Once, a laptop screen was a laptop screen was a laptop screen. Those days are decidedly over.
Buying a gaming laptop has become one of the most complex decisions in all of consumer tech today, given the many component nuances and emerging features to factor in. Take, just for example, items like adaptive sync, the tricky-to-understand tiers of AMD and Intel laptop CPUs, and Nvidia’s shades-of-grey GeForce RTX mobile graphics chips. And only then come the screens!
Today, gaming laptops are often advertised with high-refresh-rate displays, and these panels are now one of the key features that separate them from everyday non-gaming notebooks. It’s implied that they improve the gaming experience, but the technicalities are often left unexplained. Let’s deep-dive into the details on high-refresh displays: how they work, how they relate to other factors and specifications (such as screen resolution), and most important, how many hertz you really need on your next gaming laptop.
The Basics: Refresh Rates Explained
The screen on your laptop or computer monitor must redraw its picture many times per second to make fluid motion possible. How often the screen can redraw itself is determined by its refresh rate, which is measured in hertz (Hz). A screen with a higher refresh rate can redraw itself more frequently.
For a refresh-rate baseline, consider that most Hollywood movies are presented at 24 frames (or pictures) per second, just enough for smooth motion. For a screen to show the movie properly, it must redraw itself at least 24 times per second, or operate at 24Hz in refresh-rate terms. One hertz translates to one frame per second (fps).
The number of frames (or the frame rate) needed to experience the “illusion” of smooth motion depends on the scenario. Movies can get away with 24fps; PCs can’t. If computer screens refreshed that slowly, your mouse would look like it was skipping rather than gliding across the screen. It would ruin the computing experience.
For that reason, the standard refresh rate for most laptop and desktop monitors is 60Hz, allowing them to show up to 60fps. Content played at that rate will appear truly smooth with no stuttering or jerking. And that might make you wonder: Why should I pay for anything higher?
High-refresh screens are broadly defined as those operating above 60Hz. High-refresh screens in gaming laptops start at 120Hz and top out, at this writing, at a blistering 300Hz, with in-between increments of 144Hz and 240Hz.
The AMD-based MSI Bravo 15 offers a high-refresh 120Hz screen at an affordable price.
The primary benefit of a high refresh rate is that motion can appear more fluid. In a one-second scene where a car drives by, a 60Hz display would be limited to showing 60 frames, where a 120Hz screen could show 120 frames. (The assumption is that the content was produced at 120fps.) The scene will look smoother at 120Hz/120fps because there is a smaller time gap between frame changes. A frame endures just 1/120th of a second, versus 1/60th of a second on the 60Hz screen.
Before getting too far into refresh rates, let’s visit another common screen specification that is often advertised alongside refresh rate.
Refresh Rate Versus Response Time
Computer screens are made of millions of pinprick-size elements called pixels that can independently change their color. It’s easy to imagine how a picture, a game, or a movie requires pixels to act like a puzzle, each displaying the appropriate color to represent the image.
Response time, measured in milliseconds, is how quickly pixels react to change in color. Lower times are always better, but response time isn’t always comparable across laptop makes (or standalone monitor makes, for that matter). Unlike refresh rate, there is no industry standard for measuring response time.
Screen makers commonly measure response time as the time it takes for pixels to change from gray to white to gray again, a transition that takes less time than the classic transition from black to white to black. But even if the measurement scenario were the same between two screens, there can still be variances in measurement method, due to the lack of an industry standard. In short, don’t count out a laptop just because its screen’s response time is higher than another’s. As a guideline, response times of less than 5 milliseconds (5ms) are considered low for gaming laptops. Lower numbers are better, all else being equal.
Going back to refresh rate, response time is related in a practical sense. A screen with a high refresh rate but a comparatively slow response time would be pointless. That’s because the pixels would have trouble keeping up with the quickly changing frames’ demands. Images on a screen with a slow response time will appear to smear or “ghost” in fast-motion scenes. To an extent, response time trumps refresh rate in importance, but a well-designed gaming laptop should not employ a high-refresh screen with a poor response time. Such a panel would be counter-productive.
Refresh Rate Versus Screen Resolution
Another variable that affects refresh rate is screen resolution, the measurement of how many pixels are in a screen. Running at the optimized, top resolution for a given panel is what is known as its native resolution.
The resolution is listed as the number of pixels that span horizontally by the number that span vertically. Today’s gaming laptops usually stick with a 1,920-by-1,080-pixel native resolution, better known as full HD or simply 1080p. Screens with a 2,560-by-1,440-pixel resolution (QHD or 1440p) are also starting to appear in a few 2021-model gaming laptops. (See, for example, our review of the 2021 version of the MSI GS66 Stealth.)
The MSI GS66 Stealth (2021) offers a QHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) screen with a blistering 240Hz refresh rate.
Full HD is the resolution of choice for most gaming laptops, since it offers sufficient detail while being relatively easy for laptop graphics chips to drive. Higher resolutions require more graphics-card processing power; a computer will be able to run a game at full HD with higher frame rates than it would at QHD. For this reason, gaming laptops are not often equipped with UHD/4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) screens. Hitting high frames in demanding games at 4K and high detail settings is beyond the reach of most gaming laptops.
The Alienware M15 R4’s optional UHD/4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) screen was a little too high-res for fluid gaming at its native resolution in our testing.
Both full HD and QHD screen resolutions are available with refresh rates up to 240Hz, and 1080p up to 300Hz. Refresh rates fall off after that; UHD/4K screens are predominantly 60Hz, with 120Hz making limited appearances. Don’t count on UHD/4K screens with a 300Hz refresh rate showing up anytime soon; no current monitor connection offers enough bandwidth to make it possible. It’s a moot point, anyway; even top-end gaming laptops struggle to maintain smooth gameplay at UHD/4K in the latest games.
Frame Rate Smoothing Technologies
A traditional screen’s refresh rate is constant, which is to say, it will always operate at its rated frequency. For gaming, this can be problematic, since the computer may not be producing frame rates that are evenly divisible by the refresh rate, resulting in a phenomenon known as tearing.
Suppose a laptop produces 73fps in a certain game, but its screen has a 144Hz refresh rate. This means that each time the screen redraws itself, it may not have a complete, new frame from the GPU. However, the GPU must continuously send frames to maintain a picture (144 per second, in this hypothetical scenario), so it may be forced to send part of the previous frame and part of the next frame, in some instances, to keep up. Thus, the frame can look torn, with portions at top and bottom briefly mismatched or out of alignment.
Not every gamer will notice tearing, especially on screens with triple-digit refresh rates. However, that doesn’t mean tearing doesn’t occur. The modern solution is frame-rate syncing, or adaptive sync, which allows the screen to dynamically alter its refresh rate to match the frame rates coming from the graphics card. Nvidia G-Sync is by far the most common one in laptops; hit that link to get a primer on it. AMD’s version is FreeSync. The term Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) is also making the rounds, more in association with TVs. That said, many mainstream gaming laptops don’t support any adaptive sync.
Nvidia offers different tiers of its G-Sync frame-rate-smoothing technology.
Frame-rate-syncing technology is uncommon on gaming laptops since it usually involves some cost to the laptop maker. However, for the ultimate smooth experience, these technologies are worth consideration. The downside is that they will limit your notebook choice.
A Word on Base Panel Technology
The last refresh-rate-related topic to know is the acronym often advertised next to a laptop’s screen, such as IPS or IGZO. It refers to the screen’s technology, or panel type, which affects refresh rate and response time.
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Today’s most popular panel technology for gaming-laptop screens is in-plane switching (IPS). It has almost completely taken the place of the twisted nematic (TN) technology that most gaming laptops relied on until the early-to-mid-2010s. By comparison, it offers superior color range and wider viewing angles than TN, the latter preventing the picture from washing out or inverting when viewed off-center.
Testing the sRGB gamut coverage of the Asus ROG Swift 360Hz IPS desktop gaming monitor.
The transition from TN to IPS was slow, since early IPS screens suffered from long response times, making them unsuitable for fast-paced gaming. Modern gaming IPS displays are down to just a few milliseconds.
An IPS alternative is indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO). It’s comparable to IPS in almost every way, from color reproduction to viewing angles, and it offers similar refresh rates. IPS is more popular since the panels themselves are more widely produced, and in a greater variety, than IGZO ones.
The Aorus 15G is one of the few gaming notebooks to offer an IGZO panel.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of panel technologies (for that, see our computer monitors guide), but one more that sometimes appears in high-end laptops is organic light-emitting diode (OLED). Screens using OLED technology are rarely seen in gaming laptops since their refresh rates generally don’t exceed 60Hz. Without stealing too much of the next section’s thunder, that is the bare minimum for gaming. (That said, the OLED scene may change in 2021 with Samsung’s announcement of 90Hz OLED laptop screens; see our favorite OLED laptops to date.)
So, How High a Refresh Rate Do You Actually Need?
The screens on the lowest-priced gaming notebooks usually have a 60Hz refresh rate, the same that you’ll find on non-gaming notebooks. For casual and AAA gaming, 60Hz is acceptable when paired with low-end graphics chips, such as the Nvidia GeForce MX line, the GeForce GTX 1650 or 1650 Ti, and AMD’s Radeon RX 5500M and under. Those cards can generally maintain between 30fps and 60fps at a full HD resolution in today’s games. For that scenario, a greater-than 60Hz refresh rate is unnecessary.
However, esports players will do well to look above the 60Hz mark, since their competitiveness is highly dependent on their reaction time, which itself partially depends on how quickly the computer can display frames. Stepping up to a 120Hz or a 144Hz screen is worth the extra dosh to get the silky-smooth gaming experience that won’t look choppy when you try a 180-degree headshot. Even lower-end graphics cards can reach triple-digit fps in less resource-intensive esports, such as Fortnite, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rainbow Six: Siege, and League of Legends. So don’t be afraid to pair a high-refresh screen with an entry-level GPU for esports titles like those. Plus, some esports players have been known to turn down the detail settings on a game to hit higher frame rates for a competitive edge.
Fortnite for PC is a hyper-popular, twitch-fast esports title that demands high frame rates in competitive gameplay.
Esports players with higher budgets can benefit from refresh rates beyond 144Hz. As noted, gaming-laptop screens can be found with refresh rates of 240Hz (as an example, see the 2020 Acer Predator Helios 300) and 300Hz (such as the Alienware 17 R3). Powerful gaming notebooks can produce sufficient frame rates to saturate those refresh rates in esports titles that are less resource-intensive. The difference between 240Hz and 300Hz is not noticeable to most eyes, so 240Hz is a practical stopping point.
Players of AAA titles looking for the most cinematic experience should also strongly consider a high-refresh screen. Higher frame rates and thus smoother onscreen action create a more immersive experience. Reaction times can count in these games, too, and a high-refresh screen is one way to eliminate the PC as a bottleneck. That said, AAA gamers can comfortably stop at 144Hz; even a top-shelf laptop GPU, such as the GeForce RTX 3080, won’t get far into triple-digit frame rates in most cases. (As an illustration of that, see the gaming benchmarks in our review of the 2021 MSI GE76 Raider.)
The best-case scenario for smooth gaming is a high-refresh-rate screen paired with a frame-rate-smoothing technology, such as AMD FreeSync or Nvidia G-Sync, though they can limit your notebook choice since they are uncommon. Also take response time into account, though unlike refresh rate, it can be only loosely compared, since methods for measuring it vary from laptop make to laptop make.
As a departing note, know that despite the specs and on-paper theoreticals, it is still possible to buy a gaming laptop with a substandard screen that has one or more undesirable attributes, such as low brightness. So see our gaming laptop recommendations (and others’) for help finding the one most deserving of your hard-earned cash.