Immersion is important to PC gaming, but ugly screen tearing will utterly break the illusion. Tearing appears when the PC’s GPU doesn’t render the game’s framerate in sequence with your monitor’s refresh rate. It’s easy to spot as segments of the frame become temporarily misaligned with others. You can enable adaptive sync technologies like “V-Sync” in some games, but that often results in a lower overall framerate. That’s where more bespoke technologies can help.
Like Nvidia’s G-Sync, AMD offers an adaptive sync technology called FreeSync. Compatible monitors tend to be far cheaper than their Nvidia-based counterparts and it’s about as effective, making it a more affordable and accessible frame-syncing technology.
What is AMD FreeSync?
FreeSync allows AMD’s graphics cards and APUs to control the refresh rate of a connected monitor. Most monitors default to 60 refreshes per second (60Hz), but you’ll also see monitors that refresh 75, 120, 144 or even 240 times per second.
Overall, timing is essentially the big screen-tearing issue. The GPU may render frames faster than the display can update the screen, causing the latter to compile “strips” of different frames. The “ripping” artifacts typically surface when the view moves horizontally. Likewise, if the GPU can’t output at the display’s refresh rate, you’ll experience a “stuttering” effect.
With FreeSync enabled, the monitor dynamically refreshes the screen in sync with the current game’s frame rate. If it’s a 60Hz display then it only supports 60 frames per second. If the GPU’s output drops, the display’s frame rate drops accordingly.
If you’re playing a relatively simple PC game like the original Half-Life, you probably don’t even need FreeSync. High refresh rates go a long way in eliminating screen tearing themselves, so adaptive sync technologies are largely unneeded if your GPU consistently outputs high frame rates.
But if you’re playing a newer, graphically intensive game like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey at 4K, even a powerful gaming desktop might only render 40 or 50 frames per second on average, falling below the monitor’s refresh rate. With AMD FreeSync, the monitor’s refresh rate scales up or down to match the frame rate, so the monitor never refreshes in the middle of a frame and tearing never materializes.
What do you need to use FreeSync?
For FreeSync to work, you need a compatible AMD graphics card or an integrated APU, like AMD’s recent Ryzen-branded all-in-one chips. Most modern Radeon cards — from budget offerings up to the super-powerful Radeon VII — support FreeSync. If you’re unsure, check the specifications.
You also need a compatible monitor or TV that supports VESA’s Adaptive-Sync. AMD began supporting this technology as FreeSync via its software suite in 2015. It essentially builds a two-way communication between the Radeon GPU and off-the-shelf scaler boards installed in certified Adaptive-Sync displays. These boards do all the processing, rendering, backlight control, and more.
The DisplayPort 1.2a spec added support for variable refresh rates in 2014 followed by HDMI 2.1 in 2017.
But manufacturers don’t simply slap on AMD’s “FreeSync” branding and move on. According to AMD, these panels endure a “rigorous certification process to ensure a tear-free, low latency experience.” Nvidia does the same thing with its G-Sync certification program.
Typically FreeSync monitors are cheaper than their G-Sync counterparts. That’s because G-Sync monitors rely on a proprietary module, ditching the off-the-shelf scaler. This module controls everything from the refresh rate to the backlighting. However, Nvidia is currently building a list of FreeSync-class monitors that are now compatible with its G-Sync technology on the PC side.
Despite their lower price, FreeSync monitors provide a broad spectrum of other features to enhance your games, like 4K resolution, high refresh rates, and HDR. Our favorite gaming displays have many of these technologies, though not all of them are FreeSync compatible. AMD has a list of FreeSync monitors on its FreeSync site.
How to enable FreeSync
After connecting your computer to a FreeSync-enabled monitor, make sure to download the latest AMD Catalyst drivers from the company’s website. You can manually select your card or APU model with the “Manually Select Your Driver” tool — just make sure to match your version of Windows. You can also use the auto-detection tool if you’re not sure.
Remember, you don’t need a second driver to enable FreeSync, If you have compatible hardware, it’s included in this download. Install the driver and restart your computer if necessary.
When you’re ready, open the AMD Radeon Settings by right-clicking on your desktop and selecting it from the pop-up menu. Next, select “Display” from the top menu and toggle on the “Radeon FreeSync” setting. Depending on your display, you may also need to turn it on in your monitor settings.
Note: Some FreeSync displays only work within a pre-defined frame rate range, so depending on the game you may need to limit your frame rate to stay within that threshold.
What about FreeSync 2 HDR?
AMD’s second-generation FreeSync technology doesn’t drastically change the formula. Both provide the same solid frame synchronizing.
However, FreeSync 2 HDR does have some advantages that require manufacturers to meet certain stipulations and features before they can officially support AMD’s brand. If you want to future-proof your display, however, FreeSync 2 HDR can be worth considering for your next upgrade.
While both first and second-generation FreeSync technologies work with HDR content, you won’t find FreeSync 2 monitors without HDR. These monitors must also support low framerate compensation, which can help alleviate stuttering and screen tearing outside of the typical supported range.