How to speed up your graphics card

When gaming, the graphics processing unit (GPU) is your best friend. It renders everything you see on-screen, from the user interface to the mountains rising in the distance. It works in tandem with the CPU, but really, it does the bulk of the heavy lifting, so we need to treat it right to keep it happy and running optimally.

Unfortunately, there are many factors taking place within your PC that create a virtual rain cloud hovering over your GPU’s performance. But don’t fret: Here’s how to speed up your graphics card to achieve the best gaming experience possible.

Note: This guide applies to Windows 10 PCs, though some suggestions do apply to MacOS as well. We’re also focusing strictly on the GPU in this guide. It’s the main component of performance in-game, but it’s not the only component. For more general tips, check out our guide on how to increase your fps on PC.

Update or refresh your drivers

GeForce Experience Update Driver

This should be your first step in speeding up GPU performance, whether your PC has integrated graphics or a discrete GPU. Since this chip handles most of the visual load, installing the latest drivers needs to be a priority.

If you’re unsure about what’s installed in your PC, perform the following in Windows 10:

Step 1: Right-click on the Start button and select the Device Manager option on the pop-up menu.

Step 2: With Device Manager open, click Display Adapters to expand and reveal your GPU(s).

You should see at least one GPU on the expanded list. If your PC has an Intel CPU or an AMD GPU, then you’ll see one listing for Intel or AMD Radeon. If you also have a stand-alone GPU, you’ll see an additional listing for a Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon chip.

For this example, our Alienware laptop lists Intel HD Graphics 530 (integrated) and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 (discrete). Due to this setup, games default to the more powerful GeForce chip. This is the driver we want to update.

To get new drivers, follow these links:

When installing the driver, use AMD’s “custom install” option that uninstalls the current software suite and installs the current version, or Nvidia’s “clean install” option. You may also want to consider using Display Driver Uninstaller first, as it does a great job of clearing out any old drivers, but it’s not strictly necessary.

If you have Nvidia’s GeForce Experience desktop client installed, it typically sends a notification when a new driver is available. If it’s not installed, click the link provided above to manually download and update.

Update Windows 10 and DirectX

DirectX Diagnostic Tool

You probably already have the latest DirectX release, but you should verify nonetheless, just in case. DirectX is a graphics API, and although there are others — OpenGL and Vulkan, in particular — DirectX is the most common for games on Windows. Having the latest DirectX version means having the latest platform that allows your GPU to communicate with the games you’re running. Older versions work, but you can almost instantly boost your performance in-game simply by updating to the latest version.

Step 1: Type dxdiag in the search box on the taskbar and press Enter.

Step 2: The DirectX Diagnostic Tool appears on your screen with the System tab loaded by default. Locate the version number listed under System Information, as shown above.

Microsoft updates DirectX through the Windows Update feature. If you’re currently not running DirectX 12, you’ll need to manually update your PC.

Step 1: Click the Start button followed by the Gear icon located on the Start menu’s left edge.

Step 2: Select Update & Security within the Settings app.

Step 3: Click the Check for Updates button.

Note: Older graphics cards may not support DirectX12, so if this update doesn’t change your DX version, that may be the cause.

Overclocking

Nvidia

One way to improve GPU performance is to overclock it. This is done by tweaking the frequency and voltage of the GPU core and its memory to squeeze out additional speed. If you’re not accustomed to overclocking components, proceed with caution and read widely and deeply before you begin. The wrong settings could potentially damage the chip. Even more, an inadequate cooler will cause the overclocked GPU to overheat and crash.

Like CPUs, you can overclock a GPU using desktop software. One solution is MSI’s Afterburner that scans your GPU and finds the highest, most stable overclock settings. Another is EVGA’s Precision X1, though it only supports GTX 10, GTX 16, and RTX 20 Series GPUs.

For more help on overclocking your graphics card, check out our dedicated guide.

It’s worth noting that nearly all modern GPUs have a small amount of overclocking headroom built in. You don’t need to do anything for your GPU to reach its out-of-the-box peak performance, as long as you give the GPU proper power and cooling.

Raise your power limit

As mentioned, MSI Afterburner can automatically find your GPU’s highest stable overclock. That includes power and voltage limits. You can squeeze more performance out of your GPU simply by raising the power limit of your GPU. Nvidia and AMD cards have a base and boost clock speed. When all of the conditions are right — power draw, temperature, etc. — your GPU will automatically raise its clock speed up to the boost limit. So, raising your power limit does one thing: Allows your GPU to hit its boost clock speed more frequently and consistently.

Note: As with overclocking, you should make sure your GPU has strong cooling before proceeding. This will raise your GPUs temperature and may make it run louder, too.

Step 1: Open MSI Afterburner.

Step 2: Drag the Power Limit slider from 100 to 110.

Step 3: Click the check mark under the sliders.

Step 4: Run a game that taxes your GPU.

Step 5: Verify your clock speed using MSI Afterburner.

Step 6: Keep an eye on your GPU temperatures and make sure they don’t go outside the safe range. Repeat until you reach the power limit or the GPU becomes unstable.

Afterburner takes the upper power limit from your GPU’s BIOS, so as long as you simply raise the power limit and don’t mess with any other settings, you’ll be fine. This isn’t overclocking, per se, because you aren’t actually raising the clock speed on your GPU. Instead, you’re simply giving your GPU more room for it to automatically reach its boost clock speeds.

Set a custom fan curve

As you increase the power limit in MSI Afterburner, you’ll see the temperature limit increase alongside it. Temperature is a limiting factor in your GPU reaching its full performance, so it’s OK to raise the limit a bit. You should check your GPU’s operational limits, however. The recent RTX 3080, for example, has a maximum operating temperature of 93 degrees Celsius. You don’t want to reach that limit often as it will not only shorten the life of your GPU, but will also lead to automatic downclocking which can worsen performance.

To help keep temperatures low, you can use a custom fan curve.

There are plenty of fan curve tools online, but you can set your GPU’s curve right inside Afterburner:

Step 1: Open MSI Afterburner and click on the Settings icon (a cog).

Step 2: Select the Fan tab.

Step 3: Check Enable User Defined Software Automatic Fan Control.

Step 4: Tweak the curve to increase your fan speed as the GPU gets hotter. We recommend reaching 100% fan speed well before your GPU’s temperature limit. For the RTX 3080, for example, we’d set the curve to top out around 70 to 75 degrees Celsius. From there, it’s a matter of checking your GPU’s temperature in-game while balancing that against fan noise. The image above is the fan curve we settled on for an RTX 2080.

Clean your PC

If your graphics card gets too hot, it will throttle, or slow itself down, in order to avoid damaging its delicate components. If the intake fans and filters are covered with dust, sufficient airflow isn’t carrying heat away from the components, including the GPU, which can lead to that excessive heat buildup.

Your first line of defense is to clean all intake fans using a can of compressed air. Next, turn your PC off, unplug the power cord, ground yourself, and remove your PC’s side panel. Use compressed air to blow out any dust collecting on the components.

Note: Resist the urge to use a vacuum cleaner. The static buildup can damage your PC’s components.

For laptops, your only option is to blow dust out of the intake fans. If you’re lucky, there’s a vent lid covering these fans you can easily remove and blow dust directly off the fans.

Keeping your PC clean is vital to its overall health and performance, whether you’re gaming or just browsing the web.

Improve the airflow

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

While cleaning your desktop or laptop helps improve the airflow, you may simply need more. For desktops, you may have spaces in the chassis for additional fans on the front, top, and bottom. Additional fans increase your PC’s noise level; however, but they will keep the overall heat level down.

For laptops, you can’t install fans. What you can do, however, is purchase a cooling pad that sits under your laptop. It typically includes two huge 140mm fans that blow cool air up against the laptop’s bottom. The drawback is dust collection, meaning you have one more device to keep clean.

Upgrade the cooling (desktop only)

A good way to boost GPU performance is to install an aftermarket cooler. This can be a heftier air cooler, or a more advanced liquid cooling solution, but it very much dependent on your graphics card, as some are compatible with aftermarket coolers and others aren’t. That is especially true of liquid cooling, where custom loops require bespoke waterblocks, which can be costly. Alternatively, you could attach an all-in-one cooler designed for a CPU using something like NZXT’s Kraken G12, but it’s quite an advanced process that should not be approached lightly.

Again, do your research before you begin, and note that you will likely void your GPU’s warranty if you remove the stock cooler.

Note: Some GPUs can have their cooling improved dramatically by tightening screws, adding washers, or replacing the stock thermal paste. This is very dependent on your GPU, right down to the specific version. So be very wary of making any changes you aren’t certain are safe and warranted.

Adjust power settings 

Windows 10 Power Settings

If you’re gaming on a laptop, connect it to a power outlet. The GPU (and CPU) typically throttle down when the laptop is unplugged because lithium-ion batteries can’t supply enough power output for maximum performance without ruining battery life. There may be a setting in the BIOS to turn off CPU throttling, but GPUs have hard-coded instructions to throttle down on battery power that you can’t change.

Adjusting the power settings on desktops and laptops plugged into a wall outlet might boost GPU performance, however.

Step 1: Click the Start button followed by the gear icon located on the Start Menu’s left edge.

Step 2: Select System within the Settings app.

Step 3: The Display panel appears by default. Select Power & Sleep located on the left.

Step 4: Scroll down and select the Additional Power Settings link.

On laptops, you can reach the same panel by right-clicking on the battery icon located next to the system clock. Select Power Options on the pop-up menu.

Step 5: Select the High Performance option.

If you click the Change Plan Settings link, Windows 10 presents a Change Advanced Power Settings link. Click that and a pop-up appears listing all settings that fall under High Performance. Don’t tweak these settings unless you’re extremely familiar with Windows 10.

Update other PC components

AMD Rizen CPU 7 in hand pins
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

While you may have an awesome GPU installed in your system, it’s only one of many components that comprise a single PC. Your CPU, memory, and storage all contribute to how fast and snappy your PC feels, and a good processor can help raise frame rates by a noticeable margin, especially at lower resolutions.

Remember that while the GPU does most of the heavy visual listing, the CPU handles the math, physics, artificial intelligence (A.I.), input processing, code execution, and more. On top of that, it must handle everything else running outside your game, like all the Windows 10 services. You still need a decent CPU so your awesome GPU can really shine.

You also have to take System memory into account because now the market standard is 16GB, which makes 8GB the bare minimum. We understand you want to save money, but buying cheap could mean sacrificing speed and performance. You should consider an upgrade if you notice lag times while gaming, and you don’t necessarily have to get the cream of the memory module crop.

Before upgrading, though, you need to make sure a bottleneck is in place. The relationship between your CPU and GPU is a delicate one in games, and different games stress the two components differently (a lot of A.I.-driven characters, for example, will stress the CPU more than the GPU). The best way to detect bottlenecking is to check your system utilization with Task Manager. You can see your GPU, memory, disk, network, and CPU utilization in the Performance tab. If, while in game, your CPU utilization is consistently higher than your GPU utilization, you probably have a CPU bottleneck.

It’s impossible to detect and eliminate bottlenecks entirely. However, if you’re constantly seeing your CPU pinned in games while your GPU is coasting along, you’re probably due for a processor upgrade. If you’re not well-versed in processor specs, you can check out these lists for the best AMD processors and the best Intel processors.

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