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How To Set VSYNC The Right Way In Your Games

Welcome to the first of my occasional series on different aspects of technology. I hope you’ll find it interesting and useful. Lots of gamers tend to set vsync (vertical synchronization) wrongly on their PCs and then wonder why their games look all stuttery instead of animating smoothly, ruining their gaming experience. I see this on tech and gaming forums all the time, with plenty of bad advice being given out to fix it too, so this guide aims to help them get it right and enjoy their games more.

This guide applies to all* games and graphics cards, since they all work the same way. There might be individual situations where certain games and/or graphics cards have weird results, but that’s just that particular hardware and/or software not working quite right, or system performance being too low.

*Things might be a bit different with NVIDIA’s latest RTX raytracing technology, but that’s too new to comment on right now, so this guide explicitly excludes it and sticks to raster graphics, ie every game out there right now.

Single GPUs Rule

This guide is aimed more at single GPU users, since having 2 or (rarely now) 3 GPUs in your system tends to put limitations on your vsync options. There can also be the issue of microstutter, where the game looks stuttery even though vsync is set properly and there are no dropped frames.

This is caused by delays in the GPUs communicating with each other over the SLI or CrossFire link. It can be impossible to eradicate in some instances, which must be annoying as hell for the gamer who spent all that money on those two cards and an SLI/CrossFire motherboard. One of several good reasons for sticking to one powerful GPU whenever possible.

How VSYNC Works

To set vsync properly, one must understand what it does: synchronize the graphics card with the monitor.

The monitor refreshes at a fixed frequency, which is typically one of these frequencies: 60Hz, 100Hz, 120Hz, or 144Hz, with higher being better. So, to produce perfectly smooth, stutter and tear-free motion, the GPU has to draw a new frame at the same rate as the monitor’s refresh and those frames have to be synchronized to the monitor’s refresh, or stuttering and tearing will result. The higher the refresh rate of the monitor, the faster and more expensive the PC must be to ensure this, especially the graphics card, so come on down, NVIDIA’s new $1200 RTX 2080 Ti !! Nah, I’m kidding, spend something reasonable.

Since I’ve got an NVIDIA GTX 1080 in my system, the system specific advice here will refer to NVIDIA. AMD users, you might have an equivalent function for your card, in some cases. Have a look around the driver settings, or Google for it.

Most gamers still use fixed refresh rate monitors, but a graphics card’s GPU doesn’t create frames at a fixed frequency. Instead, the framerate bounces around all over the place, since the scenes take different amounts of time to draw from moment to moment as the scene changes. This creates problems with the smoothness of the animation and the problem is worse the lower the refresh rate of the monitor.

Using vsync fixes this problem, but unfortunately it’s not a silver bullet and does have trade-offs between tearing, smoothness and lag. It’s basically a compromise.

Of course, a PC won’t always be able to render frames higher than the monitor’s refresh, with the problem becoming worse the higher the refresh rate of the monitor and the cheaper and weaker the PC, especially the graphics card. Note that even the weakest of PCs will be able to show a desktop at 144Hz or 240Hz refresh perfectly well, as long as the graphics card and monitor support it. Note that the extra fluidity of high refresh rates is also quite apparent with just mouse and window movement on the desktop, so it makes for a nice enhancement there too. It’s not just for games.

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