AMD’s FreeSync 2 – To HDR & Beyond
Date: January 3, 2017
Product Name: FreeSync 2
In its battle for stutter and tear-free gaming against NVIDIA’s G-SYNC, AMD’s FreeSync technology has made some stunning inroads. While it may have begun its life with minimal industry support and initially had some issues with framerates below its effective refresh range, the situation has gradually improved to the point where FreeSync is not only competing against NVIDIA’s technology but actually surpassing it.
By adopting and then evolving a standard that was pre-existing within the DisplayPort specification, AMD almost guaranteed FreeSync would be adopted by industry partners. Meanwhile, additional updates to the underlying technology pushed its feature set to new levels and corrected some of the initial flaws we experienced. As a result FreeSync now includes support over HDMI, Low Framerate Compensation, a fullscreen borderless windowed mode and many other additions.
The response from the display industry has been swift and there are now more than 10 times the number of FreeSync displays on the market than those supporting G-SYNC. Not only are there more of them but accessibility to FreeSync-supporting products is at an all-time high with offerings in every price range from more affordable to higher-end monitors like the Acer Predator series.
This trend will likely continue well into the future since NVIDIA’s current implementation of G-SYNC is both expensive and limiting for display partners. FreeSync on the other hand continues to pull ahead.
While FreeSync has only been out for about two years now, AMD is now evolving the standard yet again with FreeSync 2. The intent of this second generation technology is not to replace the original FreeSync (indeed, monitors with both will be sold in parallel) but rather to simply communicate a given feature set to potential buyers.
The challenge with buying a standard FreeSync display is that the exact feature set can vary from one monitor to another depending on how each manufacturer (or model) implements the technology. Some have Low Framerate Compensation while others don’t, some have a very limited range in which FreeSync operates while others allow for a much wider zone and the list goes on. Other than adding a few new features which I’ll discuss below, FreeSync 2 aims to clear up feature level support by offering a one-stop holistic shop for all the best offered by the technology.
To achieve certification for FreeSync 2, monitor manufacturers will need to meet a stringent set of specifications for their monitors. Basically if you see the FreeSync 2 logo, a display will have low latency (around 1ms, though AMD didn’t go into specifics), include Low Framerate Compensation and offer over two times the brightness and color volume over sRGB through native plug-and-play HDR support. These new monitors will be the best of the best but they won’t come cheap either.
Actually talking about HDR is easy but processing the high bandwidth signal necessary for its inclusion in monitors presents some challenges. Typically when rendering to HDR the game would natively do its own tone mapping through the graphics pipeline, the GPU would then output to the display whereupon the monitor’s internal processor would once again tone map to its presents. This second bout of tone mapping isn’t done instantaneously and thus causes an increase in perceptible input lag.
In order to find a workaround to this situation, Freesync 2 will understand what the native characteristics of the monitor and properly tone map to it. The pre-processed signal is then sent to the monitor and doesn’t require any additional tone mapping. This should not only cut down on input lag but should also allow for a true plug-and-play experience where the monitor doesn’t need any additional color modifications to display a true-to-intent image.
Now there are a couple of caveats with FreeSync 2 and its implementation. While any GPU that’s compatible with the original FreeSync will also have FreeSync 2 capabilities, AMD is adding a number of variables into the equation that will –purposely- limit its adoption rate. Not only will the monitors have to support HDR, boast low response times and have native LFC but the games themselves will need to support every element of FreeSync 2. In its previous iteration this technology ran very much agnostically to game engines but now ALL elements of the pipeline, from game engine to the display, will need FreeSync 2 certification. AMD is very much approaching this second generation technology as a semi-walled garden where only the best of the best receive the necessary branding. If the history of game developers coming to grips with new technology is any indication, this could also lead to a situation where the usefulness of those expensive FreeSync 2 monitors will be minimal at best due to limited game support.
While there are many questions still swirling around FreeSync 2, how it will be implemented and any associated AMD-imposed costs (which would take the “Free” out of FreeSync), we’re still at least 6 months away from market availability of the first displays. It is certainly great to see AMD looking towards the future and setting a high bar for overall image quality from their display partners. It just remains to be seen whether, due to its inherently challenging implementation process, this next generation technology will mirror the success of its predecessor or end up as another TrueAudio-like dead end.