GPUs are a blazing hot commodity right now. If you’re unable to get your hands on a new one due to the shortages, don’t fret. There are quite a few things you can do to make your old GPU feel new again. Let’s make it cleaner, quieter, cooler, and extract more frames per second from those games!
Clean up your hardware
Before we get to the software tweaks, let’s talk about the physical GPU itself. The first thing you’ll want to do is remove it from your case and give it a good cleaning. This will involve removing built up dust. Were your GPU cables messy? Clean those up, too. This will go a long way in improving thermals now that the dust is gone and airflow path cleared. A neat system cabling process will help avoid cables touching your GPU fans, too. Be gentle and take precautions with static, though.
Stock Cooler: Now, let’s take it a step further. If you’re comfortable taking the stock cooler apart, there are two things you can do to improve your GPU. Depending on the age, it may be beneficial to reapply the thermal paste on the GPU itself and even update some of the thermal pads. These can be easily purchased online but make sure you use the correct sizes and heights to avoid contact issues.
Water Block: You can even add a water block to your GPU. This is a fun process, but not all GPUs will have appropriate water blocks available for them. If you’re successful, however, you’ll enjoy much lower temperatures and noise levels. This will give you more headroom for overclocking, too. It will feel like an entirely new GPU afterwards! For older GPUs, check out online selling groups or eBay to find a good deal on a compatible water block.
If you don’t want to go the full water block route – optimizing the airflow in your case can also go a long way to improve thermals on your GPU. Adding a few fans can allow your GPU to clock higher and while keeping those noisy fans quiet. (Read our article here on optimizing case and fan airflow)
Third tip: Be mindful of other hardware system bottlenecks. If you’re gaming at 1080p, a CPU upgrade may help your FPS performance in games with your older GPU. Making sure you’re running a fast SSD or NVME drive can also speed up load times and general system performance, too. Your ram doesn’t have to be the latest DDR5, but make sure you have at least enough for gaming, we recommend 16GB for most gaming use cases.
Mind your game settings!
Yes, everybody likes the idea of ultra-graphics settings. Yes, it’s also the first setting I try tweaking when I need more performance on a new game. Why? Well, it’s ultra-interesting. I quickly regret it when I see how much better a lower setting performs at while not giving up much in terms of graphics. Don’t be afraid to lower the graphic presets on some games if your GPU is struggling. Ultra is often the land of diminishing returns with a high-performance penalty for minimal gain. Here are some other settings to be aware of that can have a large performance affect.
Adjust the resolution: Gaming at your monitors native resolution is preferred, but some games do offer the ability to either lower or raise the resolution by a percentage. However, raising it often will give you a heavy performance penalty, so only do it if you have the headroom. Lowering the resolution may be affective in achieving higher FPS at the cost of some sharpness. This will likely be more effective in e-sport titles that are fast paced where performance is preferred over visuals.
Anti Aliasing, Temporal, Multisample: Settings such as FXAA, TAA and MSAA serve to make your graphics more polished by removing rougher edges. They can decrease FPS however, so use them sparingly if you want to maintain better performance.
While these may be the “cherry on top” if you’re already enjoying ultra-graphics, they won’t help if you’re trying to keep your old GPU competitive. Even if you turn off or lower these settings, you won’t typically notice a huge difference visually. Depth of field and ambient occlusion can also be lowered for better performance with some reduction in your environment visuals.
DirectX11 and DirectX12: Some games will give you the option of running either. Some games may have much better performance on your hardware, so remember to experiment with these to find the best route.
Automatic graphics settings optimizations: Nvidia’s GeForce Experience software can optimize your games for you, giving you settings it thinks will run best with your GPU. Many games also offer automatic detection of hardware and optimizations, but your results may vary. We recommend trying these out if you’re unsure what settings to tweak and going back and adjusting what works for you after you’ve some feedback from your gaming session.
Monitor and Refresh settings: Don’t forget to match the refresh rate of your monitor to your Windows settings, which can be done in the display settings or Nvidia’s Control Panel. If you’re using a high refresh rate monitor like a 144hz, this will help even older GPUs look smoother on screen if they go above 60 FPS in games. Nvidia G Sync or AMD Free Sync technology can also help smooth out the action if you aren’t able to hit your monitors refresh rate, too. (Read more about monitor refresh rates in Ashley Biancuzzo’s article here)
If you’re gaming at 1440p or 4k and your older GPU is struggling, consider downgrading to a 1080p monitor until the current GPU market improves. You’ll likely not notice a big difference in visuals. You’ll notice higher FPS numbers at 1080p, which is less taxing on your GPU. 1080p monitors have also come down in price considerably and many offer great features and improved LCD panels.
If you own a very modern PC, using hardware released over the last year or two, it may support a performance-boosting technology called PCIe Resizable BAR, or AMD Smart Access Memory. These give your system’s CPU full access to your GPU’s memory, which can make some games run faster. The actual performance boost varies from game to game, GPU to GPU, and even resolution to resolution, but depending on your specific setup the uplift ranges from negligible to substantial. One thing is certain though: If your hardware supports PCIe ReBAR or AMD SAM, you should enable it. Check out our guide to PCIe Resizable BAR for all the info you need to know.
Ray Tracing and Nvidia DLSS, AMD FSR
Here’s another thing you should be aware of: Ray tracing coupled with either Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling or AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution. Ray tracing will typically be most effective on new RTX 3000 GPUs and some AMD RX 6000, but it can also work on older GeForce RTX 20 series models. It’s not ideal for making your old GPU look good, however. Ray tracing can boggle even the latest RTX 3090 in many games if not used in conjunction with DLSS.
If you’re on a lower powered GPU, it’s best to steer clear of Ray tracing, as its lighting effects are pumped up to the max. This means huge performance drops, which can be mitigated by DLSS or FSR. These are the AI or intelligent scaling of your game while trying to keep performance consistent with the improved graphics.
But here’s the thing: You can use these technologies separately from ray tracing and you’ll get a nice performance boost from DLSS or FSR. Activating these options are easy. You can find them in the graphics menu of supported titles.
If you’re using an AMD GPU, Radeon Boost can also help you achieve better performance by adjusting resolution dependent on what’s happening on your screen. (We have more Radeon tips here.)
Overclocking and Undervolting
Overclocking your GPU, especially in combination with the tips above, can garner some nice performance gains. If you’re hesitant to manually overclock, check out our article on Nvidia’s Automatic overclocking tools here.
If you take it a step further, overclocking can be fun and effective. Using a simple free program such as MSI Afterburner allows you to tweak your GPU. This will include raising power limits, upping the core and memory clocks, and even setting a manual fan curve.
Do note that with overclocking, you’re often increasing system power and heat, too. Instability can also rear its ugly head, so be conservative at first and stress test with your favorite game or benchmarking suite. We’d recommend beginners to simply raise the power limit at first, which can often result in your GPU boosting higher by itself. Settings will vary by each GPU, so you’ll have to put your research hat on and see what settings have worked for other people on similar hardware.
Undervolting often goes hand in hand with overclocking, but it can also be done independently. Basically, the aim is to keep similar performance to stock numbers while reducing power draw and heat output. This can make your old GPU quieter and much more efficient!
It’s a tough GPU market out there, with availability low and prices high. These tips can help breathe some life into your old GPU without diminishing too much performance or visual niceties. Mastering these tips will come in handy when you finally get your hands on the next gen GPUs – you can use them to also increase their already great performance! (And you may want to use some of these tips to lower their mighty power and heat output, too!)