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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