It’s human nature for anyone buying a monitor to be swayed by the size, shape, crispness and color of a display. But depending on the task, one of its most important attributes might be a less flashy figure: the screen’s refresh rate.

The refresh rate is the number of times the monitor updates with new images each second. Viewers may see a solid visual on a screen, but what’s imperceptible to them is how the screen is changing as frenetically as 240 times each second. The higher the refresh rate, the smoother the delivered visuals.

Super high refresh rates are not all that important to office workers focused on word processing, spreadsheets or endless emails. But in more visual professions like creative and game development, high refresh rate monitors are invaluable.

The desktop monitor standard is a 60Hz refresh rate, but in recent years more specialized, high-performing monitors have emerged that support 120Hz, 144Hz and even 240Hz refresh rates, according to Digital Trends. These ensure ultrasmooth content viewing, no matter how fast-paced the on-screen visuals may be.

Matching inputs and outputs

Simply buying a high refresh rate monitor doesn’t mean what’s on the screen will magically improve. The refresh rate for the monitor reflects the maximum rate at which the display can change the visuals. What happens on the screen depends on the frame rate of the output — the number of video frames that are sent to a display each second.

For example, the majority of Hollywood movies are shot and produced at 24 frames per second (FPS). So a 60Hz monitor will play that back smoothly with ease. Having a 120Hz or even faster monitor will provide no visible benefit to playback quality.

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The benefits are obvious, though, for modern gaming platforms that animate at 100 FPS or higher. A high refresh rate helps the screen keep pace with the high-twitch inputs of players and translate them into super smooth actions.

When refresh rates and frame rates are mismatched, it can result in something called screen tearing. If a computer’s graphic card is pushing out more frames than the monitor’s refresh rate can handle in a given moment, users may see two half-frames on a screen at once, bisected horizontally and slightly misaligned.

In short, it doesn’t look good. Games are usually configured to automatically match up to the PC’s graphics capabilities to avoid tearing, but running high action visuals more slowly than intended makes for a compromised viewing and playing experience.

Ghostbusting tech

Response time also plays a role in refresh rates. This is the time it takes a pixel to change colors. A monitor can only refresh as quickly as the LCD display can make those rapid-fire color changes.

A response rate with a lower number — four milliseconds (ms) versus 16ms — reflects faster changes and higher performance.

That matters for fast-paced visuals, where higher refresh rates and faster pixel response times reduce and ideally eliminate ghosted visuals. When slower tech is used, for example in a high-pace action sequence, there may be trailing images left on the screen that result in softer, even blurred visuals.

Refresh rates for business

The attraction of high refresh rates is obvious for consumer gamers looking for responsive, hyperrealistic playing experiences on their setups. But there’s a vast industry behind all that fun at home.

Business Insider reported that the video gaming industry generated roughly $120 billion in revenue in 2018. That’s expected to balloon to almost $200 billion within three years. Microsoft estimates there are now more than two billion gamers, according to the report.

The nascent esports industry is already worth more than $1 billion, and companies of all sizes and stripes — including casino operators — are scrambling to establish esports playing zones and arenas for fans to watch and play popular games like Overwatch.

In the United States alone, the video game industry employs 220,000 people across all 50 states, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

That’s a lot of game developers, graphic artists and testers working in front of monitors, most of them in need of optimal visual quality and speed at their workstations. While 60Hz refresh rates may work fine for the people in finance and human resources even in gaming companies, people on the visual and testing side need 120Hz or more to do their jobs well.

It’s not just gaming, however. Since its early days, the film industry has produced movies at 24 FPS, according to Film Independent. That rate is a relic of times when there were different technical restraints on cameras and projection, and faster frame rates required more costly film. 24 FPS was a compromise and it has stuck around, largely because that’s how the public is conditioned to see movies. But today, filmmakers are increasingly pushing frame rates as high as 120 FPS.

Cost benefits

High performing monitors with speedy refresh rates have an obvious visual benefit, but investing in better monitors brings a broader range of improvements to an organization.

Better monitors — notably those using quantum dots enhancement film — offer an immense range of colors and extreme accuracy. Users don’t just see red. They see the exact red intended by the creator. High dynamic range (HDR) in monitors ensures every element of scenes — even the brightest and darkest aspects — are fully discernible and distinct.

Premium monitors also have built-in technologies to reduce eye strain through variable settings, and manufacturers, led by Samsung, have increasingly introduced curved wide-screen monitors that equalize the field of vision for users. That means what viewers see at the left and right edges of a screen are the same distance as what’s in the middle, reducing the workload on eyes that would otherwise have to steadily adjust for differences as they scan screens.

Monitors with high refresh rates and response times also tend to ship with other premium features, such as full support for USB Type-C connections. A single cable connecting a PC to a monitor can handle almost every aspect of computing, with the monitor taking on the role of a USB hub for peripherals. That negates the need for costly, often troublesome docking stations, and can greatly reduce the number of cables at workstations. In addition to tidying and streamlining workspaces, that also reduces IT support demands. Fewer connectors and devices, very simply, tend to create fewer problems.

What refresh rates mean for productivity

Around the workplace, staff with conventional tasks may not need all that screen speed, but anyone in a creative role will see immediate benefits.

The key may be future-proofing. When IT and IS teams plan capital purchases, they need to look several years out for potential technical requirements down the road. While high refresh rates may have a defined user community right now, it’s likely more uses and needs will develop.

Monitors with low refresh rates can’t get better, but those already built for faster response can serve display needs now and in the future.

From blinking lights to quantum dots, discover the innovations that led to today’s desktop monitors in this infographic. Then discover which type of monitor is best for you with a quick assessment.

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Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes is a well-known veteran in the digital signage industry. He consults to some of the world’s largest brands on their digital signage strategy and technical needs, but also spends time mentoring start-ups. A former daily newspaper journalist, Haynes has for the past decade written a highly-respected blog about digital signage, Sixteen:Nine. Follow Dave on twitter @sixteennine

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