What Is Vsync (or Vertical Sync) and How Does It Impact Games?

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What Is Vsync (or Vertical Sync) and How Does It Impact Games?

Modern video games have a bewildering choice of visual options. The majority of these improve speed or graphical quality. Vertical Sync, often known as VSync, is a little more sophisticated.

VSync has little effect on graphics quality on its own, however activating it avoids unsightly screen tearing. While this may seem to be a no-brainer, it may also reduce frame rate and increase input latency, both of which are the banes of competitive gaming.

Are you unsure how to handle this enigmatic graphical setting? Let’s investigate what makes VSync tick.

What Is VSync?

VSync is a method of synchronizing the frame rate of a video game with the refresh rate of the monitor on which it is shown. Vertical Sync was created by graphics card manufacturers to remove a visual artifact known as screen tearing. It appears as a horizontal split in the exhibited frame, with one half lagging behind the other.

vsync-screen-tearing
Image Credit: AMD

While this may seem to be a break in the time-space continuum, it is merely your GPU churning out frames quicker than your monitor’s maximum refresh rate. You may see two or more GPU frames spliced horizontally during a single monitor refresh depending on how much your GPU’s frame rate exceeds your display’s refresh rate.

VSync minimizes screen tearing by restricting the GPU frame rate to the refresh rate of the display. However, this is insufficient to avoid screen tearing. The option also causes the GPU-rendered frames to be presented in tandem with the monitor’s refresh cycle.

Eliminating screen tearing requires preventing sections of several frames from being shown at the same time. VSync does this by prohibiting the GPU from generating additional frames in the midst of the monitor’s refresh cycle.

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VSync Creates More Problems Than It Solves

While VSync is a sure solution for screen tearing, it degrades performance and responsiveness. To see why, consider the two primary roles of VSync. First, it reduces the GPU frame rate to match the refresh rate of the display. Second, it synchronizes GPU frame pacing to match the refresh rate of the display.

Isn’t it interesting how both VSync techniques entail slowing down the GPU output to match the static display refresh rate? That is a significant point. While the display refreshes at regular intervals, the GPU generates frames at a pace inversely proportionate to the complexity of the in-game scenario being produced.

Forcing the GPU to match its frame rate to the refresh rate of the display stops it from sending the most recent frame to the monitor. Input lag, as described by gamers, is the perception of material shown on the monitor trailing behind their real controller inputs. This input latency is most noticeable in fast-paced FPS games, when the crosshair lags behind your real mouse inputs.

As if latency wasn’t terrible enough, VSync may further degrade overall GPU performance by drastically lowering frame rate. This is due to its proclivity to restrict GPU frame rate to monitor refresh rate. While this is acceptable while your GPU frame rate exceeds the display refresh rate, it becomes problematic when the frame rate falls below the refresh rate barrier.

A sophisticated scenario, for example, that pushes the maximum GPU frame rate to 59 fps will not show at 59 fps on a monitor with a refresh rate of 60Hz. The 16.67-millisecond synchronization time needed by VSync for a 60Hz monitor reduces the actual visible frame rate from 59 to 45 frames per second.

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To make things worse, GPU performance (and hence frame rate) changes greatly throughout a video game. In such instances, VSync causes certain frames to be shown on the screen for a longer period of time than others. The viewer perceives this as stuttering or uneven frame pace.

What Are Adaptive VSync and Fast Sync?

Fortunately, AMD and NVIDIA were aware of VSync’s shortcomings. Both GPU manufacturers have offered improved VSync versions that address the aforementioned concerns. These variables may be accessed through in-game settings or, most typically, via the GPU driver control suite.

Adaptive VSync

NVIDIA’s Adaptive VSync removes all input latency and performance concerns caused by the GPU failing to keep up with the refresh rate of the display. This VSync solution is only active as long as the GPU can match the refresh rate requirement of the display. When VSync becomes unusable, Adaptive Sync automatically disables it. This strikes a happy medium between video game performance and screen tearing reduction.

Fast Sync

NVIDIA’s Fast Sync adds the magic of triple buffering to Adaptive VSync. In its most basic form, triple buffering entails the GPU producing one extra frame. While waiting for the display to refresh, it might choose the more recent of the two rendered frames to send to the monitor. The goal is to eliminate input latency by showing the most recent frame, however this demands a significant amount of GPU resources.

Enhanced Sync

AMD-specific Enhanced Sync, like NVIDIA’s Adaptive VSync products, may turn off VSync when the GPU falls behind the display refresh rate. It uses repeated buffering, similar to NVIDIA’s Fast Sync, to eliminate input latency by sending the most recent frame to the display.

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Going Beyond VSync

We’ve discussed how VSync prevents screen tearing and the drawbacks of using it. While NVIDIA and AMD have launched more complex versions of VSync that address these concerns, G-Sync and FreeSync technologies take a whole different approach.

This, however, necessitates the use of compatible monitors, connections, and graphics cards. Switching VSync on or off is a question of selecting where your priorities lay for people without sophisticated gear. VSync works well if your GPU is strong enough to match the monitor’s refresh rate. If you don’t like input latency, you’re better off without it.

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