As the Data Specialist for gap intelligence’s newest category, PC Monitors, I’ve been keeping a close eye on what’s been happening with monitors in the market – what products are currently out there, how are they priced, which merchants are selling them, and how they are promoted. Before we launched the PC Monitors service in September of this year, I noticed that there were only two monitor models under the Alienware brand being sold concurrently across the many online and brick-and-mortar merchants that we track. Even as we transitioned into November, there were over 20 current Acer Predator gaming monitor models being sold online, while Alienware still sat at two models.*
During the week of October 22, 2017, I noticed that both Alienware models were sold online at six online merchants: Amazon, BestBuy.com, Microsoft.com, Newegg, OfficeDepot.com, and Staples.com. At all six merchants, the AW2518H model was priced higher than the AW2518HF model.
When I looked over these models’ specifications, I noticed everything about them was identical, save for one thing: their adaptive sync technology. The AW2518H has Nvidia G-Sync, while the AW2518HF has AMD FreeSync. At each of these sites, neither monitor is described as having the better or worse of the two sync technologies, despite the differing price points. BestBuy.com, for instance, describes the sync technologies on both monitors’ product pages as features that “synchronize the refresh rates between the GPU and display” to eliminate screen tearing, choppiness, and input lag". Basically, BestBuy.com and other sites describe the sync technologies as having the same functions, instead of depicting one doing the job better than the other. This can be difficult for people who are trying to figure out why exactly one monitor is priced higher than the other when all of their specs appear to be the same.
This image was captured on November 1, 2017. Both models are sponsored in Amazon’s searches when looking up Alienware monitors. While the G-Sync model (AW2518H)’s net price has dropped even further than it was on October 22, it still remains more expensive than the FreeSync model (AW2518HF).
To gamers who aren't savvy about monitor specifications, or to casual gamers in general, the difference between the two sync technologies is not obvious. Both of them have the same goal: to eliminate screen tearing for smoother gameplay. I have always been a console gamer and have never bothered looking into a gaming notebook before using the one I currently have. Unfortunately, I knew nothing about adaptive sync technology at the time and picked up a model that did not come with one. Though I still use the laptop a lot in general, I’ve barely gamed on it due to the unbearable screen tearing and motion blur. I thought having a dedicated Nvidia graphics card was enough to ensure smooth gameplay, but I’ve learned my lesson the hard way about why I was wrong.
When I first started researching adaptive sync technology, I was overwhelmed by how much information there was out there, and especially by all of the differences between AMD FreeSync and Nvidia G-Sync. That being said, I won't go into too much detail here, as there are articles out there that describe all the nooks and crannies better than I can. Instead, I'll explain the effects and significance of adaptive sync technology as concisely as possible, without delving into the nitty-gritty – just so new PC gamers, and maybe even those shopping for a gaming monitor as a Christmas present (hi Mom, wink wink), can understand why sync tech matters.
What does adaptive sync technology do?
Gamers want the smoothest gameplay possible. A lot of computer components, such as refresh rates and graphics cards, contribute to that smoothness. Every monitor refreshes the images it produces at either a set rate or within a range. For instance, the Asus ROG Strix XG27VQ monitor has a refresh rate of 144 Hz, meaning it refreshes (i.e. redraws the screen) 144 times per second. If the number of frames the graphics card renders does not line up with the number of times the monitor refreshes, this will result in two different frames being displayed simultaneously – or in other words, screen tearing. When screen tearing happens, as one writer puts it, “it looks as if the picture is trying to split itself in two.”
Screen tearing in Valve’s “Portal” video game – there is a distinct horizontal line, making this image look misaligned and broken. (Image Source: GitHub.com)
To prevent screen tearing from happening, graphics cards have an option for V-Sync (vertical synchronization), which reduces the game’s frame rate to match the monitor’s refresh rate. For example, if my monitor had a refresh rate of 60 Hz, and my graphics card is outputting 90 frames per second, V-Sync will max out the frame rate to 60 frames per second instead to prevent screen tearing. However, what this also means is the GPU already has more frames pre-rendered than what’s displayed on the monitor, and this causes serious input lag and overall poorer performance. Input lag is the delay between pressing a button on a keyboard or controller and the video game responding to your input. For example, if your character is not moving at the same time you’re commanding it to move via your mouse or keyboard, you’re experiencing input lag. For some gamers, this side effect is worse than the original problem.
Adaptive sync technology, such as Nvidia G-Sync and AMD FreeSync, does the job better than V-Sync. Instead of reducing the GPU's framerate, it allows the monitor to sync its refresh rate to the GPU's framerate instead, which eliminates both screen tearing and input lag.
Basically, if a PC gamer invests in a good GPU for smoother gameplay, they would also need to invest in a monitor with adaptive sync technology in order to actually have that smoother gameplay – otherwise they’ll be dealing with screen tearing, input lag, or both. And if they’re anything like me, screen tearing is enough to make me stop playing PC games altogether.
What’s the difference between Nvidia G-Sync and AMD FreeSync?
While both Nvidia and AMD have the same goal in mind, they handle their sync technologies very differently. There are multiple differences between the two, but I’ll only cover some of the basics here.
AMD makes it easy for monitor manufacturers to include FreeSync into their monitors, as opposed to G-Sync. FreeSync uses the VESA Adaptive-Sync standard, which is built into the DisplayPort 1.2a standard; this means FreeSync can be implemented in any display that uses DisplayPort 1.2a. Additionally, AMD does not charge for royalties or licensing either (hence the “free” in FreeSync). Because FreeSync is cheaper to use and easier to incorporate, monitors utilizing FreeSync tend to be cheaper and have a wider selection range than those with G-Sync.
On the other hand, Nvidia is much stricter on quality control. Monitors must be G-Sync certified by Nvidia in order to use G-Sync in the first place, and Nvidia won’t certify monitors that don’t meet their specification standards. For example, if a monitor is suffering from motion blur, Nvidia won’t certify it, whereas AMD isn’t strict about performance quality at all. The research and development costs raise the price of G-Sync monitors since they take longer to produce and that leads to a smaller variety of G-Sync monitors being sold in general. Tom Petersen, an Nvidia engineer, stated before that their goal was “to provide a premium gaming experience, [which] requires a lot of hands-on work from Nvidia,” and that they were going to continue dedicating time for that quality – meaning prices won’t be going down any time soon.
If you're curious about just how differently two monitors with differing sync technologies perform when compared to one another, I recommend this article by Jeremy Laird of Rock Paper Shotgun.
So which is better? Nvidia G-Sync or AMD FreeSync?
"Which is better" really depends on what's better for the customer: quality or cost. If a gamer wants to save some money and doesn't mind which monitor they get, as long as it gets the job done, then AMD is the easy choice for them. If a gamer cares more about their monitor's presentation than the costs, they will probably lean more towards Nvidia.
A gamer who prioritizes other monitor specifications (e.g. display resolution, screen size, a combination of the two) over sync technology will have an easier time shopping for a FreeSync monitor instead of G-Sync. According to Jared Newman of PCWorld.com, FreeSync tends to have a wider range and more spec combinations to choose from than G-Sync; the website 144hzmonitors.com, for instance, has 85 FreeSync monitors for sale, but only 20 G-Sync monitors in comparison. But if a gamer doesn't care about other monitor specifications, or is intimidated by having so many choices to look into and just wants that "premium gaming experience" Petersen had boasted about, then they'll have an easier time looking at G-Sync monitors instead.
However, things may change with the recent release of AMD FreeSync 2 monitors, such as the Samsung CHG70 and CHG90 series. Some new features in FreeSync 2 include a "fullscreen borderless windowed" mode (i.e. FreeSync will not longer require full-screen mode to work), HDR rendering, and LFC support. (For more details on these new features, see "AMD Announces FreeSync 2.0 with enhanced features".) These new changes from FreeSync 2 may be enough to draw Nvidia fans' attention back to them; the previously mentioned Jeremy Laird noted that FreeSync 2 was an improvement from the original, even if his threshold for improvement wasn't that high ("Give it up for FreeSync 2: This Time It Actually Works"). You can read more about the AMD FreeSync 2 here.
With the holidays coming up, I'm looking to grab a new monitor or two for my household. While I already knew what specs to look out for – display resolution, screen size, and what ports are available, for instance – I now know to lump adaptive sync technology onto that checklist as well. My current monitors and laptop at home have zero support for high-end gaming, and as someone willing to give the PC Master RaceTM a second chance, I'm happy to know that I won't make the same mistake twice. I hope I saved you from learning this lesson the hard way too.
*My intrigue with these two Alienware models came before their new 34" G-Sync models started to appear online (e.g. at BestBuy.com, which just debuted during the week of Nov 7).