Gaming PCs are complex beasts that occasionally need to be tamed into submission before they're capable of performing their greatest feats. With a few simple steps, you can get the most out of your hardware and see better in-game performance as a result, and you don't have to be a tech enthusiast to make it happen. The following are some simple but effective steps that will help you increase your PC's performance while gaming.
Update Your GPU Drivers
Gaming PCs ride and die by the strength of their components, but drivers, the software that allows your operating system to communicate with your computer's hardware, dictate how well the two play together. It's critical to install drivers anyway, but it's important to make sure they're up to date over time. Graphics card manufacturers like Nvidia and AMD regularly update their drivers to improve performance, but also to make sure new games play well with their products. Watch Dogs was a good example of a highly-anticipated game that failed to play nice with all hardware at launch, and it took driver updates from both AMD and Nvidia to smooth these issues out. This isn't the first case of this happening, and it probably won't be the last.
Optimize Settings with GeForce Experience and AMD Gaming Evolved
Both Nvidia and AMD provide software suites that do a score of things for games, but it's the game optimization settings in each that might prove useful for players who need help determining the best in-game visual settings relative to their hardware. Nvidia and AMD have been seamlessly gathering information related to hardware, in-game settings, and frame rate data from their customers, which allows them to determine scalable presets for games and distinct hardware configurations. Using their respective suites, Nvidia GeForce Experience and AMD Gaming Evolved, you can easily tailor game settings using a convenient slider that targets performance or visual quality, based on your preference. If you aren't sure what settings to change in order to get better performance out of your hardware, and the game that you're trying to set up doesn't include presets of its own, Nvidias and AMDs tools are good places to start. And, if you want to know more about what graphics settings in games actually mean, we've got a handy guide with everything you need to know.
Defragment Your Hard Drive to Increase its Speed and Lifespan
(Editors note: the following tip does not apply to computers with solid state drives as defragmenting them can decrease the longevity of the hardware.)
After years, and even months of use, hard drives tend to get a bit disorganized. You may have everything neatly stored within series of clearly labelled folders, but that doesn't mean your data is distributed sequentially across the discs inside your drive. Any time you delete something, your computer will then write to that unused space in the future, and things can get messy fast. To account for this, your computer keeps track of where data is stored across your drive, but you should still care if your hard drives are fragmented: it causes your hard drive to work harder, and can slow down its read rate.
For example: if an application needs to load a large, fragmented file that's scattered across the physical surface of the discs, it will take longer to load them than it would have if it was stored sequentially. Defragmenting your hard drive will improve its internal organization by properly sorting everything, and it can provide incremental, but noticeable, speed boosts.
How to do it: Type "defrag" into your windows search bar and open the Optimize Drives app. If you aren't sure whether or not you should defragment your drive, which can take anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour depending on the size of the drive and the extent of its fragmentation, choose the "analyze" option before proceeding to get an idea of what you're working with. You also have the option to schedule regular hard drive optimization, should you prefer a more hands-off approach.
Improve Game Settings with User Mods
It's a near universal truth that games which are developed for both PCs and consoles perform best on PC. But, in the case of a game that's initially developed as a console exclusive, a PC port after the fact doesn't always follow that rule. The PC community was noticeably underwhelmed by the PC ports of Grand Theft Auto IV and Dark Souls, for example, and it was up to modders to come up with technical fixes. In the case of Dark Souls, the PC port was originally limited to a resolution of 1280x720 and 30 frames per second. In comes DSFix from Durante, which unlocks Dark Souls' resolution and frame rate, in addition to remedying any accompanying bugs. While you can't always count on good samaritans to pick up the slack, there's always a chance that someone finds ways to boost in-game performance for your favorite titles.
How to do it: Keep an eye on the Steam forums for any game that's presenting unusual rendering issues.
Eliminate Unnecessary Applications Running in the Background
It would be nice if your computer was able to dedicate all of its resources to games while you're playing, but there's always an OS in the background, plus associated services, and if you're like most people, third party apps, taking up small but meaningful amounts of resources from your CPU, hard drive, and RAM. While you can't disable Windows altogether, with an app like Game Booster from Razer, you can eliminate many of the background processes that you don't need while gaming. Game Booster allows you to do this manually or automatically when you launch a game, and you can tell it to ignore certain apps and services if you need them to remain active at all times.
If you'd prefer to do things your own way, it's possible to reduce some of your system's overhead within Windows alone. If you're running Windows 7, search for "msconfig.exe" and look for any uncritical tasks under the "startup" tab. For Windows 8, or 8.1, enter the task manager by pressing the CTRL, ALT, and delete buttons simultaneously, and proceed to uncheck items under the startup tab within that window. When taking the manual route, beware: Razer's Game Booster knows to avoid disabling certain system-critical tasks, but you run the risk of temporarily hindering your OS and hardware when you take the manual approach. Be judicious and avoid disabling anything that looks like it's related to Windows itself, or your hardware, and you should be OK. Also, be sure to check your computer for spyware and adware on a regular basis with software such as Spybot - Search and Destroy, as it's unlikely that you'll be able to catch these resource hogs on your own.
If All Else Fails, Upgrade Your Hardware
Every recommendation up until this point has been software related, but you're eventually going to have to bite the bullet and upgrade your hardware in order to keep up with the pace of PC gaming. Watch Dogs is the first example of a game that's tipped the hardware requirements scale by asking for a minimum of 6 GB of RAM, and it's surely not the last. RAM is the cheapest and easiest way to upgrade your machine, and it's quite possible to acquire 16 GB of RAM for less than $200. If, however, your GPU is more than a few years old, RAM will only get you so far. Upgrading your GPU will have a significant impact on your PC's in-game performance, but choosing one can be tricky given that there are dozens to choose from, at prices ranging from $150 to over $1,000. When choosing your GPU, there are a lot of factors to consider, so if you need some guidance, head on over to our freshly baked GPU guide: Everything You Need to Know to Build a PC: GPUs.
Upgrading your GPU without considering your CPU and power supply would be a misstep, because you may risk bottlenecking the performance of a high-end GPU, or worse, find yourself short on power for all of your shiny new hardware. In some cases, you can replace these parts along with your GPU, which can significantly increase the performance of your PC, but if you're working with an older motherboard as well, you may find that there aren't any new CPUs that fit the mold, and you should consider building, or purchasing, an entirely new gaming PC. It isn't cheap, but it's an inevitability if you want to be able to play PC games in the long run. On the other hand, as seen in the video below, you can still build a decent gaming PC if you're working with a modest budget.
If you want to avoid buying a new PC altogether, there are ways to tweak your computer a bit and extend the life of your hardware. Overclocking is an option that we didn't mention here, but it's something we'll address in a future article that will allow for the attention the topic deserves. Overclocking can be a great shot in the arm for a PC that needs a little extra kick, but it's not something we can summarize in a paragraph or two.
In the meantime, give the options here a try, and if you have any other ideas that may help your fellow PC gamers, let us know in the comments below.