms gray-to-gray response time and features an antiglare surface. The panel supports Nvidia’s 3D Vision 2 but does not ship with an emitter or 3D glasses, to keep the price low. In fact, the VG248QE is one of two high-refresh-rate monitors Asus sells without 3D emitters, to appease gamers who want higher refresh rates but don’t necessarily want to play in 3D. As a gaming panel, the VG248QE also features the company’s “GamePlus” feature that will display a crosshair on the screen to circumvent (ahem, cheat) games that forego crosshairs when set to hardcore mode. Another mode displays a game timer for MMO players doing timed raids, and RTS gamers running on a clock. The VG248QE is a TN panel, so folks with high-color-accuracy needs should probably pass it up for IPS-like technology.

Representing the standard 60Hz field was an Asus VN247 . We considered pitting the 144Hz panel against a 60Hz IPS panel, since the prices are similar, but in the end we decided that gamers would be more interested in TN, given that tech’s faster response time. The VN247 measures 24 inches and also features antiglare coating. It has a 1ms gray-to-gray response time and is rated at 250 nits. The 144Hz-rated VG248QE has a 350 nit rating, so we adjusted the brightness accordingly. Both were set to their “theater” preset, which we found to be fairly comparable upon visual inspection.

It’s not attractive, but by covering the bezels of both monitors, we could guard against bias.

Since even the bezel of a monitor can influence people during image-quality tests, we used cardboard to cover both bezels of the panels, as well as the PCs themselves (since we used different cases for each). We also used identical keyboards, mice, and mouse pads for each machine, and audio was disabled on both, since, as we know, a monitor with better sound can be perceived as “looking” better.

The Tests

For our tests, we used three videos: The first was a 720p resolution video of an editor’s commute across the Bay Bridge, shot at 120fps with a GoPro Hero3 Black. The second video was a FRAPS-recorded session of Left 4 Dead 2 running on a different 120Hz panel with VSync enabled, which locked the video down to 120fps. The third video was a 1080p high-definition MKV file at 24fps. This movie should have no bearing, as its way below the refresh rates of both panels, but we wanted to see how our test subjects would react to it. We believed the videos would be the most difficult part of our test, but we wanted to see what people’s eyes preferred.

We used a GoPro Hero3 Black to record 720p video at 120fps for our tests.

For gaming, we used two Source Engine titles: Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal 2. We decided on them because they would comfortably exceed the refresh rate of both panels with the GeForce GTX 580 GPU in our systems.

For our final two tests, we asked the test subjects to scroll a web page as they would in real life and to move a window around the screen in their typical fashion.

The Instructions

All of our test subjects were given the same instructions to weigh the smoothness of each monitor first and foremost. Subjects were also instructed to try to ignore color saturation, black levels, contrast, or color temperature when picking the experience they preferred. The tester was careful not to suggest one panel over the other or to make approving or disapproving statements. Finally, all of the testing was conducted in a sealed and darkened room, away from prying ears and eyes.

Click the next page to read about the suprising results.

The Surprising Results

Our staff overwhelmingly preferred the 144Hz panel but our test subjects didn’t always agree

Before we get too far, we’ll say that our preference is for the 144Hz or 120Hz panels. The overall smoothness, although unfamiliar at first, is something we quickly got used to. If we had to choose between a 60Hz TN panel and a 120/144Hz panel, the choice would be easy. The actual blind-test subjects, however, didn’t see things quite as cut-and-dried.

The Console Gamer

Our first test subject is a software and hardware reviewer at a major console games magazine. As we expected, the video portion of our test was the most challenging and our subject had no preference in either of the high-frame-rate videos, but she preferred the 60Hz panel for the 24fps material.

We wanted to know whether scrolling a web page looks better at 144Hz.

As we moved onto gaming, she quickly latched onto the 144Hz panel, even saying the 60Hz panel is “tiring my eyes out,” and “Owww, it’s hard on my eyes.” Moving on to what we thought was the easiest section, she surprised us by having no preference with the scrolling-web-page test. And in a further surprise to us, she picked the 60Hz panel in the moving-window portion because the text stayed sharper.

The Salesman

The second subject is a salesman who’s also a gamer and PC enthusiast. He preferred the 120fps GoPro video on the 144Hz panel, saying, “This is more realistic.” He had no preference in our high-frame-rate FRAPS video, and also preferred the 24fps material on the 60Hz panel. Interestingly, the subject felt Left 4 Dead 2 “felt smoother” on the 60Hz panel but then in Portal 2 preferred the 144Hz panel. In our scrolling and window-moving tests, he preferred the 144Hz panel.

The Gearhead

Our third subject is a hardware editor with a leading PC magazine. He was familiar with our challenge so we tried to throw him off by telling him we had swapped the monitor positions. He still picked the 144Hz panel for all of the tests save one: the HD source material at 24fps, which he said looked better on the 60Hz panel. Color us cynical, but we suspect some confirmation bias at play, as his picks didn’t actually mesh with others.

The Tech Editor

Our next subject is a long-time hardware and tech editor. He immediately picked our 120fps GoPro video on the 144Hz panel and had no preference for our FRAPS video.

And, like the others, picked the 60Hz panel for the 24fps HD movie.

In games, however, he had no preference in Left 4 Dead 2 and actually preferred Portal 2 on the 60Hz panel, saying, “It just looks sharper to me.” He also preferred the 60Hz panel for both our scrolling test and moving-window test, echoing our first test subject’s reasons: sharper text, albeit at an admittedly lower frame rate.

The PC Gamer

Our fifth subject, a junior games editor, chose the smooth rims of the wheels in our GoPro video at 144Hz versus the strobing on the 60Hz panel, had no preference on our FRAPS video, and like all others, picked the 60Hz panel for the 24fps material.

In games, he first picked the 60Hz panel saying, “This one definitely feels smoother,” but then reversed his preference in Portal 2, saying, “[The 60Hz] is definitely smoother, but I’m liking Portal 2 on [the 144Hz panel].” However, he described the differences between the two monitors in Portal 2 as “miniscule.” He also picked the 60Hz panel for both the scrolling and window-movement tests, saying it was “smoother” for both.

The IT Guy

An IT guy served as our next subject. He had no preference whatsoever in any of our video tests or when playing Left 4 Dead 2. But he thought the 144Hz panel had a slight advantage in Portal 2. In our scrolling and window-moving tests, he picked the 144Hz panel for both, saying the panel was “snappier.”

Games Editor

We included a second gaming editor for his “bionic-like” LASIK-corrected eyesight. However, he bucked our expectations by choosing the 60Hz panel in both our GoPro video and in the HD movie, believing the 60Hz panel was “sharper.” In our L4D2 test, he picked the 60Hz panel even though he said he thought the 144Hz panel was actually “smoother.” When we got to Portal 2 though, he uttered, “uh oh” and “oh, dear,” as he realized which panel was actually 144Hz, which is the one he preferred in that test. He said the scrolling and window-moving tests were both smoother on the 144Hz panel, but that he didn’t care about those factors very much.

The Video Producer

A self-proclaimed video nerd, this subject immediately keyed in on the differences between the panels. He picked the 144Hz panel for the GoPro video, calling it more “realistic” (albeit “wigging” to his eyes), but preferred the 60Hz panel for the FRAPS video and had no preference for the 24fps material. In gaming, he could tell the difference between the two monitors but actually chose the 60Hz panel because the motion blur felt more “comfortable” to his eyes. “This is like an old shoe,” he said, even though intellectually he knew the other one was faster. He thought that scrolling on the 144Hz panel made it seem like the web page was on “grease” and, though off-putting, he said he thought he could get used to it. “If you said I could take one home right now, I would take the high-refresh-rate monitor.”

The Refresh-Rate Results

Don’t blink. To find out if high refresh rates are worth it, we tasked eight people to take our blind taste test

Subject 1
3 4
5 6 7 8 Winner
Occupation Console Games Editor Salesman Hardware Editor Tech Editor Games Editor I.T. Guy Games Editor Video Producer / Writer
No Yes No Yes No No Bionic Yes
Age / Sex
31 / Female
32 / Male
34 / Male
46 / Male
23 / Male 45 / Male 38 / Male 37 / Male
GoPro Hero3 Video 120fps
144Hz 144Hz 144Hz Neither 60Hz 144Hz 144Hz
Left 4 Dead 2 FRAPS Video 120fps
Neither Neither 144Hz Neither 60Hz Neither Neither 60Hz 60Hz
HD MKV Video 24fps 60Hz
60Hz Neither 60Hz Neither 60Hz
Left 4 Dead 2
144Hz 60Hz 144Hz Neither 60Hz Neither 60Hz 60Hz 60Hz
Portal 2
144Hz 144Hz 144Hz 60Hz 144Hz 144Hz 144Hz 60Hz 144Hz
Scrolling Test
60Hz Neither 144Hz Neither 144Hz 144Hz
Window Moving Test 60Hz
144Hz 144Hz 60Hz Neither 144Hz 144Hz 144Hz 144Hz

The Upshot

When we tallied up the results, it was a closer contest than we expected. Rather than 144Hz being the clear-choice technology, in many instances our subjects preferred the 60Hz “look,” even if they couldn’t always articulate exactly why they liked it more.

Display expert Dr. Ray Soneira said some of our results are not surprising. Video tests are particularly challenging when you’re trying to display video at frame rates that don’t divide into the refresh rate of the monitor. This creates artifacts that hurt the experience. More puzzling to us is why the 144Hz panel was the preference with Portal 2 but not with Left 4 Dead 2 (which is based on the same game engine). One theory is that L4D2 takes on a too-smooth, “plastic-y” look (more so than Portal 2) when seen at high refresh rates, and that puts people off.

Still, we’re going to call this a win for 144Hz—but only by a hair. Our testing shows that it’s certainly not the clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it choice for everyone.

The Sky’s the Limit

Or why Asus says we may actually see higher-than-144Hz panels

Despite the somewhat mixed results in our blind taste test, it’s pretty clear to us that higher-refresh-rate panels offer a real advantage for gamers. We spoke with Asus’s David Wung to get the skinny on high-refresh-rate monitors.

Q: What is the limitation in getting 120Hz/144Hz refresh rates in IPS/PVA panels rather than TN?

A: Two main factors affect whether the panel can support 120Hz/144Hz—ignoring the scaler requirements and other issues. The first is the timing controller, or T-Con for short. It’s the IC package that controls the timing frequency transmitted to the panel. The second is the graphics card supporting the proper timing for 120Hz/144Hz operation, which is no longer a problem [so there’s really no reason the technology won’t be found in other panel types].

Q: Why is Asus the sole producer of 144Hz panels today?

A: The primary reason is that Asus has a very close professional relationship with the leading panel suppliers and graphics card vendors. At times, we often receive exclusive collaboration from our partners due to our ability to engineer, produce, and market these premium products in volume. Our LCD team also works extensively with our in-house VGA team, which guarantees that the 144Hz panels work seamlessly with a variety of GPU products.

Q: Are people buying these monitors primarily for gaming?

A: It depends, but most of time, we think so. In some cases, people also can sense the benefit while watching video on a panel with 144Hz support. We have noticed an incredible rise in popularity of the 120Hz, and now 144Hz panels, in gaming over the past two years, but now we are also seeing a similar rise in other environments like media playback and digital content creation, since the higher refresh rates allow a smoother overall image display.

Q: What exactly is the special sauce in making 120/144Hz panels? Is it only cherry-picked panels that can hit the speeds?

A: Not at all. Unlike with CPUs, as long as we can successfully develop the T-Con [monitor timing controller] and can get the support from graphic cards, then the panels can hit the speeds we need them to hit.

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