Almost every player has encountered low frame rates. Often, a game is running fine, then begins to stutter when your character enters a big city or complex environment. Your view starts looking like a slideshow, things get visibly choppy when you turn the camera fast, and swaying objects like hair or banners move less fluidly.
It all adds up to a less immersive experience, but what causes it? Frame rate, measured in frames per second (FPS), reports the number of times your graphical hardware redraws the screen every second. Your graphics card, CPU, and RAM are all involved in the effort to create the geometry, textures, lighting, and effects that compose one of those frames.
When one component in the chain causes a bottleneck — for example, your CPU tells your GPU to render a large number of objects at once — your PC draws fewer frames per second. Reduced frame rate can be caused by unoptimized code, glitches, or in-game settings that create a larger workload than your hardware can handle.
Games didn’t invent the frames per second measurement: Movies are traditionally projected at 24 FPS, meaning 24 still images flash by onscreen every second. In games, though, 24 FPS can look choppy and unnatural.
If you watch a side-by-side comparison of a game running at 30 FPS and 60 FPS, you’ll see the difference immediately: At higher frame rates, the game appears smoother and more lifelike. PC games can often achieve higher frame rates than current-generation console titles, but the real advantage of PC gaming is the freedom to tune your settings and find the frame rate that best suits your hardware — especially your monitor.
Your monitor’s refresh rate is a good target for in-game frame rates. If your monitor has a refresh rate of 60Hz, you won’t see benefits from frame rates over 60 FPS, as your monitor won’t update fast enough to keep up with the output of your GPU. However, if you already own a display with a higher refresh rate, such as 144Hz, you’ll see immediate onscreen benefits from higher frame rates.
So how do you achieve better frame rates? Getting a faster CPU, more RAM, or a newer graphics card may help. However, you should update software and adjust settings first to see if you can achieve higher frame rates without major changes to your system.
Let’s walk through some potential solutions.
Close Background Processes
First, make sure no other programs are slowing things down. Open the Task Manager (CTRL+SHIFT+ESC), then click the CPU and Memory tabs to check whether anything is using up large chunks of your CPU or RAM (for instance, a web browser with dozens of tabs open).
Next, make sure the game itself is up to date. Especially early in the life cycle of a game, developers release patches with major performance impacts. Enable automatic updates to ensure you don’t miss one.
Update your drivers. New graphics drivers for both discrete GPUs and integrated GPUs are released regularly to optimize for recent games. Use the manufacturer’s utility to download these drivers.
If you’re using an Intel® Core™ processor (4th Gen or later) with integrated graphics, try looking up the game on gameplay.intel.com to find recommended settings. Utilities for discrete graphics cards may also automatically detect installed games. If your graphics utility has this capability, make sure that it has recognized the game you’re trying to play. This may result in immediate performance gains.
If performance issues in one game are unusually severe, try repairing the installation. In Steam, you can do so by opening the Library tab, right-clicking the game, and then clicking “Properties.” Once in the Properties window, click the “Local Files” tab, then “Verify Integrity of Game Files.”
Most games will automatically test your PC after installation and assign custom settings. However, if you’re reading this article, you might have found that those settings don’t give frame rate the priority you’d like. Here are a few common settings to turn down (or off) for measurable performance boosts.
Shadow settings may cover a number of shadow mapping techniques with differing performance impact, from CPU-intensive shadow volumes to GPU-intensive techniques like ray tracing, which calculates all the rays emanating from every individual light source. These techniques work to smooth out sawtooth edges, accurately represent the shapes casting shadows, and help shadows match the movements of their source.
Turning up these settings will lead to smoother shadows, but leaving them set to medium or low may lead to frame rate gains with little visible impact in fast-paced titles.
Anti-aliasing (AA) smooths out the jagged edges (an artifact called “aliasing”) that appear on digital objects made out of square pixels. Anti-aliasing techniques take samples of pixels onscreen in order to guess the correct color of neighboring pixels, then fill in the gaps to clean up sawtooth edges.
Reducing the number of samples taken (from 4x to 2x, for example) is a good first step to improve performance. From there, look for AA techniques that the game identifies as less GPU-intensive: FXAA, for example, has a smaller impact than MSAA. If you still run into performance problems, try turning off AA altogether and see if the jagged edges are intrusive.
Anti-aliasing may be accomplished by creating a higher-res version of the scene, sampling color data from that, and then downsampling (essentially, shrinking) it to match the display resolution. MSAA (Multi-Sample Anti-Aliasing) is one technique that does this by detecting edges and working to smooth them.
In contrast, FXAA (fast approximate anti-aliasing) is a post-processing technique that takes effect after rendering is finished. It blurs jagged lines rather than improving their appearance with downsampling, which has less impact on gaming performance than MSAA.
TXAA is a form of temporal anti-aliasing which uses data from multiple frames. TXAA focuses on improving the appearance of moving objects, and has a variable performance impact.
Dynamic Reflections may require your hardware to render the same scene twice (or a version of the same scene), which can be a significant lift for your GPU. In a fast-paced shooter, you may rarely find yourself stopping to admire the action reflected in a window; try sacrificing the reflection quality to see if that nets extra frames.
Ambient Occlusion enhances the points of contact between adjacent textures, lights, and shadows. It’s a fine detail that you may want to try turning down (or off) before reducing the quality of the textures themselves.
Volumetric Lighting makes shafts of light appear to have depth, so that players can see dust motes or other particles, like smoke, drifting across them. These light volumes, sometimes referred to as “God rays,” have a significant performance cost in some games.
Motion Blur effects simulate the operation of a traditional camera by blurring background objects as the player’s perspective wheels around. While this can help disguise low frame rates, the artificial effect often has a performance impact of its own. If you prefer a more cinematic look, leave this setting turned on; if you prefer digital clarity, see what your game looks like after you turn it off.
Finally, resolution has an enormous impact on performance. More pixels in each frame means more rendering work for your GPU. If you’re not seeing the performance you’d like at 1080p, consider reducing your resolution to 720p, which may boost playability without a major impact on the game’s look. Try this and gauge whether the frame rate gain is worth the drop in visual fidelity.
Some games have a slider called “render scaling” that can supersample or subsample the image. Above 100%, this option makes the screen look slightly sharper by rendering at a higher resolution, then shrinking it down to your display resolution. Below 100%, it does the opposite, rendering the game at a lower resolution and then stretching it back out to match your display resolution. This will reduce clarity and improve performance. Elements of the HUD (like health bars) don’t get the same shrinking treatment, so the overall effect can be more attractive than reducing your resolution outright.
While you might not want to step down in resolution for a single-player graphical showcase, the calculus is often different online. In competitive games that require fast reactions, many players stick to 1080p or lower, as it allows them to hit higher frame rates more consistently. In both those titles, a majority of professionals report playing at 1080p resolution and high frame rates (144 FPS or better).
Detail vs. Performance
When updating your driver or game doesn’t help your frame rate, you’re usually left adjusting settings by hand. When doing so, consider turning down the big three first: Shadows, reflections, and lighting. Then look online for support threads that point out performance-critical options that are specific to the game you’re playing.
If you find you’re sacrificing too much in your graphical settings to hit your frame rate target, there’s always another option: Upgrading to a new system with a faster GPU and CPU. A newer graphics card can help you quickly render scenes at higher resolution, and more CPU power can help your system manage large numbers of onscreen objects and post-processing effects. If the hardware you currently have isn’t cutting it, consider getting a new system built for serious gaming.