High refresh rate rendering on Android

Posted by Ady Abraham, Software Engineer

For a long time, phones have had a display that refreshes at 60Hz. Application and game developers could just assume that the refresh rate is 60Hz, frame deadline is 16.6ms, and things would just work. This is no longer the case. New flagship devices are built with higher refresh rate displays, providing smoother animations, lower latency, and an overall nicer user experience. There are also devices that support multiple refresh rates, such as the Pixel 4, which supports both 60Hz and 90Hz.

A 60Hz display refreshes the display content every 16.6ms. This means that an image will be shown for the duration of a multiple of 16.6ms (16.6ms, 33.3ms, 50ms, etc.). A display that supports multiple refresh rates, provides more options to render at different speeds without jitter. For example, a game that cannot sustain 60fps rendering must drop all the way to 30fps on a 60Hz display to remain smooth and stutter free (since the display is limited to present images at a multiple of 16.6ms, the next framerate available is a frame every 33.3ms or 30fps). On a 90Hz device, the same game can drop to 45fps (22.2ms for each frame), providing a much smoother user experience. A device that supports 90Hz and 120Hz can smoothly present content at 120, 90, 60 (120/2), 45(90/2), 40(120/3), 30(90/3), 24(120/5), etc. frames per second.

Rendering at high rates

The higher the rendering rate, the harder it is to sustain that frame rate, simply because there is less time available for the same amount of work. To render at 90Hz, applications only have 11.1ms to produce a frame as opposed to 16.6ms at 60Hz.

To demonstrate that, let’s take a look at the Android UI rendering pipeline. We can break frame rendering into roughly five pipeline stages:

Application’s UI thread processes input events, calls app’s callbacks, and updates the View hierarchy’s list of recorded drawing commands

Application’s RenderThread issues the recorded commands to the GPU

GPU draws the frame

SurfaceFlinger, which is the system service in charge of displaying the different application windows on the screen, composes the screen and submits the frame to the display HAL

Display presents the frame

The entire pipeline is controlled by the Android Choreographer. The Choreographer is based on the display vertical synchronization (vsync) events, which indicate the time the display starts to scanout the image and update the display pixels. The Choreographer is based on the vsync events but has different wakeup offsets for the application and for SurfaceFlinger. The diagram below illustrates the pipeline on a Pixel 4 device running at 60Hz, where the application is woken up 2ms after the vsync event and SurfaceFlinger is woken up 6ms after the vsync event. This gives 20ms for an app to produce a frame, and 10ms for SurfaceFlinger to compose the screen.