Choosing a Monitor – Part II

HARDWARE
Choosing a Monitor – Part II

Is there a significant difference between FreeSync 2 and FreeSync­­­? Is Quantum Dot technology out of this world? Read on to find answers to these questions and more. If you haven’t read the first instalment of this series, you can double back and find it here.

Backlight

LCD panels themselves don’t generate light. They need an external source. Back in the day, cold cathodes (CCFL) placed on the edges of panel got the job done. LED backlight then stepped in and is now the most widely used solution. LED consumes less power, occupies less space and weighs less than CCFL.

It too, however, falls short of perfection. When a monitor works, the edge backlight always has to be on, diminishing the blackness of black. Zone dimming / local dimming was invented to mitigate this issue. Unlike widely used edge backlight, there are LEDs directly behind the panel. When a backlight is not needed, the LED(s) are switched off. Of course, the more LEDs there are, the better looking the effect, but costs also shoot up.

Right now, high-end 27-inch displays feature 384 dimming zones while 21:9 35-inch displays are equipped with 512. The effect of “true” black looks good, but it remains imperfect. If a white mouse cursor appears on a black background, there is a halo around the cursor, because the dimming zones are not small enough.

Backlight can be driven by Pulse With Modulation (PWM) or by Direct Current (DC). PWM is easier to implement but it can cause images to flicker. DC control is more complicated and expensive but it helps produce flicker-free images.

OLED displays don’t have any of these issues, because each pixel is an independent light source of its own. If you’d like to read more about OLEDs, please go back to first part of this installment.

Quantum Dot technology is also worth a mention here, though it is often misunderstood. It is in fact just a different approach to an existing solution. LEDs that are used for backlight in LCD panels emit blue light instead of white. This brings an element into play that doesn’t exist in standard monitors, namely light-altering nanocrystals.

The nanocrystals help to enhance color reproduction and widen the color gamut. It is possible to implement Quantum both to edge backlight or with full backlight with local dimming.

Refresh rate

For LCD monitors, a 60-Hz refresh rate is the gold standard. A higher refresh rate is of course better but it is mostly beneficial for gaming. Even a bump to 75 Hz can be visible to the naked eye and is implemented in budget-oriented gaming monitors. In my opinion, a clearly noticeable difference stops around 144 Hz. However, most people pick up on a 240 Hz improvement over 144 Hz, whatever else the urban legends may have you believe. Nonetheless, the difference is just not as vivid as 60 Hz vs 120 Hz.

If you intend to excel at fast-paced online games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, you should also plan to track your rise on a 120 Hz or faster monitor. Most top-ranked players are equipped with such gear. Monitors so endowed really provide an edge over the competition that may be stuck using standard 60 Hz displays. If you can afford such digs, I’d personally recommend investing in a 120/144/165 Hz monitor, even for those who play only single-player games. It really enhances the experience. 200 or 240 Hz monitors are for pro online players or those who just can’t live without the bleeding edge tech.

However, do remember that your PC’s power must match your monitor’s capabilities. If you can achieve only 50 FPS, even a 240-Hz monitor won’t make any difference over a standard 60 Hz model.

Be aware, also, that some of the early 4K monitors featured a mere 30 Hz refresh rate. You should avoid such models at all costs, because the user experience they offer is just abominable. With such a low refresh rate, even standard office work or just browsing the files in File Explorer feels choppy. This is an absolute no-no.

Using the graphics driver you can try to overclock the panel of your monitor and set a higher refresh rate value than the default setting. Some models can overclock, for example, from 60 to 72 Hz. Overclocking is sometimes even implemented by manufacturers. Some 165 Hz models have a 144 Hz panel with an option in OSD for overclocking, though that can have an impact on image quality.

Synchronization technology

AMD FreeSync prevents the frames displayed on the screen from “tearing”. This technology works only at a specific refresh range. For better quality 144 Hz models, the range is between 30 Hz and 144 Hz. In cheaper models—those with a 75 Hz refresh rate—the window can be very narrow: between 48 Hz and 75 Hz. If this is the case, when framerate in games drops below 48 FPS, FreeSync will stop working. Unfortunately most manufacturers don’t advertise what their FreeSync range is.

FreeSync greatly enhances the visual experience of games, since frame tearing can be really annoying. Of course, if you play online competitive games, keep it off to maximize your score. It adds a small lag which is otherwise ok for normal gaming, but when you are getting really serious, even this small lag can make a difference.

FreeSync can work over DisplayPort and in most new monitors also over HDMI. It must be enabled in the Radeon Drivers to work. Remember also that it is open-standard – no certification from AMD is needed for the monitor to be FreeSync-compatible.

FreeSync 2 HDR is not a successor of classic FreeSync. It is a more refined version that coexists alongside it. You can think of it like a more premium version of standard FreeSync. It comes with strict tech requirements and the monitor must be approved by AMD to be permitted to use FreeSync 2 HDR branding. One of the requirements is HDR10 compatibility and LFC compatibility, both of which you’ll read about later in this article. Finally, FreeSync 2 HDR is a special mode that can be activated in some games, like Far Cry 5 or Strange Brigade.

I don’t know why, but LFC (Low Framerate Compensation) is not widely marketed by monitor manufacturers. That it’s such a nice addition makes it all the stranger. It’s particularly helpful in less powerful rigs, or you must have all graphics quality sliders set to the max. What it does is to add “middle” frames when the game framerate drops below 30 FPS. So if your PC generates eg. 28 FPS, there are 56 FPS shown on the monitor. This might sound like a gimmick, but it works surprisingly well. Less important, it lets you keep your FreeSync active even though in normal conditions it should be off.

Bear in mind, however, that “true” 56 FPS will give you a better experience than doubled 28 FPS. But still, this artificial 56 FPS is going to be noticeably better than plain 28 FPS.

LFC is a technique similar to what you’ll find in TVs that boast eg. 240 Hz refresh rates. They ingest a 60-Hz signal and “add” additional frames to enhance the perception of fluidity. In TVs it can sometimes be poorly implemented, rendering horrible images. But in monitors LFC works without any hiccups.

Of course this trick is useful only if you play single-player games. If you’re playing in multiplayer mode, it’ll provide little if any help. What’s more, software like FRAPS won’t show you how LFC is working, though your monitor’s built-in frame counter, if it has one, will. As far as I know, LFC can’t be disabled in Radeon Drivers.

As mentioned earlier, LFC is a mandatory feature of FreeSync 2 HDR monitors. But manufacturers can also choose to implement it in standard FreeSync model as an extra feature.

AMD Enhanced Sync is a technology that nicely complements FreeSync or FreeSync 2 HDR. In a nutshell, it prevents screen tearing when FPS in a game exceeds the monitor’s refresh (eg. 180 FPS on 165 Hz display). Normally in such a scenario you FreeSync would be automatically deactivated; or, to prevent deactivation, you would need to turn on the frame limiter in order to keep the framerate below the refresh rate.

It is worth noting that Enhanced Sync can be enabled independently from FreeSync (2 HDR). And unlike FreeSync, it can be turned on on any monitor, because it is purely a software feature.

For a detailed explanation of Enhanced Sync, see here.

To sum up, if you have FreeSync, LFC and EnhancedSync turned on, synchronization will always be active.

Finally, there is the issue of strobing, a technique that simulates how CRT monitors work in order to reduce ghosting and blurring. It can also bring the input lag below what is theoretically possible for the panel. While this all sounds very good, be aware of the downsides:

  • The image gets darker, because periodically the monitor backlight has to switch off. In effect, the overall brightness of the monitor is lower than normal.
  • It doesn’t work alongside synchronization technologies. So you have to choose between strobing or FreeSync—but you won’t have it both ways.
  • For some users, extended use of strobing can strain the eyes or even cause headaches. You must try it yourself (like 3D cinema) to see if it is your thing.

Strobing can be a good option for competitive players or those who seek ultimate image fluidity—if your body can take it.

HDR

HDR on PCs is not an easy topic, and HDR monitors are still not so popular and slow to enter the market. Remember, above all, that there are various HDR standards and numerous requirements that must be met if this technology is to work on a PC.

If you want more info regarding HDR, I recommend you read my article on the topic. It’s been a while since I wrote it, but it is still up to date.

With the third and last instalment of this series, you will learn about colour gamuts, FRC technology and why $2000 monitors have to degrade their image quality to show what they can do.

Grzegorz Iwan
Grzegorz Iwan
Amateur extreme overclocker from Poland, one of two Poles who broke the 8 GHz CPU clock barrier. Hardware enthusiast and collector, envoy of PCMasterRace philosophy; You can find ivanov's fanpage here.

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