VSync was the original syncing technology for GPUs, video games, and monitors. Despite new options like G-Sync or FreeSync, VSync remains an essential option for many gamers. But what does it do, and is it still worth using?
Let’s dig deep into what VSync is and why it matters.
What is VSync technology?
VSync, or vertical sync, is a graphics technology that synchronizes the frame rate of a game and the refresh rate of a gaming monitor. First developed by GPU manufacturers, this tech was a way to deal with screen tearing, which is when your screen displays portions of multiple frames in one go. That can result in something like the image above, where the display appears split along a line, usually horizontally. Tearing occurs when the refresh rate of the monitor (how many times it updates per second) is not in sync with the frames per second.
Screen tearing can occur at any time, though it is most prevalent during fast motion and particularly when a game is running at a higher frame rate than the monitor can handle or where the frame rate changes dramatically, and the monitor cannot keep up. It is particularly noticeable during fast-paced games with vertical image elements, such as trees, entrances, or buildings. When this happens, those lines will quite clearly not line up correctly, which can break immersion and make a beautiful game look rather ugly.
VSync does a few things to help alleviate this. First, it limits the frame rate output by the graphics card to the refresh rate of the monitor (60Hz, unless you have a high-refresh-rate monitor), making it easier to avoid higher FPS than the monitor can handle.
It does this by preventing the GPU from doing anything to the display memory until the monitor has concluded its current refresh cycle — effectively not feeding it any more information until it’s ready for it. Through a combination of double buffering and page flipping, VSync synchronizes the drawing of frames onto the display only when it has finished a refresh cycle, so you shouldn’t ever see tears when VSync is enabled.
Does it make a big difference?
VSync only helps with screen tearing, and it only really does that through limiting FPS when necessary. If your monitor can’t keep up with the FPS of a particular game, then VSync can make a big difference.
However, VSync cannot improve your resolution, or your colors or your brightness levels, like HDR. It’s a preventative technology that’s focused on stopping a specific problem rather than making improvements. It also tends to harm performance.
By forcing frames to be entirely rendered before being displayed, your FPS can suffer, and at best, your frame rate is limited to the refresh rate of your display. In the case of some games where higher FPS can lead to reduced input lag, it can also affect your competitive performance.
What do I need to enable VSync technology?
You don’t need a particular monitor to use VSync — it’s designed to work with all kinds of displays. You need a graphics card that supports it, but most recent generations support it throughout the product lineup. VSync has been around for many years, and both Nvidia and AMD have options to enable the setting in their drivers for all games.
However, if you’d prefer to do it on an individual game basis, most games offer it as a toggle option in their graphics settings menu.
Does VSync have any problems?
VSync is far from a perfect solution and can negatively affect your gaming experience, even if it is useful and working as intended. If a monitor and a game are having trouble syncing up, then VSync can lower your frame rate significantly to try to find a point where they can. That can lead to input lag and stuttering increases, which further worsens the gaming experience. Screen tearing is most noticeable in fast-paced games like shooters and fighters, but it can affect all sorts of games, regardless of genre.
That’s why, if you’re particularly serious about these types of games, enabling VSync might not be worth it. There is another setting called triple buffering that can help reduce some of VSync’s problems, but this doesn’t come with any guarantees.
What are Adaptive VSync and FastSync?
Here’s where things get a little more complicated. GPU companies were well aware of VSync’s potential problems when it was first released, and they’ve been trying to make improved versions ever since. That’s why, when you go into your GPU control panel, you may see different syncing options. More advanced forms of VSync include:
AdaptiveSync: This is an Nvidia improvement that watches the monitor’s max refresh rate. If the FPS of the game is equal or higher to the refresh, VSync is enabled. If the FPS falls below, it’s disabled, thus preventing some input lag issues from arising.
FastSync: FastSync is a more advanced form of Enhanced Sync from Nvidia that enables VSync when necessary and adds in automatic triple buffering to try always to pick the best frame data possible. It takes a lot of power to use but helps fix a lot of VSync issues as well.
Enhanced Sync: Enhanced Sync is AMD’s version of AdvancedSync. It disables VSync when the frame rate drops below a monitor’s refresh rate to prevent related problems.
Is VSync better than G-Sync or FreeSync?
To improve upon synchronization technologies, Nvidia developed G-Sync and AMD developed FreeSync. They are both GPU technologies that carefully synchronize refresh rates and other image data directly with your graphics card’s frame rate to help provide a smoother, sharper image without the potential issues of VSync. Think of them like VSync’s ultimate form — and worth enabling if you have them.
The one caveat is that you’ll need to find a monitor and a graphics card that’s capable of running the technology. These days you can find plenty of excellent monitors that have G-Sync or FreeSync compatibility. Some support both in a limited guise, but since they’re competing technologies, you’ll typically find monitors use one or the other. So, you’ll be matching your GPU technology with your monitor—but as long as you look at the technical specs, that shouldn’t be too tricky.
While VSync isn’t a lousy alternative, both Freesync and G-Sync are the more attractive options, and if you can, stick with those first.