Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Turn Your 1080p/1440p Monitor into 4K! Or, How to Play 4K Media on 1080p/2.5K TV's!

Wouldn't it be amazing to play videos and games in 4K? Of course it would, but how many of us can afford to do that right now? What if I told you playing 4K videos and games on a 1080p monitor or TV was possible? If you're intrigued you might be asking, "But why would you do that?" Or more importantly, "How would you do that?" Today I will explain not only why, but how; and for many of us this won't require more than a couple clicks of the mouse!

Upscale vs. Downscale
To begin I should explain upscaling and downscaling in terms of media content. Upscaling is a common practice of taking media and enlarging it to a bigger resolution size. Many Blu-ray players have this technology built-in so that DVD's can be upscaled from 480p to 1080p. Upscaling devices were a pretty common item in days of yore, now media devices like Blu-ray players and TV's try to incorporate these technologies. While upscaling can be done with any media, the technologies created for upscaling are normally meant to process those media streams at increased quality and detail so that the enlargement does not show aliasing or any type of blemishes that would ruin the viewing experience.

Just as common is downscaling. Devices normally do this for you. For instance, if you have a video that plays at 1080p on your PC and you put it on your 720p phone, the phone will not crop out the image to fit it, it will merely shrink it down to 720p. Most people who worry about a 1080p video storage size will use a converter to downscale their video to 720p beforehand.

DSR (Dynamic Super Resolution) and VSR (Virtual Super Resolution) are respectively NVIDIA and AMD's new technology features that allows a mixture of upscaling and downscaling for gaming and media content. Who would want to do that? Well, this type of downscaling is meant for people who are using 1080p or 1440p (2.5K) monitors. With these technologies enabled the game will be upscaled and processed at 4K but then downscaled to fit at 1080p or 1440p resolution.

This sounds like a waste of time, but it's something that could be quite useful. Think of a picture at a certain size. When you shrink that image down the quality just seems to be that much greater. This is the same concept for this technology. You get the 4K quality on a lesser screen, which should make it look better than if just played at 1080p or 1440p.

Media Streaming
Although graphic cards are really aimed more towards gamers, why shouldn't regular consumers have any fun? Even though these technologies are meant for the satisfaction of gamers, we can use DSR or VSR for streaming video too!

Enabling DSR or VSR is not something that's done in-game, it's done to the entire viewing experience of your operating system. Meaning, once one of the two technologies has been activated, your entire computer from your desktop to your folders will be resized to 4K. This can be useful for those who work with 4K media on a monitor that is 1080p or 1440p. And if you just happen to watch a lot of video at 2.5K resolutions or higher, this could be your savior.

I am not sure if much of anything is done when it comes to videos as games are a different beast. They need to be processed on the go depending on the user's inclination. A video is already processed, it has no variables to deal with; it simply needs to be played.

That being said, I did a quick test. I downloaded a 4K nature video and played it on both 1080p and 4K (DSR). With 1080p it did look phenomenal. I chalked this up to having automatically being forced to fit my 1080p screen. However, the 4K looked spectactular as well. I had to watch the video a few times to really see the difference, which is much harder to do when you are using fullscreen on the exact same monitor (or TV in my case). It was hard to tell, but after examining certain areas of specific shots, I could tell the detail seemed a bit higher in 1080p. This is perfect, as this is what you would expect when comparing 1080p footage scaled down from 4K. For me, this verifies that DSR does successfully work on media.

Who Do You Work For?
For AMD enthusiasts, this apparently only works for the R9 285, R9 290, R9 290X, or R9 295x2 - for the time being. AMD may have had to rush this feature to market since NVIDIA had already released DSR. I have read that NVIDIA actually stole the idea of DSR from AMD, which may shed some light as to why so few cards have been selected. Others have said they based their technology on the free GeDoSaTo patch [a mod for Dark Souls 2 that performs downscaling]. I have not found a credible source to back up either rumor.

Unlike VSR, DSR works on numerous graphic cards. It supposedly works on all series 400 through 900 models. In a NVIDIA article it first states 500-900, then immediately after states the 400 series works as well. In either case, Fermi, Kepler, and Maxwell cards should work without issue.

Drawbacks, Issues, Complaints?
Beyond the obvious VSR complaint of graphic cards support, there are a few on the NVIDIA side. Whether these are because DSR is still in its infancy, released too early in an attempt to beat their competitor, or just items within their margin of error, is beyond me.

The first I have come across is SLI support. Some have been lucky enough to get DSR working with SLI, while others have not. I read a thread where the GTX 970's were not allowing the cards to activate DSR while in SLI, but others had no problems whatsoever. This was from a few months ago so maybe the kinks have been ironed out...

As a followup to SLI, those who have gotten it to work have also run into the problem of getting the correct resolution to display from DSR, helping add insult to injury. If you happen to read this and have this same issue, you can check out this Geforce forum thread which should apply as a workaround. You can find the referred to Custom Resolution Utility here.

Another was the frame rates in comparison to VSR. I watched a video where DSR was battling it out with VSR. The card using VSR had a decent amount of frames over DSR, making DSR seem like it was just a slightly dumbed-down version of VSR. But the point of contention here is that VSR would be using a R9 285 or any from the R9 290 family, but there are numerous GTX models that could be used for DSR. For all we know it could have been a GTX 770 and a R9 290, where the R9 290 should have little issue pulling out a victory.

Adding one more to the AMD side of things, it seems that VSR gives you a couple extra resolution sizes for the R9 285. This is because the R9 285 is based on the newer Tonga architecture, while the R9 290 family is still part of the Hawaii family. This really puts a hurt on AMD because even though the R9 285 is newer, you would think that the R9 290 family - being the more powerful in performance of the two (for now) - would be the one to have more resolution options. Only having a few graphic cards able to utilize VSR is painful enough, but this additional "flaw" just makes it that much worse. One can only hope that this will be rectified soon (possibly when the 390X drops).

The Key to Magic is Misdirection
The pluses of DSR and VSR should outweigh any drawbacks that currently exist, especially since it should improve over time. But while the known issues are something to work on, what about what DSR and VSR lack?

The biggest gripe I have is clarity. I love the thought of having a larger resolution size running through my 1080p TV, but the actuality of it is that it's not great to keep as a permanent viewing experience. 4K makes everything far too small for my tastes, and even just a bump up from 1080p with 15% smoothing [on DSR] is still too straining to my eyes.

On top of that is the cursor offset when going "up" to 4K. I would have to go a bit below what I wanted to select in order for it to highlight, making it impossible to be a daily driver. The problem only lessened if the resolution was dropped to something lower.

There have been tests done comparing 1080p gameplay to downscaled 4K gameplay. There was around an 8 frame difference from what I could tell. For those who are about getting the highest frame rates possible, or are struggling just to keep 1080p or 1440p frame rates high, this could be an issue. For others who have maxed out their frame rates, or don't care, then it is likely not relevant.

Another concern is that while the upscaling/downscaling feature is great for monitors of lower resolution, it does nothing for those who have 4K and are trying to downscale to lower resolutions. Many complain that the normal downscale of most monitors just makes the image blurry. In the same sense, people who were using a 1080p or 2.5K monitor may want to downscale to 720p. These are excellent issues to address, however, it seems mainly a problem for those who do not have enough graphics power in the first place.

As a final coup de grĂ¢ce, some have made the point that if downscaling isn't appropriately proportionate, issues of blurriness or aliasing become more apparent. For example, if you use a 1080p monitor, the appropriate downscale would be from 4K. Similarly, if you use a 720p monitor, the appropriate downscale would be from 2.5K.

How to Enable DSR
The procedure for NVIDIA is rather simple, and you won't have to do much to ensure DSR is an available option to you:

  1. Download the latest NVIDIA drivers (if you haven't already).
  2. Install the latest NVIDIA drivers.
  3. Go to the PC's desktop.
  4. Right-click on the desktop.
  5. Select "NVIDIA Control Panel".
  6. Choose "Manage 3D Settings" under "3D Settings".
  7. Click on the "Global Settings" tab.
  8. There will be two DSR options, select "Off" from "DSR - Factors".
  9. Check off "4.00x (native resolution)". Optionally, checking off other boxes can also be done for more resolution sizes.
  10. Click "OK".
  11. Click "Apply".
  12. Go to the PC's desktop.
  13. Right-click on the desktop.
  14. Select "Screen resolution" (or whatever your option for changing your screen resolution is).
  15. Next to "Resolution:" click the drop-down menu.
  16. There should now be a resolution of "3840 x 2160", drag the slider to that new resolution.
  17. Click "Apply".
  18. Click "Keep changes". (If you cannot click the option with your mouse, click the tab button of your keyboard and hit Enter.)

Note: Step 9 can be chosen for a lesser resolution as that is the 4K option. This may be good for those who are worried about less frames.

The other DSR option available can be changed. The higher the amount the smoother the playback should seem at a cost of working your graphics card harder. A lower amount will lighten the load for the GPU but may not seem as fluid during gameplay or be too sharp in general.

How to Enable VSR
VSR is a tad simpler to activate than DSR, which is the only legitimate edge I can see over DSR for the meantime.

  1. Download the lastest AMD Catalyst (Omega) Control Center drivers (if you haven't already).
  2. Install the lastest AMD Catalyst (Omega) Control Center drivers.
  3. Go to your PC's desktop.
  4. Right-click on the desktop.
  5. Select "AMD Catalyst Control Center".
  6. Click on "My Digital Flat-Panels".
  7. Select "Properties (Digital Flat-Panel)".
  8. Check off "Enable virtual super resolution".
  9. Click "Apply".
  10. Go to the PC's desktop.
  11. Right-click on the desktop.
  12. Select "Screen resolution" (or whatever your option for changing your screen resolution is).
  13. Next to "Resolution:" click the drop-down menu.
  14. There should now be a resolution of "3840 x 2160", drag the slider to that new resolution. The R9 285 should offer additional resolution sizes as well.
  15. Click "Apply".
  16. Click "Keep changes". (If you cannot click the option with your mouse, click the tab button of your keyboard and hit Enter.)

AMD keeps it straightforward and simple so that VSR is as intuitive as possible to enable. Even so, you'll have to be one of the lucky few in order to be able to use this technology. Again, the hope is that AMD is already in the midst of creating a Catalyst driver that will allow a plethora of their cards to work with VSR.

Dream a Little Dream
While DSR/VSR is great and has its uses, it still has a long way to go. No doubt people will see changes with new updates, and, if we're lucky, these technologies will become so good those of us unwilling or unable to move to 4K screens will have no need to.

If anything, this is just a stepping stone. As games are beginning to push 4K resolutions, many of us would've been left behind without such a great upscaling/downscaling feature. In 10 years, I'm sure it will be all but forgotten.

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