PC players have had VRR games with variable refresh rates for several years. Finally, Sony and Microsoft are bringing VRR to your living room with next-generation consoles.
So, what is VRR exactly, how does it work, and do you need a new TV to use it?
Why VRR is amazing
The refresh rate is the number of times a screen can be updated per second. Most TVs and mobile devices are updated at 60 Hz, which means that 60 individual images can be displayed in one second. The latest TVs hit 120 Hz, while specialized gaming monitors can reach a full 360 Hz.
A “frame rate” is the number of frames a console or computer can deliver per second. When the source device cannot provide a full 60 frames per second, a subframe can be sent instead. A screen does not care if it gets a full or partial frame; it shows what it gets.
This results in an ugly effect called screen tearing, where partial frames are displayed on top of the previous, fully rendered frame. Because frames are rendered horizontally, from top to bottom, tearing manifests as a shaky horizontal line, often around the center of the screen.
A small amount of tearing from a few partial frames from time to time is not much of a problem. But when the GPU consistently loses frames because the rendering load is too high, screen tearing can seriously affect how a game looks and plays. Fortunately, variable refresh rates can help eliminate the problem so that games look better and play smoother.
PC players have been using a feature called V-Sync for several years to lock up refresh and frame rates. However, for V-Sync to effectively reduce screen tearing, you must ensure that the graphics card can keep up with the screen refresh rate. If you use a 60 Hz screen and your performance drops below 60 frames per second, you will see tearing artifacts.
The downside of V-Sync is that you may have to leave performance or graphical fidelity on the table. Often you have to choose between a tear-free experience with reduced image quality or a nicer game that can not remain locked at 60 frames per second.
RELATED: G-Sync and FreeSync Explained: Variable Refresh Rates for Gaming
HDMI VRR is a new standard
To eliminate screen tearing, you need to vary the refresh rate along with the frame rate. For it to work, you need technology that is embedded on both sides of the art room. This means a VRR-compatible console or graphics card at one end and a screen that supports VRR at the other.
NVIDIA and AMD have their own VRR technologies, so-called G-Sync and FreeSync respectively. FreeSync has also been used by Microsoft in Xbox One S and X. G-Sync is a favorite among those who use NVIDIA’s GTX and RTX graphics cards.
Screens must be built with these techniques in mind. In the case of G-Sync, this often requires a custom-built chip (with royalties paid to NVIDIA, of course), while FreeSync is a more open platform. Recent developments, however, have seen AMD fragment the standard with Premium and Premium Pro levels for 4K and HDR content.
While we still do not know everything about Sony and Microsoft’s next generation consoles, support for a new format called HDMI VRR is on the way. Microsoft has confirmed that the Xbox Series X and S will use both HDMI VRR and AMD FreeSync.
Both new Xbox consoles support VRR from 30-120 Hz, provided your TV can do so. This is a common theme as we move to a new standard for screen interfaces with the advent of HDMI 2.1. This is an area where you need to make sure your TV or monitor has all the new features you want.
HDMI VRR is defined in the latest HDMI 2.1 standard, but some TVs with HDMI 2.0b ports can do the same. With that in mind, do not immediately expect all HDMI 2.1 compatible TVs to support HDMI VRR.
In a few years, the HDMI VRR will probably go to screenings at all price points, but we are currently in a transition phase. Many advanced models currently lack HDMI 2.1.
Sony’s official PS5 specifications state “VRR (specified by HDMI ver 2.1).” This indicates that the HDMI VRR is dependent on the new standard. Because Sony’s PlayStation 5 also uses an AMD GPU, it can also support FreeSync as Microsoft’s new consoles.
Next generation expectations
NVIDIA launched its 30-series cards (especially RTX 3080 and RTX 3090) in September. These were the first PC graphics cards with HDMI 2.1 and support for both HDMI VRR and G-Sync. As these cards beat the next generation of consoles on the market, they are the first commercial HDMI 2.1 devices available.
This has resulted in some issues with G-Sync working on some HDMI 2.1 monitors. LG’s range of OLED screens has had problems sending out a real 4K 120 Hz 10-bit image without chrome undersampling (4: 4: 4).
An on-the-air update has been issued for the 2019 and 2020 models to fix the issue, as well as a strange flickering issue that occurred during charging screens.
It is not beyond the possibility that these problems will continue to arise when the next generation of consoles are connected to the next generation of screens for the first time. Some of the G-Sync problems included raised black, flickering, and unwanted chrome sub-samples that made it difficult to read text in PC mode.
LG is one of the few manufacturers that has adopted HDMI 2.1 at this stage, and it is unlikely that it will be the last to encounter such problems.
But once the bugs have been ironed out, the next generation of games in your living room will evolve into a significant upgrade over the previous one. We are now even talking about 120 frames per second in full 4K resolution.
In the meantime, VRR will ensure that the games remain smooth and responsive, even when such high goals cannot be achieved. This also means that performance declines will be less noticeable than they were during the PS4 and Xbox One era.
However, there are limitations to the technology. Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man Remastered for PlayStation 5 has the ability to use ray-tracing for certain elements, such as reflections and certain shadows (ambient occlusion).
However, since beam tracking appears to be limited to a “visual quality” mode of 30 frames per second, VRR technology will not be used. This is interesting given Microsoft’s statement that Series S and X will support VRR between 30-120 Hz.
This is an argument for using FreeSync over HDMI VRR if your hardware supports it. AMD developed a technology called Low Framerate Compensation (LFC), which helps even out games when things fall below 30 frames per second.
By using frame doubling techniques, FreeSync reduces LFC jiggling when things get choppy, but it will not eliminate poor performance altogether. If you want the option to use FreeSync, you need to make sure that the TV or monitor you buy explicitly supports it.
Next generation screen technology
If you are still not convinced, why not let the early adopters put technology through their paces? There will be many more TVs available in 2021-22 that support this feature, and they will probably be cheaper than today’s models.
HDMI VRR is the next generation technology for a new generation of game consoles. In addition to 120 Hz panels, HDMI 2.1 inputs and low input delay, VRR is one of the best features to look for on your next gaming TV.
RELATED: How to buy a TV for games 2020