We often neglect to get too involved in the discussion of what options people should always enable when they play games. Rather, we tend to focus on what we test with. Honestly, our recommended settings for playing the games we test would be very similar to the settings we use to benchmark with one very important exception: we would enable triple buffering (which implies vsync) whenever possible. While it's not an available option in all games, it really needs to be, and we are here to make the case for why gamers should use triple buffering and why developers need to support it.

Most often gamers, when it comes to anything regarding vsync, swear by forcing vsync off in the driver or disabling it in the game. In fact, this is what we do when benchmarking because it allows us to see more clearly what is going on under the hood. Those who do enable vsync typically do so to avoid the visual "tearing" that can occur in some cases despite the negative side effects.

We would like to try something a little different with this article. We'll include two polls, one here and one at the end of the article. This first poll is designed to report what our readers already do with respect to vsync and double versus triple buffering.

{poll 134:300}

After reading the rest of this article, our readers are invited to answer a related poll which is designed to determine if arming gamers with the information this article provides will have any impact on what settings are used from here on out.

First up will be a conceptual review of what double buffering and vsync are, then we'll talk about what triple buffering brings to the table. For those who really want the nitty gritty (or who need more convincing) we will provide follow that up with a deeper dive into each approach complete with some nifty diagrams.

What are Double Buffering, vsync and Triple Buffering?


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  • oralpain - Saturday, June 27, 2009 - link

    Even though I've been well aware of how triple buffering works, and how to enable it, I rarely use it.

    Even on my 60Hz LCDs, I usually have a better subjective experience with vsynch off. Not exactly sure why this is, but higher FSP, even if I'm not seeing the visual effects of it, is worth it over an elemination in the occasional tearing I notice.

    In the handful of games where I do prefer vsych, I've always tried to use triple buffering.
  • billythefisherman - Saturday, June 27, 2009 - link

    Ok triple buffering can undeniably offer benefits in certain situations but saying turn on triple buffering always gives you a better experience is nonsense.

    Take for example the case where you are running under 60hz in this case over an average amount of frames you'll experience exactly the same amount of lag as double buffering with vsync but now you have lost some video memory that could be used to hold that top level mip map your currently staring at and so see a lower quality picture at that point.

    Another problem is that with tripple buffering your lag is unequally distributed because each frame takes a variable amount of time to create/render which could give a wierd feel to your play compared to what you otherwise maybe accustomed to - and it'll get worse with lower frame rates.

    Another problem is that developers may take advantage of this lag on the CPU side of things if they've coded for vsync double buffered (which they invariably will do in most modern games) and know that on faster machine they may have more CPU resources so they may speed up the AI update or process more physics calculations with this left over CPU time.

    Ok they may not but a game engine is not a straight forward simple system that runs everything on the GPU: it consists of many parts all working together to try to produce the lowest lag possible from input to output and a vsynced double buffered scenario provides the easiest environment to tune that system.

    Its no where near as clear cut as this article makes out.
  • DerekWilson - Saturday, June 27, 2009 - link


    "Take for example the case where you are running under 60hz in this case over an average amount of frames you'll experience exactly the same amount of lag as double buffering with vsync"

    This is definitely NOT true at all. you will, in fact, experience the same amount of lag as double buffering WITHOUT vsync. If you real performance is consistently 45 FPS every frame (each frame takes 22.2ms), in triple buffering and double buffering without vsync with both deliver 45 FPS with the same latency for the start of the displayed image. Average latency will be 1.5 frames. BUT double buffered WITH vsync will only give 30 FPS in this case average latency is 2 frames.

    for triple buffering, lag is distributed the same as double buffering without vsync for the top of the displayed frame (above any tearing).

    The CPU side of rendering for rendering's sake is no longer huge, especially with multicore CPUs. The way a developer handles work between frames won't be hampered on the CPU side by a high framerate unless they have done something wrong.

    I intentionally kept this article simple in order to get the concept across and start talking about the subject. I could have included examples of things like 50 FPS, 45 FPS, and 20 FPS with all three page flipping techniques, but I felt it would just get in the way of itself by making the article unnecessarily longer and more complicated -- and all the examples deliver the same information: that triple buffering is equivalent in lag to double buffering without vsync for the top of the frame and the only time you see significant newer info in a double buffered no vsync situation is after a visible tear.

    Developing /for/ the page flipping method is not the most desirable approach... Unless it's triple buffering :-)
  • billythefisherman - Thursday, July 09, 2009 - link

    Example, your monitor is running at 60fps your graphics card is running at 45fps, as they are not in sync because of triple buffering for 2 out of 3 frames the monitor will be displaying the same frame, at best the user sees 40 new frames per second.

    Ok thats more frames but if your looking at what is arguably more important: the amount of lag between your input being sampled and the results being displayed then you see that your no better off.

    For example lets assume your input on the game side is locked to the GPU which is typically the case in triple buffering or without vsync setup.

    If the GPU is running at a constant 45fps you will see on the first frame 0 lag between the last frame being displayed. The last sample of your analogue input will be lets say for sake of simplicity ~16.667ms ago.

    On the second frame the monitor will display the same frame becuase the GPU has finished rendering and so will be displaying input from ~33.334ms ago ie the frame will be now ~16.667ms old.

    On the third frame the monitor will now display the first new frame rendered since the start which will now be 8.3335ms old (at constant 45fps) ie the input sampled is now ~25.00ms old.

    With double buffered vsync on, your input on frame one will be 16.667ms old and on the second frame it will be 33.334ms old then on the third frame it repeats ie it will be 16.667ms old again etc.

    Multiply this out over a 60fps ie 20*1667+20*33.334+20*25.002=~1500 and 30*16.667+30*33.334=~1500 and as you can see the lag between your input being sampled and it being displayed is on average the same.

    All the game systems such as physics etc running on the CPU will have similar lag time characteristics - you won't see that much difference from frame to frame and now with triple buffering your sampling at uneven periods of time which could give undesirable effects.
  • billythefisherman - Thursday, July 09, 2009 - link

    Sorry correction:


    On the second frame the monitor will display the same frame becuase the GPU *hasn't* finished rendering

  • Nighteye2 - Saturday, June 27, 2009 - link

    It looks like Triple Buffering, while delivering good results, also involves a lot of excess rendering of frames that never get displayed.

    Unlike double buffering with vsync, where every rendered frame gets displayed.

    It should be possible to get triple buffer performance with double buffering and vsync - by predicting how long it takes to render a frame (based on render time of the previous frame and a small margin), the computer could delay drawing the next frame instead of starting to draw it immediately. If the rendering of the frame gets finished just in time instead of shortly after the last refresh, it would eliminate the display lag.
  • DerekWilson - Saturday, June 27, 2009 - link

    When framerate is less than 60 FPS, triple buffering doesn't spin off into oblivion doing work no one sees -- it maintains the same performance of double buffering without vsync but avoids tearing. predicting rendering time isn't a viable option at this point for games ... Reply
  • Nighteye2 - Saturday, June 27, 2009 - link

    If it renders 300 frames and only 60 frames get shown, doesn't that mean 240 excess frames have been rendered?

    It would be better to conserve energy and have the GPU run less hot by rendering less frames, while still getting the exact same output on the screen...
  • Scalarscience - Saturday, June 27, 2009 - link

    I'm late into this so I don't know if Derek (or anyone else) will get around to responding, but there's 2 things I thought I might bring up. I'll post the second as a separate post in case actual discussion ensues...

    First, the comments have established the differences between 'render ahead' & Double/Triple buffering in DirectX fairly well. But for the people who are actually trying this, the situation is imo potentially confusing. For instance, does forcing triple buffering+vsync via Rivatuner's utility (for games with no native implementation) still keep the default render-ahead setting (ie, 3 frames?) If so then this indeed is the source of a huge latency penalty.

    Even with games that implement Triple Buffering themselves in DirectX, there seems to be some variance and it would be nice for devs to publish their implementation (Valve?) and how it interacts with the 'render ahead' control panel setting. I always find that for FPS (online or otherwise) setting the render ahead for DirectX to 2 instead of 3 helps the game's 'feel', though I do put it back to the default of 3 for single player games where the eye candy is making my machine struggle (and I'm willing to trade some performance for keeping the graphics cranked up.)

    Now some games will have their OWN 'render ahead' implementation, like UT3 and other Unreal3 engine games. I've had to not only set 'render ahead' to 2 but also dig into UT3's ini and disable it's native 'one frame render queue' setting (or whatever it is.) The last major update did bring that into the GUI settings finally.

    So the question there is how does the DirectX render queue & vsync + double/triple buffering interact? I'm guessing there's at least a few variations in that answer and I would love a discussion or article that begins with the early 3d games (Quake engine, Unreal engine then Source etc) and moves forward in time covering the mainstays in modern FPS games.
  • DerekWilson - Saturday, June 27, 2009 - link

    Let me preface this with: I'm unsure what game developers actually do at this point. If there is enough interest for an article, I'll try and sit down with some game developers and ask them about this.

    But this is what they /should/ do when combining render ahead with triple buffering.

    Start by rendering into the queue. Every vertical refresh, you send the oldest fully completed frame to the front buffer. If you fill up the queue before the next vertical refresh, drop the oldest frame and start rendering another newer one. Continue this until the next vertical refresh comes along.

    The game always renders to whatever buffer is marked current, and front buffer is always swapped with the buffer marked oldest.

    You still end up with a high potential latency of (16.67ms * queue_length) but depending on how the game handles it, this could potentially only happen when frametime >= (16.67ms * queue_lenght) anyway. The minimum latency in this case is longer than without the render ahead queue as well ...

    but there could be some flexibility in maintaining a minimum number of frames in the queue or even keeping it full until frametime severely dips ... there might be some ways to use this to help SLI/CF play nicer with triple buffering as well. Not that multiGPU needs anything to add more potential lag or anything ...

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