Flashback: breaking the 60Hz barrier

Flashback: breaking the 60Hz barrier

Have you ever wondered why 60Hz is the standard refresh rate for displays? It started with analog televisions, then their CRT tubes were converted into computer monitors. Then LCD monitors arrived, but their slow response times meant they couldn’t really go above 60Hz. Plus, 60Hz was good enough, right?

As computers became more powerful, they started playing video – video recorded and edited using TV equipment, so 60Hz (interlaced, but let’s stick to that rabbit hole). Fast forward to today, 60Hz is still considered a “normal” refresh rate, however, high refresh rate (HRR) displays are becoming more common on smartphones to the point where they’re expected on anything above entry-level.

Flashback: breaking the 60Hz barrier

So today’s story begins in 2017 Razer Phone. RGB gaming hardware vendors had acquired Nextbit a few months earlier. For those who don’t remember, the company was known for Nextbit Robin, the “cloud-first” smartphone, which came with only 32GB of built-in storage and no microSD slot – you were expected to use 100GB of cloud storage for files. If we’re being fair, we could say the idea was ahead of its time in 2015. Thankfully, the Razer Phone ditched the cloud-first approach – it had 64GB of storage and a microSD slot, and was superb in other ways .

Razer Phone

Razer Phone

The Razer Phone was equipped with a 5.7″ IGZO IPS LCD that was quite a sight when we first saw it in late 2017. This Sharp-made panel ran at 120Hz, twice as fast as other phones at the time.

Even better, the panel pulled it off right away and supported variable refresh rate (VRR). This allowed the screen to adapt to the refresh rate the GPU could handle, resulting in a smooth, tear-free experience. As powerful as the Adreno 540 in the Snapdragon 835 was, it couldn’t keep the FPS at 120. And it shouldn’t have.

This was a 1440p display, by the way, sharper than some of today’s flagship displays. And it supported a wide color palette, something that was just beginning to gain traction at the time. The highlight at the top were the front-facing stereo speakers that held the screen – this was a gaming and multimedia phone and it let everyone know.

As is often the case, Sharp was an early adopter of new technology (in this case its own technology). Sharp Aquos R Compact was announced in October 2017 with a 4.9″ 1080p 120Hz display. Sharp supplied HRR displays to other manufacturers even before that, but none were as well known as Razer.

The following year, Razer came out with the second generation of phones Razor phone 2, although it appears to have used the same panel, it just switched from Gorilla Glass 3 to GG5. The Razer logo on the back now had RGB lighting, which is important to that particular fan base.

Asus joined the game with the original Asus ROG phone, but he 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).

Razer Phone 2
Asus ROG phone ZS600KL
Sharp Aquos R2 compact

Razer Phone 2 • Asus ROG Phone ZS600KL • Sharp Aquos R2 compact

2019 was when high refresh rate displays became mainstream – the Pixel 4 series, the OnePlus 7 series had it, as well as the Oppo Reno3 Pro, Realme X2 Pro, Redmi K30, Lenovo Z6 to name a few. A relatively fresh series of gaming phones from ZTE, Red Magic, also introduced its first HRR phones that year.

Google Pixel 4
OnePlus 7 Pro
Oppo Reno3 Pro 5G
Realme X2 Pro

Google Pixel 4 • OnePlus 7 Pro • Oppo Reno3 Pro 5G • Realme X2 Pro

Xiaomi Redmi K30 5G
Lenovo Z6
ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
Asus ROG Phone II ZS660KL

Xiaomi Redmi K30 5G • Lenovo Z6 • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 • Asus ROG Phone II ZS660KL

Most of these phones used AMOLED screens, although the Redmi K30 had an LCD. And they had one thing in common – they lacked variable refresh rate support. This was something that only phones equipped with IGZO panels could do at the time, and seeing as how Razer got out of the phone business, that meant only the occasional Sharp Aquos.

It took a while for VRR to return to smartphones and it came when LTPO AMOLED panels started rolling out of the factory. These were featured on several 2021 models from the usual suspects – Google, OnePlus, Oppo and Xiaomi, plus some vivo models.

Google Pixel 6 Pro
OnePlus 9 Pro
Oppo Find X3 Pro

Google Pixel 6 Pro • OnePlus 9 Pro • Oppo Find X3 Pro

Xiaomi 12 Pro
vivo iQOO 8 Pro
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

Xiaomi 12 Pro • vivo iQOO 8 Pro • Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

It is 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, despite offering iPads with ProMotion displays (starting with the second-generation iPad Pro).

As we said earlier, an HRR display is a given for modern mid-range models, especially flagship models with 120Hz being the most common number, although there are also a few 90Hz models.

Basically, it’s the gaming phones that are getting bigger. The Red Magic 5G was the first to reach 144Hz in March 2020, and then Red magic 6 a year later reached 165Hz and that’s as much as smartphones have reached so far.

ZTE Nubia Red Magic 5G
ZTE nubia Red Magic 6

ZTE nubia Red Magic 5G • ZTE nubia Red Magic 6

Gaming monitors and laptops now offer 240Hz, 300Hz, 360Hz and so on, so we have no doubt that a gaming phone will go beyond 165Hz sooner or later. Whether it’s really useful with a battery-powered GPU is another question.

When it comes to refresh rates, the phone’s interface is noticeably smoother at 90Hz, more so at 120Hz, and then things start to slow down. Gaming phones want the lowest possible latency to give gamers better response times, so it makes sense for them to ask for higher refresh rates.

For general smartphone use, however, we suspect 120Hz will be the norm for a few years. We think the focus will be on other improvements, e.g. the wider adoption of variable refresh rate panels (which really help with Always On Displays, but also with gaming).

#Flashback #breaking #60Hz #barrier

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