Exactly How Compromised Were Android's High-Refresh Rate Screens?

Posted by Matt Birchler
β€” 5 min read

This exchange happened on this week's episode of The Talk Show between John Gruber and Rene Ritchie:

John: Do you know if Android phones which high refresh rates, do they dynamically adjust, or if you're in high frame rate you're always in 120Hz?
Rene: So this is like this whole thing that I think has been vastly underreported, because just doing 120Hz is not a problem. It's been that a lot of the early ones that did it, they had to lower the resolution because it really did hit battery life or it would destroy their color management or they would have to change when the brightness level changed because they couldn't handle it. It was a deeply compromised solution.

Rene brings up a few things:

  1. High refresh had to be at lower panel resolutions.
  2. Battery life took a hit.
  3. Color management was destroyed.
  4. Brightness level determined whether they could even do high refresh rates.
  5. (Unaddressed) Do high refresh Android phones have variable refresh rates?

So the above list of problems with Android are extensive, and I think gives the impression to listeners that high refresh screens have been bad until Apple walked in. I don't know if that's what Rene is trying to say here (it's a podcast, so sometimes the words come out a bit off from what you intended, I get it), but I do think that a lot of Apple fans think that high refresh screens on Android are an absolute dumpster fire and Apple is the first one to do it remotely well.

I'm going to investigate how accurate these claims are using two fronts:

  1. My experience using an Pixel 4 with a 90Hz screen.
  2. How Samsung phones have fared with high refresh screens, since they're Apple's only real competition here in the US.

My Experience with a Pixel 4

I personally have a Google Pixel 4 that I've been using as a backup device for a few years now and it has a 90Hz screen. I 100% notice the difference in fluidity even though it's not the 120Hz discussed in the podcast, and it does make my iPhone 12 Pro feel a little choppy after using the Pixel for a while. But let's go through the list:

  1. Resolution: The 1080x2280 (444ppi) display runs at full-resolution at 90Hz, there is no need to ramp down. This is also true of the much higher res Pixel 4 XL (1440x3040, 537ppi).
  2. Battery life: Battery life is trash on this phone, but it's hard to tell how much of this is to blame on the refresh rate. It has a 2,800mAh battery, which is absolutely tiny for an Android phone.
  3. Colors: I am not an expert here, but DisplayMate gave this phone an A+ rating, their highest rating ever at the time.
  4. Brightness issues: I'm a little unclear what this means, but the Pixel 4 did have an issue at launch where it would only display at 90Hz if the screen brightness was over ~80%. An update soon after launch made it so it would display at 90Hz regardless of brightness.
  5. Ramping down: The Pixel 4 does ramp down to 60Hz in some cases, although Google was pretty cagey with the specifics here. I do actually remember some jabs OnePlus took at Google for ramping down at all and bragged about how the OnePlus phone of the time was a true high refresh display and never ramped down. Weird flex, but okay, OnePlus.

Samsung Phones

And here's what I get looking at Samsung's Galaxy S line for the past 2 years.

  1. Resolution: The S20 (released March 2020) had a 1440p screen, but it had to display at 1080p for the 120Hz mode. Definitely a compromise, but this year's S21 line does not have this limitation anymore, doing 120Hz on a 1440x3200 (515ppi) screen on the larger model.
  2. Battery life: This is definitely true, the high refresh screen crushes battery life on even the newest Samsungs. Tom's Guide has some testing showing decent performance in the larger S21 models, but the smallest model (iPhone 13-ish size) gets truly atrocious battery with it on, dropping to well below every other phone they tested. This also tracks with what I've heard from users, with many of them saying they turn off the feature to get more battery life. That last bit is anecdotal, of course.
  3. Colors: The S20 Ultra received DisplayMate's new highest score ever for color accuracy, even in high refresh mode. They called the colors "Visually Indistinguishable From Perfect," which seems pretty solid to me.
  4. Brightness issues: I remain unclear what this is referring to, and I can not find any documentation on brightness issues. DisplayMate shows high refresh, color-accurate displays that get up to 1,300 nits peak brightness even on the 2020 models.
  5. Ramping down: I can't seem to track this down, but the best I can tell is that maybe the Samsung displays are locked to 60/120Hz depending on the mode you're in, or maybe they ramp down to 60Hz sometimes...I can't really say for sure, but my gut tells me it's locked at 120Hz. If you can correct me on this, I'd love to know though!

In Summary

  1. Resolution: Definitely an issue in 2020, but 2021 phones don't seem to have this limitation.
  2. Battery life: 100% a problem with Samsung phones.
  3. Colors: I have no idea where this comes from. The best displays DisplayMate has ever seen on phones were high refresh.
  4. Brightness issues: Again, no idea what this is referring to (if you know, shoot me a link and I'll update this article!).
  5. Ramping down: Yeah, not looking good for Samsung, and a little funny to me that Google tried to do this (still does FWIW), but they got roasted for not locking to the highest refresh rate possible.

All in all, my opinion is that Rene was a little too doom-and-gloom about what life was like with a high refresh display before Apple joined the party. I did not look at cheap phones with these screens, as I don't think it's fair to compare budget phones with Apple's flagships (and I think he would agree).

Yes, resolution was a limit in 2020, but Samsung removed that limit earlier this year, and battery life is a major issue due to it seemingly always displaying at 120Hz no matter what. Those issues combined make it easy to see why Apple didn't do the higher refresh display until now. One, Apple's never going to make your iPhone screen blurry, and two, battery life so bad that everyone is going to turn it off...well that's not something Apple is going to do. I'm really note sure what these color and brightness issues are all about (maybe referring to budget phones?), but my takeaway is this:

Given the state of high refresh OLEDs on Samsung phones for the past couple years, I can see why 2021 was the year Apple decided they could make the tech work at the level they wanted. I don't think like with 90/120Hz screens is the nightmare some say it is, but Apple refusing to make the sacrifices Samsung was willing to make checks out.