FreeSync and G-Sync explained

Adaptive sync display technologies from Nvidia and AMD have been around for a few years and have enjoyed great popularity with gamers thanks to a generous selection of monitors with numerous options and a variety of budgets.

About 5 years ago we closely tracked and tested AMD FreeSync and Nvidia G-Sync, as well as numerous monitors that package both. The two features used to be quite different, but after some updates and renaming, things have kept the two in sync pretty well today. Here’s an update on everything you should know as of 2021.

The Skinny on Adaptive Sync

FreeSync and G-Sync are examples of adaptive synchronization or variable refresh rate for monitors. VRR prevents stuttering and screen tearing by adjusting the refresh rate of the monitor to the frame rate of the screen content.

Usually, you can only use V-Sync to match the frame rates with the refresh rates of your monitor. However, doing so creates input delay issues and can throttle performance. This is where solutions with variable refresh rates such as FreeSync and G-Sync come into play.

FreeSync monitors use the VESA Adaptive-Sync standard, and modern GPUs from Nvidia and AMD support FreeSync monitors.

FreeSync Premium monitors offer a few other features such as higher refresh rates (120 Hz or more at resolutions of 1080p or higher) and low frame rate compensation (LFC). FreeSync Premium Pro adds HDR support to this list.

G-Sync uses a proprietary Nvidia module instead of the usual display scaler and offers some additional functions such as ULMB (Ultra Low Motion Blur) and LFC (Low Framerate Compensation). Therefore, only Nvidia GPUs can use G-Sync monitors.

In early 2019, after Nvidia started supporting FreeSync monitors, the G-Sync certified monitors were expanded by a few tiers. For example, G-Sync Ultimate monitors have an HDR module and the promise of a higher nits rating, while regular G-Sync monitors only have adaptive sync. There are also G-Sync compatible monitors available, which are FreeSync monitors that Nvidia has deemed “worthy” to meet their G-Sync standards.

The basic goal of G-Sync and FreeSync is to reduce screen tearing through adaptive sync or variable refresh rate. Essentially, this feature tells the display to change the monitor’s refresh rate based on the frame rate output by the GPU. By matching these two rates, the gross-looking artifact known as a screen crack is reduced.

The improvement is quite noticeable, giving low frame rates a smoothness on the order of 60 FPS. At higher frame rates, the adaptive sync benefit is diminished, although the technology continues to help remove screen tears and stuttering caused by frame rate fluctuations.

Taking the differences apart

While the benefit of variable refresh rates is more or less the same between the two standards, outside of that single function they have some differences.

One advantage of G-Sync is that the monitor overdrive is continuously optimized during operation in order to avoid ghosting. Every G-Sync monitor is equipped with LFC (Low Framerate Compensation), which ensures that even when the frame rate drops, there are no ugly jerks or image quality problems. This feature is available on FreeSync Premium and Premium Pro monitors, but not always on monitors with standard FreeSync.

LFC works when the frame rate drops below the frame’s refresh rate, typically 30 frames per second. In this case, the refresh rate doubles the frame rate, so that the monitor works at 25 fps with 50 Hz. This helps improve smoothness even at low frame rates.

In addition, G-Sync includes a feature called ULMB (Ultra Low Motion Blur) that flashes the backlight in sync with the display’s refresh rate to reduce motion blur and improve clarity in high-motion situations. The function works at high fixed frame rates, usually at or above 85 Hz, although it is equipped with a slight reduction in brightness. However, this function cannot be used in conjunction with G-Sync.

That means users have to choose between variable refresh rates with no stuttering and tearing or high clarity and low motion blur. We expect most people to use G-Sync for smoothness, while sports enthusiasts prefer ULMB for its responsiveness and clarity at the expense of the rip.

Blur reduction represented by Blur busters

Because FreeSync uses standard display scalers, the compatible monitors often offer many more connectivity options than their G-Sync counterparts, including multiple HDMI ports and older ports like DVI. However, this doesn’t always mean that adaptive synchronization will work across all of these ports. Instead, AMD has a self-explanatory feature called FreeSync over HDMI. This means that, unlike G-Sync, FreeSync enables variable frame rates via HDMI cables from version 1.4.

However, the HDMI and DisplayPort conversation takes a slightly different turn when you start discussing televisions, however, as some G-Sync compatible TVs can also take advantage of this feature over an HDMI cable.

The main reason you’d want FreeSync over HDMI is because HDMI cables are usually cheaper than DisplayPort, and HDMI is more widely supported on other devices like laptops.

In addition, FreeSync Premium and FreeSync Premium Pro (formerly known as FreeSync 2) have higher standards and features when compared to standard FreeSync. While there are many affordable monitors with average quality available with FreeSync, those with FreeSync Premium Pro are expected to be of higher quality, like G-Sync Ultimate monitors.

Beyond monitors

FreeSync and G-Sync are also available on laptops and televisions. You can find LG OLED TVs with G-Sync compatibility, while Samsung has some models with FreeSync support. To take advantage of these features, all you have to do is map them to a supported GPU and turn the TV into Game mode.

Samsung TVs with FreeSync even support variable update rates and improved visual quality with the Xbox One X and S as well as the Xbox Series X and S. Currently, the PlayStation 5 does not support FreeSync, but does support variable update rates via HDMI, so the feature should will be updated in the future.

There are also laptops with screens that support G-Sync and FreeSync so you can play tear-free while on the go.

How to enable FreeSync

To use FreeSync, you need a FreeSync-compatible display and one of the following: an AMD graphics card or APU 2012 or later, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 10 series or better graphics card (you must use a DisplayPort cable), an Xbox One S or X, or an Xbox Series X or S. For FreeSync certified displays, make sure FreeSync is turned on from the monitor’s on-screen display.

With FreeSync TVs, all you need to do is activate Game Mode, usually through the Settings menu.

For AMD Radeon graphics cards or AMD APUs, you can enable FreeSync through the AMD Radeon software on the Display tab of the Settings menu. Some recommend locking your max FPS for a smoother experience. Using this recommendation, you can use Radeon Chill to limit your maximum FPS to about three or five FPS below your monitor’s maximum refresh rate.

For Nvidia graphics cards, you need the latest Nvidia Game Ready drivers. However, support for these displays began with driver version 417.71. After installing the latest drivers, enable FreeSync from the monitor screen. You can then activate variable update rates in the Nvidia system control via the menu item “Set up G-SYNC”.

How to enable G-Sync

To use G-Sync you need a G-Sync certified display and an Nvidia graphics card. The absolutely supported model is the GTX 650 Ti for G-Sync compatible monitors and a GTX 1050 for G-Sync Ultimate.

You will also need a DisplayPort cable: DP 1.2 for G-Sync compatible monitors and DP 1.4 for G-Sync Ultimate monitors.

Install the latest drivers and go to the Nvidia Control Panel. The option “Set up G-SYNC” should be available under Display. Check the box to enable the setting, and that’s it.

How do I check if G-Sync and FreeSync are enabled?

After you’ve enabled your monitor’s variable refresh rate feature, as well as the FreeSync or G-Sync setting, you may be curious to see if it actually works.

Run your favorite games while keeping an eye on image quality and responsiveness. As your game’s frames get too high or too low, there should be fewer screen tearing, stuttering, or entry delays when the setting is properly enabled. Depending on your monitor’s refresh rate window, you may still get some of these artifacts at certain frame rates. In this case, don’t worry.

Another way to check is with the Nvidia pendulum demothat was developed for G-Sync.

In the past it was V-Sync or nothing, and gamers had to choose between high frame rates or image quality. Thanks to the work of AMD and Nvidia improving picture standards, gamers can enable variable frame rates and enjoy high frame rates, great response times and smooth gameplay without any interruptions in picture quality.

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