AMD's FreeSync; A Long-Term Review

Author: SKYMTL
Date: May 10, 2015
Product Name: FreeSync
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Gaming Observations

Gaming on FreeSync is a unique experience for AMD users since, after a year of looking enviously at G-SYNC capable monitors, they have something comparable. However, as I’ve discussed on the last few pages, DisplayPort Adaptive Sync has some interesting eccentricities that translate into a slightly different gaming experience than G-SYNC panels provide.

Now before I go on, some mention has to be made of BenQ’s XL2730Z. It is an absolutely incredible monitor, one which is actually superior to ASUS’ RoG Swift in many ways. While both may utilize the same TN-based panel, the Swifth has been in my possession for nearly a year now and in all that time I was never able to customize it to my liking. Sure, it has plenty of options within its OSD and NVIDIA’s control panel adds even more possibilities but it seemed plagued by an odd iridescence, particularly in high contrast games like Borderlands: The Pre Sequel and One Finger Death Punch (yes, I’m strangely addicted to that game). Meanwhile, I had the BenQ humming along at a pretty close approximation to “perfect” in under 20 minutes and as a result I ended up enjoying my time with it all that much more. This ain’t no IPS display but its capabilities are far beyond those of older TN-based monitors.

So what games were actually used for the countless hours I used FreeSync for? Pretty much everything actually. Strategy games like Homeworld: Remastered and Total War: Attila were touched upon after their respective release dates while One Finger Death Punch keeps making a comeback in my collection since it’s an excellent outlet for frustration. GTA V and Shadow of Mordor also factored heavily into the rotation.

First person shooters like Battlefield Hardline and Call of Duty Advanced Warfare arguably have the most to gain from FreeSync’s ability to eliminate stutter while also ironing out distracting screen tearing. Both issues were completely absent in my gaming sessions when FreeSync and V-Sync were paired up and I didn’t notice any debilitating input lag either.

One Finger Death Punch is a perfect example of a game that absolutely requires the best possible reaction times and it truly benefits from FreeSync’s ability to operate independently of V-Sync. While FreeSync + V-Sync and even NVIDIA’s G-SYNC delivered a perfectly “clean” image, I did notice input lag from time to time, particularly when fighting critical boss battles. That issue was completely eliminated by simply turning off V-Sync while still letting FreeSync still take care of some –but not all- tearing. AMD’s adaptive sync implementation clearly has the edge here.

While you don’t need hair trigger reflexes for GTA V, it showed the best and worst that FreeSync has to offer. On one hand the lack of image artifacts and stuttering brings a whole new level of depth to the city of Los Santos. It is an absolute treat to see and I was very, very impressed with what AMD has been able to achieve without resorting to expensive scaler replacements.

However, due to the relatively high system demands, in order to play with FreeSync at its best you’ll need to turn down some settings. GTA V is a game that’s perfectly happy puttering along at 30 to 40FPS in nearly every scenario which grants a unique opportunity for single card or slightly lower-end systems to boost detail levels. This is the aforementioned “zone” where FreeSync, in its purest form has so many performance problems.

Shadow of Mordor ran into the same issues as GTA V. This is a title that feels perfectly content running at lower framerates and actually delivering that kind of performance is well within a single R9 290X’s capabilities. However, with V-Sync and FreeSync enabled for the best possible image quality, the game ran face first into AMD’s imposed 40Hz minimum and went stuttering along from there.

In both of these games and likely with upcoming titles as well, a single R9 290X just can’t provide sufficient performance at 1440P with higher detail levels enabled to insure framerates continually remain above that critical 40FPS mark. I constantly found myself running into situations in both games where framerates would drop to 20 or so, rendering the whole affair unplayable.

Crossfire support would have certainly helped in this situation but, according to AMD, there’s still no word on when that will be available. This leaves a good portion of AMD most loyal customers without a way to effectively insure optimal FreeSync performance.

FreeSync On (Left) / FreeSync Off (Right)

Alongside the obvious performance hiccups in lower framerate zones, I also noticed some ghosting in higher contrast, fast motion games. Oddly enough, the BenQ XL2730Z doesn’t exhibit any ghosting when FreeSync is turned off which points to some additional processing or voltage tuning going on behind the scenes. In most games this wasn’t perceptible in any way but One Finger Death Punch did end up showing off the problem. It was odd really; ghosting is the last thing one would expect a 144Hz TN panel to exhibit but there it was.

In the images above you notice the telltale after-image simply because AMD’s own FreeSync test program provides a perfect nesting ground for ghosting to rear its head. High contrast between foreground and background, continually moving objects and no horizontal or vertical camera movement really highlight the faint but noticeable after-effects. This happened with and without V-SYNC enabled so the issue can be placed firmly in the lap of DisplayPort Adaptive Sync. Meanwhile, G-SYNC didn’t exhibit any ghosting.

I’ve mainly be touching on the negatives here simply because they were so glaring when placed next to an otherwise impressive gaming experience. Provided you are cognizant of FreeSync’s relatively broad functionality zone of 40FPS to 144FPS, it provides incredibly fluid images and will allow you to look at games in a whole new light. It is the perfect companion (rather than competitor) to G-SYNC since it provides 90% of NVIDIA’s capabilities at a significantly lower cost. Truth be told, I was surprised by how well it replicated G-SYNC’s high points despite the few areas where it fell short. Hopefully AMD will only improve it from here on.

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