6 killer utilities for redlining your gaming rig

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Just as there's more to racing than showing up at the drag strip, there's more to gaming than booting up your rig.

Smart players spend time tuning, tweaking, and pushing their systems' capabilities, reaping the benefits of a better gaming experience as a reward. The results are impressive, with games that look and perform better than their developers ever intended, and often the users didn't have to spend a dime.

To get a piece of this action, roll your hot rod into the software garage and give these half-dozen tools a close look to improve the speed, control, and capability of your system. Most are free, and one costs about the same as a drive-through lunch—and all of them give you more of a gaming edge.

Video card speed shop

Low frame rates can make or break a 3D game, and while 5 or 10 frames per second (fps) might not seem like a big difference, in action titles this performance delta can change a gaming session from fun to frustrating. Video cards depreciate faster than any other system component, and upgrades aren't always an easy answer. Assuming your rig can even handle the power draw the latest models require, good replacements run hundreds of dollars.

But there's a cheaper way to squeeze performance out of your aging system: overclocking. When overclocked, most video cards push past their posted limits with ease and offer better gains than CPU boosts when it comes to gaming. Although many utilities to tweak graphics cards exist, three in particular are worth a closer look.

Feature-laden AMD OverDrive is a powerful overclocker.

ATI stalwarts have AMD to thank in recent years for stepping up factory support for overclocking virtually every aspect of system operation. The AMD OverDrive utility not only replicates the OverDrive clocking controls built into Catalyst drivers, it also provides a full range of BIOS-style CPU speed, voltage, and system controls unified in a tabbed window.

Nice touches include fan controls, a simple benchmark, and a burn-in stability test. OverDrive is also the quickest and easiest way to disable Cool and Quiet downclocking technology when you're looking for consistent performance or high-clock-speed stability. If you're running an AMD rig, this one-stop application is a must for system-tuning.

Hardware controls are front and center in overclocking utility Nvidia Inspector.

For Nvidia aficionados, there's Nvidia Inspector. This package takes a different tack from older video card utilities, eschewing the system tray for a simple, extensible-pane interface that puts information and card controls front and center. It also doesn't stay resident in memory once your changes are made. This straightforward approach means everything from driver options to crazy clock speeds are in easy reach, controlled by simple sliders. Moreover, monitoring tools display a running graph of input from card sensors in real time—very useful when troubleshooting problems. Like OverDrive, Nvidia Inspector is free.

Platform-agnostic users have MSI's venerable Afterburner utility to tweak their card collection. MSI Afterburner is designed to work with MSI's own products, but in actuality it works with most modern hardware. The controls here are much simplified, dressed up with gray gradients and green glowing boxes for the sake of appearance, but the basics are well-represented. You'll find voltage, core, and shader clock controls, memory speeds, and fan settings, along with profile presets, startup options, and a videocard hardware monitor. You won't get the details provided by the other utilities here, but you won't find the more focused, no-nonsense approach Afterburner takes with those others either.

MSI Afterburner may not be the most feature-laden overclocking tool, but that makes it easier to use.

Controlling the controllers

No matter how fast your system is, you can't game properly without precise, reliable controllers. You'd think for developers this would be a given, considering how long PC gaming has been around, but that isn't the case. Due to crummy console ports, Flash limitations, Windows API changes, and more, it's easy to buy an expensive gamepad only to find it doesn't work with half your game library, despite being expressly designed for Windows. It's equally easy to come across a stunning indie game only to find a horrendous and unalterable keyboard control layout, dictated by programming or browser platform restrictions. What's a gamer to do?

Most controllers already have profiles available for automatic download to x360ce, requiring little user intervention.

Microsoft is partially to blame for this mess. With the introduction of the XInput API along with the Xbox 360, the company rendered all previous Windows gaming controllers obsolete by making XInput incompatible with the previous DirectInput API. While Xbox-style controllers for Windows are satisfactory, many gamers prefer classic, high-quality Saitek designs, and have even mastered their ergonomics. Moreover, good Xbox controllers aren't cheap. The free and open-source x360ce project was designed to address these problems. Doing the job Microsoft should have done, x360ce intercepts and translates XInput calls so that DirectInput controllers can understand them. It also provides a handy configuration window that allows more calibration and customization than many native drivers do.

Key assignments are visually displayed during setup, including a useful row of media player controls on the top row.

The other side of the problem happens mostly with casual Web or Flash games, many of which would do well to implement gamepad controls. Platformers and bullet-hell titles are a perfect example of this. Sure, you can get by with WASD and the spacebar, but it's not 1992 anymore, so you shouldn't be forced to just get by when you've got that shiny, $60 wireless gamepad sitting two feet away.

The answer here is a program called Xpadder. Xpadder emulates a mouse and keyboard with the buttons and directional thumbpad of your game controller. It supports multiple profiles, rumble feedback, and chorded input, which allows for more commands than the number of buttons would normally permit. This technique can also be used to refine emulated mouse movement, with quick or precise modes for the analog directional stick switchable by toggling a preassigned button. Configuration screens are easy to decipher and present you with a visual representation of your gamepad for easy key assignment. You can also use it to control desktop software: For example, the video player of your Media Center PC can use your wireless controller like a remote. Xpadder isn't currently free, but it's well worth the $10 developer Jonathan Firth is asking. Older, free versions are still around if you'd like to give it a try before purchase.

Capability old and new

With speed and control taken care of, the last thing to tweak before you hit the road with your tuned rig is capability. Windows has been around a long time, and despite the many pains taken to ensure compatibility, things break on a regular basis. Older games run too quickly or not at all. Newer titles don't support all the advanced visual features on your shiny high-end graphics card. It can be a mess. Don't give up, though; you have options.

Ahh, DOS. My old friend. Time to fire up a classic game with DOSBox.

Running games during the DOS era was trouble enough, and today exploring those old games can be a nightmare. Sound card issues, memory management, and other peculiarities of early PC gaming were amplified as OS technology progressed and passed these titles by, leaving many of them orphaned and unable to run on modern systems. Today's answer to this problem isn't digging up an old system or rooting around for special drivers, it's emulation: namely DOSBox. DOSbox uses the SDL library to emulate the early operating environment of the PC. It supports the classic file systems, CPUs, sound hardware, and videocards of that era almost flawlessly, with hundreds of titles on the compatibility list. DOSBox has become something of a standby in this regard, with popular websites like GOG.com using it extensively to get their catalog of PC golden oldies running perfectly for modern customers. SDL also means versions exist for many platforms, including Linux and OS X. The cherry on top? DOSBox is free and open source.

Skyrim looks a little drab before adding the FXAA PPI mod.

Old games aren't the only ones that cause trouble. Modern 3D titles are rife with disappointments, but perhaps the more irksome to gamers are yestertech graphic options on recent games. Console ports are mostly to blame for this (I'm looking at you, From Dust) as developers are forced to aim for the lowest common denominator targets to maximize sales and homogenize development, but they aren't the only offenders. None of that matters, however when you boot up your new game and find it bereft of features like advanced antialiasing, HDR, or Bloom. Fortunately, you can get all of those effects without updates or patches via the FXAA Post Process Injector utility.

Note the crispness, color & contrast improvements in the same Skyrim scene with the FXAA PPI in action.

Originally developed by Nvidia's Timothy Lottes, FXAA PPI tool has been embraced by the modding community and expanded to work with both Nvidia and ATI graphics cards. It provides a series of sliders and toggles in a small, tabbed window that allow control and implementation of video features not originally included with a game. In addition to AA, HDR, and Bloom, it also adjusts color, lighting and sharpness along with novelties like a sepiatone filter. Particularly popular with Skyrim and Battlefield 3 users, the FXAA Post Process Injector is free and runs with most 3D games. Careful, though:  Some anti-cheat methods used on multiplay servers incorrectly flag use of this tool as a hack.

Now that we've tuned our hot rod, it's time to leave the garage and get our game on.

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