What Is Refresh Rate and Why Is It Important?

Highlights:

  • The CPU, GPU, and monitor work in unison to achieve higher refresh rates.

  • Check your current frame rates before upgrading to a high-refresh rate monitor.

  • Consider refresh rate in tandem with other features like resolution when choosing a display.

  • Consider upgrading the CPU and GPU if your system isn't delivering the refresh rates you want.

BUILT IN - ARTICLE INTRO SECOND COMPONENT

Gaming at a high refresh rate can make a big difference. Here’s what to know about testing, optimizing, and choosing a high-refresh rate display.

Playing games at a higher refresh rate can have a substantial impact on your gaming experience. This is especially relevant with fast-paced, competitive games where every frame counts. However, simply buying a 144Hz or 240Hz display is not enough to see the benefits.

Your system has to be able to power the frame rates necessary to take advantage of higher refresh rates.

Understanding Refresh Rates

As illustrated above, a higher refresh rate refers to the frequency that a display updates the onscreen image. The time between these updates is measured in milliseconds (ms), while the refresh rate of the display is measured in hertz (Hz).

The refresh rate of your display refers to how many times per second the display is able to draw a new image. This is measured in Hertz (Hz). For example, if your display has a refresh rate of 144Hz, it is refreshing the image 144 times per second. When paired with the high frame rates produced by a GPU and CPU working together, this can result in a smoother experience and potentially higher FPS.

In order to take advantage of higher refresh rates, three of the most important components to consider are:

  • A monitor with the ability to refresh quickly.
  • A CPU that’s fast enough to provide critical game instructions, including AI, physics, game logic, and rendering data.
  • A GPU that’s fast enough to execute these instructions quickly and create the graphics you see on the screen.

The monitor can only display an image at the rate the system produces it, so it’s important that your CPU and GPU are capable of completing this process quickly. If your CPU and GPU are incapable of supplying the monitor with a sufficiently high number of frames then your monitor won’t be able to produce a high-refresh rate image regardless of how good its specs are.

If your monitor has a refresh rate of 144Hz but the GPU is only supplying 30 frames per second, that higher refresh rate is not being utilized.

Hardware Configurations

The level of hardware required to drive a higher refresh rate varies based on the refresh rate you hope to achieve, as well as the games you’re playing. Generally speaking, the higher a monitor’s refresh rate, the more FPS your CPU and GPU will need to supply, and the more benefit you’ll receive from higher performance options.

With that in mind, games vary in how much load they put on the CPU and GPU. Older games, or games that don’t emphasize the latest graphics technologies will be considerably less resource-intensive than a cutting-edge title. That means higher refresh rates might be attainable on less powerful hardware, depending on the game you want to play.

The graphics settings used will also impact how hardware-intensive the experience ends up being. Lowering the resolution to 1080p will result in a higher refresh rate at less of a cost to performance, as will turning off or lowering graphical settings. As with attaining higher resolutions, the less taxing the gameplay experience is on the hardware, the easier it will be to push the frame rate high enough to see the benefits of a high-refresh rate display.

This might mean adjusting the settings and resolutions of your games to find the balance that works for you.

Determining Your System’s Capabilities

Before upgrading to a high-refresh rate monitor, it’s a good idea to ensure your system is up to the task.

The best — and easiest — way to know what refresh rates your system can support is by playing games and seeing how they perform. Use a frame rate monitoring utility like Fraps to display your current FPS (frames per second) as you play. Most frame rate monitoring utilities will have the ability to benchmark your average FPS , which keeps track of how your system performs over the course of a gameplay session.

Ideally, you’ll want the game’s frame rate to match the monitor’s refresh rate 1:1 for an ideal experience. For example, your system should be outputting 144 FPS to get the full benefit of a 144Hz monitor.

That said, you can still enjoy a higher refresh rate, even if it doesn’t reach the limits of what your display is capable of. Playing at 110Hz is better than playing at 60Hz, and you can always upgrade your CPU and GPU later to get to 144 FPS.

If your system struggles to run games higher than 60 FPS, it’s unlikely you’ll see much benefit from a high-refresh rate display, but it might be worth investing in one if your PC is capable of producing higher than 60 FPS.

In the event you don’t own the game you’re hoping to play yet, you can test similar titles and extrapolate. Games released in the same year, belonging to the same genre, or built in the same engine oftentimes have relatively similar performance requirements. You can also research other player’s experiences and compare your hardware configuration to theirs to get a sense of what to expect.

Adaptive Sync

If your system is struggling to achieve your desired FPS, a display with adaptive sync might be useful. Many modern displays incorporate this technology. Adaptive sync enables a display to communicate directly with the GPU so that the refresh rate of the display is synchronized as each frame is produced, even if the FPS is inconsistent.

Vertical Sync (VSync) is a similar feature that can often be enabled in-game. Adaptive Sync technologies and VSync can help reduce or eliminate visual artifacting like screen tearing when dealing with fluctuating frame rates.

Choosing the Right Monitor

High-refresh rate monitors are available at many different refresh rates, with 144Hz being a considerable improvement over standard 60Hz monitors and 240Hz being a popular high-end option. Check out our breakdown of gaming monitors by refresh rate and resolution to learn more.

You don’t necessarily need to buy the monitor with the highest possible refresh rate your system can support. Instead, look for a monitor that offers the right combination of features for you. Finding a display with the refresh rate, resolution, screen size and aspect ratio that matches your PC’s performance capabilities should be the priority.

For more information, check out our comprehensive guide to monitors.

Upgrading Your System for Smoother Gameplay

A high-refresh rate display can have a substantial impact on your gaming experience, assuming your hardware is powerful enough to meet the higher requirements.

Here are a few examples of system configurations that support higher refresh rates:

1920x1080 144Hz

  • CPU: Intel® Core™ i5-11600K
  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060
  • RAM: 8GB
  • Storage: 32GB Intel Optane Memory/1TB HDD
  • Display: 1920x1080/144Hz refresh rate

1920x1080 240Hz

  • CPU: Intel® Core™ i7-11700K
  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070
  • RAM: 16GB
  • Storage: 512GB Intel SSD/1TB HDD
  • Display: 2560x1440/144Hz refresh rate, or 1920x1080/240Hz refresh rate

1920x1080 360Hz

  • CPU: Intel® Core™ i9-11900K
  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080
  • RAM: 32GB
  • Storage: 1TB Intel SSD/2TB HDD
  • Display: 3840x2160/120Hz refresh rate, 2560x1440/240Hz refresh rate, or 1920x1080/ 360Hz refresh rate

Regardless of your system configuration, remember to pair it with a display that has the features you’re looking for. When the CPU, GPU and display are compatible and working together, the results should clearly demonstrate the advantages of higher refresh rates.