PC Graphics Settings Explained: Anti-Aliasing, V-Sync, FOV, and more
By Michael Higham | @michaelphigham on
Introduction to PC Graphics Settings
What’s the first thing you do when you get to the main menu of a freshly installed PC game? Mess with graphics options! Most visually intense PC games come with a slew of visual configurations. For those unfamiliar with what each setting does, it’s a daunting task to not only understand the options, but also to glean how certain settings may impact performance. Anticipating how the game performs during different in-game scenarios is another challenge as well.
But with our graphics-settings guide, you can make informed decisions on which settings are worth it on your rig.
For more talk about graphics settings, check out past episodes of GameSpot's Reality Check on this topic.
Table of Contents:
Frames per Second
Explanation: Frames per second (fps)--not “first-person shooter” in this context--is fairly self-explanatory. It’s the number of still frames projected onscreen in a single second. The higher the fps, the smoother a game runs. This isn’t really an in-game setting, but it governs which options you'll use and how high you'll set visual quality.
Several factors play into a game’s frame rate: Your hardware's processing power, the intensity of in-game visual settings, and the demand of the game's graphics engine can impact performance, along with many other factors. You should understand what your PC is capable of and adjust the settings accordingly to hit consistent, playable frame rates.
Some gamers will have a different desired fps; some find 40 fps to 50fps playable, while some are content with around 30 fps, but on PC, it’s safe to say most aim for the gold standard of 60 fps. Most monitors and TVs offer a 60Hz refresh rate, thus 60 fps would be the highest perceivable frame rate. But higher-end monitors are capable of 120Hz and 144Hz, which allow games to scale up to 120 fps and 144 fps, respectively. These differences are noticeable, especially in fast-paced games that require quick reactions.
What's in the screenshot: Of course, it's impossible to convey frames per second in a screenshot, so what we have is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive running with the built-in Steam fps counter. As highlighted, the game hits 264 fps--that’s overkill for our 60Hz display, which can only output 60 fps. CS:GO is a competitive shooter where a split-second reaction can mean the difference between winning and losing, so it’s advantageous to reach your monitor's full potential.
Suggestion: It depends on what you're playing. For a turn-based strategy game like XCOM 2, we can give up a few frames-per-second to have all the eye candy maxed out. But for a fast-paced, competitive game like Battlefield 1, we would tweak the settings for multiplayer to maintain a stable 60 fps.
Vertical Sync (VSync) and Refresh Rate
Explanation: V-Sync is a method of locking a game’s frame rate to your display’s refresh rate. By keeping the frame rate and refresh rate in sync, screen tearing is eliminated. Tearing appears when the game camera moves horizontally and the image goes out of alignment. Frames are registered vertically, which is why tearing only happens horizontally.
Refresh rate is the frequency at which a display will put out still frames--how often it refreshes the image to show onscreen. A 60Hz monitor is only capable of projecting frames 60 times a second and bottlenecks fps if your computer is producing more.
There are drawbacks, however. V-Sync withholds frame data, which results in input lag. If you drag your mouse cursor across the screen with V-Sync enabled, you might feel the delay. Thus, precise aiming is hampered by the lag. Competitive gamers always disable V-Sync.
Nvidia and AMD have also created G-Sync and Freesync, respectively, for certain monitors. This makes the monitor’s refresh rate adapt to the fps output of the game on the fly to negate screen tearing.
What's in the screenshot: If you've searched the term “screen tearing” or have seen our previous coverage of graphics settings, then you're familiar with this screenshot of Dead Rising 2. It shows what happens when your frame rate and refresh rate aren't aligned without V-Sync enabled.
Suggestion: We would suggest leaving V-Sync off for games where input lag will make controls feel awkward or put you at a disadvantage. I found that playing in Borderless Window mode instead of Fullscreen helps alleviate screen tearing. Implementing a hard limiter either through your graphics driver or the game itself can also keep screen tearing to a minimum.
Explanation: Resolution is simply how many pixels (dots of color) are displayed onscreen--the higher the resolution, the sharper the image. A higher-resolution display will look sharper, but the downside is that it will be more taxing on your computer. Running games smoothly at 4K (3840x2160) can be a difficult feat, since the hardware is asked to project four times as many pixels as 1080p (1920x1080). Many console games still render at 720p (1280x720), which clearly doesn't provide the fidelity of higher resolutions. Any resolution below your screen's native resolution will be stretched, and it will look blurrier.
It's also important to understand pixel density. Image clarity is relative to the amount of pixels and the size of your display. 1080p on a 24-inch monitor looks much sharper than it does on a 32-inch TV. The degree to which this is noticeable also depends on how far you’re sitting from the screen.
What's in the screenshot: This a screenshot from Hitman (2016) by the beach front in the Sapienza mission. The original shot is in 4K, then scaled down to 1080p and 720p to emphasize the difference in each resolution.
Suggestion: Use your display's native resolution. A few 28-inch 4K monitors look fine rendering 1440p, but the sharpness of 4K is tough to pass up, especially if you spent the money to get a 4K monitor.
Field of View (FOV)
Explanation: Field of view (FOV) is the angle at which you see the world through the in-game camera, measured in increments of single degrees. The higher the FOV, the more peripheral vision you get, but it will make the center look farther away. Increasing the FOV too much will make it seem as if you're looking through a fisheye lens.
It’s often an advantage to have a high FOV in competitive shooters, since it helps display more of the surrounding area. This will be slightly more demanding on your hardware, though, since it needs to render more of the game’s assets.
What's in the screenshot: Doom (2016) has an FOV slider that goes from 90 to 130, and four different settings are shown here. Pay attention to the demon head and the pillars on the left and right. As FOV goes up, you’ll see more of the pillars in your peripheral vision but the demon head appears farther.
Suggestion: Games often have a default FOV a little too low for comfort. You may need to find a way to increase FOV if you’re not given a menu option, either via a third-party application or editing a game's text file. We would suggest testing out different FOVs to find the right balance. Often times, a setting in the middle of the allowed range works well.
Explanation: While several techniques can accomplish anti-aliasing, they all aim to fix the same problem: jagged edges of curved surfaces and objects. The rough and jagged edges look almost like a staircase, and this is called aliasing. Anti-aliasing smooths out these edges by blending the colors of the pixels around the object to create the illusion of smoothness.
What's in the screenshot: While anti-aliasing can be a graphically taxing feature, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive isn't a graphically demanding game, so it makes sense to enable anti-aliasing to make it look noticeably better. The power lines are the focal point of the screenshot, but the antenna on the rooftop to the right and the edge of the scope are also smoother.
Suggestion: High resolution displays will mitigate the negative effects of aliasing, but even at 4K it’s slightly noticeable up close. A little bit of anti-aliasing will go a long way, though. If performance isn’t a concern, we would recommend cranking AA settings all the way up.
Types of Anti-Aliasing
Explanation: Anti-aliasing is an important graphics setting to use, but there’s a bunch of anti-aliasing methods. Let's look at the different ones and examine how they tax your system.
- Multi-sample anti-aliasing is the most common type. In layman's terms, your computer takes color samples from around a piece of geometry in a game world and projects an average of those colors. The illusion of smoothness around an otherwise jagged object is created. The higher the number of samples (2x, 4x, 8x), the more your GPU has to calculate, impacting performance.
- Fast approximate anti-aliasing is a blanket approach to smoothing out an image. Instead of analyzing each frame and calculating geometry like MSAA, FXAA applies the smoothing effect to the entire image indiscriminately. It's faster for the GPU to perform, but it results in a blurrier image overall.
- Temporal anti-aliasing (Nvidia)/morphological anti-aliasing (AMD) are the same thing. It’s similar to MSAA, but it uses previous frame data to create the color samples in the current frame--and is more efficient as a result.
- Supersampling anti-aliasing is the most demanding method, but it produces the cleanest image. It makes the game render a higher resolution, then downsamples, or shrinks, the image to fit your display's resolution. It's as if you're artificially increasing the pixel density of your screen and the result is a sharper image.
What's in the screenshot: Dishonored 2 has the option for high grades of TXAA, and you can see it enabled on the right side. The rails are the focal point of the screenshot, but pay close attention to the window sills and the outline of the tree.
Suggestion: While SSAA looks incredible, it's far too demanding for most mid range PCs on modern games. If a game allows for different types of anti-aliasing, test out each type to see which one produces the best balance of image quality and performance. This will likely be TXAA/MLAA, but MSAA also works well. While FXAA isn't as graphically demanding, you may find that it will make games look a bit too blurry.
Explanation: Anisotropic filtering (texture filtering) makes surface textures that are seen at an angle gives it more clarity. The best way to see the effect of anisotropic filtering is to look at the ground a few meters ahead, then compare it to the clarity of the ground close to you. As you look farther away, the surfaces become blurrier. With anisotropic filtering on, the far-off surfaces become much clearer.
The effect of texture filtering is more apparent when your character moves forward in the game world. The change in quality as the surfaces get closer to you can be jarring.
What's in the screenshot: The focus of this screenshot is the cobblestone ground of Prague in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. In the left shot, you can see the cobblestone get muddled as it approaches the building. In the right shot, the cobblestone is simply clear.
Suggestion: Anisotropic filtering is very important for improving the overall image, and it's relatively easy on your system. The payoff between quality and performance is significant. What good is having the highest texture quality setting if the ones off in the distance look muddy? Always try to have anisotropic filtering enabled to 8x or 16x.
Explanation: Ambient occlusion darkens creases and crevices that light shouldn’t be hitting; the spaces behind objects where the light source doesn’t reach. The result? More detailed shadows and a richer, more realistic look to the overall environment. While ambient occlusion isn’t real-time shadow rendering, it’s a lot less taxing. It’s a calculation that accounts for the position of objects relative to each other and lights sources, then simulates where light should not be present. There are generally two types of ambient occlusion.
- Screen space ambient occlusion was first introduced with the original Crysis and is the basic level of ambient occlusion, darkening pixels that are blocked from light sources.
- Horizon-based ambient occlusion is SSAO to the next level. It increases the number of samples used when calculating the areas that should be darkened. The result is more accurate ambient occlusion, but it’s more taxing on your system.
What's in the screenshot: This cropped screenshot from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided shows ambient occlusion disabled on the left and HBAO enabled on the right. Pay close attention to the spaces behind the water jugs, the corners of the shelves, and the objects stored in the shelves. You'll see that the shadows are more lifelike and add depth to the environment.
Suggestion: SSAO or HBAO are highly recommended if you can afford the processing power. The screenshot is only a microcosm of the ambient occlusion effect, but its overall impact on the visual appeal in a game is strongly felt.
Explanation: Bloom increases the luminosity of light sources in a game world. The intention is to make a light source look more realistic--as we see it in the real world. Light will seep through windows and create a high contrast as the in-game camera transitions from indoors to outdoors.
Many games badly implement bloom, which results in an unnatural oversaturation of light. It’ll be recognizable when surfaces are reflective or shining when they shouldn’t be.
What's in the screenshot: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt offers a bloom option, and it's implemented extremely well. Looking directly at the sun with bloom off is like looking at a bright white ball. With bloom on, it looks as if it’s realistically emitting light that appropriately cascades across the environment.
Suggestion: While the quality of bloom will vary from game to game, we would suggest turning it on if it’s implemented well. If it’s distracting and oversaturates the game world, you may want to go without it.
Explanation: Motion Blur is a straightforward concept--the environment will blur as you look around to emphasize a sense of motion. Textures that are part of the player character should not blur, since that they're still relative to the environment.
What's in the screenshot: Both screenshots are taken from Crysis Warhead while constantly swiping the mouse left and right. On the left, motion blur is off and looks as if the screenshot was taken at a stand-still. With it on (and set to maximum effect), everything other than the firearm is blurred.
Suggestion: Many find motion blur unnecessary, but some may find a moderate level to be visually appealing. It can also help alleviate the effects of screen tearing. However, we’d suggest going with whatever amount of motion blur you prefer. The performance impact will vary between games, but recent games implement it efficiently to minimize the hit on frame rate.
Explanation: Tessellation adds an extra touch to surfaces and objects in the game world. Objects can have displacement maps, which are essentially instructions on how the object can change if it had more polygons. Tessellation calculates that information and adds depth and more complex geometry to those objects.
What's in the screenshot: Metro: Last Light has some very clear instances of tessellation making a noticeable difference. Tessellation is off in the left screenshot and is on in the right. The rocks on the wall stick out more and the crevices are slightly deeper with tessellation.
Suggestion: Tessellation can make a big difference, but it depends on how developers choose to implement it. In some cases, tessellation simply makes surfaces look different, but not necessarily better. In other cases, it can add depth to important pieces of a game world. If you’re given the option, test out the game with it on and off and see if it makes a noticeable impact.
Depth of Field
Explanation: It’s a simulation of true depth of field in a camera lens--objects in the background are blurred out, while the subject is in perfect focus. Many games limit the effect to when there’s a single object at the forefront of your view or when using a zoom or aim down sights function.
While depth of field can be aesthetically pleasing, some will find it unnecessary or find it puts them at a disadvantage, especially if the effect is overdone.
What's in the screenshot: This screenshot was taken in Dishonored 2 while looking through Emily’s spyglass. You can see that the pod is the subject, but the entire image is in focus on the left. With depth of field on in the right screenshot, the pod becomes the sole focus of the image.
Suggestion: Depth of field is a nice touch, but it’s not always necessary. Since it has a minimal effect on performance and is not objectively better one way or another, you should set this according to your preference.
Explanation: Texture settings will vary from game to game and change details in different ways. In almost every case, surfaces of the game world will increase in fidelity the higher the setting. Some games will have a very high resolution texture option, and in that case, they’ll require higher amounts of video RAM on your GPU.
What's in the screenshot: This grated metal balcony in Dishonored 2 clearly displays the difference between low- and high-quality texture settings.
Suggestion: Texture quality is one of most basic graphics settings, but low, medium, and high will mean different things in different games. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to try to go with a higher setting. The pace of a game may also play a factor in how much you’ll notice texture quality. Slower-paced games where it’s crucial to scan the environment tend to benefit more, since you’re required to pay closer attention to finer details, whereas texture quality can be easily overlooked in a frantic shooter.
Explanation: Much like texture quality, the effect of shadow quality will vary between games. Generally, the higher the setting, the finer the shadow. It’s also key to notice how shadows move and it’s sometimes tied to the quality setting. Shadows that are either jagged or choppy in motion can take you out of game.
What's in the screenshot: Here we have Agent 47 under a tree, enjoying the Sapienza breeze just before he sets off for a savage assassination. On the low setting, the tree looks like an amalgam of blobs, while the high setting sharply projects the shadow of individual leaves. In the case of both settings, the shadows move realistically as the breeze rustles the leaves to and fro.
Suggestion: Shadow quality is one of the more important basic settings. The highest setting can be taxing in certain games, but we would recommend testing how far you can push shadows before it unreasonably hampers your system.
Explanation: A few games allow you to control the distance at which shadows will be rendered. There’s essentially no benefit to rendering a shadow for an object far off in the distance that is barely visible itself. But a building off in the distance may look strange without a shadow. Sometimes, shadow distance comes packaged in the quality setting.
In the days just after release, Fallout 4 was a victim of too high a shadow distance. Performance would mysteriously take a huge hit in city locations, and it was because objects that were far off in the distance unnecessarily rendered shadows. Modifying this setting manually alleviated part of its performance issues.
What's in the screenshot: While Dishonored 2 doesn't give you direct control of shadow distance, it comes tied to shadow quality. In the left screenshot, you can see less detail in the shadows, but can you spot where a shadow drops off?
Take a look at the guard walking away in the top-left corner of both screenshots. At a certain point, the game no longer renders a character’s shadow in low settings.
Suggestion: An effective shadow distance will depend on the scope of the game’s environments. An open-world will look more convincing if the trees and heights projected proper shadows, but you’ll have to test how far (quite literally) you can push it before your system is bogged down. We would recommend aiming for a setting around three-fourths of the max if you’re given the option.
It’s one thing to see still screenshots of each graphics setting--it’s another to actually see them in motion. Effects like anti-aliasing and ambient occlusion are much stronger in-game while you’re navigating your environment.
The challenge in tinkering with graphics settings is knowing where to draw the line between visual quality and performance, and understanding your hardware's capability. We would advise you resist the urge to turn everything up if your PC isn't exactly up to the task to put out the best frame rate.
It’s a good idea to prioritize the more impactful graphics settings with performance, to best enjoy gaming on a PC.