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Snake oil, or black magic? Windows’ new game mode is a bit of both

The upcoming Creators Update for Windows 10 promises a host of new features, not least of which is the highly-anticipated “Game Mode,” which wants to push your PC to its limits and deliver unparalleled gaming performance.

According to Microsoft, Game Mode optimizes CPU resources when you enable it in the Windows Game Bar, making it a little different from standard optimization tools like the Nvidia Experience. That sounds impressive, but will it have an actual impact on gameplay?

What is Game Mode?

Microsoft claims that Game Mode works in a fundamentally different way than other optimization tools. For instance, tools like the Nvidia GeForce Experience can optimize your games by custom-tailoring your in-game graphics settings based on your system’s hardware and capabilities. It can detect your GPU, and turn individual detail settings up or down based on how well that GPU handles certain settings — like depth-of-field effects, texture filtering, and shadows.

Microsoft hopes to improve your core gameplay experience on PC by optimizing your hardware.

Windows 10’s Game Mode doesn’t touch in-game graphics settings. Instead, when a Game Mode-enabled game is launched, it kicks into high gear and starts re-allocating your PC’s CPU and GPU resources. For instance, when a full-screen game is running, your PC doesn’t really need to spend valuable clock cycles on your Twitter client, or Microsoft Word.

Game Mode attempts to juice your FPS by keeping your PC’s attention focused on whichever game is running at the time. It’s a good idea, and since Microsoft has built the feature into Windows 10 itself, it should have an easier time juggling those precious CPU and GPU resources than a third-party application might.

More: Microsoft kicks off second Windows 10 Creators Update Bug Bash

That’s a crucial point. We’ve seen a lot of so-called game optimization tools in the past, and the clear majority are snake oil.

Does it work?

That’s the real question, isn’t it? Before now, we’ve only had Microsoft’s word to go on. Game Mode remained locked deep in some lab on Microsoft’s Redmond campus, straining against the bars, eager to get its paws on your games. Luckily for us, Microsoft included a preview version of Game Mode in the most recent Windows Insider build for users on the Fast Ring.

Yep, that means you can go get it right now. But before you do, let’s see if it actually accomplishes what it claims to do. To gauge Game Mode’s capabilities, we tested it on two very different systems — the Dell Inspiron 7559, and the Asus ROG Strix GL553VD.

The Dell Inspiron 7559 is a budget gaming notebook built on last year’s hardware, while the Strix GL553VD is a mid-range gaming notebook that just hit the market. Both systems are decent performers on their own, but neither one is a top-of-the-line blazingly-fast monster of a gaming PC, and that’s important.

We want to see if Game Mode can help you get more out of an older, or maybe lower-end system. If you already have a gaming PC that eats lesser rigs for breakfast, it’s doubtful you’d even notice any improvements Game Mode might provide — a few extra frames per second matter a lot more when you’re barely managing 60 FPS, but not so much when you’re pushing 200.

Three games, two systems

To get a good handle on Game Mode, we ran our test systems through a couple simple benchmarks. First up, we used Deus Ex: Mankind Divided on high-detail settings. Next, we ran through a couple test-matches of Overwatch on high-detail settings. And finally, we raced through a few rounds of Forza Horizon 3.

In order to gauge Game Mode’s capabilities, we tested it on two very different systems.

These three games are important because of the way they interact with Windows 10. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided doesn’t actually support the Windows Game bar, and Microsoft has stated previously that games without Game Bar support might not turn on Game Mode by default, even if you set that option in your Windows Settings.

Overwatch does support the Game Bar, and it’s an online game, so a little extra CPU priority could potentially go a long way toward smoothing out overall performance. Forza Horizon 3 also supports the Game Bar, but it goes a step further. It’s a game available on the Windows Store, so it’s built on the Universal Windows Platform — which Microsoft claims will enhance its Game Mode gains.

The results are in

After wrangling with Windows Insider builds and the eccentricities they often introduce to even the most beloved and familiar PC, running through the tests was easy. Enabling Game Mode is quick, painless, and doesn’t require any digging through system menus.

Initially, Game Mode didn’t make games feel any smoother or faster, but the numbers tell a slightly different story.

As you can see above, there is some minor variations, particularly in Overwatch. On high-detail settings, the minimum framerate went up by about 20 percent. That sounds a lot bigger than it is, so it’s important to point out that the maximum frame rate didn’t budge, or went up by less than one or two percent. It’s not a huge gain, and you probably won’t even notice it, but it is present and that’s important.

Rather than pushing your highest frame rate even higher, Game Mode’s enhanced resource allocation seems to bring up the bottom end of the spectrum — it smooths out your gameplay when things are getting rough for your PC.

Useful, but not a game-changer

So why is it important if it doesn’t do all that much? Because it means Game Mode can smooth out your performance, making your games play a little better than they would without it. Microsoft might not be able to say that Game Mode will be like pumping your PC full of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, but it can claim — truthfully — that your games will run better with Game Mode enabled.

Enhanced resource allocation was never going to make your GTX 965M run like a GTX 1080. But according to our tests, this early preview version of Game Mode could help smooth out bumps in your gameplay that might occasionally disrupt the experience.

We hope it will improve before it comes out in the release version of the Creators Update, but even if it doesn’t, it offers just enough of an edge to be worth the extra few seconds it will take to enable.