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Frame Rating Dissected: Full Details on Capture-based Graphics Performance Testing

Vsync and its Effect on Frame Rating – Does it fix CrossFire?

After publishing the Frame Rating Part 3 story, I started to see quite a bit of feedback from readers and other enthusiasts with many requests for information about Vsync and how it might affect the results we are seeing here.  Vertical Sync is the fix for screen tearing, a common artifact seen in gaming (and other mediums) when the frame rendering rate doesn’t match the display’s refresh rate.  Enabling Vsync will force the rendering engine to only display and switch frames in the buffer to match the vertical refresh rate of the monitor or a divisor of it.  So a 60 Hz monitor could only display frames at 16ms (60 FPS), 33ms (30 FPS), 50ms (20 FPS), and so on with a 120 Hz monitor could also being capable of 8ms (120 FPS), etc. 

Many early readers hypothesized that simply enabling Vsync would fix the stutter and runt issues that Frame Rating was bringing to light.  To test this we looked for a game that ran right around the 60 FPS mark in our in normal testing with Vsync disabled and then set about to re-run results with it on.  We are using a standard 60 Hz monitor with the goal of being able to test some 120 Hz capability soon after we figure out a final bug or two with our capture configuration. 

First up, let’s take a look at the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680 and GTX 680 SLI and see what shows up.

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Because the average frame rate per second graph averages out the frame times for a total of one second of time, the averages won’t quite be the straight lines you might have expected.  Looking at the GTX 680 SLI Vsync enabled results the only key item is that the frame rate doesn’t go above 60 FPS like it does with Vsync disabled.

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The single card and SLI configurations without Vsync disabled look just like they did on previous pages but the graph for GTX 680 SLI with Vsync on is very different.  Frame times are only switching back and forth between 16 ms and 33 ms, 60 and 30 instantaneous FPS due to the restrictions of Vsync.  What might not be obvious at first is that the constant shifting back and forth between these two rates (two refresh cycles with one frame, one refresh cycle with one frame) can actually cause more stuttering and animation inconsistencies than would otherwise appear.

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Based on our graph here we found that with Vsync enabled we had about 87% of our frames running at 60 FPS (16 ms) and 13% at 30 FPS (33 ms).  You might be curious how there could be 60 FPS frame rate so often with Vsync on but very few frames at 60 FPS with Vsync off, and the answer lies in the rate limiting caused by Vsync.  Because of the back pressure on the game engine caused by the longer frame times (30 FPS, 33 ms) from Vsync there is more time for the GPUs to “catch up” and render another frame at 16 ms. 

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Our ISU graph on stutter potential tells the story in a more damning light; starting at the 30th percentile the Vsync enabled setup of GTX 680s in SLI are already running at much higher frame variances and it only gets worse as we hit the 60s, 80s and 90s.  At the 90th percentile we are seeing frame variances over 12 ms, which is nearly a complete monitor refresh cycle!

 

Now let’s see how the AMD Radeon HD 7970 results change.

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Something interesting is already happening here – the Vsync enabled results from the HD 7970 CrossFire configuration are running at HIGHER average frame rates per second than with Vsync disabled!  The orange line clearly never hits the 60 FPS mark while the black line (Vsync) does. 

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Without Vsync we clearly see the runts affecting the plot of frame times here on the HD 7970s in CrossFire but enabling Vsync does appear to eliminate them! 

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With our observed frame rate we have the same results for the HD 7970 CrossFire as we did with our FRAPS results, indicating no dropped frames or runt frames.  Standard CrossFire mode still shows the horrible results we have come to expect from our analysis today.

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Our Min FPS percentile graph shows us that we are running at 60 FPS (16 ms) 85% of the time and 30 FPS (33 ms) the rest.  Because our data here is based the observed frame rates and not the FRAPS frame rates, there is no correlation between the two CrossFire runs.

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The ISU graph of stutter potential again indicates that the Vsync enabled option is introducing higher frame variances than we would like and it is doing it more dramatically and earlier than the GTX 680s in SLI. 

It does appear that enabling Vsync will help alleviate the runts issue seen with AMD Radeon cards in CrossFire but at the cost of much more frame variance and stuttered animation on games that previously didn’t exhibit that problem. 

Let's take a look at another example using CrossFire that has another particular set of circumstances.  I theorized that in a gaming scenario that bordered just under 60 FPS with a single GPU, we would still see problematic results when jumping to HD 7970s in CrossFire.  Take our Battlefield 3 2560x1440 testing: with only one HD 7970 we are running just under 60 FPS most of the time which would, with Vsync enabled, force the game to run at 30 FPS with 33ms frame times.  Ideally we would like to see that move from 33ms frame times to 16ms frame times when adding in another HD 7970 in CrossFire due to the extra performance pushing the card over 60 FPS steady.

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Our FRAPS graphs looks how we would hope and expect real-world performance to look.  While the single HD 7970 ran at a non-standard frame rate when performance was under 60 FPS, towards the end (50 sec point) where it could, we see a flat line that is partially hidden behind the pink line.  That pink line represents CrossFire HD 7970s and by doubling the number of GPUs we expected to maximize performance at 60 Hz with Vsync enabled, and we have. 

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Observed frame rates calculated by removing runts are showing the Vsync DISABLED results on the HD 7970s in CrossFire mirror what we have seen before with much lower performance.  However, the Vsync ENABLED results did not change! 

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The somewhat complicated plot diagram of frame times indicates that at no time did the frame rate of the HD 7970 cards in CrossFire go below 60 FPS or above the 16ms mark - even though there are thousands of frames under 16ms (runts) when Vsync is disabled.  Not only that but performance over the single HD 7970 with Vsync enabled is improved - rather than having jumps between the 16ms and 33ms frame times, we are locked in at 16ms - matching the 60 Hz refresh of our panel. 

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The minimum FPS percentile graphic shows the same story - the pink link representing the HD 7970s with Vsync turned on looks solid.

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Notice as well that with a static 16ms frame time we see no frame time variance at all in our ISU graph indicating that the kinds of stutter we are searching for are not showing up at all.

How is this happening?  How is enabling Vsync 'fixing' the runts and frame time issues of CrossFire?  The secret lies in the inherent back pressure of vertical sync to pace the graphics card and AMD's CrossFire engines even against its own will.  By forcing the GPUs to only render one frame every 16ms (at the maximum), Vsync is able to force the GPU to pace itself in a way that it would otherwise not.  This doesn't happen in every game though as we saw in the Crysis results first, and there is a lot more testing that needs to be done with Vsync to make a firm decision.

 

NVIDIA has a couple of different solutions in the NVIDIA Control Panel that might help: Adaptive Vsync and Smooth Vsync.  Adaptive Vsync was released with the first Kepler GPUs last year and we found it to be very effective at reducing stutter while also eliminating tearing.  Smooth Vsync is a little known feature that only exists in the driver when SLI is enabled as it takes advantage of many of the same frame metering features that SLI uses.  It attempts to keep frame rates “settled” at a level until it decides it has enough horsepower to move up to the next frame rate option for an extended period of time.  It is a very dubious description at best and NVIDIA didn’t go into much detail on how they decide if they have enough GPU overhead remaining or how long that “period of time” really is.

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I decided to run through the same Crysis 3 sequences at 1920x1080 on the GTX 680s in SLI with all four NVIDIA options enabled: Vsync off, Vsync on, Adaptive Vsync and Smooth Vsync. 

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Our FRAPS based results show the same similar looking results for standard Vsync on and off, but the adaptive and smooth Vsync options appear to be fixed at 30 FPS with the occasional hiccup on the Smooth Vsync.

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The plot of frame times is kind of confusing but the important data is to compare standard Vsync On to Adaptive and Smooth.  With the exception of the 6 or so spikes on the smooth configuration the frames are basically fixed at 33 ms, resulting in a perfectly smooth gameplay experience but at the expensive of limiting performance. 

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The observed FPS doesn’t change at all.

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Another view here shows the same thing with a fixed frame rate of 30 FPS for adaptive and smooth Vsync options.

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NVIDIA’s Adaptive Vsync shows basically 0 variance and only very minimal variance on the Smooth Vsync option at the 96th percentile.  So even though performance is lower on average, the experience is smoother.

 

NVIDIA’s additional Vsync options are definitely a strong point in favor of its technology though the Smooth Vsync only exists on SLI configurations.  I have been told that they were considering adding it to single graphics card configurations and I certainly hope they do as it adds some significant value in the same way Adaptive Vsync and Frame Rate Limiting do.

For both NVIDIA and AMD multi-GPU solutions with standard Vsync, enabling it definitely changes the story.  NVIDIA’s cards pretty much perform as we expected but for CrossFire we didn’t really know what expect with the various visual concerns.  It does appear that the runts problem was at least mostly solved with the enabling of Vsync though to be clear we are only testing a couple of game at this point – much more needs to be done. 

However, enabling Vsync creates a whole host of other potential issues that gamers have to deal with.  Even though the goal of removing visual tearing is met with the option turned on, you do add latency to the gameplay experience, as much as 60ms in some cases, from input to display.  Putting back pressure on the GPU pipeline, for both NVIDIA and AMD, means that some frames are going to be running behind schedule or behind the input timing of the game itself.  Many gamers won't want to deal with those kind of input problems and that is why many still play games with Vsync disabled.  Turning on Vsync does help AMD's CrossFire performance but it isn't the final answer just yet.

March 27, 2013 | 06:16 AM - Posted by grommet

Hey Ryan, is the variable "t_ready" that the text refers to "t_present" in the diagram two paragraphs above?

March 27, 2013 | 06:22 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Yes, fixed, thanks.

March 27, 2013 | 07:20 AM - Posted by Prodeous (not verified)

I was just wondering.. since the capture and analysis system relies on the left bar only, why doesn't it trunckate the rendered frame it self and keep only 1-3 pixels from the left side of the frame?

For some tests if you want to show off the specific "runts" "stutters" then you can keep it the entire frame captured.

But for most tests, you can record only the left colour bar and do analysis on that bar only, therefore you will not have to save the 600GB per second of uncompressed frames.

Just a thought.

March 27, 2013 | 07:40 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

We have that option (notice the crop capture option in our software) but we often like to reference recorded video down the road.

March 28, 2013 | 05:53 AM - Posted by Luciano (not verified)

If you write a piece of software with that "colored" portion only in mind you dont need any of the additional hardware and any user could use it just like Fraps.

March 28, 2013 | 04:02 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

LOL - AMD you are soooo freaking BUSTED !

Runt frames and zero time ghost frames is an AMD specialty.

AMD is 33% slower than nVidia, so amd pumped in ghosts and runts !!

Their crossfire BF3 is a HUGE CHEAT.

ROFL - man there are going to be some really pissed off amd owners whose $1,000 dual gpu frame rate purchases have here been exposed as LIES.

Shame on you amd, runts and ghosts, and all those fanboys screaming bang for the buck ... little did they know it was all a big fat lie.

March 28, 2013 | 11:42 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

true words of a fan boy.

May 26, 2013 | 05:23 PM - Posted by Johan (not verified)

Even i have Nvidia, but his comment, was really a fan-boy comment.

March 27, 2013 | 06:43 AM - Posted by Anon (not verified)

Run the benchmarks like any sane gamer would do so!

Running v-sync disabled benches with 60+ fps is dumb!

Running v-sync enabled benches with 60- fps is way more dumb!

YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!

March 27, 2013 | 07:00 AM - Posted by John Doe (not verified)

Don't forget that V-sync also sometimes fucks shit up.

The best solution is to limit the frames on the game end, or using a 3rd party frame limiter.

March 27, 2013 | 07:51 AM - Posted by Anon (not verified)

And sometimes disabling it fucks physics like in Skyrim.

Your point?

March 27, 2013 | 07:18 AM - Posted by grommet

Read the whole article before commenting- there is an entire page that focuses on your argument (surprise- you're not the first to suggest this!!)

March 27, 2013 | 07:32 AM - Posted by John Doe (not verified)

And if you have actually watched one of his streams, you'd have seen that he INDEED IS doing it "wrong".

When he was testing Tomb Raider, the card was artifacting and flickering and shimmering. It was complete and totally obvious that he didn't know what he's doing.

March 27, 2013 | 07:31 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

To the guy who says "you're doing it wrong".

Not true. He's doing it right. Many hardcore gamers run v-sync disabled over 60 fps, and only a few of the scenarios tested are consistently over 60fps.

And read the story to see the OBSERVED FPS is much less in many cases, not just the FRAPs FPS (which does not give proper info at the end of the pipeline (at the display) what users actually see).

March 27, 2013 | 07:38 AM - Posted by John Doe (not verified)

There's absolutely nothing "hardcore" about running an old ass game at 1000 FPS with a modern card.

All it does is to waste resources and make the card work at it's hardest for no reason. It's no different than swapping a gear at a say, maximum, 6500 RPM on a car that revs 7000 per gear. You should keep it lower so that the hardware doesn't get excessively get stressed.

If the card is obviously way beyond the generation of the game you're playing, then you're best off, if possible, LIMITING frames/putting a frame lock on your end.

March 27, 2013 | 07:42 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Vsync does cause a ton of other issues including input latency.

March 27, 2013 | 07:44 AM - Posted by Anon (not verified)

You've said this already in both the article and comments but you only talked about input latency.

What are those other issues?

March 27, 2013 | 07:52 AM - Posted by John Doe (not verified)

It makes the entire game laggy an unplayable depending on condition.

You can read up over that TweakGuides guy's site on Vsync.

March 27, 2013 | 08:09 AM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Some pretty fascinating implications about the entire game/rendering pipeline.  There are so many problems throughout, and the tradeoffs tend to impact each other in varyingly negative ways.  Seems like frames are essentially our biggest issue, but how do you get around that?  I had previously theorized that per pixel change in an asynchronous manner would solve a lot of these issues, but the performance needed for such a procedure is insane.  Essentially it becomes a massive particle model with a robust physics engine being the base of changes (movement, creation, destruction, etc.).

March 27, 2013 | 11:18 AM - Posted by Jason (not verified)

research voxels... the technology exists but is pretty far off.

March 27, 2013 | 02:44 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Regarding per-pixel-updates: Check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pXZ33YoKu9w

It's obvious the result must be delivered in frames (no way around it with current monitor technology), but the engine in the vid clearly works differently from the usual by just putting the newly calculated pixels into the framebuffer that are ready by the time.

March 27, 2013 | 11:07 AM - Posted by bystander (not verified)

Due to many frames being forced to wait for the next vertical retrace mode, while others do not, it will result in some time metering issues. This can result in a form of stuttering.

March 28, 2013 | 11:49 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

hardcore gamer here play BF3 v-sync ON!

because:

1. My monitor (as 90% of us) is 60hz!
don't need the extra stress/heat/electric juice on card/system.

2. Fed up with frame tearing every time i turn around.

March 27, 2013 | 07:27 AM - Posted by Prodeous (not verified)

With regards to the Nvidia settings of v-sync, it seems that Addaptive (half refresh rate) was selected capping it at 30fps vs Addaptive which would cap at 60fps.

Was that on purpose?

March 27, 2013 | 07:31 AM - Posted by Noah Taylor (not verified)

I'm still interested to see what type of results you come up with when using amd crossfire with a program like afterburner's riva tuner to limit the fps to 60, which would seems to be everyone's preference for this situation.

March 27, 2013 | 07:42 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I think you'll find the same problems that crop up with Vsync enabled.

March 27, 2013 | 08:14 AM - Posted by Noah Taylor (not verified)

I have to admit observed FPS graphs are DAMNING to AMD, and I own 2 7970s and 7950s so I'm not remotely biased against them in any way. One thing i did notice is that dropped frames don't effect every game so hopefully this is something AMD may be able to potentially mitigate through driver tweaks.

I have to admit, crysis 3 can be a sloppy affair in AMD crossfire and now I can see exactly what I'm experiencing without trying to make guesswork out of it.

Regardless, the bottom line EVERYONE should take away from this, is that crossfire DOES NOT function as intended whatsoever, and we can now actually say AMD is deceptive in their marketing as well, this is taken directly from AMD's website advertising crossfire:

"Tired of dropping frames instead of opponents? Find a CrossFire™-certified graphics configuration that’s right for you."

They have built their business on a faulty product and every crossfire owner should speak up so that AMD makes the changes they have control over to FIX a BROKEN system.

March 27, 2013 | 08:17 AM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Just think how bad a X1900 CrossFire Edition setup would do here...  I think Ryan should dig up those cards and test them!

March 27, 2013 | 08:49 AM - Posted by SB48 (not verified)

I wonder if that one of the reasons why AMD never really released the 7990,
also if this was already a obvious problem with the 3870 X2...
or the previous gens card, like HD5000, 6000.

anyway, is there any input lag difference from NV to AMD (SLI-CF) without vsync?

also I would be curious to see some CPU comparison.

March 27, 2013 | 10:31 AM - Posted by John Doe (not verified)

I had both a dual 3870 and a dual 2900 setup, both were more or less the same thing.

Both has driven a CRT at 160HZ for Cube and both were silk smooth.

This is a recent issue. It has nothing to do with cards of that age. The major problem with those old cards was the lack of CrossFire application profiles. Before the beginning of 2010, you had absolutely no application profiles like you have with nVidia. So CF either worked or you had to change the game ".exe" names, which either worked or, made the game mess up or just kick you out of Steam servers due to VAC.

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