Confused by 120Hz refresh rates? We can't blame you. With the latest consoles more like PCs than ever before, you've probably seen a lot of talk about what type of gaming TV you need and how 120Hz refresh rates are the future if you want your PS5 or Xbox Series X to look at their best. But does it all really matter? And what does 120Hz even mean?
Don't worry. While it can seem incredibly confusing to know where to start, especially if you're considering buying yourself a new 4K TV to get the most out of the latest consoles, we're here to help you decipher the magic behind 120Hz refresh rates and whether it really does matter to you or not.
Read on while we break down the differences between kinds of refresh rates and look at just what effect they have on your gaming sessions.
What even is 120Hz?
Hertz, also known as Hz, is a unit of frequency to denote how many times your screen refreshes each second. A higher number means that new information reaches your screen faster but that's also affected by the frame rate of what you're watching or playing. More on that in a bit.
In the case of 120Hz, it means 120 images per second are shown every time it refreshes which means a much smoother image – something that makes a particularly big difference when playing games on your shiny new PS5. Providing, that is, the game you're playing supports 120Hz.
Hertz vs frames per second
Frames Per Second (fps), also known as the ‘frame rate’, is the number of frames delivered to your screen each second. It's controlled by the hardware. For instance, a mid-range PC trying to run Cyberpunk 2077 will run the game at a lower frame rate than a top-end system would. Again, the higher the frame rate, the smoother the picture.
Of course, you need to be able to run games at a high frame rate while also being able to view them on a TV or screen with a high refresh rate too. Pretty much all new gaming monitors and gaming TVs now have a refresh rate of 60Hz at the very minimum (unless you're rocking some very old tech) but that means it won't be quite up to scratch with the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5's capabilities of 120Hz. (Some cheap TVs can catch you out with a 50Hz panel, too.)
30Hz, 60Hz, 120Hz – what's the difference?
Look around when purchasing a TV or monitor and you'll notice a few different refresh rates bandied about. For the most part, 30Hz, 60Hz and 120Hz are the most common ones you'll see but there are also 50Hz and 85Hz screens as well as 144Hz and a few other unusual numbers out there too.
Each of these all come down to how many times a new image is shown on screen. For instance, 60Hz displays show a new image every 16th millisecond, while a 120Hz screen produces an image every eighth millisecond.
Whether you can tell the difference, though, is another matter. There's a neat comparison tool called Blur Buster UFO Motion Tests which can help you see the difference, although you'll need to already own high refresh rate displays to see what we mean. It's a good example of what a difference lower refresh rates can make, though, and gives you a little insight with your existing hardware.
What's Motion Rate 120Hz?
Look around at some TVs and you might notice the mention of Motion Rate 120Hz rather than a refresh rate of 120Hz. That means it isn't a true 120Hz refresh rate but instead a TV that can only display up to 60fps, simulating the rest of it to make the motion appear more fluid.
Depending on your budget, this might be the most you can manage, but it's important to know that this isn't the same as a TV that supports 120Hz natively.
What impact does 120Hz refresh rate make on your gaming?
In the past, many games consoles focused on 30 FPS with a standard 60Hz output to keep costs low for both the manufacturer and consumer. That's changed with the launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series X with both consoles supporting the new HDMI 2.1 standard which means sufficient video output bandwidth to deliver 4K resolutions at 120Hz. Previously, the Xbox One X and S supported 120Hz but only at 1080p and 1440p.
Does it make a difference though? Not exactly. While the compatibility is there, relatively few games actually support 120Hz right now.
Find a game that does, though, and the title will run a lot smoother – if you've also got a TV that supports 120Hz. You'll see less choppiness during fast-paced scenes and general improvement to motions or animations. It's not necessarily a huge game-changing difference but for those that want the best picture possible, it's certainly a nice bonus.
Will it make a difference to your gaming performance? That's a contentious one. A study by Nvidia found a link between higher refresh rates and player performance but, well, Nvidia is sure to say that, given it's in the business of selling high-end graphics cards. However, there have been some independent reports that have found similar results. Even if it's solely a placebo effect, if it means you play better, it could be worth it.
What games support 120Hz?
The list of games that support 120Hz is steadily growing but don't assume that every game supports it. Bear in mind that some will need to be played at a lower resolution to do so.
We have a regularly updated list of all the PS5 and Xbox Series X games with 120Hz support:
Do I need a 120Hz TV?
First of all, do you have an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5? It's important that you have a device that supports 120Hz, otherwise it's a bit pointless having a fancy and expensive TV that can't show off its talents. If you're watching 60Hz content on your 120Hz TV, it'll still look the same as if you watch via a 60Hz TV.
It's also important to consider if you play games that support 120Hz. Again, if you don't play any of the games already supported and there aren't any on the horizon for you, it's probably not worth it.
Of course, if you're keen to buy a new 4K TV right now, it makes sense to future proof your purchase and plan ahead. If you can afford to go for a 120Hz 4K TV, you'll be set up for any next-gen gaming plans.
- Best 120Hz 4K TVs to buy for next-gen gaming
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Jennifer is a roving tech freelancer with over 10 years experience. Having graduated from Swansea University with a degree in Media and Communication Studies, and later with a diploma from Staffordshire University with a post graduate diploma in Computer Games Design, she's written for a huge number of publications, including T3, FitandWell, Top Ten Reviews, Eurogamer, NME and many more.
Her main areas of interest are all things B2B, smart technology, wearables, speakers, headphones, and anything gaming related, and you'll find her writing everything from product reviews to buying guides. In her spare time, she enjoys the cinema, walking, and attempting to train her pet guinea pigs. She is yet to succeed.