Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) explained: Why this new gaming TV tech is big news

Here's why VRR means smoother gaming, and what hardware supports it

VRR explained: LG TV
(Image credit: LG)

Shopping for a new TV means a world of acronyms and if you’ve been looking for the best gaming TV then you’ve definitely seen 'VRR' floating about as a must-have feature. It stands for 'Variable Refresh Rate', but what does it actually mean for your games? How do you know if a TV has it and, most importantly, will you actually notice it? 

The arrival of the new generation of consoles means that HDMI 2.1 ports are becoming more common in new TVs. HDMI 2.1 brings in support a number of new jargon-y features, including 4K 120Hz, Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM) and, importantly, VRR. VRR has existed happily over the last few years in multiple forms in PC gaming and, technically, doesn’t actually demand HDMI 2.1, but HDMI 2.1 support is a good indicator that your TV can handle it, because it's part of the standard.

Importantly, VRR has to be supported by every part of the chain in order to make the most of the feature. Your console or PC needs to have VRR, you need to be using an HDMI 2.1-compatible cable, and your TV or monitor port also needs to be able to support it. Let’s break down the details.

What is VRR?

VRR is short for Variable Refresh Rate. This means that it allows your screen to adjust how often it refreshes the image to match the frame rate from your console or PC. This is the reason that it’s really only gaming that demands VRR. When you’re watching a movie or TV show, those have a set frame rate which is usually 24fps, 25fps or 30fps. While higher frame rate movies and TV do exist, they're rarely available for home release, and even then having a set refresh rate means that your TV knows how often to refresh and you’ll get a smooth experience that means you never even need to think about it.

Gaming, however, changes that. When you are gaming, frame rate is entirely dependent on how hard your graphics processor is working. A cut scene of two characters talking will be very different from running across the rooftops of a snowy city of Vikings for example. This can cause frame rates to constantly fluctuate, even if if by only a few frames per second – however, the TV still wants to only refresh at a set rate, meaning that the moment that the console creates a new frame and the moment that the TV wants to display one may not be the same moment. They're out of sync, and that means you might see a half-finished new frame mixed with the old one.

Screen tearing is the name for these tell tale lines across your monitor or screen when it can’t keep up with what the console or PC is sending over. Here's a video demonstrating all of this in action.

In the past, consoles games have skirted this issue as much as possible by locking their frame rate to match the refresh rate of TVs. But this puts limitations on what games can do – it makes the frame rate the priority, so developers might have to make things less ambitious just to hit that magic refresh number.

The solution? Variable Refresh Rate, which basically mean that instead of the TV refreshing on its own schedule, it adjusts on the fly to match whatever the console's current framerate is. No more screen tearing!

On PC, for several years AMD and Nvidia have their own proprietary VRR technologies to get around this issue. AMD has FreeSync and Nvidia has G-Sync. Both G-Sync and FreeSync have made their way to TVs as well as gaming monitors. Support for both of these technologies, as well as the HDMI 2.1-standard VRR, is a big part of why the LG CX is such a great gaming TV.

VRR and new-gen consoles

So if this has been around for years then why do we only care now when it comes to our living room screens? Well the arrival of the new generation Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S and PlayStation 5 consoles has changed the landscape. 

Now that processors are significantly more powerful and questing for higher frame rates – both consoles have the capacity to output 4K gaming at up to 120fps – it doesn’t make sense to have screens not be able to make the most of this new buttery smooth world order. This is where VRR comes in, to adjust those frame rates on the fly.  

As it stands currently, though, the PlayStation 5 does not have support for VRR via HDMI 2.1. It can currently output at 4K at 120fps and can support VRR at a hardware level but is awaiting a software update. A post on the PlayStation Blog states that “PS5 hardware supports Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) through HDMI 2.1. After a future system software update, PS5 owners will be able to use the VRR feature of compatible TVs when playing games that support VRR.”

Meanwhile, the Xbox Series S and Series X both have VRR compatibility via HDMI 2.1 and with AMD’s FreeSync technology. As long as your TV or monitor has support for either of these, then you can make the most of a dynamically adjusting frame rate and reap the visual benefits of the new consoles running at full tilt.

TVs and VRR

Sony A90J

The Sony A90J is the company's first OLED TV with VRR support built in.

(Image credit: Sony)

Our list of the best gaming TVs includes all the latest screens you’ll want for your Xbox Series S or X and eventually PlayStation 5 when it comes to VRR. It’s worth noting though that 2021 is going to be a very good year if you’re looking to upgrade to one of the best OLED TVs and HDMI 2.1 at the same time. For example, Sony is finally bringing HDMI 2.1 to its OLED TVs.

Most of 2021's best TVs will have HDMI 2.1 as standard, certainly at the flagship end of things. But if you're buying a TV from 2020, or one of the best TVs under £1000 or best TVs under $1000, it's still very important to make sure you’re checking the connectivity before you buy, because support simply hasn't been that common so far. 

It’s also important to note that HDMI 2.1 doesn’t officially guarantee VRR support, so do check the small print before you invest – in our gaming TV guide, we'll always make this clear, of course. Most companies are boasting of their gaming chops, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to work out which screens have what you need but do make sure.