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G-Sync vs. FreeSync: Adaptive sync gaming monitors explained

Two rival technologies promise to rid games of stuttering and tearing.

asus swift 4k monitor
IDG

Once you’ve used a variable refresh rate monitor, you can’t go back. AMD’s FreeSync and Nvidia’s G-Sync technology promise PC gamers a buttery-smooth experience free of stuttering, screen tearing, or V-Sync-like input lag. But both ecosystems have their perks—and their downsides.

Now that adaptive sync monitors have several years of maturation under their belts, it’s time to take stock of FreeSync vs. G-Sync yet again. Here’s everything you need to know about AMD and Nvidia’s gaming displays.

What is adaptive sync, or variable refresh rate?

Before we dive into the differences between FreeSync and G-Sync, let’s take a quick look at the adaptive sync, or variable refresh rate, technology underneath both.

Your graphics card pushes images to your monitor as fast as it can, but traditional monitors refresh their image at a set rate—a 60Hz monitor, say, refreshes every 1/60th of a second. When your graphics card delivers frames outside of that schedule, your monitor shows a portion of one frame and the next frame onscreen simultaneously, resulting in the dreaded screen tearing. It looks as if the picture is trying to split itself in two and take off in different directions, and it only worsens the more dynamic your game’s frame rate becomes. It’s ugly. Damned ugly.

amd freesync AMD

Screen tearing is gross. FreeSync and G-Sync eliminate it.

The VSync setting for your graphics card helps but introduces some negatives of its own: stuttering and sluggish input lag, as the technology tells your graphics card to wait on a new frame until the monitor is ready for it.

FreeSync and G-Sync eradicate all those problems by synchronizing the refresh rate of your monitor with the refresh rate of your graphics card (up to the monitor’s maximum refresh rate). When your video card pushes out a new frame, the adaptive sync monitor displays it—simple as that. If your graphics card is generating 52 frames a second, your monitor refreshes at 52Hz. The end result? Wonderfully smooth gameplay.

FreeSync vs. G-Sync: Implementation

AMD and Nvidia take two very different approaches to adaptive sync technology.

FreeSync piggybacks atop the VESA Adaptive-Sync standard, which is part of DisplayPort 1.2a. It’s compatible with off-the-shelf display scalers that monitor makers can use, and AMD doesn’t charge royalties or licensing costs. There is little extra cost to include FreeSync in a monitor. Because of that openness, you’ll find FreeSync available in a wide range of monitors, from affordable entry-level displays all the way up to premium gaming hardware.

gsync monitor Nvidia

G-Sync monitors rely on a proprietary hardware module from Nvidia.

G-Sync requirements are much stricter. The technology requires display makers to use a proprietary hardware module and Nvidia keeps a firm grip on quality control, working with manufacturers on everything from initial panel selection to display development to final certification.

That’s a decent amount of added cost, and G-Sync monitors tend to start at higher prices as it’s considered a premium add-on for premium gaming displays. You won’t often find G-Sync monitors paired with budget or mainstream gaming PCs as a result—though you’ll always know what you’re getting with G-Sync.

AMD FreeSync advantages and disadvantages

FreeSync’s main advantage is its openness and low cost of implementation.

The modest barrier of entry means you’ll find AMD’s adaptive sync tech in monitors as affordable as $130, which means that even gamers on a strict budget can enjoy FreeSync’s perks. G-Sync can’t compare. The cheapest G-Sync monitor currently on Newegg is the 24-inch AOC G2460PG, on sale for $350, and the vast majority of G-Sync displays cost well north of $500. Newegg’s FreeSync listings include 84 different monitors under $500.

Being actually affordable is one hell of an advantage for AMD. Normal people can actually buy these things.

freesync monitors Brad Chacos/IDG

Screenshot of Newegg’s AMD FreeSync monitor listings.

FreeSync’s openness has helped it spread far and wide. There are more than three times as many FreeSync monitors on Newegg as G-Sync panels. (Nvidia tells me there are more than 120 G-Sync displays and laptops available, though.)

FreeSync’s openness does have some drawbacks. Shopping for a FreeSync monitor is a pain in the ass compared to buying a G-Sync display. FreeSync monitors only support adaptive sync within a specified frame-rate range: 48Hz to 75Hz in the case of many low-cost models, for example. Every monitor supports a different range, and some are actually pretty restrictive. Fortunately you can peruse them all on AMD’s website, in the “monitors” section of the table at the bottom.

freesync ranges Brad Chacos/IDG

AMD’s FreeSync page lets you check the supported adaptive sync refresh-rate ranges and whether FreeSync works over DisplayPort or HDMI.

The loose standards mean you’ll also need to keep a close eye on the monitor’s features. For example, AMD introduced a feature called Low Framerate Compensation (LFC) to FreeSync that improves how FreeSync monitors behave beneath their minimum supported refresh rate (48Hz, in the prior example). Monitors with LFC duplicate frames when refresh rates are below the FreeSync minimum, enabling the refresh rate to enter the FreeSync range. If your graphics card is pumping out 30 frames per second, LFC duplicates the frames and runs the display at 60Hz, keeping things smooth. It’s great!

It’s also not mandatory, and largely found in pricier panels. Without LFC, moving into and out of FreeSync range is jarring, as you’ll go from silky-smooth gameplay one second to stuttering or screen-tearing the next. Again: You need to do some research to get the best possible FreeSync experience.

radeon rx vega 64 ports Gordon Mah Ung/IDG

Some monitors let you use HDMI connections for FreeSync, rather than the usual DisplayPort requirement.

Another FreeSync advantage is connectivity. The use of a standard display scaler means FreeSync monitors tend to have a full selection of ports. G-Sync displays are largely limited to DisplayPort and HDMI only. And while both FreeSync and G-Sync originally worked over DisplayPort alone, AMD has introduced FreeSync over HDMI, which helps bring the technology to even more monitors. It adds to FreeSync’s versatility, but it’s another variable to consider before you buy. (AMD’s website lists display compatibility on the same chart as the aforementioned FreeSync ranges.)

Next page: Nvidia G-Sync, graphics cards, HDR, and more

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