The ultimate guide to tweaking your GPU's most arcane settings

Desktop color settings

The two types of color settings in GPU control panels are desktop color and video color. The latter term refers to color settings for video playback. The different panels exist due to differences in the way that PC graphics and video playback handle color. We’ll discuss video color settings in more detail shortly, but first let’s look at desktop color.

A single control panel handles desktop color settings for Nvidia-based graphics cards.

Nvidia's desktop color settings aren't especially helpful.

You can set the application to control desktop color, or you can make the changes in the graphics card. Aside from specific color calibration tools, most applications don’t tinker with desktop color. Nevertheless, if you have a high-end monitor with sophisticated color controls, it may be best to use them. If your display offers no color controls—as happens both with very cheap and with high-end 30-inch monitors—you’ll want to enable color setting changes with the Nvidia controls.

AMD splits its desktop color controls into two different panels.

AMD splits color settings between analog and digital flat panels

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The left panel deals with general color controls, and works even if you have an analog (VGA) connection; the color changes are internal to the card. The panel on the right, listed under digital flat panels, alters the values in the digital output signal sent via DisplayPort, DVI, or HDMI. You also get controls for such variables as color temperature. Setting the color temperature to 6500K (degrees Kelvin) is generally appropriate for video. However, this adjustment changes only the output color temperature to 6500K; you may still need to calibrate your display to achieve accurate color temperature settings.

Multiple monitors

Using two or more displays can significantly improve productivity. If you just want to configure two displays for independent use as spanned or cloned displays, the Windows display control panel generally produces adequate results.

On the other hand, both AMD and Nvidia offer feature support for multiple displays beyond what Windows does. AMD’s Eyefinity lets you locate the Windows 7 start button on either display. If you configure an Eyefinity group, it treats multiple displays as one surface, with a single resolution that combines the span of multiple displays. For example, you can configure two 1920 by 1080 displays to behave like a single 3840 by 1080 monitor.

Eyefinity allows you to treat multiple monitors as one display.

Nvidia doesn’t offer as much flexibility for desktop spanning as AMD. However, Nvidia’s control panel makes it easier to create a surround gaming setup, if you want to have stereoscopic 3D gaming over three monitors. The downside? The three displays must be essentially identical, and must have high refresh rates (120Hz or greater.)

Video and video quality

Both AMD and Nvidia offer controls to improve your video viewing experience.

Here again, if you’re using a third-party video player, such as CyberLink’s PowerDVD, you may want to use the applications' controls to manage video hardware. Most users, however, don’t use sophisticated tools for viewing online or downloaded videos, so being aware of how the GPU control panels handle video is useful.

Both AMD and Nvidia offer controls for tweaking video playback color. Nvidia spreads its video color controls over three tabs: one for basic color, one for gamma, and one for advanced color.

Nvidia's video color settings are hidden under tabs.

If you aren't sure about what you’re doing, proceed with care; Nvidia’s control panels are sparse, and don’t provide much guidance. Make changes in small increments, and be especially cautious about changing gamma settings. (Gamma alters the color tonality based on differences between video signals and human perception of color in a well-lit room.)

AMD’s video color controls offer even more-granular control, though they replicate the controls you might see on an HDTV display. For example, presets labeled 'vivid', 'theater', and the like are available. Again, tweak on the basis of what looks pleasing to your eye, and avoid large scale-changes where possible.

AMD's video color controls resemble what you see on TV controls.

Video quality settings let you deal with problems such as noisy video shot in low light. Both AMD and Nvidia offer tweaks for edge enhancement.

Nvidia’s video quality settings are quite basic. You can set edge enhancement, noise reduction, and inverse telecine. Inverse telecine takes care of de-interlacing video; you may see this called “3:2 pulldown,” which refers to converting film shot at 24 fps into 30-fps video—an operation that involves inserting extra frames into the video stream to maintain smooth video playback and maintain audio sync. Because video plays at various different standard rates in different places around the world, your GPU has to be able to handle a range of frame-rate conversions.

Nvidia gives you the basics for video quality.

Nvidia’s control panel gives you just the basics: de-interlacing, edge enhancement, and noise reduction. If your video player doesn’t have direct hardware controls, you should enable noise reduction and inverse telecine. For most video, keeping noise reduction at around 25 to 30 percent is good enough.

In general, it's a good idea to avoid edge enhancement, as that option tends to introduce other artifacts, such as bright white edges around objects in the video. If you must use it for blurry video, then keep edge enhancement to a minimum.

As with color, AMD offers a much wider range of video quality controls, all built into a single, scrolling control panel.

AMD offers a rich set of video quality settings, but you'll never use most of them.

AMD sets defaults for each parameter, but you may want to lower both 'de-noise' and 'mosquito noise reduction' a bit, as too much noise reduction may reduce the detail in the video. We also advise caution in deciding whether to enable dynamic contrast, which can introduce odd contrast shifts into the video stream. AMD lets you choose whether to apply the settings to Web-based video.

Finally, modern AMD graphics cards can perform acceleration techniques that improve the quality of downloaded video files, or video you may have shot with your own camcorder or smartphone. For example, AMD Steady Video uses algorithms to smooth out the shaky nature of video shot with small handheld devices. AMD also offers accelerated video conversion, which makes it easier to convert videos from one format to another. The video conversion feature offers no quality settings and works only when you drag your video onto a portable media device that supports MP4 video.

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