90Hz vs 60Hz display refresh rate revisited: can people tell the difference this time?

60Hz vs 90hz display refresh rate test: can people tell the difference?
Reviewers often rave about the smoothness of 90Hz displays and how they can’t go back to using a phone with a standard 60Hz screen. Phone manufacturers also never miss an opportunity to boast how awesome this feature is. 

What is a 90Hz refresh rate exactly? Well, in short, the display's refresh rate is the number of times the picture on it is updated. This happens 60 times per second on a 60Hz display, 90 times per second on a 90Hz one, and so on. When there's movement, a 90Hz screen can display 30 more "steps" as objects move across your display, making the motion look more pleasing for the eye. But is the difference really so stark?

Back in July, we did our own 60Hz vs 90Hz display test, but while the results were interesting, they weren't conclusive as we only had one phone with a 90Hz display. Now that we have a bunch, we decided to redo the test using the OnePlus 7 Pro and the 7T Pro which have identical OLED displays, with the same resolution and diagonal size. We made sure to have the same color mode and brightness setting on both to make the screens appear identical. Then we set one to 90Hz and the other to 60Hz and went on to find some test subjects. 

60Hz vs 90Hz: Confused average users edition

We handed the two phones side by side to 15 people with a Gmail inbox opened on both, where one could scroll up and down to their heart's desire. Then we told the participant to play with the phones without navigating to different pages. After that, we asked them to tell us if they could see any differences between the two displays. If they did, we asked what they were. 

Getting a definitive answer during our 90Hz vs 60Hz test proved to be harder than expected. Because we couldn't say exactly which aspect of the displays we wanted people to compare, they interacted with the devices suspiciously. From comparing viewing angles to checking if the curvature of the edges was the same, it was clear that nothing struck them as different right off the bat.

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But with the help of some additional questions, we managed to get a good idea about people's impressions. We ignored any statements like “this one looks crisper” or “the letters on this one are clearer” and looked only for answers related to smoothness. If people didn't say anything about that, we assumed they didn't notice a difference. 15 people were subjected to our test, and although that’s not a scientifically significant sample size, it paints a clear picture. Here are the results:

Granted, the participants were limited in what they could do and how much time they had to experience the displays, but at the same time, having two almost identical displays side by side is when it should be the easiest to see the difference.

Eagle-eyed phone reviewer easily spots the 90Hz display

OK, maybe the average user doesn’t really notice a significant difference, but what about an expert? We brought in our colleague Victor to our test lab (desk). He’s been enjoying the 90Hz display of the OnePlus 7T for three months now and swears it’s much better than the peasant 60Hz. This was the perfect time for him to prove he actually knows what he’s talking about.

Since Victor is a pro, we cranked up the difficulty for this next test. Again, we handed both phones to him side by side, but we set the refresh rate setting on each randomly. And we did this for 6 rounds. Sometimes one phone was set to 90Hz and the other to 60Hz. Sometimes both were at 60Hz or 90Hz. Each round, Victor had to say what the refresh rate setting was on each phone. He was allowed to browse through different apps or menus (without the display settings menu, of course) before answering. 

The result: 11 out of 12 correct answers. Very impressive. He was especially quick to point out a 90Hz display setting after noticing that scrolling through Gmail made for the most noticeable difference.

90Hz display vs 60Hz: the end results

Based on our tests, we can make the following conclusion:

So, does a 90Hz refresh rate matter then? Well, a 90Hz display phone will make a positive difference to some people, but for the great majority of users, it’s not really something that’s worth upgrading for. It is best to decide after you've used one yourself. As you can tell from our quick experiment, the benefits may not be obvious immediately or at all. 

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