Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) is a great feature that prevents screen-tearing and stutter from unstable frame rates in games. This feature has made it into the latest consoles, but for some, turning it on makes the picture worse. Why?
What VRR Does
We’ve written an in-depth explanation on how VRR works, but the short version is simple to understand: Your TV or monitor has a refresh rate. The most common refresh rate is 60Hz, which means that the screen can display 60 unique frames of video every second. If you’re watching a video, then the frame rate is fixed and pre-recorded. If your display gets 30 frames a second of video it can perfectly display them on a 60Hz display by showing the same frame twice in a row. Movies that are at 24 frames per second don’t display perfectly on most displays, but since it’s a common cinematic frame rate, all televisions have some way of dealing with that content, with varying levels of success.
Video games are very different from fixed video content. The GPU in the console or PC isn’t under a consistent load. For example, when there are lots of explosions and heavy effects on-screen, the GPU might only produce 40 frames a second while there’s so much going on, which can lead to all sorts of visual artifacts or choppy motion.
VRR technology lets the gaming system talk to the display and varies the refresh rate to match the number of frames the GPU is actually producing. There’s HDMI VRR, NVIDIA G-SYNC, and AMD FreeSync. Both the device and display have to support the same standard for it to work, and each technology has a specific range where it can operate. If frame rates get too low, they’ll go below the minimum refresh the display can handle.
VRR Can Have Downsides
The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles support HDMI 2.1, which means they can (theoretically) send a 4K signal at 120 frames per second. Assuming you have a compatible 120Hz TV or monitor, you’ll enjoy smooth gameplay even if the framerate fluctuates wildly, as it’s common to do at these high frame rate numbers.
Most modern TVs that can display 120Hz 4K imagery also offer VRR, but not every TV or monitor has the same quality of implementation. So when you activate high frame rate modes on your console and switch on VRR, you may notice that your image quality gets worse compared to the standard 60hz presentation. Of course, VRR is still useful for 60Hz gaming too, since it smooths out any dips between the bottom end of the VRR range and 60hz, but even then there can be problems.
Potential Image Quality Issues With VRR
The most common complaint when it comes to VRR is perceptible flicker. Just as with Black Frame Insertion, some people can see flickering with VRR on. This flicker also varies depending on the brand and specific model of display. Different people also have different levels of sensitivity to this issue.
If you’re using high frame rates, which is the most common reason to use VRR, then the image can appear worse than 60Hz simply because the display doesn’t have as much time to process each frame before displaying it. Even in “game” modes that remove lag-inducing post-processing effects, some processing of the image is still required. With less time to do this, the final result may not look as good as 60Hz or lower content.
It may not be the VRR or your display at all. Shooting for high frame rates means that the game system has to make sacrifices when it comes to resolution and detail settings in-game. All those extra frames aren’t free and you’re getting better responsiveness and motion clarity in exchange for static image resolution.
Many modern LCD displays use “local dimming” where an array of small backlights are dimmed individually to reduce backlight bleed and provide better black levels. Unfortunately, some models of TV disable local dimming and HDR when VRR is active. Since both local dimming and HDR have a dramatic effect on picture quality, losing them can really hurt how good a game looks.
Finally, OLED owners may be particularly displeased with how the picture looks with VRR activated since many models exhibit a strong shift brightness or “gamma.” Those lovely inky blacks that OLEDs are known for suddenly look gray and washed out, which isn’t ideal for anyone who bought an OLED for this key strength!
Should You Use VRR?
Since VRR can present differently depending on the various factors discussed above, whether you should turn it on is really a matter of using your own eyes to evaluate the picture. OLED owners who are unlucky enough to get poor black levels or color reproduction with VRR on will likely prefer either a bit of screen-tearing or limiting things to 60 frames per second.
If you’re an LCD TV or monitor user, you’ll have to decide whether the mix of high frame rate compromises is worth the extra fluidity and responsiveness. In the case of VRR to compensate for framerates up to and below 60 frames per second, we think it’s always a good idea to use VRR if available unless you have to trade HDR and local dimming to make it possible. Be sure to check if your model of TV is affected by this issue and, crucially, whether an update has been released to correct the problem.