PC Games Need a System That’s 100% Optimized—and Nothing Less
Recent blockbuster games push your PC to its limit. They consume gigabytes (GB) of RAM, all of your CPU resources, thrash your hard disk and take a heavy toll on your graphics card. Besides professional designer applications, such as AutoCAD, or video editing tools, games are the most resource-hungry applications.
This is why you need a PC that’s 100% optimized. From your Windows operating system and software to your drivers, hardware and settings, everything needs to be up to par. Otherwise, you risk experiencing choppy gameplay with anything below 30 FPS, long load times and game crashes.
So, how can you boost your gaming PC’s performance? Here are the first five steps I took to turn a mid-level gaming PC, the Alienware X51, into a high-performing one.
Before I dive in, it’s important to share a bit of background information about the system. It caught my attention immediately for striking a good balance between performance and design. It is the size of an Xbox and is living room-friendly while not being loud.
• Core i7 (Sandy Bridge) 2600 with 3.4 GHz
• 8 GB Memory
• NVIDIA GeForce GTX 555
• Seagate ST31000524AS hard disk with 7.200rpm and 6 GBPS.
• HL-DT Blu-ray drive
Although it’s a fast machine, the Alienware system is certainly not the fastest gaming rig available. The small form factor meant it had to deal with an OEM-only GTX555, which is not as strong in terms of performance as the GTX 560. But this is exactly why it was a perfect candidate for our experiment! It should show how much can be achieved with just the right amount of tweaking.
1. Grab The Best Drivers
Updating drivers is—and always should be—one of the first steps you take to tune your gaming PC. Usually, retail PCs (even gaming rigs) come with older drivers that just don’t deliver full performance. For example, our Alienware X51 test rig came with an eight-month-old graphics driver, Forceware 285.66. Time to update your drivers:
• Original WHQL drivers (AMD+NVIDIA):
Just a few weeks ago, NVIDIA released its 300 series of drivers, promising a drastic performance improvement (a 23% boost) in newer games. It would be a shame not to get these, which were Windows Hardware Quality Lab-tested (WHQL). AMD also offers drivers for its HD Radeon on its support website, but it’s always wise to check out the company’s Game blog and look out for beta releases of the AMD Catalyst. For example, 12.6 Beta resolves problems with standby, game performance and HDMI audio.
• Unofficial Beta Drivers (NVIDIA users only)
If you are an NVIDIA user and want to squeeze the latest possible bit of performance out of your system (or if the WHQL drivers give you a headache or don’t work with your game or graphics card), you might want to take a shot at beta versions that are freely available. Version 302.59 is currently available for download and includes more bug fixes and tweaks than its official counterpart, 301.42. However, these drivers require a bit of tinkering. It’s also important to note that these have not gone through WHQL testing, so they might be buggy or cause crashes.
1. Head over to LaptopVideo2Go forums and have a look at the top entry. It will show the latest generation GeForce driver. Currently, this is the 30x series drive
2. Don’t just pick the latest driver version—this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best. Listen to the community, read the forum comments and then make your decision.
3. Found one? Hit the download button that corresponds with your operating system.
Right-click on the “INF Modified” link, select “Save as”, and to make things easier, download both files onto your desktop.
4. Double-click on the downloaded driver archive, and hit “Extract”.
Jump into the extracted folder, and move the downloaded INF file into the “Display.Driver” subfolder.
5. Once that’s done, you can install the drivers without any problems.
In general, it’s not just the GPU you should keep up-to-date regularly. Chipset, sound and network drivers tend to have an impact on performance, too. Check out our Ultimate Drivers Guide to make sure that all of your critical hardware is set.
2. Close and Get Rid of Apps
The more applications that are running in the background, the slower your games will run. It’s that simple. Each and every application that is running in the background consumes CPU cycles and RAM and impacts hard disk performance. If you want your games to run smoothly, here are a few tips.
• Close all active applications. Don’t let PhotoShop, your web browser and iTunes run in the background at the same time—you’ll easily lose a GB of memory. Make sure nothing is active in your taskbar!
• Uninstall unnecessary applications. Go through the list of installed programs (“Control Panel\Programs\Programs and Features”) and determine what you do and don’t need.
• Get rid of start-up applications. These programs run in the taskbar tray and offer both critical and non-critical functionality. For gaming purposes, most of these are not needed. There are ways to turn them off using the very rudimentary “msconfig” or more advanced tools such as TuneUp Startup Manager and Autoruns.
For example, we found Alienware application AlienFX that allows you to choose the LED color on the chassis; while this is a greatfeature, it doesn’t need to be running constantly in the background.
3. Turn Off Resource Hogs – Using a Special Stop-Start System!
What if you really like a resource-heavy application and don’t want to uninstall it? That’s whereTuneUp Program Deactivator comes in. The tool automatically turns off the load of programs on your system. It’s like the Stop-Start systems in cars: when you stop your car and the engine turns off. You hit the gas pedal, and it instantly revs up again. The same happens to a program that you turned off using TuneUp Program Deactivator; when you don’t use it, it won’t impact your system’s performance. However, when you launch the program, TuneUp immediately turns it on again.
On my Alienware X51 test rig, there were some programs that I needed regularly and loved such as PowerDVD, the Realtek Control Panel and Alienware Command Center. In the “Before” picture above, you can see that several active applications had an impact on start-up time, overall performance and shutdown time. With TuneUp Program Deactivator, I turned most of them off and reduced the impact of their loads to almost zero.
4. Defrag or TRIM Your Disk
As data is written or deleted from the hard disk, files become fragmented, and portions of files will physically spread out all over the disk drive. This will lead to a significant performance hit, especially in games, as the hard disk will first need to collect all of these file portions in order for it to be able to fully process the entire file. As games usually take up several GBs, it is vital that all of these files can be read in a continuous manner.
1. To defrag the disk, fire up the Start menu, and head over to “All Programs”, “Accessories”, “System Tools” and “Disk Defragmenter”.
2. Select your Windows disk, and hit “Defragment disk” (Windows 7) or “Defragment” (Windows XP). Note, if you have an SSD, you shouldn’t defrag; instead, use the TRIM command to optimize them.
3. In Windows 8, Microsoft integrated the TRIM command into the Disk Defragmenter—simply hit “Optimize”. Windows 7 doesn’t offer this but make sure that the TRIM command gets executed regularly. To see if TRIM is enabled, open up a command prompt by clicking on the Start orb and typing “cmd” into the search bar. Right-click on the first result (“cmd”), and click “Run as administrator”. Next, type in the command “Fsutil behavior query disabledeletenotify”, and hit Enter. If this returns the result “= 0″, you’re good to go! Otherwise, TRIM isn’t supported and needs to be enabled. Try entering the command “fsutil behavior set DisableDeleteNotify 0″. If that doesn’t help, a firmware upgrade might be necessary to enable TRIM.
5. Turn Off Non-Essential Windows Background Services
There are several dozen Windows and third-party services running constantly in the background. They often provide very critical functionality to the operating system and your applications. The good news is Windows has gotten to the point where it pauses or delays services until they’re actually needed. Nonetheless, there are some services that you should turn off on dedicated gaming machines since they’re constantly active and only used on business machines.
Hold down the WIN-key and press “R”. Type in “services.msc”, and hit Enter. Now, go through the list of services and make sure to turn off services that you don’t need on your gaming machine. To turn off a service, double-click on it, and select “Disabled” from the Startup type drop-down menu. The following list describes the services that are, in most cases, safe to turn off on dedicated gaming rigs.
Once you’re done with that, use TuneUp Turbo Mode to temporarily switch off 70+ services (including some we just mentioned), scheduled Windows tasks and Windows and third-party program background applications—with one click.
What did you think of these first five tips? Did they help improve your gaming PC’s performance? Let us know, or share your favorite tuning trick in the “Comments” section below.
6. Overclock Your CPU and GPU
Overclocking has always been a way to squeeze more performance out of your machine. However, the paradigm has shifted slightly, and CPU overclocking tends to not have a massive impact, whereas GPU overclocking has become slightly more important. Bear in mind that overclocking increases the stress on and temperature of all of your hardware, not just the CPU or GPU, so it should be done with extreme care. I feel comfortable mentioning overclocking, as all motherboards have mechanisms in place that shut down your PC in order to prevent any damage. In all of my endeavors, pushing the system too hard just causes a reboot, but make sure you’re not running any important applications.
First of all, make sure you have a good cooling system in place and that your CPU can be overclocked.
On an overclockable CPU (which are geared more for enthusiasts than regular PC users), you can simply use the BIOS and set the “multipliers”. Hit F2 or DEL to go to the BIOS. Once you’re there, look out for an option called “Frequency/Voltage control”, “CPU Bus Frequency”, “SB” or “CPU Clock Ration”. There are also a set off overclocking tools out there, both offered by 3rd parties and also by motherboard manufacturers. But before you set out to overclock, you need to do some research on how far you can push your CPU and the right set of tools you need. This is, obviously, a chapter for its own so I recommend you take some serious time and get a basic overview in the CPU Overclocking 101 YouTube guides and then dive deeper inTechRadars overclocking guide.
On my Alienware X51, I had to abandon overclocking, as it features the Intel Core i7 2600 (“no K”) version, which has a fixed multiplier. I also had no BIOS options available to perform the overclock, and no utility worked. If you need to overclock, make sure to get a “K” or “Extreme Edition” for Intel CPUs. Also note that AMD chips tend to be much more overclocking-friendly.
The GPU is a little easier to overclock, as there are various tools out there like AMD Overdrive andNVIDIA System Tools to help you do the job, but it’s the same deal as with your CPU—it requires you to do some research on your specific GPU and figure out its limits. Republic of Gamers has a fantastic article on this, and while they’re using the Asus Tweak tool, it lets you universally set the GPU and memory clock even on non-Asus hardware.
I pushed the GeForce GTX 555 in my X51 test rig from a CPU frequency of 736 MHz to 950 MHz and the memory clock from 3828 to 4400 with no issues whatsoever. The temperature increased slightly from 44° to 48° and from 65° to 72° when under stress, but that’s well within its limits.
7. Tweaking the NVIDIA Control Panel
All NVIDIA drivers come with their own control panels that let you tweak the most essential 3D settings. While you can set many of the following options in-game, some are not available or directly controlled by the driver. This is why it’s always a good idea to go through the list of all options and tweak them to best balance performance and visual quality.
To get to the NVIDIA Control Panel, right-click on your desktop, select “NVIDIA Control Panel” and head over to the “Manage 3D Settings” category on the left. These are the most important settings to tweak:
• Ambient Occlusion: This setting can enhance realism in some games by improving lighting and shadows. However, by enabling it, the FPS will drop significantly. Try it out and see if the visual improvement is worth the drop in performance.
• Anisotropic filtering: This filter makes textures in games appear crisper and cleaner, especially when looking at objects that are far away. But, the higher you set it, the less FPS you will get out of your game. If you set it to the standard “Application-controlled” option, games can choose between the levels of filtering. If you choose another option, games’ settings will be overwritten.
• Anti-Aliasing – Gamma Correction: This setting will allow for improved color quality in games, and its effect on performance is minimal. That’s why we suggest you make sure it’s set to “On”.
• Anti-Aliasing – Mode: This is one of the most important options for games. The higher it is set, the smoother all images will appear. However, if you use 8x or above, you will notice a performance hit. Again, you should probably test the setting.
• Anti-Aliasing – Transparency: The transparent Anti-Aliasing mode adds more realism to curves in games. Try the “Multisampling” option since it won’t noticeably affect the performance, yet it will increase the visual quality.
• Maximum Pre-Rendered Frames: This controls the number of frames that the processor prepares before transferring them to the graphics card. Increasing this value results in smoother game play, but you may notice a lag when using the mouse and keyboard. To eliminate the lag, try the “0″ setting.
• Multi-Display/Mixed-GPU Acceleration: If you have only one display, you should select “Single display performance mode”. If you have two or more displays, select “Multiple display performance mode”. If you notice glitches or strange textures on a multi-display setup, go for the “Compatibility display performance mode”.
• Power Management Mode: This adapts GPU performance to the needs of the game. If you play older games, stick to the “Adaptive” setting. Otherwise, go with the “Prefer maximum performance setting”.
• Triple Buffering: It increases performance when “Vertical Synchronization” (VSync) is enabled. It may, however, cause lags on graphic cards with lower RAM.
• Texture Filtering – Anisotropic Sample Optimization: This setting should be “On” to improve your performance. Keep in mind that, in some games, you may notice a slight decrease in the visual quality of textures.
• Texture Filtering – Negative LOD-Bias: LOD stands for “Level of Detail”. If you set this to “Allow”, some games get a sharper look in still scenes, while introducing some form of aliasing (jagged looks) or shimmering in fast-moving scenes. Set this to “Clamp” and enable both Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering to get a better picture quality.
• Texture Filtering – Quality: This function specifies how all textures will appear in a game. On lower-end hardware, you might want to try the “Performance” or even the “High Performance” settings to get more FPS.
• Threaded Optimization: This option should always be “On”, as it allows the support of multi-threaded optimization for modern multi-core processors.
• VSync: It synchronizes the frames that your graphics card renders with the refresh rate of your monitor. If you disable it, you might find that games run more smoothly; however, you will notice that some parts of the screen might not be rendered correctly and appear to lag. Disable it only if your monitor has a higher frame rate than your gameplay.
8. Tweaking the AMD/ATI Control Center
The AMD/ATI Control Center is another fantastic way to squeeze out more performance and increase the visual quality of your games. To fire it up, right-click on your desktop, select “Catalyst Control Center” and head over to the “3D Application Settings” on the left.
These are the most important settings:
SMOOTHVISION HD: Anti-Aliasing: Anti-Aliasing will get rid of jagged lines in games. Check “Use application settings” and allow the game settings to determine the level of “smoothness”. Keep in mind though that the GPU has to render more pixels in order to smooth out edges and thus will decrease performance. This will certainly be the case if you select higher Anti-Aliasing settings, such as 8x or 16x, and it also depends on what your graphics card supports. Stick to 2x or 4x Anti-Aliasing in games, which will allow for smoother images, with only a minimal reduction in performance. If you own a weaker AMD card, disable Anti-Aliasing to get more FPS.
• SMOOTHVISION HD: Anisotropic Filtering: The higher this setting is set, the sharper distant textures will appear. However, this will also increase the processing load on your graphics card. If your GPU is powerful enough, enable it and see if there is a noticeable visual difference.
• Catalyst A.I.: This setting tweaks graphic quality in a way that it’s not obvious in order to optimize performance. By default, it’s set to “Quality”. If you set it to “Performance”, you may experience a slight decrease in visual quality but a boost in speed. Test out the “Advanced” setting. I have found that in many blockbuster games it doesn’t make a huge difference, while according to user reports, it sometimes helped triple the frame rate.
• Mipmap Detail Level: It determines texture quality. You can choose between “High Quality” (which equals the original texture quality) and “High Performance” (which omits many details and thus produces a higher frame rate). I found that having “High Performance” makes games look blurrier. If your GPU is powerful enough, make sure to set it to “High Quality”.
• Wait for Vertical Refresh: Vertical Sync (or Vsync) synchronizes the frames that your graphic card renders with the refresh rate of your monitor. If you disable Vsync, you might find that games run more smoothly, however, in most cases, you will notice that some parts of the screen might not be rendered correctly and appear to lag. Disable Vsync only if your monitor has a higher framerate (for example 60hz) than your gameplay (for example 40 FPS).
You can achieve the right balance of performance and visual quality with nearly all of the settings described above. There is no right way to configure your ATI Control Center—it depends on what games you play and the power of your ATI graphics card. If you have a relatively new graphics card but play games that are a couple of years old, we recommend adjusting all of the options to the maximum settings (except Mipmap).
9. Fire Up Your Antivirus Gaming Mode
Some antivirus programs slow down gaming performance due to their background activity. Choose a security program that offers a game mode to boost performance while you’re playing. For example, AVG offers a game mode that keeps you safe while not interrupting you while you’re playing games:
10. Keep Your PC Clean
A PC can’t run fast if its hard disk is cluttered. Make sure to routinely clean your system andget rid of thousands of files and GBs worth of data junk. I’m not implying that freeing up 20 GB of free space will increase your FPS. What could happen, however, is that your games will be more responsive and run more quickly if your hard disk or SSD has enough free space for temporary cache data.
The Results? Before and After!
Of course, we could give you plenty more optimization tips. The question is: what’s the actual benefit? The following series of benchmarks should demonstrate the impact of all of the tips combined on gaming PC performance. Like usual, these were performed three times in a row, and what follows is an average of the results.
Crysis 1 – 1920×1080, Very High Detail, 4x Anti-Aliasing
The original Crysis is still very much a graphically impressive game, with some saying that its better than its successor. I maxed out Crysis 1 and ran it on my Alienware X51—and got a slightly choppy 20 FPS in the included GPU benchmark time demo.
However, after we optimized the PC, Crysis 1 ran a bit smoother at an average of 24 FPS.
Unigine Heaven DX11 Benchmark
“Heaven” is a benchmark that puts GPU under extreme stress by cranking out gorgeous visuals in DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.0. It supports graphical feats such as changing light conditions, ambient occlusion, dynamic global illumination and hardware tessellation.
So, how did the Alienware X51 with its Core i7 3.4 GHz and GeForce GTX 555 combo fare before and after our optimization?
Unigine is a tough benchmark, but we still managed to squeeze a few more FPS out of the system.
Grand Theft Auto IV – The CPU Pusher
Although the game came out more than three years ago, Grand Theft Auto IV still pushes modern PCs to their limit due to an incredible draw distance, a very CPU-heavy artificial intelligence and pretty good graphics. We installed iCEnhancer 2.0, a mode that makes the game look even better, on our X51 test rig.
Incredible! During the time demo, I only got a stuttering 16 FPS, but thanks to the optimization, I achieved 27 FPS.
Ready, set, go! Dirt 3 is among the top racing games today due to it’s fantastic graphics and fluent gameplay. Even before our optimization, our Alienware X51 rig produced a pretty smooth 41.8 FPS even when we went to a staggering 16x Anti-Aliasing and the “Ultra High Settings” with all details enabled.
After the optimization, it gave us a solid 51 FPS. Not too bad for just a few clicks, I’d say. The combination of freeing up a lot of memory and the GPU overclock had quite an effect.…
Driver: San Francisco
Driver 1 was one of my favorite games back in 1999. Unfortunately, I haven’t really played the subsequent titles until Driver: San Francisco, which seemed to bring back that spark. At 59 FPS, I shouldn’t complain about performance. Still, let’s see what kind of improvements our gaming optimization guide had on the Alienware rig.
This impressive increase is especially thanks to the fact we turned off VSync (see tips 7+8). However, even when we turned off VSync and didn’t perform all the tips, Driver managed “only” to run at 95 FPS. Hence, all the other optimization techniques helped quite a bit.
Max Payne 3
What Remedy pulled off here is nothing short of impressive. Max Payne 3 uses all of DirectX 11′s advanced features. Some say it’s the most beautiful game of 2012. And when you look at these screenshots (that I just took in-game!), it’s easy to see why.
With such impressive graphics, Max Payne must have an incredibly impact on performance, right?
This time around, our optimization techniques only had a minor impact on performance. Apparently, Max Payne is not so CPU- and RAM-hungry that our optimizations didn’t quite make a difference.
Using FRAPS, I determined the current and average FPS during the first seconds of Max Payne 3. In each of my test runs, it came out exactly the same. It’s likely that the slight GPU overclock was the only thing that had an effect here. However, I did notice an increase in load times in between chapters and while loading the game.
Ready for some diabolical Diablo 3? So are we! The game isn’t really a killer game in the graphics department, but it still manages to stutter during scenes with a lot of monsters and effects. Again, I used FRAPS to determine the average FPS in certain scenes. I walked from the first starting point to the door at Tristram and killed the first monster that came out of the woods. In each of my test runs, I got almost the exact same results (both before and after), so I was sure that the results were valid.
In Diablo 3, all of our optimization techniques helped transform a slight stutter to smoother gameplay.
We hoped you liked this two-part blog post. Stay tuned for more gaming posts in the coming weeks! We’ll show you how to optimize specific games in terms of performance and graphics-wise.