Kicking off what’s set to be a busy May, this morning the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA), the PC display industry’s primary consortium, is rolling out a new set of performance standards for variable refresh rate displays. Dubbed AdaptiveSync and MediaSync, these new test standards are designed to offer an industry-neutral and open specification for the behavior and performance of DisplayPort displays. AdaptiveSync is a standard designed for high-end gaming displays, while MediaSync is aimed at eliminating video jitter on a much wider array of devices.

As a quick refresher, just under 8 years ago VESA introduced their Adaptive-Sync specification for DisplayPort monitors. Based on earlier variable refresh rate technology designed for embedded DisplayPort (eDP), Adaptive-Sync extended that technology to allow for full variable refresh rate operation as we have since come to know it in PC and laptop displays.

And while the introduction of Adaptive-Sync greatly increased the number of monitors with variable refresh rate capabilities on the market, it hasn’t been an entirely smooth experience. AMD was an early promotor of the technology with their Freesync initiative, which essentially piggybacked their own promotion and certification program on top of Adaptive-Sync, but also muddled things some with a Freesync HDMI standard and a weak base certification. Meanwhile NVIDIA was quite late to the game, though they did finally embrace support for the VESA standard in 2019 – adding Adaptive-Sync support alongside their existing proprietary G-Sync standard. But even after this, it’s left AMD and NVIDIA dueling to an extent with different standards and certification processes (and Intel looking on as the odd man out).

All the while, Adaptive-Sync-capable displays have been hit and miss, with a large variety in supported refresh rate ranges and a lot of inconsistency in how well variable refresh actually worked. Even today there are still displays that support variable refresh rates but deliver a subpar experience when doing so. All of this has hurt VESA’s efforts to promote the adoption of Adaptive-Sync technology, and ultimately for variable refresh displays to proliferate and be used to solve issues such as frame jitter.

To that end, today VESA is stepping in and will be taking on a much more active role in the standardization and marketing of Adaptive-Sync monitors. Recognizing that supporting the Adaptive-Sync feature alone isn’t enough, and that a good experience with a variable refresh rate monitor also requires boundaries and minimums in terms of performance, the group has put together two new logo programs to certify the performance of Adaptive-Sync displays. Or, as the group likes to put it, these new programs set standards for “front-of-screen performance”.

The primary purpose of these new logo programs is to help buyers identify monitors that proficiently implement Adaptive-Sync. There is also a secondary purpose of helping VESA’s member companies clearly communicate to those buyers that their variable refresh rate monitors are, to put it politely, legitimately good, since implementing Adaptive-Sync doesn’t come with any quality guarantees. This of course is an area that both NVIDIA and AMD have a hand in, with their G-Sync and Freesync certification programs respectively, with a mixed history of results thanks to multiple standards and the use of proprietary technologies. Consequently, VESA wants to do what neither of them already do in making a set of open standards that aren’t tied to a specific manufacturer, and rely purely on DisplayPort’s Adaptive-Sync technology.

VESA, in turn, is essentially going to be tackling the subject from both ends of the spectrum. At the high-end will be the new VESA Certified AdaptiveSync display standard, which is designed to be a conformance standard for high-end gaming displays and has some very tight requirements to match. At the other end of the spectrum is VESA Certified MediaSync, which is a far simpler specification aimed at flagging displays that offer basic and effective variable refresh rate support for media consumption purposes – and with no emphasis on gaming whatsoever. In practice, AdaptiveSync is a superset of MediaSync , so while both standards exist on the market you won’t see displays that are logo’d for both; if a display meets AdaptiveSync standards, then it’s more than good enough to also meet the needs of media playback.

AdaptiveSync: LFC, No Flicker, and No Shenanigans

We’ll start things off with a look at the high-end AdaptiveSync display standard. Designed for gaming displays (or more specifically, “gaming frame rates”), AdaptiveSync is a conformance test that takes a look at a number of factors. Not only are basic features such as refresh rates defined in the standards, but also standards for flicker (or rather the absence thereof), dropped frames, jitter, pixel response times (G2G), and ghosting/overshoot/undershoot. Short of HDR functionality (which is a whole other kettle of fish for numerous reasons), AdaptiveSync covers all the relevant requirements for a high-end gaming display.

All of which has come as a bit of a surprise to me. When VESA first informed me that they were working on a quality standard for variable refresh displays, I’ll freely admit that I was skeptical. The consensus-driven nature of the group means that VESA performance standards have at times been held back by the need to please hardware manufacturers who want to have many (if not all) of their products meet a new standard. This has most explicitly been the case for DisplayHDR certification, which although a technically sound program at the higher tiers, is harmed by the existence of the DisplayHDR 400 tier, making the DisplayHDR branding on its own kind of meaningless.

This is clearly something VESA has taken to heart, as, much to my surprise, AdaptiveSync isn’t making any such compromises. Instead, the group has gone all-in on developing a high-end specification that isn’t watered down to encompass or qualify more basic displays. As a result, most Adaptive-Sync-capable displays on the market right now won’t meet AdaptiveSync display standards, and even most gaming displays are likely going to fail as well. VESA set out to create a high-end standard, and they are clearly sticking to their guns on the matter to the very end.

And to be sure, the AdaptiveSync display standard is merely a performance standard – it does not define any new technologies. So the standard can be used to test and certify existing PC monitors, integrated displays (AIO PCs), and laptop displays, so long as those devices are hooked up via a DisplayPort/eDP standard. It should be noted that this technically means the AdaptiveSync standard only applies to the DisplayPort input on a device and not the HDMI inputs. But, as 99% of the hard work in delivering a good variable refresh rate experience occurs under the hood with components like the TCON and backlight, I would be surprised to see this be an issue.

Refresh Rates: 60-144 Minimum, LFC Required

Diving into the AdaptiveSync display standard itself, VESA has started things with significant refresh rate requirements. A compliant display needs to support a variable refresh rate range of at least 60Hz to 144Hz – the minimum, magical 2.4x range needed for low framerate compensation (LFC) support. Displays can go below this for the minimum (e.g. 48Hz) and above that for the maximum (see: 360Hz displays), but 60-144 is the smallest range that qualifies. And it must be out of the box; displays that need to be “overclocked” in any fashion to meet the minimums won’t quality. That goes for all testing, in fact, as AdaptiveSync certification testing is conducted with monitors running at their native resolution and set to their default, out-of-the-box configuration.

Along those lines, VESA is also testing for dropped frames, as there have apparently been some monitors that are accepting more frames than they can actually display. As a result, the conformance test looks for dropped frames both at fixed and variable refresh rates, to ensure every frame is being displayed.

Flicker: Testing Min to Max, and Everything In Between

The second major focus area for the AdaptiveSync conformance test is display flicker, which essentially covers a whole suite of display and backlight anomalies that can occur with variable refresh rate displays. Using a dedicated probe (presumably a photodiode), VESA’s testing regime looks for evidence of visible flicker, with a technical requirement of no more than -50 dB of flicker no matter the refresh rate. Here VESA is relying on the Japan Electronic Information Technology Association’s (JEITA) existing perception-based method for calculating flicker, which is weighted to look at the frequencies human eyes are most sensitive to.

The test, in turn, breaks things up into looking for flicker at common frame rates/refresh rates for media (23.976fps/71.928Hz, etc) and at the panel’s minimum refresh rate, as well as running several tests for flicker in full variable refresh rate scenarios, where the refresh rate is changing from frame to frame.

The conformance test for variable refresh mode relies on four refresh rate patterns in order to ensure displays can properly handle both slowly and quickly-changing refresh rates. Those patterns are a sinewave, a zigzag pattern, a square wave, and finally a full random test. According to VESA, the square wave test in particular is especially brutal since it calls for rapidly switching between minimum and maximum refresh rates. The random test is also quite capable of tripping up monitors, since it can have displays switching to significantly different refresh rates in one go, instead of smoothly ramping up or down.

And while the AdaptiveSync display conformance test doesn’t have an explicit test for backlight or gamma flicker (a somewhat common problem in early Adaptive-Sync displays), according to the group, they believe their flicker test should be sensitive enough to pick up on those specific phenomena.

G2G Response Times, MediaSync, & Closing Thoughts
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  • DanNeely - Tuesday, May 3, 2022 - link

    They did it backwards compared to HDR which started with the HDR1000 and 600 standards that actually required premium hardware to implement and then added HDR400 which any garbage with a high powered backlight can get a checkbox for.

    With variable refresh, their initial standard is the garbage tier anyone can meet with minimal effort; now they're adding in house premium standards on top.
  • Oxford Guy - Wednesday, May 4, 2022 - link

    The premium experience of having a million nits burn ads into one’s brain!
  • haukionkannel - Friday, May 6, 2022 - link

    The pity is that even HDR1000 can be garbage...

    The standard has been done so poorly that it has no meaning!
  • Oxford Guy - Monday, May 2, 2022 - link

    1. Is it possible for VA panels to meet the pixel transition speed spec, or is this a way for IPS to kill VA competition in gaming displays?

    IPS has much lower contrast and almost no IPS displays ship with a polarizer to fix IPS glow. IPS panels may also tend to have worse uniformity since the panel production method involves rubbing. Some buyers may be happier with some of the transitions being slow to gain the advantages VA has. VA panels tend to have a few transitions that are really slow. Those could prevent them from meeting the average VESA is using.

    2. ‘60-144 is the smallest range that qualifies.’

    That seems ridiculous, considering how important it is to handle rates below 60 FPS. What am I missing?

    I thought main point of variable refresh has been to smooth the experience of frame rates below 60. A major problem has been displays not going low enough.
  • Ryan Smith - Monday, May 2, 2022 - link

    "That seems ridiculous, considering how important it is to handle rates below 60 FPS. What am I missing?"

    Low Framerate Compensation (LFC). Any framerates below 60 will just have the frames get doubled (or tripled) to bring the framerate in line with the refresh rate range of the monitor.
  • Oxford Guy - Tuesday, May 3, 2022 - link

    Is that part of this new spec?

    What is the minimum framerate that the spec demands? I believe I recall reading complaints about some monitors not going low enough.
  • Oxford Guy - Wednesday, May 4, 2022 - link

    I think I understand how it works but the article confused me because it says:

    ‘A compliant display needs to support a variable refresh rate range of at least 60Hz to 144Hz – the minimum, magical 2.4x range needed for low framerate compensation (LFC) support. Displays can go below this for the minimum (e.g. 48Hz) and above that for the maximum (see: 360Hz displays), but 60-144 is the smallest range that qualifies.’

    Why bring up 48Hz at all, if frames are going to be doubled or tripled below 60? Is it that a display can have a native range below 60 and LFC only kicks in below that?

    Does doubling/tripling of frames cause input/processing latency?
  • RSAUser - Saturday, May 7, 2022 - link

    Brought up because movies are at ~24, show each frame twice for 48.
  • Oxford Guy - Saturday, May 7, 2022 - link

    So this spec should have gone down to 48?
  • haakon_k - Monday, May 2, 2022 - link

    This is certainly the best news i've read in along time. Thank you, thank you, thank you VESA for doing this - and thank you Ryan for your piece on it.

    I've been a proponent for better refresh rates since CRT days, but from my first LCD more than 20y ago, I also longed for anything over 60 in those too. In my opinion that could have been dealt with already then, so this is like 15-20 years late in my book. The last 10y's or so with higher refresh has been very good so far (got a 3440x1440 144hz 1,5y ago myself), but now we also need better standards to know what's what. The 1ms advertising is ridiculous and useless for consumers.

    I - for one - will make a toast to this standard being useful and applicable - let's hope there's not gonna be too many 1.1's and 1.4a's and all that!

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