There’s plenty to think about when buying a new TV, but one of the most important considerations is often one that’s very misunderstood — refresh rate.
Alongside native resolution and upscaling, your TV’s refresh rate can make all the difference between a picture filled with motion-generated blurriness and other abnormalities, and a crystal-clear movie or show that looks great from start to finish.
Unfortunately, many TV brands go out of their way to persuade you to buy lower-refresh rate models by way of some phony jargon. Fortunately, we’re A/V pros at Spy.com, and we’ve put together this explainer to clear up all your hertz headaches.
Why Does my TV’s Refresh Rate Matter?
Your TV’s refresh rate, logged in hertz (and often depicted as Hz) is a measurement of how many times per second your television is capable of displaying a new frame of action. For modern 4K and 8K TVs, there are only two native (or actual) refresh rates to consider — 60Hz and 120Hz, with the latter being the faster speed.
The higher your TV’s refresh rate, the better your set will be at processing motion, which is all one really needs to know at the surface. But if you often find yourself watching sports and action movies, and playing video games, these are all sources that involve much faster-moving cameras and subjects, and the better your TV’s refresh rate is, the better your TV will be at making adrenaline-fueled content appear more lifelike and less blurry (more on that below).
Frames Per Second and Your TV
Movies and TV shows from content providers like over-the-air antennas, cable TV, streaming apps, and even Blu-rays and DVDs are often filmed, broadcast, and streamed at 30 or 60 frames per second (fps). These days though, you’ll also see some 4K Blu-rays and next-gen video games that are encoded at much higher frame rates (like 120fps).
But it’s when that lower frame-rate content hits your QLED or OLED screen that the TV’s internal picture processing kicks in to get that 30fps source to look its best on your 60Hz or 120Hz display.
This frame-focused upscaling is usually achieved by your TV’s onboard picture engine, using one of two (or both) motion-enhancing processes. One of these is called black frame insertion, which uses your TV’s backlighting system to add a “flicker” between two frames of action.
The other method is called frame interpolation, which combines data from a series of images to create false “in-between” frames. And whether it’s a little extra blast of lighting or an in-between concoction, both upscaling methods are designed to help our brains more effectively process the motion we’re seeing onscreen, meaning less visible blur.
Here’s the rub: we actually want our TVs to be good at upscaling lower frame-rate sources to match our higher refresh rate screens, but there can be too much of a good thing. Have you ever heard of something called the “soap opera effect?” This is a common phenomena that occurs when a TV’s internal frame upscaling becomes a little too effective at reducing motion blur, resulting in a hyper-smoothed-out final image that looks a lot like a daytime soap.
Some people actually like the way this digitally cleaned-up picture looks, but for those of us that can’t stand it (myself included), there are a number of ways to easily disable these artificial enhancements right in your TV settings.
It’s Native or (Mostly) Nonsense
You’ll find that most 60Hz TVs tend to cost less, with 120Hz models priced on the higher side. Generally speaking, this is because 120Hz TVs will typically deliver a sharper-looking picture, thanks to the elimination of unwanted motion blur — which, as we’ve said, is the direct result of a TV being able to display more frames of action per second. But that’s not where the story ends.
At some point, you’ve probably seen TVs that claim to be capable of much higher refresh rates, like 240 and 480. Often though, you won’t find the “Hz” label next to these metrics, and that’s because, for the most part, these metrics aren’t real.
Those bigger digits are what we’ll call a TV’s “simulated” or “effective” refresh rate, and while these metrics aren’t entirely false, it’s easy for TV companies to come up with whatever values they want for marketing purposes. Often, this metric is just a doubling (or tripling) of a TV’s native refresh rate (a number achieved by incorporating frame interpolation and black frame insertion into a TV’s picture processing). But when Samsung or LG claims that a 60Hz TV can deliver up to 240fps, what the manufacturer is actually saying is — post-internal upscaling — a 60Hz set will “appear” to look more like a 240fps display.
Long story short, if you’re in the market for a TV that’s optimized for motion clarity, your best bet is to ignore these effective refresh rates altogether, focusing instead on your TV’s native refresh rate (which will inevitably be either 60Hz or 120Hz).
Is a 120Hz TV Always Better than a 60Hz TV?
Generally speaking, a 120Hz-capable TV will tend to look and perform better than a 60Hz display. But there are other factors to think about when it comes to how your TV produces the picture you’ll be viewing on a daily basis.
Remember when we said that a 240fps TV is essentially bogus? Well bogus or not, artificial motion upscaling isn’t the only internal picture processing your TV is responsible for. Features like localized backlight dimming and resolution upscaling go a long way toward improving the overall brightness, colors and contrast of your TV. And while you’ll mostly find these kinds of top-shelf enhancements on 120Hz TVs, they’re also on 60Hz models (and are sometimes missing from 120Hz TVs altogether).
So the good rule of thumb remains: look for that native 120Hz refresh rate. But if you’re working with a limited budget that may only allow for a 60Hz TV, look for models that prioritize lighting controls and general upscaling.
Are There Higher Refresh Rates than 120Hz?
Yes — at least there used to be (and now there is again).
Back when LED lighting was being transitioned into LCD TVs (over a decade ago), you could buy a TV that was capable of 60Hz, 120Hz, or 240Hz refresh rates. And if you were in the market for a now-defunct plasma TV, you’d be looking at TVs that were (supposedly) built to deliver 600Hz.
Nowadays, 60Hz and 120Hz are your only options for most LED-LCD and OLED TVs, but with the rollout of 8K-capable TVs and monitors, along with improvements to how 4K monitors deal with motion, you may also see refresh rates like 144Hz.
But at the end of the day, plasma TVs and advanced 4K displays have something in common: a little extra shot of bogus. These higher-than-120Hz readings were, and are, achieved by combining the TV’s internal processing tech with its native refresh rate.