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Are your PC games a slideshow? Here’s how to smooth them

If you play high-end 3D games on your PC, you want the best performance possible. That’s usually a matter of simply sinking a bunch of money into better computer parts, primarily the graphics card. But can you improve performance without spending a lot of money, or even better, without spending any at all? Yes, you can – to an extent.

To be clear, we’re talking about improving the performance of your games, and not necessarily the graphics. A faster, smoother framerate is generally more desirable than the latest graphical tricks, especially if you’re playing multiplayer online games. The sweet spot is 60 frames per second, the maximum refresh rate of most laptop screens and monitors. That’s what we’re shooting for here.

Tweak graphics settings

You probably already know that setting your graphics to a lower quality will increase the framerate of your game. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Some graphics settings are more important than others. Reducing the right settings may get you to 60 frames per second without turning image quality to mud.

settings

You should likely start with special effects — dynamic shadows, reflections, water fidelity, motion blur, and bloom. These are taxing, and in fast-paced games such window dressing often adds little to the experience. Exotic effects like Nvidia PhysX system and AMD’s TressFX should be disabled completely. Also look at lowering object draw distance and density, settings that have particular impact in open-world games like Grand Theft Auto V and Skyrim.

The quickest way to see dramatic framerate improvements without spending any money is to simply run your game at a lower resolution. If your monitor has a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, you can drop it down to 1,680 x 1,050 or 1,366 x 768 to see some quick gains. Of course this will make the graphics less clear, and many gamers prefer to use the native resolution to reduce the need for anti-aliasing.

Many PC games unfortunately lack detailed visual options, especially if they’ve been ported from game consoles. You can try to manually adjust 3D settings in Windows using the application from your graphics card provider. There are also free programs like Nvidia GeForce Experience and Razer Cortex that offer pre-configured ideal settings for popular games.

Close background applications

If possible, always close background programs in your operating system before starting a game. This will free up processor cycles and memory for your computer to devote to the game itself. Remember that there are often programs running in the background even without a visible window on the desktop – RAM-heavy programs like iTunes, Google Chrome, and Microsoft Office like to run a “helper” app that keeps the program going even after you close the window. Check your notification area or your Task Manager to find these apps and close them. Even seemingly innocuous programs, like the one that comes with your mouse or keyboard, can slow your system down.

startup

Many Windows programs add an auto-start function when you install them, and may be constantly running in the background. For Windows 7 and earlier, press the Windows button and “R” at the same time, then type “msconfig” and “enter” to open the configuration window. Click the Startup tab, then disable everything you don’t need and reboot. In Windows 8 and later it’s even easier: just press Ctrl+Shift+Esc to open the Task Manager and click on the Startup tab. If you don’t know what an item in the list is for, do a web search for the name – odds are excellent that someone has already asked that question.

Related: Is your system booting slowly? Here’s how to flush out clogged startup apps

Install the latest drivers

Both Nvidia and AMD regularly update the drivers for their respective cards. The latest drivers will usually improve performance, especially for the newest games. Head to nvidia.com/download.aspx or support.amd.com to find the latest version. Make sure to match the drivers to your operating system and your specific model of graphics card. If you’re not sure which card you have, both sites offer an automatic detection tool to get you the right package.

graphics

If you use a laptop with Intel’s integrated graphics, you won’t see updated drivers nearly so often. Even so, it doesn’t hurt to check downloadcenter.intel.com to see if there’s anything new.

Keep in mind that occasionally graphics card manufacturers will make a mistake in newer drivers that will adversely affect gaming performance. If you suddenly see a decrease in framerate or errors in textures, try uninstalling your graphics driver completely, downloading an older version, and using it instead. Both Nvidia and AMD offer archived versions of their driver packages.

Paid options

The simplest way to increase graphics performance is to buy a new graphics card and install it. (This is valid for desktop PCs, of course — even on laptops with discrete graphics cards, the cards are usually soldered to the motherboard and can’t be removed.) The good news is that there’s an incredible range of cards available these days. Even quite inexpensive cards like the Nvidia GTX 750 Ti or the AMD Radeon R7 260X, both below the $150 USD mark, can hit 60 frames per second in most modern games at 1080p resolution with some of the settings tweaks mentioned above.

Nvidia GTX 960 video card ports

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Related: Nvidia rumored to be at work on GTX 950 Ti priced around $150

If you’re willing to spend more money (and you’ve already bought a more expensive graphics card), your next improvements should be your computer’s CPU and RAM, in that order. (Laptop CPUs can’t be replaced, but most have at least one RAM DIMM slot free.) A faster CPU will increase framerate, though not as much as an improved graphics card, and more RAM will allow your computer to manage your operating system and applications more effectively.

More drastic upgrades are available for improved graphics and performance, like dual graphics cards linked in SLI or Crossfire configurations, or elaborate CPU and GPU cooling systems for overclocking. But that’s overkill. The above options should provide more than enough of a speed boost to get you to 60 frames per second, if you’re playing at 1080p.