Wrapping It Up

So there you have it. Triple buffering gives you all the benefits of double buffering with no vsync enabled in addition to all the benefits of enabling vsync. We get smooth full frames with no tearing. These frames are swapped to the front buffer only on refresh, but they have just as little input lag as double buffering with no vsync at the start of output to the monitor. Even though "performance" doesn't always get reported right with triple buffering, the graphics hardware is working just as hard as it does with double buffering and no vsync and the end user gets all the benefit with out the potential downside. Triple buffering does take up a handful of extra memory on the graphics hardware, but on modern hardware this is not a significant issue.

Just to recap, from our previous example, here are what the three frames we looked at rendering stack up side by side.


Triple Buffering



Double Buffering



Double Buffering with vsync


We've presented the qualitative argument and the quantitative argument in support of triple buffering. So, now the question is: does this data change things? Are people going to start looking for that triple buffering option more now than without this information? Let's find out.

{poll 135:300}

Regardless of the results, we do hope that this article has been helpful both in explaining an often overlooked option. While it might not be something we test with because of the issues with measuring performance, triple buffering is the setting we prefer to play with. We hope we've helped show our readers why they should give triple buffering a shot as well. 

We also hope more developers will start making triple buffering the default option in their games, as it will deliver the best experience to gamers interested in both quality and performance. There are only a handful of games that include triple buffering as a built in option, and NVIDIA and AMD drivers currently only allow forcing triple buffering in OpenGL games. This really needs to change, as there is no reason we shouldn't see pervasive triple buffering today.

UPDATE: There has been a lot of discussion in the comments of the differences between the page flipping method we are discussing in this article and implementations of a render ahead queue. In render ahead, frames cannot be dropped. This means that when the queue is full, what is displayed can have a lot more lag. Microsoft doesn't implement triple buffering in DirectX, they implement render ahead (from 0 to 8 frames with 3 being the default).

The major difference in the technique we've described here is the ability to drop frames when they are outdated. Render ahead forces older frames to be displayed. Queues can help smoothness and stuttering as a few really quick frames followed by a slow frame end up being evened out and spread over more frames. But the price you pay is in lag (the more frames in the queue, the longer it takes to empty the queue and the older the frames are that are displayed).

In order to maintain smoothness and reduce lag, it is possible to hold on to a limited number of frames in case they are needed but to drop them if they are not (if they get too old). This requires a little more intelligent management of already rendered frames and goes a bit beyond the scope of this article.

Some game developers implement a short render ahead queue and call it triple buffering (because it uses three total buffers). They certainly cannot be faulted for this, as there has been a lot of confusion on the subject and under certain circumstances this setup will perform the same as triple buffering as we have described it (but definitely not when framerate is higher than refresh rate).

Both techniques allow the graphics card to continue doing work while waiting for a vertical refresh when one frame is already completed. When using double buffering (and no render queue), while vertical sync is enabled, after one frame is completed nothing else can be rendered out which can cause stalling and degrade actual performance.

When vsync is not enabled, nothing more than double buffering is needed for performance, but a render queue can still be used to smooth framerate if it requires a few old frames to be kept around. This can keep instantaneous framerate from dipping in some cases, but will (even with double buffering and vsync disabled) add lag and input latency. Even without vsync, render ahead is required for multiGPU systems to work efficiently.

So, this article is as much for gamers as it is for developers. If you are implementing render ahead (aka a flip queue), please don't call it "triple buffering," as that should be reserved for the technique we've described here in order to cut down on the confusion. There are games out there that list triple buffering as an option when the technique used is actually a short render queue. We do realize that this can cause confusion, and we very much hope that this article and discussion help to alleviate this problem.

Digging Deeper: Galloping Horses Example


View All Comments

  • profoundWHALE - Monday, January 19, 2015 - link

    You'll need backlight strobing to get CRT-like performance on LCDs. Take a look at http://www.blurbusters.com/ Reply
  • texkill - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    First, let me sum up the actual advantage of triple buffering: smoothing out variable draw times when game framerate < monitor refresh. That's it.

    This article severely overstates the case for triple buffering when it says "there is an option that combines the best of both worlds with no sacrifice in quality or actual performance." Okay so you want "the best of both worlds" which would be no tearing and minimum input lag? And the example used to prove this is 300 fps on 60hz. Well guess what, I can give you the best of both worlds with something called "waiting a while." See those horse figures at the beginning of each frame in the double-buffer figure? Move them from the beginning of the frame to near the end and viola, input lag is looking good again.

    But actually it gets even better when you add multithreading to a double-buffered solution. Now you not only don't have to draw frames that will *never be seen by any living creature on Earth* (not the default behavior in DirectX btw), you can actually make use of the CPU time that would otherwise be spent in the graphics api to do something useful like physics or AI. You also then don't need to have frames that are drawing when the v-sync happens and causing the input lag and smoothness to vary every single frame (again, not the default DX behavior).

    Triple buffering has its place when drawing times vary and smooth animation is desired. But it should definitely not be blindly demanded of all game developers when most of them already know the tradeoffs and have already made very good judgments on this decision.
  • DerekWilson - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    this is more of an additional advantage. without vsync, double buffering still starts drawing the same frame that triple buffering would start drawing but changes frames in between. throw in vsync and you still get a doubling of worst case added input lag (and an increase in average case input lag too).

    and it's not about drawing the frames that will never be seen -- it's about not seeing frames that are outdated when newer frames can be finished before the next refresh (reducing input lag).

    multithreading still helps triple buffering ... i don't see why that even enters into the situation.

    the game can't know for sure how long a frame will take to render when it starts rendering (otherwise it would know how long it could wait to start the process so that the frame is as new as possible before the next refresh). there is no way to avoid having frames that are being worked on during a vertical refresh.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    VSYNC is really the absolutely worst solution to this problem in my opinion. Let's say you have a game that runs at ~75FPS on average on your system, with VSYNC off. Great. Enable triple buffering and you still get 75FPS average, though some frames will never be seen. Use double buffering with VSYNC and you'll render 60FPS... ideally, at least.

    The problem with VSYNC is that you get lower minimum frame rates, and those become very noticeable. If you're running at 60FPS most of the time, then drop to 30FPS or 20FPS or 15FPS (notice how all of those are an even divisor of 60), those lows become even more distracting. Far more common, unfortunately, is that maintaining 60FPS with many games is very difficult, even with high-end hardware. Rather than getting a smooth 60FPS, what you usually end up with is 30FPS.

    Finally, in cases where the frame rate is much higher than the refresh rate, triple buffering does give you reduced image latency relative to double buffering with VSYNC - though as Derek points out it still has a worst case of 16.7ms (lower than double with VSYNC).
  • zulezule - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    Your comment made me realize that I'd prefer my GPU to render the 60 vsync-ed frames and stay cool, instead of rendering 300 fps (out of which 4/5 are useless), overheat, become noisy and maybe even crash. The only case when I'd want more frames rendered would be when they are used to insert something in the one visible frame, as for example if the 4 invisible frames are averaged with the visible one to create motion blur. However, I'm pretty sure beautiful motion blur can be obtained much more easily. Reply
  • DerekWilson - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    The advantages still exist at a sub 60 FPS level. I just chose 300 FPS to illustrate the idea more easily.

    At less than 60 FPS, the triple buffered case still shows the same performance as double buffering -- they both start rendering the same frame after a refresh. double buffering with vsync still adds more input lag on average than the other cases.
  • Mills - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    You made a good case of something currently impossible (if I understand you correctly) being better than triple buffering but I don't see where you made the case that triple buffering isn't better than double buffering in the case of FPS being much greater than refresh rate.

    The point is, when we are given a choice between double and triple, is there a reason not to choose triple?
  • texkill - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    What's impossible about it?

    Yes, there are drawback to triple buffering. Implement it the way directX does by default and you get input lag. Implement it the way the article suggests and you get wasted cpu and jerky animation. And either way you are sacrificing video memory that could have been used for something else.
  • DerekWilson - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    1) DirectX does not implement triple buffering (render-ahead is not the same and should not be referred to as "triple buffering" when set to 3 frames). The way to think of the DX mess is that they set up a queue to for the back buffer, but there is only one real back buffer and one front buffer (even with 3 frame render ahead, it is essentailly double buffered if we're talking about page flipping).

    2) The triple buffering approach described in this article is the only thing that should actually be called "triple buffering" if we are contrasting it with "double buffering" and referring to page flipping. Additionally, it does not create jerky animation -- the animation will be much smoother than either double buffering with or without vsync (either because frames have less lag or because they don't tear).
  • toyota - Friday, June 26, 2009 - link

    yeah it makes me wonder why both card companies dont even allow it straight from the cp for DX games if there are no drawbacks. also it seems like all game developers would incorporate it in their games if again there were no drawbacks. Reply

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