What's A Variable Refresh Rate And Why Does That Matter For Gaming?

Screenshot: Rockstar Games, Steam

In 2020, we’re going to see a big leap forward for video games thanks to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, and TV makers are bringing in new tech for the occasion. Both TCL and Vizio announced this week that some of their new TVs will support variable refresh rates on PCs and game consoles, a feature that will help games run more smoothly on your TV. (LG also added it to some of its high-end OLED TVs last year).

Variable refresh rates are a well-known feature among PC gamers, as it’s a pretty common feature on modern gaming monitors. Since this is new to console players, or anyone more interested in TVs, let’s talk a little bit about what variable refresh rates can do for you.

A variable refresh rate allows a PC or game console to change the number of times it sends new information to the screen (from dozens to hundreds of times per second). Each time this happens, your machine tells the screen exactly what to show—the position of every person, place, and thing—and the screen “draws” it. That static image is called a frame, and the number of times your computer sends images to the screen is the “frame rate.” TV buffs might be familiar with some of this if you’ve looked into motion smoothing.

Why would need a frame rate that changes, you ask? Unlike movies and TV, video games create each frame of animation on the fly. As a result, games tend to be both extremely demanding of computers and finicky about performance changes. Depending on what’s going on in a game (or not going on) the computing demands of a game can vary widely: Sometimes those swings can cause visual issues like “screen tearing,” where multiple frames of animation appear at the same time, and input lag.

Here’s a tech demo that shows the difference between running a game on a PC with and without variable refresh rate tech, also known as “adaptive sync.”

In order to prevent these issues, the versions of games made for consoles like Xbox One, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch, are made to run at a consistent framerate, often 30 or 60 frames per second. (Not every game delivers on that promise, it’s as much about the game itself as the machine.) If these consoles support the adaptive sync found in these TVs, the consoles will be able to run games without those restrictions. Depending on the game, that may lead to smoother, better-looking animation. In others, it may not mean anything.

On the PC, there are two competing adaptive sync technologies, but no TV-maker specifically invokes either one. I expect the technology will work broadly, and Microsoft has confirmed that the upcoming Xbox Series X will broadly support adaptive sync. Sony has not confirmed that the PlayStation 5 will support variable refresh rate, but given some of the claims it has made about reducing load times, it seems like a natural pairing.

On current machines, the Xbox One S and X are compatible with FreeSync displays, a type-of PC-based adaptive sync. The PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch do not support adaptive sync in any way.

While I wouldn’t rush out to spend top dollar on a new TV with adaptive sync, I wouldn’t neglect the feature if you’re in the market for something new over the next year or so—at least, if you want the smoothest gameplay you can get on a to-be-released console that supports the technology. You’re probably better off buying that first and then getting the best TV you can get, rather than the other way around.


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