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G-Sync vs FreeSync vs G-Sync Compatible: What you need to know

Variable refresh rate techs explained

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Take a look at any of our best gaming monitor recommendations and you’ll find almost all of them have support for either AMD FreeSync or Nvidia’s G-Sync variable refresh rate technology. But what exactly is G-Sync and FreeSync and why are they so important for gaming? Well, I’m here to answer all your burning G-Sync FreeSync questions. Below you’ll find out what each one does, how they’re different, and which one is best for your monitor. I’ll also be talking about where Nvidia’s new G-Sync Compatible standard fits in with all this, as well as what Nvidia and AMD’s G-Sync Ultimate and FreeSync 2 HDR specifications bring to the table as well.

In a nutshell, G-Sync and FreeSync are two different types of adaptive sync technology. They work by synchronizing your graphics card with your monitor’s refresh rate (how many times the screen updates itself per second) so that images always arrive at the monitor at the right time. This helps games feel smoother and helps cut down on things like screen tearing, which is what happens when your monitor can’t refresh itself quickly enough to draw all the frames being pumped out by your graphics card.

They’re a bit like the V-Sync (or vertical sync) options you find in a game’s settings menu, but much, much better. Whereas V-Sync limits your graphics card’s output to the maximum refresh rate of your monitor (say, 60fps for a 60Hz monitor), G-Sync and FreeSync will adjust your monitor’s refresh rate on the fly to match whatever number of frames are being produced by your graphics card at that given moment. Not only does this keep things running smoothly, but it also helps to combat other V-Sync limitations, such as stuttering from forcing it to stay at 60fps all the time, and increased input latency.

That what each one does in a nutshell, but there’s a lot more to each refresh rate technology than simply keeping everything ‘in sync’. Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses and special features, so let’s take a look at what each one does, how they’re different and which one you should consider getting on your next gaming monitor.

What is G-Sync?

G-Sync is Nvidia’s variable refresh rate technology, and (unsurprisingly) requires an Nvidia graphics card in order to work. That’s generally not a problem, given the sheer number of people who own Nvidia graphics cards according to Steam’s regular hardware survey results, but what is slightly problematic is how much Nvidia G-Sync monitors tend to cost.

They’re often a lot more expensive than their FreeSync rivals, as each G-Sync monitor requires its own proprietary G-Sync processing unit, which naturally bumps up the price quite a bit compared to AMD’s royalty-free FreeSync tech that piggy-backs off a monitor’s built-in DisplayPort 1.2 protocols.

It’s a fixed standard, too, and G-Sync monitors have to undergo over 300 compatibility and image quality tests, according to Nvidia, before they can join the G-Sync club. They also support a much wider range of features compared to FreeSync monitors such as:

  • Variable refresh rate support from 1-240Hz (or whatever the monitor’s maximum refresh rate is)
  • Low input lag
  • Ultra Low Motion Blur (ULMB)
  • Factory colour calibration
  • G-Sync support in windowed mode as well as fullscreen

As a result, this is why you often only find G-Sync on higher-end monitors, as it’s simply not cost-effective to include it on cheaper ones. That said, since G-Sync is a fixed standard, you also know exactly what you’re getting whenever you buy a G-Sync enabled display.

G-Sync vs G-Sync Ultimate

G-Sync Ultimate adds HDR support into the mix. You still get everything described above, but every G-Sync Ultimate screen also gets you the following monitor specifications:

  • 4K resolution
  • At least 1000cd/m2 brightness
  • 384 dynamic backlight zones
  • DCI-P3 colour gamut support
  • Ultra low latency

There are currently only a handful of such monitors available at the moment (and are naturally even more expensive than your regular G-Sync monitor), but they encompass both regular desktop monitors, such as the Asus ROG Swift PG27UQ and Acer Predator X27, as well as Nvidia’s BFGD (or Big Format Gaming Display) screens such as the HP Omen X Emperium.

What is FreeSync?

FreeSync, meanwhile, is AMD’s take on the whole variable refresh rate business, and (as mentioned above) is based on the built-in adaptive sync protocol inside a monitor’s DisplayPort connection to deliver its dynamic refresh rates. It’s also been enabled over HDMI since it was first introduced, but it doesn’t require a special processing unit in order to work and there aren’t any licensing fees to include it on a monitor, either.

Unsurprisingly, this means that FreeSync monitors are both a lot cheaper and a lot more common than their G-Sync counterparts. Whereas Nvidia have just over 60 G-Sync desktop displays you can buy today, the range of available FreeSync monitors extends to over 500.

However, while a FreeSync display still needs to be certified by AMD before it can get a FreeSync sticker on the box, the standard isn’t fixed like it is with G-Sync. This means that your FreeSync experience can vary from monitor to monitor, and not all FreeSync monitors come with exactly the same features.

For starters, FreeSync’s variable refresh rate tech only works within a certain frame rate range. Some monitors have support for frame rates as low as 30fps, but most will only kick in if your frame rate is over 40fps, or even 48fps. That means that if your graphics card’s output drops below 30fps, 40fps, 48fps, or whatever the monitor’s lower limit is, FreeSync stops being effective and you don’t get any benefit whatsoever. For the full frame rate range of each FreeSync monitor, have a look at AMD’s website.

You’ll also find that some FreeSync monitors also support something called Low Framerate Compensation or LFC. This improves how a monitor performs below their minimum frame rate threshold by essentially duplicating the number of frames being shown onscreen when the frame rate drops too low, bringing 30fps up to 60fps, for example. However, the monitor in question will need to have this feature built-in, so you may not find it on cheaper FreeSync models.

FreeSync vs FreeSync 2 HDR

In a similar way to G-Sync Ultimate, FreeSync 2 HDR is AMD’s FreeSync + HDR standard. However, while regular FreeSync monitors can be a bit all over the place, FreeSync 2 HDR is, thankfully, a little more defined. Sort of. For instance, as well as variable refresh rate support, AMD says every FreeSync 2 HDR monitor is guaranteed to come with:

  • Low Framerate Compensation
  • Low latency
  • “Support for displaying HDR content”

The last one is still a bit hazy, all told, as AMD are once again using VESA’s multi-tiered DisplayHDR specification as a vague kind of guideline for this. Every FreeSync 2 HDR screen meets the lowest DisplayHDR 400 standard, for example, but you’ll also find FreeSync 2 HDR screens that meet VESA’s DisplayHDR 600 and DisplayHDR 1000 criteria as well. As a result, your FreeSync 2 HDR experience is still a bit of a sliding scale in this respect, as you’ll find some monitors that are much more capable than others even though they’re all meant to be ‘better’ than regular FreeSync monitors.

What is G-Sync Compatible?

G-Sync Compatible is what happens when you realise that everyone’s got an Nvidia graphics card, but hardly anyone is willing to buy a proper G-Sync monitor. In all seriousness, though, Nvidia’s G-Sync Compatible standard is effectively a cut-down version of the full-fat G-Sync specification so that Nvidia graphics card owners can still get a variable refresh rate experience on cheaper AMD FreeSync monitors.

You can technically enable it on any FreeSync screen by downloading Nvidia’s latest driver update, but because everything’s being done at a software level, the variable refresh rate experience you end up getting is highly dependant on the monitor in question. Some monitors can handle it without issue, but others can be disastrous, showing signs of blanking, pulsing, flickering and other nasty-looking artefacts when playing games. Indeed, out of the 500 or so monitors Nvidia have tested so far, at least 200 have fallen victim to these types of image quality issues.

As a result, Nvidia have created their own certified list of official ‘G-Sync Compatible’ monitors (with a big ‘C’), which they say offer the best variable refresh rate experience out of all the G-Sync compatible (with a small ‘c’) FreeSync monitors they’ve tested. For more information on which monitors made the cut, head on over to our complete list of every G-Sync Compatible monitor confirmed so far.

However, since it’s pretty much piggy-backing off the monitor’s FreeSync capabilities, all G-Sync compatible monitors will still only operate in the same variable refresh rate range as their original FreeSync one. This means you won’t get the benefit of Nvidia’s 1fps threshold, nor do you get any of the other G-Sync benefits mentioned above either. All it’s really doing is letting you take advantage of the monitor’s variable refresh rate capabilities without having an AMD graphics card at your disposal.

Here’s Nvidia’s own breakdown of their various G-Sync standards.

G-Sync vs FreeSync: which is best?

From a purely technical point of view, it’s clear that G-Sync does a heck of a lot more for your gaming experience than what you’ll find on a FreeSync monitor. Now I’ve tested many a fine FreeSync monitor in my time, but they’re also incredibly hit and miss, with some coming up short in the image quality department, while others just have too narrow a variable refresh rate range. G-Sync, on the other hand, is an easy stamp of approval that says, ‘If you really want the best possible experience with the least amount of fuss, then come with us and we will provide.’

The problem with G-Sync, though (as it’s always been), is that it’s so damn expensive. Just look at the price difference on our 24in best gaming monitor choices. Whereas the FreeSync-enabled AOC G2460PF costs £199 / $190, the G-Sync Acer Predator XB241H costs almost double that, going for £379 / $350 at time of writing. Both have 144Hz refresh rates, both have 1920×1080 resolutions, and both have equally good-looking TN panels. The only real difference is that Acer forces you to pay the dreaded G-Sync tax. That’s a hard sell at the best of times, and prices only get more expensive the further you move up the sizing scale.

Of course, some people may well want to pay the extra money so they don’t have to spend ages trawling through reviews or going through AMD’s own website with a fine tooth comb trying to find out each monitor’s individual variable refresh rate range. That’s a real pain, and I wish AMD’s FreeSync standard was more stringent in this sense so it was always 100% clear what buying a FreeSync monitor actually gets you.

That said, if you’re not particularly fussed about the whole Ultra Low Motion Blur stuff, or have never had any problem with your monitor’s latency, then there’s a strong case for just getting a G-Sync Compatible (with a ‘big C’) FreeSync screen and saving yourself a bucket of money in the process. That was pretty much exactly conclusion I had when I reviewed the brilliant but very expensive AOC Agon AG273QCG, for example, for as much as it was a great G-Sync screen, the identically specced and G-Sync Compatible approved Acer XG270HU was just so much cheaper that it seemed silly paying all that extra money for just ULMB and Nvidia’s top-tier latency speeds (which you’re arguably not going to notice unless you play a lot of twitchy FPS games).

Personally, I’ve spent my entire gaming life without having the benefit of a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor plonked on my desk, and I’ve coped perfectly fine. As I’ve said in my Monitor panel types explained article, image quality is a lot more important to me than a couple of milliseconds difference in a monitor’s response time, and I’ve never felt the urge to ever have something faster.

However, if I were to get a new monitor with some sort of variable refresh rate tech inside it (because you pretty much can’t escape it these days anyway), then I’d almost certainly get a G-Sync Compatible one (with a ‘big C’). That way, I’d have the flexibility of being able to use either an Nvidia or AMD graphics card with it, giving myself a bit of future-proofing for when I next come to upgrade my graphics card, and I’d also know that, should I end up pairing it with an Nvidia GPU after all, then the variable refresh rate experience won’t be an absolute horror show. I’d still check to make sure it had a good quality panel, of course, but at least Nvidia have done a lot of the hard work for me by narrowing down the best AMD FreeSync screens you can buy today.

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Who am I?

Katharine Castle

Hardware Editor

Katharine writes about all the bits that go inside your PC so you can carry on playing all those lovely games we like talking about so much. Very partial to JRPGs and the fetching of quests.

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