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Sun TGX Framebuffer

A framebuffer (frame buffer, or sometimes framestore) is a portion of RAM[1] containing a bitmap that drives a video display. It is a memory buffer containing a complete frame of data.[2] Modern video cards contain framebuffer circuitry in their cores. This circuitry converts an in-memory bitmap into a video signal that can be displayed on a computer monitor.

In computing, a screen buffer is a part of computer memory used by a computer application for the representation of the content to be shown on the computer display.[3] The screen buffer may also be called the video buffer, the regeneration buffer, or regen buffer for short.[4] Screen buffers should be distinguished from video memory. To this end, the term off-screen buffer is also used.

The information in the buffer typically consists of color values for every pixel to be shown on the display. Color values are commonly stored in 1-bit binary (monochrome), 4-bit palettized, 8-bit palettized, 16-bit high color and 24-bit true color formats. An additional alpha channel is sometimes used to retain information about pixel transparency. The total amount of memory required for the framebuffer depends on the resolution of the output signal, and on the color depth or palette size.


Computer researchers[who?] had long discussed the theoretical advantages of a framebuffer, but were unable to produce a machine with sufficient memory at an economically practicable cost.[citation needed] In 1969, A. Michael Noll of Bell Labs implemented a scanned display with a frame buffer.[5] Later on, the Bell Labs system was expanded to display an image with a color depth of three bits on a standard color TV monitor. An even earlier scanned display was implemented at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.[6] Advances in integrated-circuit memory in the 1970s made it more practical to create framebuffers capable of holding a standard video image.

In 1972, Richard Shoup developed the SuperPaint system at Xerox PARC.[7] Shoup was also able to use the SuperPaint framebuffer to create an early digital video-capture system. By synchronizing the output signal to the input signal, Shoup was able to overwrite each pixel of data as it shifted in. Shoup also experimented with modifying the output signal using color tables. These color tables allowed the SuperPaint system to produce a wide variety of colors outside the range of the limited 8-bit data it contained. This scheme would later become commonplace in computer framebuffers.

In 1974 Evans & Sutherland released the first commercial framebuffer, the Picture System,[8] costing about $15,000. It was capable of producing resolutions of up to 512 by 512 pixels in 8-bit grayscale, and became a boon for graphics researchers who did not have the resources to build their own framebuffer. The New York Institute of Technology would later create the first 24-bit color system using three of the Evans & Sutherland framebuffers.[9] Each framebuffer was connected to an RGB color output (one for red, one for green and one for blue), with a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP 11/04 minicomputer controlling the three devices as one.

In 1975, the UK company Quantel produced the first commercial full-color broadcast framebuffer, the Quantel DFS 3000. It was first used in TV coverage of the 1976 Montreal Olympics to generate a picture-in-picture inset of the Olympic flaming torch while the rest of the picture featured the runner entering the stadium.

The rapid improvement of integrated-circuit technology made it possible for many of the home computers of the late 1970s to contain low-color-depth framebuffers. Today, nearly all computers with graphical capabilities utilize a framebuffer for generating the video signal. Amiga computers, created in the 1980s, featured special design attention to graphics performance and included a unique Hold-And-Modify framebuffer capable of displaying 4096 colors.

Framebuffers also became popular in high-end workstations and arcade system boards throughout the 1980s. SGI, Sun Microsystems, HP, DEC and IBM all released framebuffers for their workstation computers in this period. These framebuffers were usually of a much higher quality than could be found in most home computers, and were regularly used in television, printing, computer modeling and 3D graphics. Framebuffers were also used by Sega for its high-end arcade boards, which were also of a higher quality than on home computers.

Display modes[edit]

A Sun cgsix framebuffer

Framebuffers used in personal and home computing often had sets of defined modes under which the framebuffer can operate. These modes reconfigure the hardware to output different resolutions, color depths, memory layouts and refresh rate timings.

In the world of Unix machines and operating systems, such conveniences were usually eschewed in favor of directly manipulating the hardware settings. This manipulation was far more flexible in that any resolution, color depth and refresh rate was attainable – limited only by the memory available to the framebuffer.

An unfortunate side-effect of this method was that the display device could be driven beyond its capabilities. In some cases this resulted in hardware damage to the display.[10] More commonly, it simply produced garbled and unusable output. Modern CRT monitors fix this problem through the introduction of protection circuitry. When the display mode is changed, the monitor attempts to obtain a signal lock on the new refresh frequency. If the monitor is unable to obtain a signal lock, or if the signal is outside the range of its design limitations, the monitor will ignore the framebuffer signal and possibly present the user with an error message.

LCD monitors tend to contain similar protection circuitry, but for different reasons. Since the LCD must digitally sample the display signal (thereby emulating an electron beam), any signal that is out of range cannot be physically displayed on the monitor.

Color palette[edit]

Framebuffers have traditionally supported a wide variety of color modes. Due to the expense of memory, most early framebuffers used 1-bit (2-color), 2-bit (4-color), 4-bit (16-color) or 8-bit (256-color) color depths. The problem with such small color depths is that a full range of colors cannot be produced. The solution to this problem was indexed color which adds a lookup table to the framebuffer. Each color stored in framebuffer memory acts as a color index. The lookup table serves as a palette with a limited number of different colors.

In some designs it was also possible to write data to the LUT (or switch between existing palettes) on the run, allowing dividing the picture into horizontal bars with their own palette and thus render an image that had a far wider palette. For example, viewing an outdoor shot photograph, the picture could be divided into four bars, the top one with emphasis on sky tones, the next with foliage tones, the next with skin and clothing tones, and the bottom one with ground colors. This required each palette to have overlapping colors, but carefully done, allowed great flexibility.

Memory access[edit]

While framebuffers are commonly accessed via a memory mapping directly to the CPU memory space, this is not the only method by which they may be accessed. Framebuffers have varied widely in the methods used to access memory. Some of the most common are:

  • Mapping the entire framebuffer to a given memory range.
  • Port commands to set each pixel, range of pixels or palette entry.
  • Mapping a memory range smaller than the framebuffer memory, then bank switching as necessary.

The framebuffer organization may be packed pixel or planar. The framebuffer may be all points addressable or have restrictions on how it can be updated.

RAM on the video card[edit]

Video cards always have a certain amount of RAM. This RAM is where the bitmap of image data is "buffered" for display. The term frame buffer is thus often used interchangeably when referring to this RAM.

The CPU sends image updates to the video card. The video processor on the card forms a picture of the screen image and stores it in the frame buffer as a large bitmap in RAM. The bitmap in RAM is used by the card to continually refresh the screen image.[11]

Virtual framebuffers[edit]

Many systems attempt to emulate the function of a framebuffer device, often for reasons of compatibility. The two most common "virtual" framebuffers are the Linux framebuffer device (fbdev) and the X Virtual Framebuffer (Xvfb). The X Virtual Framebuffer was added to the X Window System distribution to provide a method for running X without a graphical framebuffer. While the original reasons for this are lost to history,[citation needed] it is often used on modern systems to support programs such as the Sun Microsystems JVM that do not allow dynamic graphics to be generated in a headless environment.

The Linux framebuffer device was developed to abstract the physical method for accessing the underlying framebuffer into a guaranteed memory map that is easy for programs to access. This increases portability, as programs are not required to deal with systems that have disjointed memory maps or require bank switching.

Page flipping[edit]

Since framebuffers are often designed to handle more than one resolution, they often contain more memory than is necessary to display a single frame at lower resolutions. Since this memory can be considerable in size, a trick was developed to allow for new frames to be written to video memory without disturbing the frame that is currently being displayed.

The concept works by telling the framebuffer to use a specific chunk of its memory to display the current frame. While that memory is being displayed, a completely separate part of memory is filled with data for the next frame. Once the secondary buffer is filled (typically referred to as the "back buffer"), the framebuffer is instructed to look at the secondary buffer instead. The primary buffer (typically referred to as the "front buffer") becomes the secondary buffer, and the secondary buffer becomes the primary. This switch is often done after the vertical blanking interval to prevent the screen from "tearing" (i.e., half the old frame is shown, and half the new frame is shown).

Most modern framebuffers are manufactured with enough memory to perform this trick even at high resolutions. As a result, it has become a standard technique used by PC game programmers.

Graphics accelerators[edit]

As the demand for better graphics increased, hardware manufacturers created a way to decrease the amount of CPU time required to fill the framebuffer. This is commonly called "graphics accelerating".

Common graphics drawing commands (many of them geometric) are sent to the graphics accelerator in their raw form. The accelerator then rasterizes the results of the command to the framebuffer. This method can save thousands or millions of CPU cycles per command, as the CPU is freed to do other work.

While early accelerators focused on improving the performance of 2D GUI systems, most modern accelerators focus on producing 3D imagery in real time. A common design is to send commands to the graphics accelerator using a library such as OpenGL or Direct3D. The graphics driver then translates those commands to instructions for the accelerator's graphics processing unit (GPU). The GPU uses those microinstructions to compute the rasterized results. Those results are bit blitted to the framebuffer. The framebuffer's signal is then produced in combination with built-in video overlay devices (usually used to produce the mouse cursor without modifying the framebuffer's data) and any analog special effects that are produced by modifying the output signal. An example of such analog modification was the spatial anti-aliasing technique used by the 3dfx Voodoo cards. These cards add a slight blur to output signal that makes aliasing of the rasterized graphics much less obvious.

At one time there were many manufacturers of graphics accelerators, including: 3dfx; ATI; Hercules; Trident; Nvidia; Radius; S3 Graphics; SiS and Silicon Graphics. As of 2015 the market for graphics accelerators for x86-based systems is dominated by Nvidia (acquired 3dfx in 2002), AMD (who acquired ATI in 2006), and Intel (which currently produces only integrated GPUs rather than discrete video cards).

Comparisons to other display technologies[edit]

Framebuffers differ significantly from the vector displays that were common prior to the advent of raster graphics (and, consequently, to the concept of a framebuffer). With a vector display, only the vertices of the graphics primitives are stored. The electron beam of the output display is then commanded to move from vertex to vertex, tracing an analog line across the area between these points. With a framebuffer, the electron beam (if the display technology uses one) is commanded to trace a left-to-right, top-to-bottom path across the entire screen, the way a television renders a broadcast signal. The color information for each point thus displayed on the screen is pulled from the framebuffer, creating a set of discrete picture elements, i.e. pixels.

Likewise, framebuffers differ from the technology used in early text displays, where a buffer holds codes for characters, not individual pixels. The video display device drives the electron beam in a raster pattern the same as with a framebuffer, but generates the pixels of each character in the buffer as it directs the beam.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "What is frame buffer? A Webopedia Definition".
  2. ^ "Frame Buffer FAQ". Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  3. ^ Mueller, J. (2002). .NET Framework Solutions: In Search of the Lost Win32 API. Wiley. p. 160. ISBN 9780782141344. Retrieved 2015-04-21.
  4. ^ "Smart Computing Dictionary Entry - video buffer". Archived from the original on 2012-03-24. Retrieved 2015-04-21.
  5. ^ Noll, A. Michael (March 1971). "Scanned-Display Computer Graphics". Communications of the ACM. 14 (3): 145–150. doi:10.1145/362566.362567.
  6. ^ D. Ophir; S. Rankowitz; B. J. Shepherd; R. J. Spinrad (June 1968), "BRAD: The Brookhave Raster Display", Communications of the ACM, 11 (6), pp. 415–416, doi:10.1145/363347.363385
  7. ^ Richard Shoup (2001). "SuperPaint: An Early Frame Buffer Graphics System" (PDF). Annals of the History of Computing. IEEE. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2004-06-12.
  8. ^ Picture System (PDF), Evans & Sutherland, retrieved 2017-12-31
  9. ^ "History of the New York Institute of Technology Graphics Lab". Retrieved 2007-08-31.
  10. ^ XFree86 Video Timings HOWTO: Overdriving Your Monitor
  11. ^ "An illustrated Guide to the Video Cards".

External links[edit]