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

3D graphics

In most cases you shouldn't fiddle with the 3D graphics setting in your GPU control panel. You'll do better to adjust 3D graphics settings inside games, than at the system level. However, at times when you may want to adjust some settings from the GPU control panel. Before going any farther, let’s look at the control panels.

Nvidia's 3D control panel has many options that you should probably leave alone.

One thing you’ll notice is the array of antialiasing (AA) settings. We’ll discuss those shortly, since changing AA in the control panel is probably the most common change that users make. In general, leaving settings at their default values is the most sensible course. Scrolling down will reveal several other settings that you may find useful, including texture filtering quality and vertical sync.

AMD’s control panel is pretty similar to Nvidia's.

AMD offers a similar set of 3D controls to Nvidia's.

Nvidia uses pull-down dialog boxes for most of its settings, while AMD uses sliders. But overall, the settings and jargon are similar.

Antialiasing

Antialiasing minimizes jagged edges along lines and edges in computer graphics. With games, AA can hurt performance, since games with AA enabled typically run at 30 fps or faster. Most gamers prefer frame rates of 60 fps on average.

Games that are five years old or older may not support any form of antialiasing, and even relatively recent games may not support the latest AA techniques. You can use control panel settings to enable antialiasing. But which type of AA do you enable? Here are a couple of rules.

Before enabling any form of AA, consider your graphics card: If you have a sub-$200 card, you may want to avoid AA of any type. Enabling AA on a low-cost card can result in substantially lower frame rates.

Newer AA techniques affect performance less: Nvidia’s FXAA and AMD’s Morphological AA use the GPU to compute antialiasing enhancements after the image is rendered. This contrasts to older multisampling and supersampling techniques that are applied while the scene is rendered. It also permits AA in certain types of games that couldn’t support AA in the past. Deferred rendering, where lighting calculations were applied after the geometry was rendered, affected how these games handled transparency, which in turn vastly increased the amount of work the GPU needed to perform when performing AA.

Modern antialiasing techniques, like Nvidia's TXAA, offer great image quality with a minimal performance hit.

In contrast, FXAA and Morphological AA look at the final scene when the frame is finished, and then apply AA, reducing the overall GPU load. These techniques also improve compatibility, since different rendering techniques don’t affect antialiasing quality or performance.

Unfortunately, most games don’t yet support these new techniques. So rather than enabling antialiasing in a particular game, you can turn on FXAA for Nvidia cards or Morphological AA for AMD cards. Your games will look better, and you should still see decent frame rates.

Vertical sync

When a game renders a frame, the GPU usually defaults to displaying each frame when the monitor refreshes the display. This is called vertical sync, because the image is set up for display during the vertical blanking interval between screen refreshes. This approach works very well when the GPU can keep up with the monitor’s refresh rate; but when it can’t, you’ll see sharp drops in frame rate, since the GPU will simply wait until the next vertical blanking interval.

Many games don’t give you control over vsync, so you may need to turn it off in the GPU control panel. Nvidia has another setting, called adaptive vsync, in which the card will sync to the refresh rate until the frame rate drops below the refresh rate, at which point the card will automatically turn off vsync. This can result in very smooth frame rates.

Texture filtering quality

Pushing texture filtering quality up to high quality can be beneficial, but only if you have a high-end graphics card with lots of memory. Better-quality filtering means less popping and fewer texture “sparkles” during gameplay. But better quality can hamper performance, so use this option with care.

Bottom line: be a control freak

With your newfound knowledge you should have a better understanding of how Nvidia and AMD graphics control panels work. More important, you should have a clearer idea of when and how to use them. Most of the time, you probably won't need to dabble with these advanced options. But when you do need to adjust a setting to your preferences, dive in and experiment! You now have the knowledge to set things right if your tweaking goes awry, and you may be able to wrangle new levels of graphics beauty from your PC.

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