53 Hardware Secrets

GRAPHICS ENHANCERS

By Kirk Steers

Wind Up Your Graphics Clock

Illustration: Glenn Mitsui
Hard-core gamers and PC power users squeeze every drop of performance out of their systems by pushing their CPU's clock frequency beyond the factory settings (see "Wring Out More Power" for more on overclocking). You can do the same to your graphics card.

The two leading graphics card vendors, ATI and nVidia, both offer utilities for speeding up their cards' graphics processing unit (GPU). ATI's Overdrive and nVidia's Coolbits programs are included with the graphics drivers that install along with the cards. (You might need to unlock the Coolbits utility to make it visible in nVidia's Forceware configuration program; to do this, see Jim Aspinwall's "Secret Tweaks" feature for instructions on changing Windows' Registry settings.)

Note that overheating can destroy your graphics card's delicate circuitry. The Overdrive app monitors your ATI board's temperature to prevent overheating, and using it doesn't invalidate your warranty. But overclocking an nVidia board via Coolbits--or with a third-party utility like the free RivaTuner 2--does invalidate your warranty.

Teach Your Monitor Who's BIOS

If your pc uses AGP graphics--which it probably does unless you recently purchased a midrange or high-end system--then its BIOS settings offer several low-level tweaks that can improve graphics performance. (Altering your BIOS is risky, so read "Tweak Your PC's BIOS Settings the Safe Way" for instructions.)

Open your PC Setup program by pressing the key you're instructed to use prior to Windows' loading (<Delete> is most common). Look for these settings:

AGP Mode: Adjust this item to the maximum value your card supports--2X, 4X, or 8X (check the card's documentation or the vendor's Web site to identify its maximum AGP speed). This tweak can improve your system's graphics performance.

AGP Fast Write: Enabling this option often speeds up graphics cards that are not overclocked.

AGP Aperture Size: This setting governs the flow of graphics data in and out of system RAM whenever the memory on your graphics board runs low. For graphics cards with 32MB or less of memory, increasing the aperture to 128MB or higher can enhance the performance of texture-laden games.

Fine-Tune Your Display

The fastest and simplest way to get the most out of your CRT or LCD monitor is by adjusting its brightness, contrast, and other controls; a few simple fixes can make a big difference in your on-screen view. For techniques and utilities to help you tune a CRT, see "Get the Best View Possible From Your PC's Monitor"); and for tips on adjusting your LCD, read "Improve Your Image With 13 Simple Graphics Tweaks").

Stop Unwanted Glare--and Glances

Got glare? improve your view--and reduce eyestrain--by purchasing an antiglare screen that fits over your display. 3M and Fellowes make filters that cost from $25 to $60 online, depending on the type and size of your display.

Of course, there are probably times when you would like to make your screen more difficult to read. A screen-privacy filter will not only reduce glare but also will limit your display's viewing angle so that nosy neighbors and passers-by can't see what you're working on. Privacy filters from 3M are priced between $40 and $100 online.

Show Your True Colors

Colors vary from monitor to monitor: What looks like puce on one display may appear as burnt umber on another (you can tell I've been looking at paint swatches, can't you?). If you want your digital photos and other graphics to look as true to life as possible, you need to calibrate your monitor. Calibration software can help, but to really gauge a monitor's color accuracy, you need a device designed specifically for sampling and analyzing a monitor's hues.

Colorvision's Spyder2express; see

FIGURE 6: See the most accurate colors possible on your monitor by using Colorvision's Spyder2express.
FIGURE 6) does just that. The device, which costs about $70 online, uses a hockey puck-size USB scanner that hangs over the front of your monitor to sample the light it emits, and to calibrate the colors automatically. The Spyder2express scanner is the same one used by the company's more expensive calibration products. A $200 software upgrade adds the company's PrintFix Plus utility, which color-matches printer and monitor output.

Unstick Your Pixels

Sometimes, your LCD's pixels get stuck, requiring a mild jolt to get them operating again. If you have an annoying pixel that just won't let go of one color, try using your fingertip wrapped in a soft, clean cloth to massage the pixel very, very gently for 10 to 15 seconds.

If that doesn't unstick it, download the free Stuck Pixel Fixer video file from PSP-Vault, and run it for a couple of hours (look for the download link at the bottom of the description). The video's rapidly flashing colors have fixed several of my stuck pixels. To play the video, which was originally designed for the Sony PlayStation Portable, you need QuickTime or another media player that supports MPEG-4 files. Note that this technique works with stuck pixels, but not dead ones, which typically appear black.

Improve Your Driver Skills

If you're not satisfied with the performance of your display, try tweaking your graphics driver. Check to see if you have the latest release installed. (Note, though, that changing your system's graphics driver is an invitation to trouble. Remember the sage advice: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.) While you're in the driver's properties, get to know the features and settings. ATI's Catalyst and nVidia's Forceware utilities allow you to tweak many 3D, color, and other advanced image settings. See the Catalyst and Forceware sections at TweakGuides.com for the details.

Experimenting with your card's gamma settings, for example, can significantly lighten up a game that's otherwise too dark to play comfortably. Many power users also swear by EnTech Taiwan's $30 PowerStrip (free trial), a configuration utility that offers a huge collection of advanced graphics-card tweaks, including many settings that are not available in the manufacturer's configuration utilities. Customized screen resolutions, for instance, give HDTV and wide-screen LCD viewers more options, and custom refresh-rate settings let you bypass the 60-Hz limitation that causes screen flicker on some display/graphics card combinations (see

FIGURE 7: PowerStrip's tweaks for your graphics card include custom screen resolutions and various graphics timing settings.
FIGURE 7). One caveat: Most LCDs work best at their default refresh rate.

Contributing Editor Kirk Steers writes the monthly Hardware Tips column.

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