Until the launch of the Radeon RX 6000 series earlier this year, AMD’s Radeon GPUs were not exactly competitive with Nvidia’s top-end GeForce RTX series. Performance was generally not as good, and there was no support for ray tracing, the hot new technology that everyone’s talking about. It takes a combination of hardware and software to not only perform ray tracing, but also compensate for the strain it puts on a GPU. Now that the red team has finally delivered the kind of hardware that fans want, it’s time to fill in the missing pieces of the strategy – and AMD is calling it FidelityFX Super Resolution, or FSR.
AMD FSR upscaling: Two competitors, two strategies
Ray tracing in PC games has been around for a few years now, with Nvidia taking a decisive lead over AMD with the release of its GeForce RTX 20 series graphics cards in late 2018. While adoption has been slow and limited in scope, the difference it can make in graphics quality is really starting to become a reason for people to want to upgrade from older hardware. You can now get much more realistic-looking lighting effects, shadows, reflections, explosions, and more in games.
This does come at a huge cost to performance – enabling ray tracing can cause frame rates to plummet. Nvidia addressed this issue by launching DLSS, or Deep Learning Super Sampling, at the same time that it rolled out ray tracing. What this does is allow games to be rendered at lower resolutions in the background, which reduces the burden on the GPU. That output is then upscaled in realtime using dedicated machine learning hardware and algorithms to match the original target resolution. To the gamer, there should be little to no drop in visual quality, which you would otherwise have to live with after reducing the resolution.
By reducing the load on the GPU this way, its power can be diverted to things like ray tracing, and even without that, those with lower-end hardware can experience better performance on larger monitors. DLSS is Nvidia’s proprietary technology and works only with GeForce RTX GPUs, which have so far been relatively expensive.
AMD finally implemented ray tracing with its Radeon RX 6000 series earlier this year, but without an equivalent feature, which meant there has so far been no way to compensate for the performance drop. FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) is now here to fill that gap. It’s a new feature that developers can implement in their games to achieve the same objective as DLSS. However, it doesn’t require machine learning, specific training routines for each game, or special-purpose logic within the GPU. FSR instead uses simple spatial image upscaling, and for that reason it works on a wide variety of hardware.
FSR vs DLSS: Supported hardware and games
While DLSS only works with Nvidia’s premium GeForce RTX 20- and 30-series GPUs, FSR can be enabled on a wide range of hardware, from Radeon GPUs going back as far as the Radeon RX 400 series to all Ryzen desktop and mobile processors with onboard graphics – and yes, even Nvidia’s GeForce RTX as well as GeForce GTX 16- and 10-series models. There’s even mention of the older GTX 900 series in some AMD documentation, indicating that it might work. Intel’s integrated GPUs are not officially supported yet, but should work, and its upcoming discrete gaming GPU will likely fit into this landscape too.
There are currently dozens of games that support DLSS, including many of today’s most high-profile PC titles – Cyberpunk 2077, Crysis Remastered, Metro: Exodus, CoD: Black Ops Cold War, Watch Dogs: Legion, Control, Death Stranding, No Man’s Sky, Rainbox Six Siege, and even Fortnite. Support has very recently been added to Doom Eternal and Red Dead Redemption 2, with more new and old games added to the list regularly. There’s also integration with popular content creation software and game engines. Clearly, DLSS has established a foothold.
On the other hand, AMD launched FSR with only seven games– Godfall might be the most high-profile example. The rest are Anno 1800, Terminator: Resistance, Kingshunt, 22 Racing Series, The Riftbreaker, and Evil Genius 2. Dota 2, Arcadegetton, and Necromunda: Hired Gun recently received patches enabling FSR, bringing the total up to 10. A few more are confirmed to release or add support soon, including Far Cry 6, Resident Evil Village, Myst, Baldur’s Gate 3, and Farming Simulator 22.
A huge number of game developers and studios are also on board and have released statements praising FSR, including EA, Ubisoft, Capcom, Warner Bros Games, Valve, Nixxes, and Crystal Dynamics. On top of that, AMD’s current-gen RDNA2 Radeon architecture is also used in current-gen game consoles, the Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5, the Google Stadia cloud service, the just-announced Steam Deck, and upcoming flagship-class Samsung Exynos SoCs with Radeon graphics as well. There are plenty of situations in which gamers will benefit from improved performance, even if it isn’t compensating for ray tracing.
So despite a slow start, AMD has two big advantages already – first, FSR is open source, and second, a broad base of existing hardware will work with it. Developers have very little reason not to implement it, considering that pretty much everyone can benefit. FSR could very well end up being something we just expect to see in every game’s graphics options panel.
Of course, what really matters is how well all this works. There are no games that support both DLSS and FSR at the moment, so it isn’t possible to pit these two solutions against each other. What we’re looking at today is just how much of a difference FSR makes to performance, and whether the image quality tradeoffs are worth it.
AMD FSR: How it works
AMD’s approach to upscaling works entirely within the GPU shader pipeline, which means no dedicated hardware is required. No AI training is required and no information from previous frames is used to anticipate what needs to come next. Geometry doesn’t need to be rendered separately. FSR works primarily by identifying the edges of objects in each frame, reconstructing the frame based on those coordinates and intensities, and then sharpening the output. This simply becomes an extra step inserted partway through the rendering process. AMD recommends that developers implement FSR after the tone mapping stage and before applying visual effects.
Gamers don’t need to do anything special to set up FSR – no new drivers are needed and there are no GPU settings to be tweaked. It’s open source, so there’s no licensing barrier, and it will work across DirectX 11, DirectX 12, and Vulkan APIs. Unity and Unreal Engine will soon have integrated support. AMD officially says it should take less than a day to implement FSR in a game, depending on game engine.
Developers can choose how to present FSR options to gamers within their games’ video quality settings menus. The recommended approach is to offer five quality settings: Native (FSR disabled), Ultra Quality, Quality, Balanced, and Performance. These determine the difference between the render and target resolutions, or in other words, the extent of scaling that will be required based on how much you reduce the render resolution. At Ultra Quality, scaling is only 1.3X per axis, so if you want 4K (3840×2160) output, the game will actually be rendered at and upscaled from 2954×1662. If you slide down to Performance mode, the game will be rendered at 1920×1080 which means it will be upscaled 2X on each axis to get back to 4K on your screen.
If your output resolution is less than 1080p, FSR might not make sense at all. It also requires Antialiasing to be set as high as possible, since it relies on edge detection – you might see degraded image quality if this isn’t possible. As for downsides, AMD says there’s virtually no performance overhead – between 0.2ms and 1ms depending on your GPU’s strength and the settings you choose. Still, extremely sensitive pro gamers might not want to use FSR. AMD also recommends disabling Radeon Image Sharpening and any other custom sharpening filters, which can be overkill if the two are combined.
Of course none of this matters if a game looks much worse with FSR enabled than without. We’re now going to test the various settings on a variety of different GPUs, using some of the games that support it at launch time.
AMD FSR: Testing and impressions
We’ll be using two games throughout our test process – Anno 1800 and Godfall. AMD provided pre-release codes for these games for the purpose of evaluating FSR. Resolutions vary between tests and GPUs, and the highest game quality settings were used for all discrete GPUs. Both of these games are resource-intensive and can pose a challenge to even the most modern GPUs when running at 4K with all the quality settings turned up. Both offer synthetic benchmarks that run through exactly the same scenarios each time, making it much easier to compare performance across platforms and sessions. Godfall even supports ray tracing. In the tables below, you’ll see performance scores for both games running with FSR disabled as well as at the least and most aggressive settings, Ultra Quality and Performance respectively.
For this demonstration, I pulled out a bunch of hardware both old and new, to see how well FSR works in different situations. First, we begin with a standard PC test bench, consisting of an an AMD Ryzen 2700 CPU, ASRock X470 Taichi Ultimate motherboard, 2x8GB of G.Skill F4-3400C16D-16GSXW DDR4 RAM, a 1TB Samsung 860 Evo SSD, and a Corsair RM650 power supply. The monitor was a 4K Asus PB287Q. All Windows and driver updates were applied before testing began.
On this test bench, we’ll first pop in our Sapphire Nitro+ Radeon RX 590 graphics card. The RX 500 series is one of the oldest generations of AMD GPUs that FSR supports officially, so it will make for an interesting study. We see that both games struggle at 4K. FSR is able to raise frame rates dramatically, but we’re still below the ideal threshold for smooth gameplay. At 1440p, you can see that frame rates rise to the point that you can actually play Anno 1800 very comfortably, although Godfall didn’t see quite as much of an improvement. As for visual quality, there are definitely rougher edges and fuzzier textures. Anno 1800 didn’t look too different at any of the quality settings, but the decline was more evident in Godfall.
Jumping all the way to AMD’s latest GPU series, we also have a reference Radeon RX 6800 card on the same test rig. Here we see an enormous generational difference – base frame rates with FSR disabled are not bad, but there’s still room for improvements. Godfall seemed to hit a wall at around 85fps, not improving at any settings, which might be due to a bottleneck with the rest of our hardware. With ray tracing enabled, there isn’t a huge dip in the non-FSR frame rate, but even that can be negated with minimal upscaling using the Ultra Quality setting. Anno 1800 on the other hand posted significant frame rate improvements.
Of course we had to test a few Nvidia GPUs as well. It seemed like a good idea to go with a GeForce GTX 1070, which does not support DLSS or RTX ray tracing, and could be considered at or near the end of its useful life if you’re a demanding gamer. You don’t need to even update drivers or do anything to enable FSR – it’s simply an option in each game’s settings menu, so you can just turn it on and choose your preferred mode. Five years after its launch, this GPU gets a new lease of life. Neither Godfall nor Anno 1800 are playable at 4K at their highest settings without FSR, but you could actually pull that off using the Performance mode. 1440p is more realistic, and the jump in frame rates is very impressive.
Switching things up a little, we move to a two-year-old Asus ROG Strix Scar II (GL504GV) laptop, which has a mobile GeForce RTX 2060 GPU, Intel Core i7-8750H CPU, 16GB of DDR4 RAM, and a 15.6-inch 1920×1080 screen with a 144Hz refresh rate. Obviously, we test only at this resolution, which is lower than the targets we had set for our desktop rig. What’s most interesting here is that you can really start to see differences in visual quality at 1080p. Godfall in particular looked awful when running in the Performance mode – with such a low render resolution, there just isn’t much to work with. Frame rates also only improved slightly, so this is a tradeoff that I personally wouldn’t make. Both Godfall and Anno 1800 showed relatively conservative performance improvements – making FSR nice to have, but not as much of a game-changer.
Finally, we go all the way down to a Ryzen 5 2400G APU with integrated Radeon Vega 11 graphics. Why? Because we can. It’s plugged into a Gigabyte AB350N-Gaming WiFi motherboard with 16GB of DDR4 RAM. AMD’s Ryzen APUs already deliver impressive graphics performance and if that can be boosted even further, plenty of budget-constrained gamers will be happy. I took the quality down to the Medium preset in Anno 1800, which is more appropriate for this entry-level hardware. The game did recommend overriding this and bumping antialiasing up from 2X to 4X when FSR was enabled. Godfall needed to be dropped down to Low quality. As you can see from the scores, both games showed only marginal performance difference with FSR set to Ultra Quality, but there’s a noticeable improvement in Performance mode. Visual quality does suffer, but maybe the tradeoff will be okay for you.
Clearly, FSR works. It does help games run faster, and it takes zero effort for gamers to enable. However, it isn’t a magic solution that will drastically increase the performance of all kinds of hardware in all situations. As we can see, results vary considerably across GPUs of different tiers and ages. There is some visible degradation in terms of textures and definition, and the extent of this also varies. It generally works great at 4K, but the tradeoff can be severe at 1080p.
It’s hard to quantify the extent to which FSR can make up for the performance penalty that ray tracing imposes- more games need to roll out support for this to be tested. What we can see is fewer stutters and dropped frames, which means higher average frame rates and a smoother overall experience – which is well worth trading a little visual fidelity for. Looking at the scores, we can see roughly linear frame rate improvements in many (but not all) cases – 1.3X increases in Ultra Quality mode and 2X in Performance mode.
With that said, if you spend ages analysing frames side by side, you’ll certainly find visible differences. Rather than enabling FSR, you might simply reduce quality settings to boost frame rates – you’ll have to experiment and see what works best for each game on your PC. Low-end hardware does get a boost, but even that isn’t simply going to make an unplayable game buttery smooth.
There’s no way to directly compare FSR against DLSS, at least not yet. If games do support both in the future, it will be interesting to see how different they look. A number of huge names in the game development industry are on board, and so FSR could just become a de facto standard. Since it’s open source, companies could use the underlying tech but call it something different and expose controls in different ways.
Could DLSS become redundant? It’s highly unlikely, but remains to be seen. Will developers keep supporting it if FSR is easier to implement and serves the same purpose? There’s a parallel in Nvidia’s proprietary G-Sync vs AMD’s cheekily named FreeSync variable refresh rate tech – Nvidia does have a market for its more premium implementation, but has also had to embrace AMD’s open-standards approach after it became commonplace.
For gamers, FSR comes at a great time. New graphics cards continue to sell for double their MSRPs or more, thanks to cryptocurrency mining demand, global manufacturing constraints, and scalping. Anything that helps boost performance without requiring a hardware upgrade is extremely welcome. In India especially, FSR will help gamers with budget constraints extend the useful lives of their purchases, and experience the kind of performance that simply hasn’t been possible on low-end hardware before. If FSR is adopted widely, we’ll also see new possibilities for gaming on the newly announced Steam Deck and potential similar consoles; upcoming Exynos-powered flagship phones; and of course low-cost laptops and PCs.