So you've picked up a new video game, but playing it is like dancing under a strobe light. The graphics look awful, your character moves slowly, and too much on-screen action brings the game to a halt. Here's how some of the most popular gaming tweaks actually rank at improving that performance.
The net is rife with tips on improving gaming performance, but it's hard to separate the snake oil from the really useful tricks. We explored some of the most oft-suggested tweaks — from killing background apps and updating drivers to disabling visual effects and upgrading hardware and more — and benchmarked them against one another to find out which ones were actually effective at increasing performance. Here's what we found.
We ran these tests on a machine running a 2.9GHz i7 processor, an Nvidia 9800 GT graphics card, and 4GB of RAM with a single 1080p monitor. Our base 3dmark score with no tweaks in place was 6375.
We used 3dmark Vantage for all these tests. 3dmark is a very simple, very synthetic benchmark — that is, it isn't a real game, and exists to stress your system, not really demonstrate how a game will act under similar circumstances. It is, however, a benchmark that will stay consistent across all of our tweaks, and is really the best choice we have for getting an overall feel for gaming performance. The unfortunate thing about gaming benchmarks is that every game is different, and so is everyone's individual system. As such, it's impossible for us to tell you how much your rig's performance will increase with any given tweak. It's just not something we can test.
With that in mind, these should still give you a good idea of how the tweaks compare to each other. Instead of looking at the 3dmark scores themselves, or the percentage "bumps" we got, look at the difference between each tweak's score and see how they compare. That's what's important here — how useful one tweak is compared to another, now how many frames per second one tweak will net you on that new game. That's something you have to test for yourself, on your own system, with your game of choice.
A Note On Bottlenecks
Often, one of the components on your system can act as a bottleneck, and that can drastically change some of these results. If you have a great graphics card and a lot of RAM but are still running an old, slow, crappy processor, then getting a new graphics card and installing more RAM probably isn't going to help you much. In a case like that, any performance issues you're seeing are likely the CPU's fault, and won't go away with more graphics power or memory. So, as you get to the overclocking and upgrades sections of this article, make sure you're keeping in mind the bottlenecks on your system, since they could change how effective each upgrade will be for you.
Many people, when faced with bad gaming, look for quick, easy ways to boost performance, like closing background apps or updating their drivers. We played around with some of these "soft" tweaks, and here's what we found.
Close Background Apps
If you're anything like me, you have a system tray full of tiny apps running in the background. In theory, these could eat a lot of your resources and decrease gaming performance. So, we took 15 apps — PhraseExpress, Executor, Dexpot, Dropbox, Music Manager, Growl, Gmail Growl, Flux, Switcher, Pidgin, John's Background Switcher, Rainmeter, AutoHotkey, Lightscreen and Last.fm — and ran 3dmark with them open and closed.
Results: 0.5% Bump. Closing background apps took our 3dmark score from 6375 to 6410. It wasn't a huge jump, but enough that it's worth a shot on older systems. However, if background apps are causing you trouble, it's more likely that you don't have enough RAM, since if you're short on RAM, your computer needs to constantly use its hard disk cache in place of RAM which can slow everything down. With RAM as cheap as it is, an upgrade won't exactly break the bank, so that may be a better fix.
Disable Visual Effects
Windows has gotten a lot prettier in the past few years with things like the Aero interface, which makes use of your graphics power. We tried running 3dmark with these tweaks disabled — that is, going to Advanced System Settings in the Control Panel, hitting the "Settings" button under performance, and choosing "Best Performance" from the list.
Results: 0% Bump. Our 3dmark score stayed about the same with this tweak. We ran it a few times and point values fluctuated, but never really strayed from our average base score of 6375.
This is an oft-recommended solution, but the reason this rarely helps is because you usually run games in full screen mode. When you run a game in full screen, your computer stops worrying about the taskbar and any other windows you have open, because it doesn't need to deal with them. The only time disabling visual effects would help is if you were running your game in windowed mode, which usually hinders performance a lot. Instead of disabling visual effects, you'll benefit much more by going into your game's settings and running it in full screen mode, unless you have a really good reason for sticking with windowed mode (Some games, like Team Fortress 2, have severe issues running full screen with dual monitors, for example).
Update Your Drivers
Video card manufacturers are always trying to improve their cards' performance, if not only to keep a leg up on the competition. They also update them to fix problems with and add support for new games, so keeping your drivers up to date should in theory help eke better performance out of your system.
Results: 0% Bump. This one's a bit more up in the air. I tried a few different versions of my video card's driver and found no real increase in my 3dmark score. That said, this can vary a lot from game to game. At the very least, keep an eye on the changelogs whenever Nvidia and ATI release a new video card — you might find that the newest version has a fix specifically tailored to your favourite game or games, in which case updating might be more beneficial.
Overclocking is still technically a "soft" tweak — that is, it won't cost you any money and you won't have to fiddle with the hardware itself — but it's a bit riskier and trickier than the simple tweaks provided above. That said, it can also boost performance much more than they can.
Overclock Your CPU
Results: 3.7% Bump. Overclocking the CPU brought our score up from 6375 to 6549. It's a pretty good increase (2.7%), and with a better video card in the system to try and eliminate those bottlenecks we talked about, it pushed the score even farther with a 3.7% increase. So, while it won't cause an insane performance jump, it can certainly make a game on the brink of playability more useful — in fact, I've seen it do so.
Now, this all depends on the game — certain games are more CPU heavy, and will see a bigger performance increase than others from a good CPU overclock (Starcraft 2, Crysis, and Grand Theft Auto IV leap to mind). In addition, remember those bottlenecks — if your CPU is the weak link in the chain, overclocking it will raise performance significantly, especially in areas where the game slows down because there are too many things on-screen (think big towns in games like World of Warcraft). So your results will vary, but the bottom line is that it can definitely be worth the time and effort.
However, it's important to note that this isn't always a "free" solution. If you're going to overclock your computer, you definitely need to get a better cooling system than the one that came with your processor (or, you just need to overclock it less, which won't garner as big a performance boost). We talk about this more in our overclocking guide, so I won't get into it here, but just know that if you plan on heavily overclocking, you'll still need to pay at least $US50 for a good heatsink. Not as much as other hardware upgrades, but still money you have to spend.
Overclock Your Graphics Card
Your graphics card, or GPU, is the biggest factor in gaming performance. Assuming you don't have any glaring bottlenecks, any upgrades you can make to the GPU are going to give you the best performance increases. If you don't want to upgrade your GPU, you can try overclocking it — which we've talked about briefly before. In our tests, we overclocked our 9800 GT as far as it could go without causing problems (which, for you number crunchers, was from 600 to 675 on the core clock, 1600 to 1687 on the shader clock, and 900 to 970 on the memory clock).
Results: 9.3% Bump. Overclocking the GPU gave us the biggest performance boost out of all the "soft" tweaks — our 3dmark score jumped from 6375 up to 6975, which is a 9.3% increase in what 3dmark measures as performance. Like CPU overclocking, this won't necessarily be enough to make an unplayable game playable, but it can take a game that's acting a little choppy and make it a bit more enjoyable to play. Or, if you're experiencing good framerates already, it might allow you to punch up one of the graphics settings in your game to improve its overall look without losing those good framerates.
Again, make sure your video card has a good enough heatsink and fan before you overclock — many should have decent enough cooling, but again, you just want to make sure you don't get it running too hot.
Total Benefit From Free Software Tweaks
Since we set out to see how much of a boost we could get from only free, software-based tweaks, we ran an extra 3dmark test with all of the above tweaks in place, and got a total score of 7140, which is about a 12% bump from our base score of 6375. It isn't huge, but it's significant enough that if you have games that are just beyond the realm of "smooth", you might be able to perform noticeably better. Again, though, games that are unplayable before these tweaks will probably still be unplayable afterwards, or at the very least barely playable.
We know it's never ideal to drop a load of cash on a new part for your computer, but the fact of the matter is if your computer isn't playing games the way you want it to, by far the best way to boost that performance is to upgrade the components — specifically the graphics card.
Upgrade the Graphics Card
Putting a new graphics card in your computer pretty much changes everything, and it's limited only by your budget (and the bottlenecking of your CPU, of course). This is a difficult one to test, since the performance you gain is completely dependent on what card you get, but for the purpose of demonstration, we upgraded our rig by adding a second 9800 GT and running the two in SLI (at the time, that cost $US100 for the extra card — your costs may vary).
Note: SLI (for Nvidia cards) and Crossfire (for ATI cards) are not always cost effective. In fact, unless you're in the very high-end range, you're better off a new card entirely. In my example, that means that I would have been better off getting a $US200 card rather than running to $US100 cards in my rig. However, if you're upgrading your rig and have budget constraints, adding in a second, identical card (which is half the price of a new card) can give you some significant boosts without breaking the bank.
Results: 67.9% Bump. Adding a second video card improved performance dramatically, getting us a score of 10711 on the 3dmark test. This is way, way more than any other tweak in this article. This is the upgrade that can take an useless game and make it playable, or take a playable game and make it look extraordinary. Of course, it's also the most expensive option, but this is a pretty clear example of "you get what you pay for". Shell out for the real upgrade and you'll get a real boost in performance.
Upgrade Your RAM
Upgrading from 2GB to 4GB of RAM showed no differences in our 3dmark test, but that's not to say it doesn't do anything. On a system with very limited RAM, installing more can lead to a performance boost — it's just an upgrade with extremely high diminishing returns. That is, once you get to a certain point, you'll stop seeing benefits pretty quickly, unlike CPU and GPU enhancements, in which case you can keep upgrading and keep seeing boosts for a long time. If you're severely lacking in RAM on your system — as in less than 2GB — try upgrading and see if you can speed up your games a bit. RAM is pretty cheap, so if you're on an old machine, it's one of the better upgrades you can make (and one of the only hardware upgrades you can make on a laptop).
Install an SSD
Installing an SSD won't improve your game performance in most cases. It will improve loading times, which can be nice, but in-game, you won't see any major speed increases. Plus, SSDs are small enough that storing games on them isn't always ideal anyway.
The one exception to this rule seems to be online games. If you play games like World of Warcraft, for example, you might notice a decrease in lag in busy towns when you install an SSD, since MMOs have to load those textures on-the-fly, inside the game. This is not to say that SSDs aren't a great computer upgrade — in fact, they're fantastic — just not really for gaming.
The Verdict: The Free Cake Is Mostly A Lie
While our tests weren't as scientific or definitive as possible, they did back up our assumptions: sadly, small software tweaks on your system won't do very much unless it's very, very old or underpowered. And even then, it probably won't make an unplayable game playable — it might just make it a little less painful. Overclocking your components can lead to some mild performance gains, but nothing revolutionary (though it's definitely worth the trouble for games on the brink of playability).
In the end, the answer to "can I increase performance for free?" question is "not likely". If a 12% bump will get you where you want to go, then yes, software tweaks can boost your performance enough to be significant. But if your games aren't playing up to your standards, the only thing you can really do is just buckle down and upgrade — or just accept that your computer might be too old to run those new games. There's nothing else you can do that will even come close to boosting the performance as well as an upgrade — it's sad, but true.
If you really can't upgrade, don't give up hope — remember that old games are still just as worth playing as new games. You'd be shocked at how well slightly older games might play on a new computer, and if you haven't played them before, they're still new to you! Take a look at some older reviews, or ask around, and see what older games you might be able to run on your system. While you're scrounging up the money for an upgrade, you might find some pretty phenomenal games you never knew about. Plus: old games are cheap!
We're sure some of you are seasoned gamers out there, and have already tried out the tweaks above on your systems. We're curious — what did you find? Was it more or less in line with the above, or did you find certain tweaks produced significantly different results? Share your experiences with us in the comments.