Later today, we expect to see Apple unveil the iPhone 13 at its next big Apple Event, and a lot of people are anticipating that Apple will bring high-refresh rate screens to its phones for the first time.
The most common rumours say that the regular iPhone 13 will stick with a 60Hz screen – the same as the iPhone has been since its launch – while the iPhone 13 Pro will upgrade to a 120Hz screen. Given that many Android phones now include 90Hz or 120Hz screens, yet come in at a cheaper price than the existing iPhone 12, it feels Apple is maybe behind the curve if it doesn't add this feature this year.
But realistically, even if Apple didn't update either the normal iPhone or the Pro with a high-refresh screen this year, it wouldn't matter. It just wouldn't. The phones would sell by the bucketload anyway, and 99% of buyers will never lament what they're missing out on, because they won't care.
The thing about high-refresh screens on phones is that while they're really nice, they offer very little practical advantage to most people, but eat battery life like Pac-man eats dots. And they're not an easy thing to get people revved up about, either – try asking someone about how many Hertz their screen is and you'll usually get an Olympic-class shrug of apathy.
Given that we recently reported that the thing people most want from a new iPhone is more battery life, to include a feature that severely reduces battery life probably isn't going to be a massive priority no matter how nice and smooth the screen is.
Apple isn't against high-refresh screens: it uses them in the iPad Pro. Those displays max out at 120Hz, though they're actually adaptive, switching between 30Hz, 60Hz and 120Hz as needed, to help preserve battery life.
The reason Apple uses a 120Hz screen here is the Apple Pencil: when you're drawing, seeing the results of your movement twice as quickly has a real benefit, since it means you can draw more accurately. It makes the digital art seem more like real materials.
On phones, though, there isn't really a killer application like this that clearly justifies it. The closest thing is gaming, which benefits in the same way as Apple Pencil – you see the results of your actions slightly faster. That's why the best gaming monitors all have high refresh rates. But while gaming in general is huge on phones, gaming that requires millisecond-precision isn't – not like it is on a PC.
On phones, the main advantage you get from a high-refresh screen is that it makes animations and scrolling on your phone look smoother. And as I said earlier, that's really nice. In fact, it's quite an Apple thing to include, because it really adds an extra level of premium feeling to the phone. I would love Apple to add a high-refresh screen to iPhone for this reason.
But the effect on battery life can be up to 10%, and phones that include it tend to give you the option to turn it off (or have it off by default) for this reason. That's not a very Apple way for its mainstream products.
That's why it makes sense to include it on the Pro model, where adding in new technologies as an optional extra (like it did with the ProRaw photo format in the iPhone 12 Pro, for example) is more accepted. It's for 'pros', after all.
But ultimately, if the regular iPhone 13 doesn't include it, it's something that serious tech watchers in comments sections will point to as evidence of Apple being too restrictive and backwards… while everyone who just wanted practical improvements that they understand, like improved battery life and better cameras, will buy iPhones by the armful, and be delighted.
- Here are the latest iPhone 13 leaks and rumours ahead of tonight's launch event.