What Is VA Smearing And Can You Fix It?

Learn everything you need to know about VA panel smearing and what you can do to reduce it to more tolerable amounts.

Answer:

Most VA panel monitors have slow black-to-gray pixel transition speed, resulting in noticeable trailing behind fast-moving objects in dark scenes – this is often referred to as dark-level smearing.

While this is a fundamental weakness of most monitors using VA panel technology, there are some things you can do to reduce it a bit and even make it negligible or tolerable.

Do you have a gaming monitor with a VA (Vertical Alignment) panel and want to reduce the amount of visible trailing behind fast-moving objects in dark scenes?

Are you interested in buying a VA monitor, but are worried about the infamous dark-level VA smearing?

In this article, we’ll go over everything you can do to reduce black-level smearing and address any controversy surrounding this panel technology.

What Is VA Smearing?

Monitor Response Time Speed

First, let’s tackle why dark-level smearing occurs.

We’ll take a 144Hz gaming monitor for an example – it refreshes the screen 144 times per second, so there’s a new ‘frame’ every 6.94ms. Now, if pixels change from one color to another slower than that, you will see trailing artifacts behind fast-moving objects.

A certain 144Hz gaming monitor might have a 4ms GtG (gray to gray) pixel response time speed specified, however, this is just marketing shenanigans as it doesn’t actually refer to the average pixel transition speed – but rather the fastest possible.

Here’s a pixel response time speed heatmap we measured in our Gigabyte GS27QC VA panel gaming monitor review. It depicts pixel transition time between different shades of gray (0 being full black and 255 being full white).

As you can see, some transitions are completed in 2ms (from 204 to 255), but darker transitions (from 0 to 51, 102 and 153) can take around 20ms, which is what causes dark-level smearing.

VA Smearing Response Time Heatmap
Response time measurements from our Gigabyte GS27QC review

Most VA monitors are affected by this, but there are several very fast models that don’t have this issue, such as Samsung’s Odyssey G9, Neo G9 and G7 curved gaming displays and the KTC M27T20.

So, is there anything you can do about this?

Proper Overdrive Settings

response time overdrive mode

To start with, you need to make sure you’re using optimal response time overdrive settings. Go to Blur Buster’s ghosting test and track the moving UFO with your eyes; you’ll notice that it leaves trails as it moves.

Now go to your monitor’s OSD (On-Screen Display) menu and find an option called something along the lines of Overdrive, OD, Response Time, SmartResponse, TraceFree, etc.

You will find a few different options there, such as Weak, Medium, Strong – or Off, Normal, Extreme.

Try out the different options available and hopefully, you will see some improvements.

NOTE

Stronger overdrive makes the pixels transition faster, but a too aggressive setting can cause inverse ghosting (i.e. pixel overshoot), which leaves bright (instead of dark) ghosting artifacts.

If you are using AMD FreeSync variable refresh rate (VRR) technology, you might also need to change the overdrive mode depending on your frame rate.

For instance, the ‘Strong’ overdrive might look the best to you at 144Hz, but if your frame rate is around 60FPS, VRR dynamically changes your refresh rate to 60Hz and the ‘Strong’ mode might be too aggressive here thus causing overshoot.

So, you will need to see which overdrive mode works best at 60Hz and use that instead when using VRR around 60FPS, and so forth.

You should also keep in mind that monitors have better pixel response time performance after they’ve warmed up a bit. So, let them run for at least 30 minutes before testing and choosing the best overdrive mode.

Lower Refresh Rate

If you’re already using optimal overdrive settings, another thing you might want to consider is lowering your refresh rate in order to reduce VA smearing.

The pixels might not be quick enough to change in time at 144Hz, for instance, but at 100Hz or 120Hz, you leave them more headroom, which can result in less noticeable smearing.

Black Equalizer

Black Equalizer

Another thing you can do to reduce VA smearing is to use the monitor’s Black Equalizer feature. Depending on the brand, this feature can go under different names, such as Shadow Boost, Black Boost, Shadow Control, Black Level and similar.

This feature essentially alters the gamma curvature, making blacks lighter and dark objects easier to distinguish in shadows; the downside is that blacks won’t be as deep.

If your monitor doesn’t have a Black Equalizer feature, you can change the gamma settings – 2.2 is the default, lower gamma (2.0 and 1.8) will have lighter blacks.

Since using any of these features makes the overall image appear more washed out, you might want to use it in conjunction with color vibrancy settings, either via GPU drivers or if your monitor has such an option available in its OSD menu.

These methods can be useful if you already have a VA panel monitor, but in case you’re worried about smearing and are yet to buy a new monitor for fast-paced gaming, it’s best to just pick an IPS or TN gaming display; it will have lower contrast ratio, but you’re already sacrificing contrast ratio on VA monitors via features such as Black Equalizer.

Alternatively, consider investing in one of the OLED monitors, which boasts both true blacks and instantaneous pixel response time speed.

Motion Blur Reduction

lg 1ms motion blur reduction technology

If your gaming monitor has MBR (Motion Blur Reduction) technology, it might help clear up the smearing a bit.

MBR uses backlight strobing to reduce perceived motion blur at the cost of picture brightness. Most MBR implementations cannot be used at the same time as VRR.

Further, MBR introduces screen flickering that’s invisible to the human eye, but may cause headaches or eye strain to those sensitive to it after prolonged use.

For best backlight strobing results, you’ll need to have your frame rate match the refresh rate as closely as possible. On a 144Hz monitor, for instance, lower the refresh rate to 120Hz and limit your frame rate to 120FPS.

Proper Post-Processing Settings

Some post-processing settings used in addition to VA’s slow pixel rise times can cause flickering-like artifacts when using a mouse/controller to pan at a certain speed – as you see in the (left) video above.

By simply disabling the sharpening setting in the game’s graphic options, you can prevent this from happening. Applying some anti-aliasing can also reduce this effect if you prefer to use the sharpening option.

In other games, it might be another post-processing option that causes this (usually temporal anti-aliasing or TAA) so if you experience it, try enabling/disabling different settings.

Some video games might have a sharpening-like filter applied to the game without providing you with the option to disable it in the game’s video settings.

In this case, you can search for other methods to disable it, such as the game’s .ini files or via mods, command lines, etc. You can also use Reshade to inject certain post-processing effects into the game.

Key Takeaways

  • Dark-level smearing on VA monitors is caused by slow black-to-gray pixel transitions
  • While most VA monitors are affected by this, it’s not the case for all models
  • Some users aren’t sensitive or too bothered by dark-level smearing
  • You can reduce dark-level smearing by disabling sharpening effects, lowering the refresh rate, using appropriate response time overdrive, MBR or using features such as Black Equalizer to raise black levels
  • If you’re worried about VA smearing, make sure you pick one of the fast VA panels or go with another panel technology (IPS, TN or OLED)

Conclusion

Hopefully, you managed to reduce VA smearing a bit using one of the methods above!

If you’ve been considering buying a high refresh rate VA gaming monitor, this article wasn’t intended to dissuade you from it. In truth, a lot of gamers wouldn’t even notice this dark-level smearing until someone pointed it out to them, and even then, a lot of users wouldn’t be bothered by it.

Of course, in case you’re sensitive to these artifacts, it’s best to get one of the fast VA panels or a decent IPS, TN or OLED monitor.

You should also keep in mind that VA monitors suffer from VRR brightness flickering and gamma/saturation shifts, whereas the main downside of IPS monitors is the low ~1,000:1 contrast ratio and IPS glow.

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Rob Shafer

Rob is a software engineer with a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver. He now works full-time managing DisplayNinja while coding his own projects on the side.