Every major phone launch has a “-gate”: a drama about some problem or worry with the hardware. With the Pixel 4, there are several: the battery may be too small, the face unlock works with your eyes closed, and now the conditions at which the screen will refresh at 90Hz and when it will ratchet down to 60Hz are pretty confusing. Google calls the feature “Smooth Display,” but its reception has been anything but smooth in the past 24 hours.
Google previously said it adjusts the refresh rate depending on what’s happening on the screen to improve battery life, but yesterday some Redditors figured out that refresh rate also drops down to 60Hz if the screen brightness is set below 75 percent. Further investigation from the Android community revealed that it may stay up at 90Hz at lower brightness levels if the ambient lighting in the room is bright enough.
It’s all very strange, so we asked Google for a statement and it has replied with a little more detail on when the screen changes its refresh rate and — most importantly — a promise of a software update. Here’s the full statement, emphasis mine:
We designed Smooth Display so that users could enjoy the benefits of 90Hz for improved UI interactions and content consumption, while also preserving battery when higher refresh rates are not critical by lowering back down to 60Hz.
In some conditions or situations, however, we set the refresh rate to 60Hz. Some of these situations include: when the user turns on battery saver, certain content such as video (as it’s largely shot at 24 or 30fps), and even various brightness or ambient conditions. We constantly assess whether these parameters lead to the best overall user experience. We have previously planned updates that we’ll roll out in the coming weeks that include enabling 90hz in more brightness conditions.
So there you go: there are a lot of situations that will cause the screen’s refresh rate to drop down, certainly more than you might assume.
That makes two software updates Google has promised for the Pixel 4, the other being an update that requires your eyes to be open for face unlock to work. That update is due “in the coming months,” while this screen refresh update is set for the “coming weeks.”
One of the reasons to buy a Pixel phone instead of another Android phone is the guaranteed software updates. Somehow I don’t think anybody was thinking about updates for face unlock and screen refresh rates when they made their preorders, but here we are. It’s great that Google is so quickly addressing complaints — but it would have been better if they didn’t have to in the first place.