What is VSync, and when should you use it?

Everything you need to know about VSync technology

VSync was the original syncing technology for GPUs, video games, and monitors. Despite new options like G-Sync or FreeSync, VSync remains an important 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 syncs up the frame rate of a game and the refresh rate of a gaming monitor.

VSync was first developed by GPU manufacturers as a way to deal with screen tearing. Screen tearing occurs when two different “screens” of an image crash into each other because the game FPS (frames per second) is delivering information that the monitor’s refresh rate can’t keep up with. The results are glitchy images where objects appear fragmented, or part of the screen looks dislocated — annoying stuff. This happens most often in advanced games with 60 FPS or beyond, paired with monitors that don’t really go beyond a 60Hz refresh rate, although it can happen with much higher refresh rates if you are playing a particularly demanding game or are making things more complicated via overclocking, etc.

VSync comes along and gets everyone on the same page by imposing a strict cap on how high the game’s FPS can go. It says, “Hey, this looks like a 60Hz monitor that’s struggling to keep up, so you’re not going to go above 60 FPS, all right? Now sync up your refresh rate and image data.” The result is a smoother gaming experience that no longer struggles with screen tearing  — at least, that’s the goal.

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, or anything that something like HDR can do. It’s a preventative technology that’s focused on preventing a specific problem rather than making improvements.

What do I need to enable VSync technology?

You do not need a particular monitor to use VSync. It’s designed to work with all kinds of monitors. You need a graphics card that supports it, but this won’t be an issue for most gaming monitors, even older models: VSync has been around for a number of years, and both Nvidia and AMD have options to enable the setting. As long as you have an Nvidia or AMD GPU that’s not a decade old, you should be able to use VSync.

However, games don’t necessary have VSync options automatically enabled. You will also want to go into the game’s settings and make sure that syncing options are turned on: It’s not guaranteed this will make a big difference, but it’s good to check and make sure. The most popular games all have options for it, including Fortnite, GTA V, Minecraft, Overwatch, and so on.

Does VSync have any problems?

It can. For example, if a monitor and a game are really having trouble syncing up, then V-Sync may push FPS even further, down to 30 FPS for example. This happens when game FPS suddenly varies due to processing issues and similar causes. When FPS gets lower than the game is designed to play, you will start noticing input lags and stuttering. Input lags are, of course, especially annoying on games that require fast reflexes and complex inputs (shooters and fighting games in particular).

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 V-Sync and FastSync?

Acer Predator XB3 Gaming Monitor review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Here’s where things get a little more complicated. GPU companies were well aware of VSync’s potential problems when it was first released years ago — 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 a 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 to always 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 advanced VSync, and like AdaptiveSync it disables VSync when the frame rate drops below a monitor’s refresh rate to prevent related problems.

Is V-Sync better than G-Sync or FreeSync?

Alienware AW341BDW Utrawide Gaming Monitor
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Now we come to the latest forms of screen tearing prevention: G-Sync and FreeSync. G-Sync, from Nvidia, and FreeSync, from AMD, are GPU technologies that carefully synchronize refresh rates and other image data directly with your graphics card to help provide a smoother, sharper image without the potential issues of VSync. Think of them like VSync’s ultimate form — and definitely worth enabling.

The trick is that you need both a graphics card with G-Sync or FreeSync on it, and a monitor that supports that syncing technology. These days you can find plenty of excellent monitors that have G-Sync or FreeSync compatibility, but very few that have both, since they are proprietary and competing technologies. That means you have to make sure you are getting a monitor that matches your GPU technology, and vice-versa.

VSync, on the other hand, works better with older monitors that don’t have G-Sync or FreeSync, but still need to handle games as smoothly as possible. It’s also a good fallback if your GPU is a little limited for now but you’re still saving up for an upgrade and can use VSync until then.

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