Low-latency rendering with the desynchronized hint

Joe Medley
Joe Medley

Differences in stylus rendering

Stylus-based drawing applications built for the web have long suffered from latency issues because a web page has to synchronize graphics updates with the DOM. In any drawing application, latencies longer than 50 milliseconds can interfere with a user's hand-eye coordination, making applications difficult to use.

The desynchronized hint for canvas.getContext() invokes a different code path that bypasses the usual DOM update mechanism. Instead the hint tells the underlying system to skip as much compositing as it is able and in some cases, the canvas's underlying buffer is sent directly to the screen's display controller. This eliminates the latency that would be caused by using the renderer compositor queue.

How good is it?

Simultaneous rendering of Sintel

If you want to get to the code, scroll ahead. To see it in action, you need a device with a touch screen, and preferably a stylus. (Fingers work too.) If you have one, try the 2d or webgl samples. For the rest of you check out this demo by Miguel Casas, one of the engineers who implemented this feature. Open the demo, press play, then move the slider back and forth randomly and quickly.

This example uses a one-minute, twenty-one second clip from the short film Sintel by Durian, the Blender open movie project. In this example, the movie is played in a <video> element whose contents are simultaneously rendered to a <canvas> element. Many devices can do this without tearing, though devices with front buffer rendering such as ChromeOS for example may have tearing. (The movie is great, but heartbreaking. I was useless for an hour after I saw it. Consider yourself warned.)

Using the hint

There's more to using low latency than adding desynchronized to canvas.getContext(). I'll go over the issues one at a time.

Create the canvas

On another API I'd discuss feature detection first. For the desynchronized hint you must create the canvas first. Call canvas.getContext() and pass it the new desynchronized hint with a value of true.

const canvas = document.querySelector('myCanvas');
const ctx = canvas.getContext('2d', {
  desynchronized: true,
  // Other options. See below.

Feature detection

Next, call getContextAttributes(). If the returned attributes object has a desynchronized property, then test it.

if (ctx.getContextAttributes().desynchronized) {
  console.log('Low latency canvas supported. Yay!');
} else {
  console.log('Low latency canvas not supported. Boo!');

Avoiding flicker

There are two instances where you can cause flicker if you don't code correctly.

Some browsers including Chrome clear WebGL canvases between frames. It's possible for the display controller to read the buffer while it's empty causing the image being drawn to flicker. To avoid this is to set preserveDrawingBuffer to true.

const canvas = document.querySelector('myCanvas');
const ctx = canvas.getContext('webgl', {
  desynchronized: true,
  preserveDrawingBuffer: true

Flicker can also occur when you clear the screen context in your own drawing code. If you must clear, draw to an offscreen framebuffer then copy that to the screen.

Alpha channels

A translucent canvas element, one where alpha is set to true, can still be desynchronized, but it must not have any other DOM elements above it.

There can be only one

You cannot change the context attributes after the first call to canvas.getContext(). This has always been true, but repeating it might save you some frustration if you're unaware or have forgotten .

For example, let's say that I get a context and specify alpha as false, then somewhere later in my code I call canvas.getContext() a second time with alpha set to true as shown below.

const canvas = document.querySelector('myCanvas');
const ctx1 = canvas.getContext('2d', {
  alpha: false,
  desynchronized: true,

//Some time later, in another corner of code.
const ctx2 = canvas.getContext('2d', {
  alpha: true,
  desynchronized: true,

It's not obvious that ctx1 and ctx2 are the same object. Alpha is still false and a context with alpha equal to true is never created.

Supported canvas types

The first parameter passed to getContext() is the contextType. If you're already familiar with getContext() you're no doubt wondering if anything other than '2d' context types are supported. The table below shows the context types that support desynchronized.

contextType Context type object








If you want to see more of this, check out the samples. In addition to the video example already described there are examples showing both '2d' and 'webgl' contexts.