With both the PS5 and Xbox Series S and X offering gameplay at higher refresh rates, more and more people are now considering high-refresh rate monitors. Gaming at 120, 144 and 244hz is a fundamental change in terms of immersion and presentation. Once you’ve experienced those levels of frames, going back to 30fps can be quite jarring.
One question rears its head regularly in the discussion of high-refresh rate monitors, and that is, “What is adaptive-sync?” High-refresh monitors often come with a dizzying array of features, but adaptive sync is without a doubt one of the most useful features.
Before we dive into how adaptive sync works, it’s important to explain how refresh rates and frames per second (FPS) work.
FPS & Refresh Rates
To understand the importance of adaptive sync, you need to grasp the basics of refresh rates and frames per second.
Refresh rate measures how many times a screen can update the image shown in any one second. If a screen has a native refresh rate of 60hz, it means the image shown updates up to sixty times in one second. Most televisions sets have a native refresh rate of 60hz, whilst many gaming monitors start at 60hz and can reach up to 360hz.
In layman's terms, the higher the refresh rate, the more images your monitor can display in one second and the smoother your image will be.
On the opposite end, you’ve got frames per second (FPS) which is the number of images your PC can display in any one second. The higher your frames per second, the smoother gameplay is. High frame rates are especially desirable in competitive gaming scenarios. Higher frame rates provide genuine gains in reaction times, because of the additional information shown on screen.
This fantastic Linus Tech Tips video shows the kind of performance gains you can expect when gaming at a higher refresh rate. We would definitely recommend checking that out here.
So why is adaptive sync important?
Adaptive sync dynamically adjusts the vertical refresh rate of your monitor to the frame rate of your graphics card. If your monitor is outputting at one refresh rate and your graphics card at another, it’s possible that issues like screen tearing, judder and stutter may occur.
It’s likely you’ve experienced screen tearing at some point, but here’s an example of what it would look like in action.
As you can see on the Valheim viking, the lower-half and upper-half of their torso are slightly out of sync. This typically happens when the player moves too quickly or pans the camera around. Screen tearing makes for a less than enjoyable gaming experience.
In the past, PC users typically relied on vertical synchronisation (V-sync) to reduce screen tearing. This meant limiting the game’s frames to 60fps, to keep it in sync with the output of the monitor. V-sync has one major problem though, players will need to compete with input lag if the graphics card has more frames than it can output at 60fps.
Ultimately, if someone spends a lot of money on either a next-gen console or an upgraded PC, you’ll need to purchase a high-refresh rate monitor to take advantage of that additional power. If you’re going to upgrade your gaming machine, but still intend to play on a 60hz display, you are essentially paying for frames you can’t see.
There are currently two different forms of adaptive sync available in the market. AMD’s Freesync technology and Nvidia’s G-sync technology. Both types of adaptive sync offer roughly the same experience, although there are some minor differences in how the two perform.
Nvidia’s G-sync technology is considered the more premium offering of the two, as the technology is only available on monitors at a higher price point. This is because Nvidia is strict on which monitors it will certify. A monitor will need to meet Nvidia’s strict specification standards before it can include G-sync.
Freesync provides pretty much exactly the same experience as G-sync, but it is available across a wider variety of displays. It’s often available at a much cheaper price point as well, making it the perfect option for gamers looking to save.
When is adaptive sync useful?
Adaptive sync doesn’t need to be implemented in every scenario. Its primary use is keeping the image stable if, for example, you are playing a game that can be quite demanding and cause fluctuating frames per second. It’s in these moments that you need Freesync or G-sync to keep the vertical refresh rate linked to the output of the graphics card.
If you’re running something relatively simple, like Rocket League, at 144hz and maintaining those frames consistently, adaptive sync will not provide any benefit. Here, adaptive sync is available as a backup. Should your PC suddenly struggle to maintain frames, the adaptive sync will ensure your gaming experience stays smooth and tear-free.