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FreeSync vs G-Sync revisited: FreeSync 2 is coming

Who needs display tone mapping, anyway?

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This didn’t go too well for AMD’s FreeSync technology last time around. But lo, a shiny new version of FreeSync is inbound. Give it up for FreeSync 2: This Time It Actually Works. OK, that’s a little unfair. But hold onto your mechanical keyboards, folks, because FreeSync 2 is as much about streamlining the PC for HDR support (and indeed making AMD your weapon of choice for HDR gaming) as it is syncing your graphics card and your monitor nicely. Confused? You aren’t the only one…

Since my last missive on FreeSync, it seems the worst flaws have been polished out of the existing implementation with the latest monitors. I was recently twiddling with the new LG 38UC99. It’s a 38 inch 21:9 monster with a 3,840 by 1,600 native res. But that’s by the by. It also supports FreeSync and it didn’t have any of that ghastly ghosting when FreeSync is enabled.

My understanding, as I’ve mentioned previously, is that with some early panels FreeSync didn’t play nicely with the built-in image processing. More specifically, some monitors had to disable response-boosting pixel overdrive in order to enable FreeSync. Not good.

Actually, it’s a bit of a deal breaker. You can argue the toss whether rendering smoothness is more important than pixel response. But not being able to have both at the same time makes that kind of flawed FreeSync implementation pretty pointless.

Anywho, I’ve had my finger off the FreeSync pulse for a while, so all this isn’t exactly news. But it’s nevertheless welcome to know that FreeSync’s most obvious flaw was more of an early-adoption stumble than an insurmountable hurdle.

All that said, purely in terms of the experience I’d still lean toward Nvidia’s alternative G-Sync. Subjectively, it has always seemed more polished, reliable and effective. The downside, of course, is the cost. G-Sync involves dedicated hardware inside the monitor and it’s pricey.

Ah, the cool green glow of proprietary profits!

It also locks you into Nvidia GPUs which is thoroughly off putting. Not for any specifically anti-Nvidia reasons, but instead because monitors tend to be the longest-serving of all components for a lot of PC enthusiasts and gamers and the prospect of being boxed in on your GPU choice when the time comes to upgrade isn’t remotely appealing.

The same problem has applied to FreeSync, of course, and AMD hardware. It’s just FreeSync doesn’t noticeably increase the price of a monitor and often wasn’t terribly well implemented, making the lock-in somewhat academic.

At least that has been the case. Enter FreeSync 2, a second-generation effort that looks set to be technically much more wide ranging. The most significant new feature is a bespoke transport solution for getting an HDR signal from your PC to the monitor (HDR or high dynamic range in the context of displays being something I’ve covered here).

HDR is a complicated technology in many ways and that extends to the fact that it’s far from obvious to the average punter what’s required to achieve it on the PC. FreeSync 2 is having a stab at becoming the default HDR hardware standard for the PC, the idea being if you have a FreeSync 2 monitor and a FreeSync 2 video card, then you are HDR ready. Well, on the hardware side, at least.

Transport stream plus display tone mapping = input lag.

The details involve a bespoke display pipeline to compensate for Window’s currently patchy support for HDR (it’s been reported that a fix for that particular problem will arrive with the upcoming Windows 10 Creators edition), plus – and this could be the really critical bit – measures to reduce lag on the monitor side of the equation. Latency is apparently an issue for the image processors in HDR displays when performing internal HDR tone mapping. This isn’t something I’ve experienced (the lag, that is). But then when I tried an HDR TV for PC gaming recently, it wasn’t actually running in HDR mode. Whatever, FreeSync’s big trick is to streamline the whole process and remove the need for internal HDR tone mapping in the display, neatly sidestepping that lag problem.

Overall, it strikes me as a fairly smart move, what with HDR now dominating the high-end HDTV market and also driving into the console gaming market. If AMD can wangle its way to being seen as the default choice for achieving painless HDR, it could be something of a marketing coup.

What I’m less wild about is the prospect of an HDR war between Nvidia and AMD. AMD says that all existing FreeSync 1 compatible cards will also support FreeSync 2, which is good news. What I don’t detect is any indication that FreeSync 2 will be anything other than exclusive to AMD graphics cards. In fact, quite the opposite, there’s even some talk of AMD charging royalties, which is moving things in completely the wrong direction if true.

Far better for us gamers would be for AMD and Nvidia to get together and agree on a joint HDR standard for the PC. In the end, beating each other over the head with proprietary HDR tech is likely to be a zero-sum endeavour. They’ll both have it. Hardly anybody will really understand who has the better solution. It won’t be a driving factor for purchases. So they may as well do the right thing for the consumer and adopt a cross-compatible solution. But that’s not going to happen, is it?

A UHD HDR TV as gaming monitor? That’s a story for another day…

Whatever does unfold, bundling all this HDR stuff under the FreeSync brand seems a bit odd. But AMD is also tightening up requirements on the actual frame syncing side of things. Currently, monitors can be sold as FreeSync capable without actually fully supporting FreeSync. Cheaper panels with narrow refresh rate ranges don’t support the Low Framerate Compensation feature, for instance.

FreeSync 2 will make that a requirement. It’ll also make low latency a requirement for any panel, regardless of what mode it’s running in, though it’s not yet clear just what will qualify as low latency for FreeSync 2’s purposes.

Generally, while it all sounds fairly promising I’m slightly uncomfortable about how things are going to shake out in terms of standards and compatibility. HDR feels like a recipe for finding yourself stuck down a hardware dead end having spent to much money to reverse out. I’d so much rather see open standards than proprietary solutions given that all displays (and probably games, too) are likely to be HDR in the not to distant future.

Still, FreeSync 2 is expected to roll out later this year. So there isn’t long to wait find out what it’s really like.

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Jeremy Laird


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