You've built a gaming PC and it's time to start playing, but you're thinking your games could look a bit better or run a bit smoother. You want to tweak your graphics settings, but you don't know where to start. We're here to help you out.
Illustration: Tina Mailhot-Roberge
Graphics settings, as you might expect, tweak how your computer draws images on your screen in any given game. They can make blurry textures sharper, jagged edges smooth, and even let you see further into the distance. However, all these things come at a cost: performance. If you have a low-powered computer, you may want to lower the graphics intensity so your games run smoother. If you have a beast of a gaming PC, you may want to turn them up so your game looks as epic as possible.
Some games will optimise your settings for you, and other tools out there -- like NVIDIA's Optimize web app or its GeForce Experience -- will scan your system, find games and tell you what settings you should run in those games for best performance. If you don't want to do any work, that will give you a good enough experience, but you can potentially get better performance out of your game and tweak the things that matter most to you. In this post, we'll talk about some of the most common settings, what they mean, and how to find the perfect balance between looks and performance.
How to Tweak Your Settings
Before you dig into your settings, you should familiarise yourself with the process we're going to go through. Here's what you need to know about finding these settings and measuring your game's performance.
Where to Find Your Graphics Settings
Different games offer different levels of customisability. Some games will offer you a plethora of settings to tweak as you choose, while others may only offer one or two -- or even none at all. However, even if you don't see any in your game's options, you may still be able to tweak them. Here's where you should look for these settings:
- Your Game's Options: Obviously, the game itself is the first place you should look. Some games will house these settings in your in-game video options, while others might put them in a separate options window that you'll see before you launch the game. Peek around (or Google your game's title) to find out if this menu exists, and what it contains.
- Your Video Card's Control Panel: If you don't have many settings in your game (or it's missing a setting you really want to tweak), you can often find them in the control panel that comes with your video card's drivers. Open up your control panel (NVIDIA Control Panel for NVIDIA cards, AMD Catalyst Control for AMD/ATI cards), go to your application-specific 3D settings, and import the EXE file for the game in question. You should find yourself with a bunch of settings ripe for the tweaking.
- A Third-Party Graphics Tuner: If you really want to dig deep and fiddle with settings, profiles and other tweaks, you might want to try a third-party tweaker like nHancer (for NVIDIA cards) or RadeonPro (for AMD/ATI cards). Like your graphics card's control panel, they will let you create profiles for each game and tweak settings you didn't have access to before.
What you use will depend on your game, the settings you want to tweak, and how much work you're willing to do, but these are the first places to look.
How to Measure Your Game's Performance
We recommend you start by tweaking one setting at a time. Start with everything on low, and move them higher one-by-one. Then open up your game and do a run-through of a taxing area. If you're playing a first person shooter, for example, play through an outdoor level with lots of enemies. If you're playing a fantasy adventure game, get out of the dungeons and into an outside area with lots of people. That's where your game is going to use the most graphical power. As you tweak each setting higher, your game will look better, but it will also slow down. When it does, you'll know exactly which setting caused the slowdown, and can work to find a happy medium of good looks and good performance.
When we talk about "performance," we generally mean how many frames per second your computer can display in the game. You can measure this using a tool like FRAPS or our favourite video card overclocker, MSI Afterburner.
What frame rate you're comfortable with depends on you. I personally consider a game "playable" at 25-30 FPS, below which is too choppy for my tastes. I consider a game "optimal" at 60fps, however, since higher frame rates offer diminishing returns in terms of looks (and, if you have a 60Hz monitor, you won't see more than 60fps anyway. See "Refresh Rate and VSync" for more information on this in the next section). Find a frame rate that you're comfortable with and aim for that as you tweak these settings.
The Most Common Graphics Settings and What They Do
There are more variables out there than we can shake a stick at, but the majority of games have a similar "basic" group of settings that are a good place to start tweaking. In this section, we'll go through some of the most popular, what they do, and note our recommendation on how to get the best performance from them. Be sure to see the Further Resources section at the end of this article if you want information on more advanced graphics settings, as this is just a beginner's list.
Where applicable, we'll also show some comparison images so you can see what each setting does. Click on the images to see a bigger view. We'll be using Skyrim as an example, since it's a very visually intensive game, but the best way to see how the settings affect your particular game is to try them out yourself. These images are merely meant to help explain what each setting does.
What It Does: You're probably familiar with the resolution on your monitor -- the number of pixels it uses to make up your screen. Well, you can choose the resolution of your game too. Higher resolutions will produce sharper images with smoother edges, as you'd imagine, and can also give you more screen real estate for toolbars and other shortcuts.
How It Affects Performance: Moving your resolution higher will provide the biggest decline in performance, but they'll also make the entire game look significantly better. With each step up in resolution, you'll see a dramatic decrease in performance.
Our Recommendation: If your computer can handle it, we recommend running your games at the native resolution of your monitor. That is, if you have a monitor that is 1920x1080, run your game at 1920x1080 -- any lower and your game won't look nearly as good. However, if you're running your game on a particularly old computer, and the smaller settings tweaks just aren't doing it, changing your resolution can be the difference between a game that is unplayable and a game that runs smoothly.
Left: anti-aliasing off, Right: anti-aliasing set to 4x. Notice the jagged edges of the stairs on the left, which have been greatly diminished on the right.
What It Does: Anti-aliasing (AA) aims to cut down on the pixelated, jagged edges you see in the game. It's one of the more popular graphics tweaks you'll find, and it helps smooth out objects when you can't increase the resolution any further. There are a lot of different types of AA, which we won't get into here, but if you want to read about the different types, check out this article at the Build a PC forum on Reddit. It goes into a lot more detail. Most often, you'll see "multisample anti-aliasing", or MSAA for short.
How It Affects Performance: Anti-aliasing can affect your performance significantly, just like raising the resolution of your game. It's also one of the first tweaks people gravitate towards, because jagged edges are very noticeable and make your game look bad.
Our Recommendation: Anti-Aliasing makes a big difference in both the look of your game and the performance. You should have a number of AA levels to choose from, like "2x", "4x" and "8x", so you can choose how much of a performance hit you take. Generally, 8x provides the biggest drop in performance, with minimal improvements over 4x.
The higher your resolution, the bigger hit you'll take to performance when increasing AA. So we recommend raising your resolution as high as it can go first, then applying AA as needed. Try keeping AA down to 2x or 4x for the best graphics-to-performance ratio. If your game is performing very poorly, however, we recommend disabling AA completely for a significant speed boost.
Left: FXAA off, Right: FXAA on. It has eliminated some of the jagged edges, but everything looks just a little blurrier.
What It Does: FXAA stands for Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing, and it's one of the many types of anti-aliasing noted above (which is so popular that it deserves its own section). Like anti-aliasing, it aims to reduce jagged edges around objects. However, it uses a different method of doing so, which requires almost no processing power -- but it also looks a bit blurrier.
How It Affects Performance: FXAA will not affect your performance nearly as much as other types of anti-aliasing, but in some cases may still cause a small performance hit.
Our Recommendation: If your computer isn't powerful enough to handle other types of anti-aliasing, and those jagged edges are just driving you crazy, you try enabling FXAA. You may like it, but I find the blurriness angers me even more than the jagged edges do. If you have a powerful computer, leave FXAA off and use regular anti-aliasing instead.
Left: Texture quality set low, Right: Texture quality set high.
What It Does: Textures refer to the "picture" you see on top of the models in your game. For example, your game renders the "shape" of a set of stairs, and then overlays a texture that makes those stairs look like wood or stone. In the example above, it's what allows you to see the individual pine needles on a tree. Lower resolution textures will look blurry or dull, and high resolution textures will look sharp and lifelike.
How It Affects Performance: Texture quality won't likely affect your frame rate, because it doesn't stress the graphics card's processor very much. However, texture quality does require more video RAM, so if your video card doesn't have a lot of VRAM you may experience more intermittent stuttering (rather than a constant decrease in frame rate) as you raise the setting.
Our Recommendation: Texture quality can make a game go from OK-looking to beautiful quite fast and without a huge drop in performance. We recommend raising this as high as you can go without experience stuttering. If you get the occasional pause, lower this setting until the stutter goes away.
Left: shadow quality set low, Right: shadow quality set high.
What It Does: As you might expect, shadow quality determines how good shadows look in your game. At a low setting, you'll see a less defined, blocky shadow that sort of fits the outline of the object casting it, while higher settings will produce sharper, more realistic shadows.
How It Affects Performance: Shadows are really difficult to compute, since the game needs to take into account where light is coming from at all angles, how far away you are from that light, and so on -- not to mention how your character is moving. As such, it can have a significant affect on your game's performance.
Our Recommendation: Shadows are cool, but probably aren't as important to you as the benefits you get from other draining graphics settings like anti-aliasing. If you need to sacrifice somewhere, this is a good place to start, by setting shadow quality to low or disabling them altogether. However, if you have power to spare, keep it in the middle or high end for enhanced realism.
Left: anisotropic filtering off, Right: anisotropic filtering set to 16x. Notice the blurriness of the road and the shrubs in the left image, as well as the lack of smoke emanating from the torch in the distance.
What It Does: Anisotropic filtering affects textures that you see from an angle, like a stone path in front of you. Right below your feet, the texture will look sharp and crisp, but as you look down the path, it starts to blur. Anisotropic filtering blends textures together in a way that lets them stay sharp and crisp the further away they are from your character's "eyes".
How It Affects Performance: On modern cards, anisotropic filtering shouldn't cause a very big performance drop, if at all -- even at higher levels like 16x.
Our Recommendation: Chances are your video card can handle high levels of anisotropic filtering, so go ahead and crank this one up. If it does cause a performance hit -- say, on an old card -- lower it down to 2x instead of off completely. You should still get a noticeable difference without a big loss in frame rate.
View Distance and Field of View
Left: view distance set low, Right: view distance set high. Notice the extra trees in the distance on the right.
What They Do: These are two settings that determine what you can "see" in-game. View distance, shown above, determines how far into the distance you can see. Open up your game of choice and look off at the horizon. As you raise the view distance, you'll see more objects near the horizon. On low view distance settings, those objects still exist, they just abruptly "appear" on screen as you run toward them.
Field of view is slightly different, and has more to do with gameplay than graphics. Field of view determines how much peripheral vision your character has as well. Higher field of view angles mean you can see more to your sides, though things directly in front of you will seem smaller or farther away.
How They Affect Performance: These settings may affect your performance a small amount, but chances are you won't see too much of a hit on your frame rate. So, unless you're running very low power hardware, you probably tweak them to your heart's content.
Our Recommendation: There's little reason to turn view distance down, unless you notice performance benefits from it. Field of view depends more on your personal preferences: higher field of view lets you see more at once, but makes it harder to aim at your target in first person shooters.
Refresh Rate and VSync
Above: a simulated image showing screen tearing. Picture: Vanessaezekowitz/Wikipedia.
What They Do: Refresh rate refers to how many times your monitor refreshes the on-screen image every second. If you have a 60Hz monitor, for example, your screen will refresh the monitor 60 times per second. That means, essentially, that you're always seeing 60 frames per second -- even if you're getting more than that in your game. Your game's FPS reading refers to how many frames your graphics card is producing, not necessarily how many you're seeing. 120Hz monitors exist for those that want a really smooth experience, since they can show 120 frames per second.
If you're getting more frames per second than your monitor can handle, you'll get what's called "screen tearing" (see the above image for a simulated example). VSync solves this problem by "syncing" the monitor's refresh rate to your graphics card's output. That means it will cap your game at 60 frames per second, and wait until your monitor is ready for a new frame before it generates one.
How They Affect Performance: VSync comes with a pretty sizeable performance hit. However, if you have the option to turn on "Triple Buffering" in your game, you should do that in addition to VSync. Triple buffering can help you keep the benefits of VSync while negating some of the performance loss, keeping your game smooth and tear-free.
Our Recommendation: If you have screen tearing issues and your computer can handle it, turn on VSync. If you don't have problems with screen tearing (or if your game is getting a lower frame rate than your monitor's refresh rate), you're fine leaving it off. If you can turn on triple buffering, we recommend doing so, but some games won't support it.
Refresh rate and VSync can be pretty complicated, and there's a lot more to the subject than the basics we've outlined above. If you're interested, check out this section of TweakGuides' Graphics and Display guide, or this Reddit thread for a more in-depth look at everything that goes into refresh rate and VSync.
Further Resources You Should Read
This barely scratches the surface of the settings you can find and tweak (hence why we call it a "beginner's guide"), so once you feel comfortable tweaking these, we recommend moving on to see what other kinds of fun effects you can play with. Here are some sites, articles, and tools we recommend checking out:
- TweakGuides.com, specifically their Gamer Graphics & Display Settings Guide. It has a bit more information about how your computer draws these things on screen, so it can go into a bit more detail about how each setting works.
- NVIDIA's Optimize guides, which go through individual games and list each tweak, how it affects performance in that game, and what you should do. It's kind of like this guide, but more detailed and built for your specific game. If your game is on their list, you should absolutely read its NVIDIA guide (written by the expert behind TweakGuides.com). The guides are relevant even if you don't use an NVIDIA card too.
- NVIDIA's optimise tool and GeForce Experience app. These will scan your system's hardware and suggest optimal settings for certain games. They're a good starting point, but we still recommend tweaking the settings yourself -- you may be able to eke out more performance, or raise settings that are more important to you (and lower ones that aren't).
- Reddit's Game Settings Guide over at their Build a PC forum. We've covered the most common settings here, but Reddit's guide covers many, many more, so it's a good place to go once you're comfortable with the basics.
Of course, no graphics guide would be complete without mentioning that the best way to improve your graphics is to upgrade your hardware, or at least overclock it. However, unless you have top-of-the-line components, you're going to need to tweak your settings, so try the above steps, learn the process, and you should be a pro in no time.