ProMotion on the MacBook Pro: Is It Really a Big Deal?

Faster is always better; except when slower is better

Key Takeaways

  • ProMotion lets the MacBook Pro vary its screen’s refresh rate from 24Hz up to 120Hz.
  • Lower refresh rates use significantly less battery power. 
  • 24Hz is the perfect speed to match movie frame rates.
Apple MacBook Pro computer.

Apple

The MacBook Pro's display can now refresh itself twice as fast, thrumming along at 120Hz. But isn't that stuff just for gamers? 

ProMotion is a huge deal for the Mac. It makes everything smoother, saves battery power, and even makes old movies look better. But without a touch screen or Apple Pencil, is it as necessary on the Mac as on the iPad and iPhone?

"Today, the majority of displays refresh 60 times per second (60Hz), regardless of what's on the screen—a video game, a movie, or a text document. The ProMotion technology in the new MacBooks Pro adapts the refresh rate to match what's on the screen," Serg Krivoblotsky, technological R&D lead at software developer MacPaw, told Lifewire via direct message.

"When you are reading a text document, your laptop doesn't need to refresh the display 60 times per second. In this case, the new MacBook Pro will decrease the refresh rate. As a result, the lower refresh rate will increase the battery life, and it will all happen invisibly for the user."

ProMotion Pros

Most regular computer displays refresh themselves at 60 times per second. 120Hz displays also have been around for a while, and Windows PCs can switch between these two extremes (60 and 120Hz). What’s different about Apple’s ProMotion technology is that the refresh rate can be varied.

"The fact that the display can dynamically lower its refresh rate according to how much movement there is on screen leads to massive savings in battery."

This lets you run it at full speed to get smoother scrolling and a generally more responsive interface. The iPad Pro feels great at 120Hz because the screen animations are better able to track your finger movements. It’s even more critical with the Apple Pencil because it feels more responsive.

But you don’t always want to refresh the screen at the full rate. If nothing is moving, it’s a waste of energy. So, Mac’s ProMotion screen can vary the rate from 120Hz, right down to 24Hz. If nothing is moving on the screen, like when you’re reading a web page, then the display will tick along at its lowest rate. 

And, importantly for video professionals, you can also opt to lock in a preferred refresh rate. 

Battery Life

Every screen refresh uses energy. So on a battery-powered device, ProMotion can make a significant difference to battery life. We saw this most clearly on the iPhones 13. The 13 Pro has a slightly smaller battery than the iPhone 13, but scores three hours more battery life when watching videos—thanks to ProMotion: 22 hours vs 19 hours. 

That's quite a difference.

A picture of a MacBook Pro sitting on a table in a cafe.

Adeolu Eletu / Unsplash

"The lower end of the refresh rate is just as important as the higher ends. The fact that the display can dynamically lower its refresh rate according to how much movement there is on screen leads to massive savings in battery," technology writer Patrick Sinclair told Lifewire via email.

The Anti Soap-Opera Mode

Why does Mac’s ProMotion bottom out at such an odd rate as 24Hz? Why not 10 or 20? Movies, that’s why—most likely. In battery-life terms, slower is better. The iPhone 13’s ProMotion screen can manage 10Hz, while the Apple Watch almost goes into suspended animation at just 1Hz, which is how the watch manages to keep its display powered up all day long. 

But if you can’t or don’t need to reach those low rates, then aiming for 24Hz is a great goal. Film movies run at 24 frames per second, which means that the screen refresh perfectly matches it. There’s no need for interpolation (making up in-between frames for smoother animation) or any of the extra processing power that may require. And 24 is a factor of 120, which may also help efficiency—it’s precisely one-fifth the maximum rate of 120Hz.

The Future of ProMotion

There are other uses for ProMotion, too, especially when combined with the localized dimming possible with mini-LED backlights (like on the new MacBook Pros) or OLED displays. It's possible to just light up a small section of the screen, for example, to show a notification while sleeping. Or the screen could run at 120Hz for maximum responsiveness while running a window containing video at just 24fps. 

"When you are reading a text document, your laptop doesn't need to refresh the display 60 times per second."

And ProMotion is also better for accessibility.

"Mini LED displays are amazing for VoiceOver users," writes blind computer science student Mikolaj Holysz on Twitter. "They use significantly less power when the screen curtain is on. Same for ProMotion, if it's implemented correctly, the refresh rate will be lowered dramatically, which also helps with battery life." 

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