The ultimate guide to tweaking your GPU's most arcane settings
Think your CPU is king? Think again.
The most complex processor inside your computer is bolted to your graphics card. Capable of massive parallel processing, the best GPUs render games at high speed with superb image quality, stutter-free video and excellent fidelity. GPU drivers include software that gives you granular control over image quality and performance, but these control panels tend to be complex and confusing.
This guide will walk your through the various settings in the control panels supplied by AMD and Nvidia. We won’t try to cover every possible setting; instead, we’ll offer rules of thumb to help you understand what to tweak and what to leave alone. When possible, we’ll show the same settings on the different control panels, side by side, since AMD and Nvidia often use different terminology for the same setting.
Let's start with general display control, and then move on to video. We’ll discuss 3D settings last, as these can be the most confusing. By the time we're finished, you'll have mastered the most complex GPU settings and be able to start tweaking your display like a pro.
Two basic rules of thumb
Before plunging into control-panel specifics, we should review two important guidelines that everyone ought to follow.
Use Windows system controls for basic settings: If all you need to do is set the resolution for one monitor, work from the display control panel built directly into your operating system. Sure, you could work in the GPU control panel instead, but if you ever changed graphics cards later on, you’d need to learn a new control panel. In contrast, if you handle the operation through Windows, the behavior will remain the same.
You’ll still want to use the graphics control panels to deal with GPU-specific settings. For example, you can set up Windows for multimonitor support, but if you want additional features such as bezel compensation (which lines up pixels on bezel boundaries to create a seamless image), you should use the graphics control panel.
When possible, use in-game controls to change 3D settings: Changing settings inside a game is the best way to control image quality and performance. GPU control panels let you tweak various 3D settings, but the settings they may be impractical and imprecise. Consider antialiasing, which eliminates jagged edges but tends to reduce your frame rate: The game's designers have optimized in-game antialiasing settings for the game, applying antialiasing algorithms only when they consider those adjustments necessary. But turning on antialiasing from your dektop's GPU control panel may apply it to every pixel of every frame at all times, dramatically reducing (in some cases) the frame rate your system can deliver.
On the other hand, sometimes you may benefit from using the GPU control panels for 3D settings. We’ll discuss those situations in the section on 3D graphics.
Know your controls
The display control panels are available by either right-clicking on the Windows desktop or by clicking on the tray icon in the lower right corner of your task bar and then clicking the icon for the control panel.
Bringing up the tray icon and then right-clicking the control panel icon yields additional options. With Nvidia, the only practical option is to update your drivers or check for updates. But AMD provides a cascading set of menus that amount to a mini-control panel.
Following the cascading menu choices can be a little daunting, however. Unless you know exactly what you want to tweak, however, you'll probably do better to bring up the entire control panel and then navigate the choices in a more visual way. Let’s do that, starting with basic display settings.
Your GPU has one crucial job: to drive your PC monitor through analog (VGA) or digital (DisplayPort, DVI, or HDMI, for example) interfaces. Performing this duty gets a little tricky in a system that runs multiple monitors simultaneously; but even if you have just one monitor, you may want to adjust some important settings. For example, if you’re connecting via HDMI to an HDTV panel, you'll probably want to set a custom resolution to avoid overscan, a problem that arises when the GPU doesn't correctly match its display resolution to your display's resolution, causing the edges of your screen to get cut off (so you can’t see the Start menu in Windows 7, for example.) Old standard-definition TVs, many older HDTVs, and even some current models are susceptible to overscanning an input signal; to compensate, you must instruct your GPU to kick out video at a custom resolution. Both Nvidia and AMD let you do so via their graphics control panels.
Nvidia provides a convenient way to set a custom resolution via its graphics control panel while including extra options like 'sync width'. For the most part, you should leave the exotic settings alone and just tweak the pixel resolution. However, if you’re connecting to a really old TV, you might need to fiddle with parameters such as 'front porch', a timing setting (specifically, the time between when the last scan line displays and when the next sync pulse from the GPU arrives) used in analog video
Another display setting you should know how to tweak is the aspect ratio. Older games and standard-definition TV might run in a 4:3 aspect ratio, such as 640 by 480 pixels or 1024 by 768 pixels. When you play them on a modern widescreen monitor, they may look unnatural when stretched to match the full width of the display. GPU control panels have settings to let you tweak aspect ratio; and though some monitors have aspect ratio controls built-in, using the GPU control panel is simpler and ensures that your settings remain the same if you should ever switch displays.
To adjust the aspect ratio, open your GPU control panel and find the radio buttons that control this setting. The top button leaves the source materials' aspect ratio unchanged, but enlarges the image to use as much of the monitor space as possible (meaning that you’ll probably have gray or black bars on either side of the image, if your source material is 4:3). This is the preferable setting.
Normally, the 'Scale image to full size' option is switched on by default, but you'll want to avoid this option if you're having scaling issues.
The third option—which Nvidia calls 'no scaling' and AMD refers to as 'use centered timings'—prevents the image from being scaled at all. If you try to display a 640 by 480 image on a 2560 by 1600 display with this setting enabled, you'll end up with a tiny picture at the center of your screen. Though this may represent the most accurate image possible, you probably won't find it a pleasing option.
Your graphics control panel has a few more-specific aspect ratio settings that you can tweak, but you can ignore these if you're using a widescreen monitor manufactured in the past five years.