How to optimize your PC frame rates

If you're looking for a way to improve how your games run, check out this guide to learn some of the basics on what settings to adjust and how you should go about it.

Games have several graphics settings that you can tweak to get better performance. Most games don't have the exact same menu settings, but several graphics options appear time and time again. Knowing how these game settings affect performance is crucial to helping you set a game to its proper level. Crank the settings too high, and your frame rates will plummet into the single digits. Go too low, and you might end up sacrificing too much image quality for nominal performance gains.

Roll your mouse cursor over the image to see the comparison shot. The first shot has the game running with 4x antialiasing and 4x anisotropic filtering. The second shot has both of those settings cranked to 16x. Both settings look great, but the 4xAA, 4xAF settings will give you a much higher frame rate for a smoother game. Knowing how far to push the settings will help you get the most out of your hardware.

We’ll cover six settings you're likely to encounter in games. You can find the first three settings in just about all games or in the driver settings for your video card. The latter three settings are common but you probably won’t find them in all types of games. In the following pages, we'll examine the performance costs associated with each setting and show you the image quality benefits each setting offers.

Antialiasing

If you look at the edge of building or even along a character model, you'll often see a jagged stair-step pattern that doesn’t look quite natural. Antialiasing smooths out the lines and reduces the amount of crawling, but the process uses a significant amount of graphics power. Even the most powerful video cards can have trouble if the antialiasing is set too high. Depending on the game you're playing, you might see frame rates fall into the single digits if you crank antialiasing all the way up.

Anisotropic Filtering

Anisotropic filtering helps preserve texture detail on angled surfaces. It's also used to clean up mip-maps. Games swap in low quality textures called mipmaps when rendering objects in the distance, and high quality textures for items closer to the player. Anisotropic filtering helps to clean up the picture by bridging the area where these sets of textures meet. Most modern video cards handle this setting without a problem.

Resolution

Increasing the resolution is the easiest way to make a game look better. Higher resolutions add more detail through extra pixels. Processing more pixels also makes the workload for your video card that much harder.

Draw Distance

Increasing the draw distance setting lets you see farther into the game's field of view. Of course, the farther into the distance the card has to render, the more work the video card needs to do. You'll typically find this setting in 3rd person games such as Oblivion and Neverwinter Nights 2.

Shadows

Good lighting and the shadows (that are created with good lighting) save us from boring rooms full of uniform colors and drab, lifeless objects. Try playing Doom 3 without shadows and you’ll notice that much of the suspense disappears. Enabling shadows usually has a performance cost, but the amount can vary greatly from game to game.

Textures

The detail of a game appears in its textures. Large textures can turn a simple black street with yellow lines into a gritty stretch of asphalt full of cracks and gravel. Some games will automatically use high-resolution textures if it detects a powerful video card with lots of fast memory.

Antialiasing

All the video cards we tested had heavy frame-rate losses when pushed too hard with antialiasing. High-end cards like the GeForce 8800 GTX don't suffer too much until they're pushed into 8x and 16x territory, but most other cards start showing stress at lesser settings.

Image Quality

Antialiasing improves image quality by reducing the amount of pixel-crawling and smoothing out surface edges. However, you're probably better off not going beyond 4xAA unless you have a very powerful GPU. You'll lose a considerable amount of performance for a very small increase in image quality if you jump up to the 8x and 16x levels.

Antialiasing Disabled vs. 2x Antialiasing

2x Antialiasing vs. 4x Antialiasing

4x Antialiasing vs. 8x Antialiasing

8x Antialiasing vs. 16x Antialiasing

System Setup: Intel Core 2 X6800, Intel 975XBX2, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GB x 2), 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP SP2. Graphics Cards: GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB, GeForce7600 GT 256MB, Radeon X1900 XT 512MB, Radeon X1300 XT 256MB. Graphics Driver: Catalyst 7.3, Forceware 97.92, Forceware 93.71.

Anisotropic Filtering

Anisotropic filtering was pretty much a freebie option on the cards we tested. Older GPUs from the Radeon 9x00 series or Nvidia's GeForce FX lineup and earlier might have a little more trouble with this setting.

Image Quality

Jumping from no filtering to 4x makes a world of difference in Half-Life 2. You'll likely get the best performance-to-image-quality ratio on older cards by stopping here. If you have a newer GPU, you can probably crank the filtering up to 8x or 16x with little to no affect on performance.

Anisotropic Filtering Disabled vs. 4x Anisotropic Filtering

Anisotropic Filtering 4x vs. 8x Anisotropic Filtering

Anisotropic Filtering 8x vs. 16x Anisotropic Filtering

System Setup: Intel Core 2 X6800, Intel 975XBX2, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GB x 2), 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP SP2. Graphics Cards: GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB, GeForce7600 GT 256MB, Radeon X1900 XT 512MB, Radeon X1300 XT 256MB. Graphics Driver: Catalyst 7.3, Forceware 97.92, Forceware 93.71.

Resolution

Increasing the resolution is a sure-fire way to reduce your performance and improve graphics at the same time. Our tests show that no GPU is immune to the affects of increased resolution. If you're looking for a place to reclaim some frame rates, lowering the resolution is one of the first adjustments to try.

Image Quality

Jumping from 1024x768 to 2048x1536 more than triples the number of pixels that the GPU has to render, which of course leads to greater clarity. In particular, look at the metal rings that tie the banner to the roof. At 2048x1536, the rings look crisp and clean; at 1024x768, it's difficult to tell the rings from a stain.

1024x768 vs. 1280x960

1280x960 vs. 1600x1200

1600x1200 vs. 2048x1536

System Setup: Intel Core 2 X6800, Intel 975XBX2, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GB x 2), 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP SP2. Graphics Cards: GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB, GeForce7600 GT 256MB, Radeon X1900 XT 512MB, Radeon X1300 XT 256MB. Graphics Driver: Catalyst 7.3, Forceware 97.92, Forceware 93.71.

Draw Distance

Draw distance determines how far out into the scene the video card renders. All GPUs suffer in performance with draw distance set to maximum levels, although the toll is much greater for weaker GPUs such as the GeForce 7600 GT and the Radeon X1300 XT.

Image Quality

You can easily reclaim a lot of performance by going with the lowest setting, but you won't be able to see what you're doing or where you're going. We recommend trying to max out draw distance at the expense of other settings.

100% Draw Distance vs. 50% Draw Distance

50% Draw Distance vs. 0% Draw Distance

System Setup: Intel Core 2 X6800, Intel 975XBX2, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GB x 2), 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP SP2. Graphics Cards: GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB, GeForce7600 GT 256MB, Radeon X1900 XT 512MB, Radeon X1300 XT 256MB. Graphics Driver: Catalyst 7.3, Forceware 97.92, Forceware 93.71.

Shadows

Enabling shadows will eat up some frame rates, regardless of the GPU that you have. Some games give you the option of soft shadows as well as varying levels of shadows to let you set an acceptable balance between performance and game ambience.

Image Quality

It's literally like night and day. Shadows make an enormous difference in the look and feel of a game.

Shadows Enabled vs. Shadows Disabled

System Setup: Intel Core 2 X6800, Intel 975XBX2, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GB x 2), 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP SP2. Graphics Cards: GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB, GeForce7600 GT 256MB, Radeon X1900 XT 512MB, Radeon X1300 XT 256MB. Graphics Driver: Catalyst 7.3, Forceware 97.92, Forceware 93.71.

Textures

Frame-rate reports usually don't catch the damage that high-resolution textures have on performance because the annoying load pauses get averaged out in the final number. If you've got anything less than 128MB of video card memory, you'll be able to run low and medium textures on newer games. If you have 256MB of video RAM, you should be able to pull off medium to high textures. The realm of ultrahigh textures sits in the domain of video cards with 512MB of RAM or more.

Image Quality

High-quality textures add details to the game. The world looks that much nicer when the textures have cracks or flecks in them. Low-resolution textures, with fewer pixels to work with, are fuzzy in comparison. The differences become more subtle at higher resolution levels.

Ultra Quality Textures vs. High Quality Textures

High Quality Textures vs. Medium Quality Textures

Medium Quality Textures vs. Low Quality Textures

System Setup: Intel Core 2 X6800, Intel 975XBX2, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GB x 2), 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP SP2. Graphics Cards: GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB, GeForce7600 GT 256MB, Radeon X1900 XT 512MB, Radeon X1300 XT 256MB. Graphics Driver: Catalyst 7.3, Forceware 97.92, Forceware 93.71.

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Discussion

479 comments
scoreboardplaye
scoreboardplaye

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Jesterofthesky
Jesterofthesky

Dawg 9000 Vsync means that the game will only allow itself to render up to the number of frames your monitor can display. if you're running you're monitor at 60Hz, then it means the game will never try to render more than 60fps. Its mainly a setting you'd enable if you're running an older game on a new PC. If you don't enable it in this case and your computer is rendering like 200fps, the monitor and the computer get out of sync and you can get 'tearing', visual artefacts that look like seams in the image, especially visible when the image moves side to side. on the other hand, of you're running a new game, and you're PC is working hard (doing like 40FPS or whatever, beneath the monitor refresh rate) then the Vsync is unnecessary and will actually reduce the FPS, with that being a bad thing in this case! pretty much if its an old game you're PC will thrash, turn Vsync on if its a new game you're PC works hard on, turn Vsync off hope you could bear with my rambling! :)

Destroy3r3
Destroy3r3

V-Sync "eats" a lot of frame rate. If your graphics card is old then turning it off is your only option...

Dawg9000
Dawg9000

Why is vsync so important? Can someone message me please?

Pixy64
Pixy64

Nice tips thanks, i always use v-sync even i have to turn AA off cause that's important too :)

ivo940811
ivo940811

Good Guide I Hope everyone Enjoyed it :)

rachkovsky
rachkovsky

aN EQUAL AMOUNT OF EACH QUALITY PROVIDES GOOD GAMEPLAY

vortex_gw
vortex_gw

No difference between 8xAA & 16xAA and a LITTLE difference between 4xAA & 8xAA. In C&C 3 4xAA = 8xAA.

jacobmjl
jacobmjl

Not a lot of visual difference for COH from High-Ultra High

kishmish
kishmish

I totally agree with 0 draw distance thing. I always max that setting in every game (Like the witcher) lowing the resolution 800x600 won't hurt.

IlPadrino12
IlPadrino12

This guide is very nice!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Francotirador30
Francotirador30

Exelent comparison and tips to boost the games!!! thx!

jurassic1024
jurassic1024

LOL@playing at 1680x1050 with 256MB VRAM. I guess this guide left out the importance of Video RAM at high resolutions. :| :Shakes finger at Gamespot.

Guitartod
Guitartod

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

never-named
never-named

I'm still choking the life out of my 9200 as I'm currently playing Half-Life2 and its performing quite smoothly, but the line clearly stopped after I tried to run Bioshock without knowing that it requires a Shader Model 3.0 GPU.

Ric_SlayeR
Ric_SlayeR

I have a ATi 9200 it isnt bad.... Its just about enough.

Ric_SlayeR
Ric_SlayeR

From 8x to 16x doesnt make that much diference...

AnnoyedDragon
AnnoyedDragon

Most of this stuff is general knowledge to anyone who has been gaming on PC long enough; you really have to see these settings at a full screen resolution to get a idea of the impact on visual quality, seeing them on these shrunken screenshots really doesn't do them justice. Anything above the playable frame rate is free for upping eye candy, no point in getting 120+ fps when you can slap some more AA or AF on there. I see console users are complaining about the performance tweaking that goes into PC gaming, and how it is too much of a bother for them. That's why we will always have superior looking games, because we do bother. While they get what they are given, each new generation of hardware lets us push games further than consoles can ever achieve. Whose looking forward to Gears Of War at above 360 resolutions with full AA and AF?

ldavidtw2000
ldavidtw2000

That's why console sells, so many people don't even know how these stuff works, all they know is play, no technical intelligence. consoles are basically PCs, but smaller ones and dedicated only for gaming and perhaps some degree of internet. Gears of War looks stunning but suck at the same time on console cuz they can't turn on AA, and they won't allow you to choose it. which doesn't give console gamers the "hey, it might look even better if I turn this on." and you don't get to choose 2560x1600 resolution, cuz consoles only give you 3 options, and highest only goes to 1920x1080. 2560x1600 on 30" monitor means dots are a LOT closer which means detail is WAY better than only 1920x1080 (and they advertise it as if that's the highest end, ha!) on a 50" TV. simple enough, consoles= for lazy@$$/clueless gamers, but you don't get to do all kinds of fun tweaking, and that's what keeps you clueless, and that's what make their pocket bigger.

Merl57
Merl57

See I really would like consoles and I have a gamcube, xbox, and wii but i barely ever play them. I like PC cause i can do a lot of other things fast with it. Multitasking and stuff. Plus the mouse, is the most intuitive device for the hand, I can get far more accurate with the mosue than with 2 analog sticks. That's why the Wii really got me excited it blended the console with the control of a mouse-like control remote. However there isn't enough power to play BF2142 and stuff like that which I love on the PC. What sucks the most is the price you could buy 2 wii's for the price of a performance videocard. I really hate having to update unless the games wont work at all like lostplanet. I thought my computer was great but not enough. I know it sounds weird now but I really wish Nintendo Sony and Microsoft made a console pc hybrid for cheaper than the PC. Basically if own monitor keyboard, etc hooked up to a conosle and ran windows that would make me very happy.

SaxxyGamer18
SaxxyGamer18

This would be why I prefer console gaming. You don't have to mess with all kinds of settings and get upgrades just to play the latest games. This stuff always bugs me. I find it interesting that past a certain point, the antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are barely noticeable. Sure, to the eagle-eyed scrutinizer, you could spot something, but 8x AA looks great, and 4x or 8x AF is just fine. I'm glad to know how to get rid of the ultra-lag in these games.

bardiaizad
bardiaizad

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

IMP_ACT
IMP_ACT

bigmick07 , that card is comparable with that footy team you seem to like...

KomboChameleon
KomboChameleon

im having an issue... i can run C&C 3 maxed out everything and 1680x1050 res and awesome f.r. but in HL2 or fear i cant max the AA and AF at 1680x1050 without having something like the upper teens in frames. i have to run round 4x and 8x. now i ran the demo of 3dmark and scored a little over 14k but i know thats cause the demo has everything turned off and res set low. here are my specs: C2D e6600 @ 2.4 asus p5n32-e sli current bios 2gb ocz pc2-6400 evga 7600gt 256mb 800w ultra psu vista home premium running os on a 500 gb sata II games installed on a 320 gb sata II

zhonginator
zhonginator

how will my comp run on next gen games? i have a intel core 2 duo e6400, 2gb ddr2 ram, vista, sata hard drive, And geforce 8600 gts

Fuzional
Fuzional

@ dante77_virgil No way. Try Quadrupling your RAM and new CPU and GPU, then yes you can.

LouieV13
LouieV13

Newegg ships ONLY to the us. USA FTW

xophaser
xophaser

airwalk- There are there are no sale tax and shipping on most stuffs are free for newegg in the US. Some US States and our government charge income tax, but not stores. I don't know about international policy. Maybe buy something cheap first or email customer service.

airwalk_102
airwalk_102

i am thinking of buying a new video card from newegg.com but does anyone know the income tax for it coming to the UK?

shortmerv1
shortmerv1

i have to upgrade my computer to run the next gen or newest games but it still play some of the game i have that just came out.

dante77_virgil
dante77_virgil

i have a 5500 geforce256Mb 2.4Ghz with 512 mb ram.Will i be able to run the next gen or newest games.

xophaser
xophaser

bennycal- newegg is the best if you want to buy and compare and tomhardware guide is where you learn about PC components or devices. That how I built my rig. Gamespot used to review PC hardware, but cnet it's mother company does most of that. For consumer stuff, it is cnet. Cnet reviewed some stuff way after they are release. bigmicki- that is really bad for top games, more for everyday softwares and web-surfing

Werner73
Werner73

Awesome, very helpful indeed. Thanks guys!

al19
al19

any one know where to download some updates for card? i have a ATI 256mb and 768mb of RAM

bigmick07
bigmick07

i have like an intel950 graphics card is that bad?

jACkaTacK1107
jACkaTacK1107

i have a core 2 duo cpu, an 8800gtx, and 2 gigs of ram, so none of this really matters to me lol

CptAsbjoern
CptAsbjoern

You can't play it with 0 Draw distance, it would ruin the game completely!