CES kicks off this Thursday, which means a number of companies are announcing new products, capabilities, and technologies they intend to bring to market in 2017. AMD tossed its hat into the ring with a discussion of FreeSync 2 — the follow-on to the FreeSync (VESA refers to this as Adaptive-Sync) standard that competes with Nvidia’s G-Sync in the display business. FreeSync, like G-Sync, is designed to synchronize your display’s refresh rate with your GPU. This guarantees that you don’t miss a frame’s worth of content if a new frame shows up more quickly than your monitor can display it. Both FreeSync and G-Sync can dramatically improve game smoothness, and the lower the frame rate is by default, the bigger the advantage of enabling it.
AMD’s FreeSync 2 is meant to build on and expand the advantages of FreeSync. Unlike that technology, which relied on a single feature, there are several facets to FreeSync 2 that we need to talk about. First, FreeSync is meant to standardize HDR support on Windows (it’s currently somewhat erratic). While Sony was able to flip a switch and enable HDR on all PlayStation 4s and PS4 Pros, moving an HDR signal from Windows to a monitor is more complex. At present, many HDR monitors struggle to convert a game’s tone mapping under Windows 10 into a properly-displayed output on an HDR monitor. The technology works, but there’s significant lag involved, exacerbated by the fact that HDR10 requires tone mapping twice — once from games to the display pipeline, and again from the pipeline to the display’s color space. With FreeSync 2, AMD wants to change this.
The graphic above shows how AMD’s FreeSync 2 eliminates the problem by handling it directly in hardware. In AMD’s FreeSync 2 standard, games would tone map to the native colors of a FreeSync 2-compatible monitor. AMD’s GPU drivers then pass that information along to the panel, which displays it without any of the additional processing. This significantly cuts input lag and could make HDR easier to use in modern games.
Because Windows generally takes a dim view of this kind of color space overwriting, FreeSync 2 allows for mode switching. When you’re using your desktop or running conventional applications, information would be handled by the standard SRGB color gamut that Windows prefers. Jump into a game or application that uses HDR, and AMD’s driver support would kick in to enable its advanced functionality. Leave the game, and you drop back down to SRGB.
The other advantage of FreeSync 2 is that AMD is tightening its requirements for the standard. Currently, FreeSync displays must offer at least 2x the lowest refresh rate (meaning a 30Hz display must be capable of at least 60Hz). The ideal range is 2.5x (24Hz – 60Hz). At that point, games can offer Low Framerate Compensation, or LFC, which means that the GPU sends frames twice to smooth gameplay and avoid hiccups. Extending support down to 24Hz from 30Hz may not sound like a huge change, but it helps ensure that all but the biggest stutters are smoothed out and improved. FreeSync 2 will require this as a minimum feature where FreeSync did not.
Developer buy-in, display cost
Unlike FreeSync, which generally doesn’t require any kind of ‘awareness’ from a game, FreeSync 2 would require specific support from game developers and engine creators. AMD is partnering with monitor manufacturers to design displays that would be able to deactivate their own tone mapping to let the GPU take over. Game developers would still need to map their own titles to specific displays, and it would need to happen seamlessly so that users don’t have to worry about fiddling with special modes just to enable HDR.
To pull all this off, AMD will need to work with game engine developers, game studios, and ramp up a more detailed testing and evaluation procedure on the monitor side of things as well. One of the major selling points for FreeSync over G-Sync is that the technology doesn’t really carry a premium. With FreeSync 2, however, AMD is aiming for the high end of the market, and FreeSync won’t be phased out just because FreeSync 2 ships. The implication is that FreeSync will remain a valid option for people who just want the improved frame timing, while gamers looking for something a little more high-end will have FreeSync 2 as a feature.
One thing that would help AMD’s efforts would be prominent buy-in from Intel. Back in August 2015, Intel said it would support Adaptive-Sync / FreeSync in future Intel CPUs. We’ve since heard rumors that AMD may have licensed a GPU to Intel or might build one for them, and buy-in from Intel (whether AMD builds its GPUs or not) would be a huge win for the future of the FreeSync standard. As things stand, AMD likes to tout how many FreeSync panels are on the market compared with a relative paucity of G-Sync displays. But this show of strength is undercut by how Nvidia dominates the high-end gaming market that caters to the kinds of customers that might seek out and buy a gaming monitor with FreeSync or G-Sync support.
AMD has not stated if it will charge royalties for the more difficult testing and validation cycle these new monitors will require. Its decision could have a significant impact on how G-Sync and FreeSync 2 display prices compare in the future, as well as how much buy-in the company gets for its products. And of course all of this will hinge significantly on how strong a product Vega turns out to be. There’s nothing wrong with pairing a FreeSync or G-Sync display with a lower-end graphics card (in fact, such cards stand to benefit the most from this pairing), but the kind of people who buy $200 GPUs often don’t turn around and purchase $500 – $750 monitors. We’ll need more information on price and positioning before we can fully evaluate FreeSync 2.