Gaming TVs & Variable Refresh Rate: What You Need to Know

In recent years, TVs have focused on gamers by reducing input lag and allowing for high refresh rates. As a result, monitors are no longer the only game in town when it comes to high-performance gaming displays. But until recently, there was one huge difference between TVs and dedicated gaming monitors: The monitors have VRR (variable refresh rate) capability.

Today, things are different. Samsung is the first major TV maker to add VRR to its TVs and Xbox has added it to the Xbox One S and Xbox One X consoles. Now, when playing games on a Samsung NU8000 series TV or a QLED, instead of having graphics locked at 30 Hz or 60 Hz, the frame rate will fluidly adjust up to the TV’s maximum refresh rate. The same is true for PCs with AMD graphics cards, if you connect to a compatible Samsung TV, you’ll enjoy the benefits of VRR which, in addition to avoiding screen tearing, also provides extremely low input lag.

What is Screen Tearing?

Have you even played a game where the image looked like it was sliced horizontally with a razor, and then the two parts were shifted so that they don’t match up? That is screen tearing, and it is a symptom of the refresh rate of the gaming device not matching up with TV or monitor.

Now, it’s important to note that screen tearing is not an issue with the source frame rate is lower than what the TV is set to (typically 60 Hz for gaming), that’ll just produce stuttering. You see screen tearing when the frame rate of the output devices higher than that of the display.

As a rule, gaming consoles cap the refresh rate to either 30 Hz or 60 Hz, so you don’t see screen tearing. But if you are a PC gamer, and you’ve ever tried using the TV as a monitor, there is a good chance you’ve seen it—especially if you have more than one display hooked up.

Displays with VRR capability don’t suffer this issue because they are always matched up with the frame rate of the gaming device. This can be any refresh rate within the display’s operating range, which in the case of Samsung TVs (the only consumer TVs that support this technology at this time) is 48 Hz to 120 Hz.

Lower Input Lag

Many games demand fast reflexes and split-second timing for players to succeed. Moreover, the lower the input lag of the game, the more “attached” you feel to the controls. For first-person shooters, a few milliseconds can mean the difference between the character’s survival, and their early demise. In a driving game, low input lag makes you feel connected the road. And if you are into retro arcade games, it’s almost impossible to succeed in a game like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong if there’s any significant lag present.

In recent years, input lag has steadily dropped in the dedicated game modes of many TVs. But if you want the absolute fastest response from a TV, VRR is the way to go. For example, based on measurements from the review site, a 2018 NU8000 has a 15.1ms lag time with 4K content, and a shockingly low 6.3ms lag time if you feed it 1080p. A perfect example of how you can choose ultimate fast response, or higher quality, and ultimately have it both ways with a VRR equipped TV. lag measurements are practically identical for Samsung’s Q6FN, measuring 15.6ms for 4K and 6.6ms for 1080p.

FreeSync and G-Sync

Currently, there are two competing VRR technologies vying for gamers’ dollars, FreeSync from AMD and G-Sync from Nvidia. While they do the same thing, as its name implies, FreeSync is the more open of the two systems and is free for manufacturers to use.

The two systems take a differing approach in terms of the hardware architecture, with FreeSync relying exclusively on a video card for refresh rate adjustment, while G-sync relies on a chip that’s built into the display.

If you are looking for a TV that has G-Sync, you’ll find a few specialized oversize monitors under the acronym BFGD (big format gaming display) from Acer, Asus and HP at the 65” size. These displays offer HDR with FALD and 1000-nit peak brightness with 120 Hz panels. But these are thick TVs that only a hardcore gamer would love to have in their living room, with only one screen size planned (65”) and so far, not only have no models shipped, the price is still unknown.

What is known is that FALD G-Sync monitors at much smaller sizes are quite pricey, so it remains to be seen if BFGD is going to be a thing. Nvidia does have the highest-performing PC video cards you can buy today, so for some gamers It’s certain this will be the “cost-no-object” choice.

With FreeSync, you can choose from a wide variety of screen sizes from 2018 Samsung TVs that have VRR built-in; all 2017 NU8000 and QLED models have this capability. Furthermore, if you game with a Xbox One or Xbox One X, you even get VRR technology from a gaming console, which is a first! This lets you enable a 120 Hz maximum refresh rate, which was previously only possible with PC games.

And while due to frame rate caps consoles don’t have screen tearing issues, even if you don’t get to play at 120 Hz all the time, with FreeSync the input lag is reduced to below what’s possible with most fixed frame rate TVs.

If you use a PC equipped with AMD graphics and a compatible Samsung TV you also get VRR capability. And since Samsung makes a NU8000 at 82” for only $3000, you can immerse yourself in game worlds like never before without breaking the bank. And with the 82” Q8FN available at $5000, you can get state-of-the-art picture quality and a gaming experience that totally envelops you. And if you want the absolute ultimate in gaming displays, the 8K Samsung Q900F awaits—it has this capability as well.

Undeniably, the difference larger screens make for 4K gaming is noticeable. If you sit in the same spot, you see more details and feel like you are inside the game when playing with a larger screen.

Gaming with VRR on a Samsung 75” Q8FN QLED

Much of my recent gaming has revolved around the Xbox One X, which runs “Xbox One X Enhanced” games. While I do have a GTX1080 equipped PC, the console experience is appealing given its simplicity. Today’s console graphics are fantastic, especially in flagship 4K titles like Forza Horizon 4, Red Dead Redemption 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. And the 75” Q8FN I used to play them felt seamless running in VRR mode, even in 4K with HDR.

What’s amazing is how much detail is in modern 4K games. Take any of the titles I just mentioned, and while your characters in the game world, stop for a moment and just look around. So, the cool thing about VRR is it can adjust the frame rate to maintain that level of detail. Or, depending on the settings you choose, you can sacrifice detail for higher frame rates.

Counterintuitively, sometimes the “faster” settings look just as detailed. The reason is that higher frame rates result in better motion resolution, so when you are in the middle of all the action, you’ll be better able to keep track of what’s going on. That’s why it’s awesome to have 120 Hz capability on a TV, but you need VRR to take proper advantage of it.

What’s key is that the overall effect of 4K, HDR, rich colors, low input lag, and a huge screen take gaming experience to new, previously unexperienced heights. Take, for example, the Phenomenon that is Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s designed to look and feel like a movie, and on a smaller screen it is diminished—it becomes a cartoon. But, on a 75” Q8FN, the experience is totally different. When playing, you experience true suspension of disbelief and stop feeling like you are playing a game, and instead feel like you are in the game. And while you need multiple ingredients to make this trick work—great sound, a good script, quality motion capture—the big screen does a lot of heavy lifting.

The difference between a monitor and a 75” HDR-capable 4K TV is pronounced with driving games, precisely because the TV closely mimics the scale of a real windshield. And with modern visual effects, a game like Forza Horizon 4 can look so realistic it’s uncanny—we’re on cusp of achieving true photo-realism.

VRR is a key feature for gaming TVs

This is truly a golden era for gamers. Today’s hardware offers unprecedented performance and bringing that performance home is now possible at prices that were previously unimaginable. One of the most important shifts is the embrace of variable refresh rate technology in both consoles and consumer televisions.

As nice as PCs are, it’s hard to imagine a future where they reclaim any market share relative to consoles, portable devices, and ultimately cloud-based gaming. But even so, it is a fact that today you can buy a 4K gaming TV with VRR, at sizes from 49” to 85”, that works with AMD graphics-equipped PCs, and enjoy true state-of-the-art visuals in your home. Ultimately, whether you game with a PC or an Xbox console, the benefits of variable refresh rate are why you want a gaming TV that has VRR.