What is VSync, and when should you use it?

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 with a gaming monitor’s refresh rate. 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 monitor’s refresh rate (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, particularly when a game runs at a higher frame rate than the monitor can handle or when the frame rate changes dramatically and the monitor can’t 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 monitor’s refresh rate (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 by 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, colors, or 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 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 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. Another setting called triple buffering can help reduce some of VSync’s problems, but this doesn’t come with any guarantees.

What are Adaptive VSync and Fast Sync?

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, 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:

  • Adaptive VSync: This is an Nvidia improvement that watches the monitor’s max refresh rate. If the FPS of the game is equal to or higher than the refresh, VSync is enabled. If the FPS falls below, it’s disabled, thus preventing some input lag issues from arising.
  • Fast Sync: Fast Sync is a more advanced form of Adaptive VSync from Nvidia that enables VSync when necessary and adds in automatic triple buffering 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 Fast Sync. 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?

Alienware AW341BDW Utrawide Gaming Monitor
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync aim to improve on VSync abilities. Both GPU technologies work to sync refresh rates and data with your GPU’s frame rate. The companies wanted to end problems with VSync, particularly image precision and uniformity, and tears. Essentially, G-Sync and FreeSync are more effective versions of the VSync software. If they are available to you, we suggest trying them out.

However, these technologies are compatible with your graphics card and monitor. Most monitors have G-Sync or FreeSync, but there’s minimal support. Since they are competing software, you’ll have difficulty finding a monitor that uses both. In the end, you will likely have to attempt to match your monitor’s capabilities to your GPUs. As long as you understand both units’ technical specs before purchasing, this is relatively easy to accomplish.

G-Sync and FreeSync provide quality features. While VSync works, it gives the minimum features.

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