How Refreshing! Learn About Refresh Rates

How refreshing- a look into refresh rates

Welcome to part 2 of our Pro Presenters Blog series explaining modern TV specs.  Click here for part 1: Take a Pixel. This week we are going to be discussing refresh rates and what that means to you as a consumer.  Of course, with all things TV these days, things aren’t quite as simple as we’d like them to be and (again) there’s a fair amount of misinformation out there.  I’ll start by explaining what a refresh rate is, and then what that means for someone looking to purchase a new TV without getting hoodwinked.

Let’s get the fun part out of the way first.

So, refresh rates. From their inception, LCD TVs were stricken with a blur or loss of clarity when dealing with content containing fast motion or panning.  In an effort to alleviate the blurring, manufacturers began producing televisions that presented (or refreshed) a new image more often than the boilerplate source rate of 60 per second (measured in Hertz or Hz).

Primarily this technique is called frame insertion.  Basically it creates and inserts new images in between the original frames of content.  If there’s one frame inserted between every original frame, the advertised refresh rate would be 120Hz rather than 60hz.  TV manufacturers will even go as high as 240Hz.  The theory goes: the higher the refresh rate, the less motion blur that is apparent.

This is true to an extent.  However, there is a definite limit to the benefits.

TV manufacturers and marketers know that consumers will see a higher refresh rate coupled with a higher price, and then naturally assume that the TV they’re looking at is plum.  But this isn’t exactly true.

Manufacturers have a trick (or three) up their sleeves.  One of them is called scanning backlight or black frame insertion.  This inserts black pixels or black frames in between the frames of color. It mimics the results of higher refresh rates, but the results aren’t quite on par with the real deal.

If the manufacturer goes this route, they can now advertise their TVs with some proprietary and astronomically high refresh rate.  For instance, they might call it Supervision 450 or Ultrasmooth 960. Each of which sounds like an incredible refresh rate, but doesn’t mean much dollars to donuts.

Here’s a quick rundown of the nonsense marketing terms for refresh currently in use:

  • Samsung’s Motion Rate
  • Sony’s MotionFlow XR
  • LG’s TruMotion
  • Vizio’s Effective Refresh Rate

If those don’t sound fishy enough, many manufacturers have stopped listing the actual refresh rate in their respective literature and only list the inflated made-up rate that will sell units.  CNET’s Geoffrey Morrison put it this way: “it would be like a car maker stating a car’s engine is a “6- cylinder equivalent,” based on some undisclosed testing criteria, but not disclosing how many cylinders the car actually has.”

Sounds fun, thanks!

The reality is that, in most cases, the refresh rate doesn’t come into play nearly as much as they want you to believe. Never mind the fact that everyone’s eyes will interpret motion blurring differently.  Some won’t even notice and some people will be driven up a wall.

My advice: If you see a refresh rate above 120hz, you can assume that it is an exaggerated number.

Unless you’re watching sports or playing video games, the higher refresh rate may even make your picture quality worse by contributing to the “soap opera effect.”  This essentially makes people faces and movements too smooth, creating a creepy doll-like effect.  Yet again, personal preference comes into play.  Some folks may hate the ultra-smooth look, while some may prefer it.

Also remember that these different rates don’t impart any extra detail to your video. A higher refresh rate shouldn’t be a reason for the average consumer to spend more.  For the majority of TV and movie watching, you’ll most likely want to keep your refresh rate set at 60hz anyhow, since that’s the rate at which most television content is broadcast.

There is some good news about all of this though!

As time and technology march on, motion blur in LCD TVs is becoming less and less of a problem.  Generally speaking, if you’re buying a brand-new name-brand TV these days, you’re going to be getting a good TV.  You don’t need to be an expert.  Merely keep the cost/benefits in mind for sports and gaming, the size of the TV versus the size of your viewing space, and resist the urge to push past 120hz.  Any rates higher than that quickly become more gimmick than features.