What Do All the Graphics Options in PC Games Settings Do?

Don't know your FXAA from your HBAO? Here are the plain English versions of PC gaming's most technical graphics settings, and how best to tweak them for buttery smooth frame rates.

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If you've ever loaded up a PC game, gone into the options menu, and found yourself completely stumped by the highly technical graphics settings, don't worry: I've got you covered. This guide will help you find the best balance between performance and prettiness by letting you know what each setting means, what it actually does, and how it makes a PC game look better. Most importantly, I'll let you know just how much each setting will impact your graphics card, so you can pick and choose the settings you value most while keeping your game running smoothly.

Resolution

Some of the most powerful PCs can support 4K today.
Some of the most powerful PCs can support 4K today.

Resolution measures the number of horizontal pixels being output to a PC's monitor (for example, 1920) by the number of vertical pixels (1080). Resolutions in console games only talk about the vertical number of pixels (such as 1080p) because widescreen televisions display a fixed aspect ratio. A higher resolution means you'll see more detail regardless of your other graphics settings, but it also means your PC needs to render those extra pixels, too.

What setting should I choose? The highest one possible, which is likely your monitor's native resolution. A higher resolution is the easiest way to see more detail.

Refresh Rate

This describes how many times the image on your monitor is updated (refreshed) per second. It's measured in hertz (Hz) and is something you'll want to keep as close to 60 as possible. Why? Because 60Hz is the upper limit of most modern monitors' refresh rates, and if your PC is powerful enough to render that many frames per second, your game will appear to run far more smoothly. Most console games run at only 30 frames per second, though televisions are capable of 60. A bad PC port of a console game will retain that 30fps limit, even if your hardware is capable of running it faster and smoother.

What setting should I choose? You shouldn't need to worry about this, as it's set in your monitor's properties, not the game. But just to be safe, make it 60Hz.

Vertical Sync (Vsync)

This is what Vsync is designed to prevent.
This is what Vsync is designed to prevent.

This is an important setting that ties into refresh rate. Without Vsync enabled, your graphics card is free to render frames at a rate higher than your monitor can actually display them. The result is an effect called screen tearing, where it looks like the top half of the screen is slightly misaligned with the bottom half. It's most noticeable when spinning a camera or viewpoint around really fast. Enabling Vsync limits your graphics card's ability to render frames per second to the same number as that of your monitor's refresh rate. If you have a 60Hz monitor, you want to run your game at a constant 60fps. This can feel like it greatly affects performance, because Vsync won't allow the game to drop a small number of frames per second during complex scenes; instead, it'll drop down to a far lower, even value to ensure screen tearing remains absent.

What setting should I choose? Turn this on only if you experience screen tearing. Vsync can result in input lag, as well as performance troubles if your PC can't maintain 60 frames per second.

Anti-Aliasing (AA)

A closeup of a gate from Batman: Arkham City, courtesy of NVIDIA.
A closeup of a gate from Batman: Arkham City, courtesy of NVIDIA.

Have you ever looked up close at a game and noticed that certain objects, especially if they're at a diagonal, look like they have jagged edges? Anti-aliasing is a graphics filter that attempts to get rid of those jaggies and make the game look far smoother. It does this by changing the colour of pixels around the jagged edges so that there is a gradual blend of colour on those edges, thereby producing the illusion of smoothness. This comes at a high cost of performance, because the graphics card has to store higher-resolution data for each frame. However, most games offer multiple levels of anti-aliasing intensity, which allows you to find an acceptable performance/quality trade-off. Within those multiple levels are different rendering methods, each with their own names:

Multisampling Anti-aliasing (MSAA): MSAA is a particular type of anti-aliasing that tries to be smarter, and less system-intensive, by applying itself only to the parts of each frame that will look jagged, rather than across the entire frame. The result is good, but you may still see some jaggies inside polygons--just not on their edges.

Fast Approximate Anti-aliasing (FXAA): The fastest and least process-heavy mode of anti-aliasing, FXAA does not use higher-resolution frame data. Instead, it's applied straight to the pixels onscreen at the resolution you're playing at. The result is slightly blurrier, but it's so much faster that you can usually afford to at least have this on.

Temporal Anti-aliasing (TXAA): This is MSAA but with an extra step. TXAA takes into account previous frames to produce its own next frame by averaging the colours. This means the motion of a jagged edge affects the way TXAA smooths it. It's an attempt to reduce flickering, but it could, in some instances, result in a blurrier image than FXAA or MSAA. Though TXAA is Nvidia-exclusive, AMD's own version of this is called MLAA.

What setting should I choose? You should be able to at least turn on FXAA or 2xMSAA without suffering too great a performance hit. But if you can spare the frames, crank up the MSAA until your PC starts to chug.

PhysX

As the name implies, PhysX is all about rendering fancy physics details. This means extra detail in destruction effects like individual shards of shattered glass or detailed cloth objects that flap in the wind or wrap naturally around other surfaces. The option is technically exclusive to Nvidia's graphics card, however, if you don't own an Nvidia card, you can still turn PhysX on but it will run from your CPU, and it's likely the game will slow to a crawl. Even with an Nvidia card, the performance cost can sometimes be so high that this is usually the first thing you'll want to disable if you find your game is unplayable.

What setting should I choose? Unless you have a powerful Nvidia GPU, you should leave this off. Even if you do, only a few games actually support PhysX with noticeable in-game effects, but it will always come with a massive performance cost.

Supersampling

This is a more intensive, "brute force" method of removing jagged edges than anti-aliasing. When it's enabled, your PC renders each frame at a much higher resolution than your monitor actually displays, and then shrinks that image down to fit on your monitor. After being shrunk, the data from the larger resolution image is used to calculate the colours needed to make jagged edges seem smoother. As far as getting rid of jaggies goes, supersampling gives the best result, but it's the most graphics-intensive method.

What setting should I choose? Keep this one off, unless you have a very high-end PC and have boosted every other option to maximum beforehand.

Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO)

Screen space ambient occlusion is a fancy method of simulating the way shadows form around the edges of objects or in the corners of walls. These are "fake" shadows in that they aren't cast by dynamic lighting, and they only exist from your current perspective. The performance hit is negligible; however, the actual quality of these shadows varies from game to game. More-advanced, graphically intensive methods called horizon-based ambient occlusion (HBAO) and HBAO+ result in better shadows but require DirectX 10 or 11 hardware to run.

What setting should I choose? If your PC and the game support it, go with HBAO+. But if the shadows look weird after enabling this option, you can turn this off in favour of other effects.

Far Cry 3 is one PC game with poor SSAO--notice the unnaturally dark shadows around the pillar and people.
Far Cry 3 is one PC game with poor SSAO--notice the unnaturally dark shadows around the pillar and people.

Anisotropic Filtering (AF)

Games need to find sneaky ways to run smoothly wherever possible, and one of the oldest of these methods involves making surface textures blurrier the further away they are. Without anisotropic filtering enabled, the result is what looks like hard cuts between different levels of blurriness as you look across, say, a floor texture. Texture filtering works to blend those levels of detail, resulting in a smoother, less-noticeable transition between detailed, closer textures and blurry, distant ones.

What setting should I choose? The performance impact is almost unnoticeable, so crank this one up to 16x and enjoy the smoothest distant texture transitions on grass, mud, or concrete that you've ever seen.

Depth of Field

If you're like me and are nearsighted, you'll notice that objects in the distance are blurrier than those closer to you. Depth of field settings attempt to simulate that by blurring distant objects. The setting controls the intensity of the blur, not the distance at which objects start to blur.

What setting should I choose? The performance cost is negligible, but some games' depth of field effects blur far too much for style or effect, so pick a setting that still lets you see somewhat clearly.

Watch Dogs' PC version contained hidden, advanced depth of field filters.
Watch Dogs' PC version contained hidden, advanced depth of field filters.

Post-processing

This one is a little difficult to define because it could have different effects for every game. Most commonly, it refers to effects like bloom, which makes light bleed softly into the surrounding area, or motion blur, which simulates the blur of rapid head or camera movement. Another effect, high dynamic range lighting, simulates the overbrightness the human eye experiences when moving from a dark space to a brightly lit one.

What setting should I choose? The performance cost is noticeable, so this should be turned down if you have problems, and not everyone likes motion blur and bloom, so personal taste could also dictate its disabling.

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DrWhoIsCool

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Why talk about PhysX & leave out Havok? PhysX has from the start been almost a complete failure Nvidia even tried to limit that tech to hardware that you would be forced to buy. Havok Physics is in 90% of the games you play & has a MUCH less impact on performance. You shouldn't be forced to pay $ for something like that.

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GH05T-666

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Nice work, thanks for explaining all of this.

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JimmyJumpy

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Hate it when refresh rate and fps are used in one and the same paragraph and no clear distinction is made.


Refresh rate (in Hertz or Hz) is the speed at which the monitor refreshes its own pixels, regardless of what video signal it's getting.


Frames per second (fps) is the framerate the video card (GPU) is handling the game at, regardless of the monitor's own refresh rate...

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KrazzyDJ

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Amazing article. Gotta save this one, will probably keep coming back to it !!!

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donmega1

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Good to know when my pc starts to get old. Right now, I just crank all the good stuff up! ;]

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laughingorc

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This is a pretty handy article, though I can't help but feel like a few things are missing - especially some DX10+ features like tessellation.


Also, if you really want this to be an 'idiots guide to PC settings', you could include options like draw distance and texture detail, to make sure you're covering all of the bases....

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hitomo

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keep in mind ... virtual sync is not just locking frame rate to your refresh rate .. it will always half your current possible framerate in order to achieve the anti tear effect ...


always keep it off unless you can run the game in 120frame normaly or the tearing is to heavy, in most pc games tearing is no problem though

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donmega1

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Its a must with wolfenstein.

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SythisTaru

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<< LINK REMOVED >> Yah, I would never play a game without V-sync.

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lindallison

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<< LINK REMOVED >>

I don't know man I see tearing in EVERY game if I run without V-Sync. Tearing is my most hated visual artifact, I can stand aliasing no problem. But tearing? I won't take that crap. So I V-Sync everything. Triple Buffering completely solves the halving of fps issue when sync is up in almost every application.


Can't speak for AMD but Nvidia Control Panel'll Triple Buffer OpenGL games, and D3D Overrider for everything else.


64bit and DX10/11 .exe's aren't detected by the Overrider though, sometimes I have to go to Adaptive V-Sync for those, which sucks, because you can see tearing when fps drops below the refresh and V-Sync turns off in order to avoid chopping the fps.

Even though the accepted definition of screen tearing is a de-sync occurring when your fps is above your refresh, un-synced frames will tear all the time, even when below the refresh...drives me crazy.

I'm actually psyched for GSync because tearing drives me up the wall so much, which is kinda sad, Nvidia's got me!
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Seekerpilgrim

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Thank you for the info. Been gaming for years, console and mobile, but PC has always been my home, and it's nice to have this basic rundown of settings that can sometimes be overwhelming, especially the different types of anti-aliasing.

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Evarin

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Fantastic article. I'll be keeping it as a good reference.

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stevezul

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I'm a hardcore gamer. Been gaming since 5 years old till now. For the past 5 years I've been playing games mostly on PC, a mid-range gaming pc (until recently i used Sapphire HD7870 2GB DDR5). To be honest, I cannot see much difference at all between switching on the AA or Vsync. I'm serious now. Not much a difference in terms of graphics but HUGE DIFFERENCE in frames. So yes, most of the time I just switch off both of them and enjoy a much smoother gameplay.



But as he said, if your PC is juicy enough, then it's not a sin to turn on both of them. It's up to personal valuation.

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Underdrill

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Personally i just try to crank everything up to maximum :P. Only thing Ieave turned off is motion blur.

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dani3po

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FXAA is the type of anti-aliasing that shows Destiny, the most anticipated console exclusive this year. Oh, the new generation, how powerful you are!

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Sh4rkill3r

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"this is too hard to understand. i prefer my console with the preset in low" - Peasant

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Lowian

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Very helpful. I actually made some notes to consult next time I have graphics issues.

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Grenadehh

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All this talk, as I sit here waiting for the USPS to deliver my god damn graphics card finally.

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blueboxdoctor

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Nice article, I've only been PC gaming for a few months now and have not been sure what these settings are, it's nice to have this article for reference.

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indran1412

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Very insightful article. Kudos to the author.

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shafe-man

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This is pretty helpful, the background on how each works is helpful as well. For example I knew the varying levels of performance hits the different types of AA'ing had on your computer, but I didn't know the actual reasons behind those performance differences.

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fursecu

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Great article

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DarkWolfx12

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Thanks a lot for this post, I had so many doubts about this!

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xantufrog

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xantufrog  Moderator

@DarkWolfx12 I love your user icon

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DarkWolfx12

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<< LINK REMOVED >> Lol thx

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TimberWolf_CLT

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Nicely done, Daniel! This is always a source of confusion and now I can point folks to this article when they ask me.

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snaketus

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I just wish we could turn onscreen effects like motion blur off on consoles too. It's annoying and ugly effect and reduces fps without a giid reason. I hate it on Watch Dogs, on PC I could at least turn it off. Why not on console? That's stupid.

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joeytman

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<< LINK REMOVED >> Without motion blur the game would look awful due to the lower fps. On PC its optional because some people have good hardware and can run games above 30 but, even the next gen consoles still run many games at 30. 30 looks awful without the blur, at least the blur can cover it up a bit.

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Jex9

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A very useful article. Thanks guys!

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WolfgarTheQuiet

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F.U.C.K. GRAPHICS. I just want amazing and fun games, if it looks like last gen thats good enough. I want to know im enjoying a game and not something that tries to look like real life. For that i can walk outside.

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xantufrog

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xantufrog  Moderator

@WolfgarTheQuiet Comments like this don't make any sense - these are PC graphics settings. That means (more or less) they can be set to anywhere from "craptacular" to "as good as the engine the dev used allows".

I realize it's "hip" to "not care" about graphics now, and that's fine, but this has nothing to do with the quality of the game - Amazing PC games have high and low graphics settings. Bad PC games have high and low settings. This article is simply explaining what those settings DO.

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SexyMiralda

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<< LINK REMOVED >> In that case, consoles are best for you, now get out of here!!!

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snaketus

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In that case you should be fine with 2600. Rest of us want fun games and advancements in graphics. It isn't bad thing for anybody. It has always happened, why shouldn't it continue? Too bad consoles were outdated the very day they came out this time.

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Nightelf123

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<< LINK REMOVED >> but today's developers are just making games with great graphics rather than make them with better gameplay like :

1. silent hill 1 is much better than other silent hill games

2. resident evil 1(original version) is much better than RE 4,5,6

3. tekken 3 and tag 1 are better than 5 and much better than 6 and tag 2

4. battlefield 1 is much better than 4

5. star wars jedi knight 1 is much better than TFU

6. devil may cry 1 is better than 4 and much better than DMC:devil may cry

7. final fantasy 7 is much better than 13

8. spiderman 2 is much better than newer spiderman games

9. mortal kombat 2 is much better than 3D mortal kombat games

and etc.

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Grenadehh

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@Nightelf123 @snaketus Uh you sir did not play Silent Hill 2 apparently because it murders silent hill 1. Similar, RE2 is better than RE1. You're entirely right about BF142 being better than 2, 3, or 4, because it is. Jedi Knight 1, 2, and 3, while good, were wonky as hell and they were FPS games with very, very badly designed saber combat TFU1 and 2's saber combat blew that crap away. Even EA's awful stupid star wars games had better saber combat. Considering saber combat is the only thing anyone wanted to do, trying to play saber matches online was an exercise in futility. Similar, most FF games are better than 13, but you're wrong about Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat 9 is hands down the best mortal kombat title in 20 years.

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Bluntbows1

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@Nightelf123 @snaketus This is the most biased comment I have ever read. Have you even played the latest iterations of these game series'?


Silent Hill - Many consider the second game to be the best in the series.

Resident Evil - Resident Evil 1 was a good game, but it is not better than Resident Evil 4. They are completely different games and shouldn't be compared.

Tekken - No.

Battlefield - Due to Battlefield being a broken piece of ass, this is true.

Star Wars - Yes.

DMC - Arguable.

Final Fantasy - While FF7 was better than 13, it's far from the best Final Fantasy game.

Spider Man - True, but SM2 didn't have much going for it anyway. Apart from the web swinging it was pretty generic.

Mortal Kombat - No. MK9 blows any other Mortal Kombat out of the water.

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Nightelf123

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<< LINK REMOVED >> MK 9 is 2.5D not 3D.