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.
AntialiasingIf 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 FilteringAnisotropic 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.
ResolutionIncreasing 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 DistanceIncreasing 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.
ShadowsGood 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.
TexturesThe 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.
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.