Editor's note: Stephen Bigelow, author of PC Hardware Annoyances, breaks it down to the basics with seven tips (excerpted and expanded from his book) to improve your computer's graphics performance. Oftentimes, the solution to what seems to be a hefty problem may be as simple as reading the fine print on a box and adjusting your settings accordingly.
If you're like me, graphics plays a huge role in everyday computing. Whether you're an avid gamer looking to get the best possible image quality for a new first-person shooter or MMORG, or you're just trying to smooth system performance at high resolutions and color depths, getting the most from your graphics subsystem can be a real challenge. Still, there's a whole checklist of practical items that can help perk up a sagging frame rate.
You'd be amazed at just how many folks rush out to purchase software without even checking basic compatibility. Did you know that the initial release of the game FarCry demands a graphics system using nVIDIA GeForce 2/3/4/FX chipsets (with ForceWare driver version 53.03 or later) or ATI Radeon 8500/9000 chipsets (with ATI Catalyst 3.9 drivers or later)? No? Well you should--it's printed right on the bottom of the box. You didn't even look, did you? That's why the game runs at only 2 fps with your old RAGE II graphics card. In addition to the chipset, be sure that your graphics card includes at least the minimum amount of onboard video memory (for example, 128MB to 256MB).
Once you get past the graphics requirements, keep reading the bottom of that box for other system requirements such as CPU speed and RAM. Ideally, to ensure best performance your PC should exceed the recommended system configuration. If you had kept reading the bottom of the FarCry game box, you'd see that a AMD Athlon XP 2000+ or 2GHz Pentium 4 is recommended, along with 521MB to 1,024MB of system RAM. Network-based programs, such as those for communication over the Internet, will add other requirements like minimum connection speeds. Bottom line: be sure that your PC has what the program needs if you are hoping for the best visual performance.
Operating systems can run numerous applications at the same time, but multiple applications siphon off resources, such as processor time and memory, from the program. The quickest way to bog down your favorite game or multimedia player is to run multiple applications simultaneously. Close all applications and reboot the system if necessary. Press Ctrl-Alt-Del and use the Task Manager to verify that all other applications are exited.
Most modern graphics programs, namely games, offer a wealth of 3-D rendering features, including multiple lighting sources, real-time shadows, long ranges of sight, and other processor-intensive tasks. If you enable these options to improve the image quality, it may bog down your computer and slow down your frame rate. Just because your graphics card meets or even exceeds the program's requirements, it doesn't mean that the program will display its best features. Once the program is running, open its video configuration menu and experiment with each feature to optimize the frame rate while achieving the best possible image quality for your system.
Note: Always check back with the program's publisher for periodic bug fixes or patches that can sometimes improve visual performance and frame rates.
Old video drivers may suffer from bugs or inefficient coding that impairs some graphics performance. Check with the video card manufacturer and install the most recent video drivers. For example, ATI may have newer Catalyst drivers available for your Radeon X800 XT card. When it comes to drivers, don't forget to download and install the very latest version of Microsoft's DirectX. (You can learn more about DirectX at www.microsoft.com/directx.)
Here's a tip for more advanced readers. The video BIOS (firmware instructions encoded onto the video card itself) often takes more time to access than RAM. Most motherboards "shadow" the video BIOS, placing a copy of the video BIOS in RAM, where it can be accessed faster. However, video BIOS shadowing is not a suitable technique for every system. Reboot, enter System Setup, and disable the Video BIOS Shadowing option (usually located in the Advanced Chipset Features menu).
You can often control the many features of your video card directly rather than through a game's video configuration menus. The video drivers typically include a wealth of 3-D options under the Direct3D and OpenGL tabs. These options include anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering, and texture quality. Take a look for yourself. To make adjustments, right-click on the desktop, select Properties, click on the Settings tab, click on the Advanced button, and then click on the Direct3D tab. Adjust the 3-D options downward to reduce image quality, which will improve graphics performance. On the other hand, you can adjust the 3-D options upward to improve image quality, although you will possibly sacrifice some performance.
Stephen J. Bigelow has written for Computer Currents, CNET, and other periodicals, and is the author of many hardware books for Osborne/McGraw and others, such as "Troubleshooting, Maintaining & Repairing PCs," "Bigelow's PC Hardware Desk Reference," "Troubleshooting and Repairing Computer Printers," and 40 other titles.
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