What Do All Those In-Game Graphics Settings Actually Mean?

Mar 17th 2015 - by Fix My PC FREE in: Blog PC Gaming | 0 Comment

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What Do All Those In-Game Graphics Settings Actually Mean?

One of the great parts about being a PC gamer is customizing all of your graphics settings. While console gamers are locked into certain resolutions and refresh rates, PC gamers have an amazing range of control over their in-game performance.

Unfortunately, most PC gamers are clueless what in-game settings actually mean.

That’s why I’m here to help. Today, I’m going to explain in-game graphics settings in a way that anyone can understand:

Anti-Aliasing

What is It?

Anti-aliasing, also known as AA, is a graphics settings most of us have at least heard about. There are multiple forms of anti-aliasing, although they all do basically the same thing: they remove jagged edges from your games.

How Does it Work?

Supersampling anti-aliasing (FSAA) will tell your GPU to render the game at a resolution beyond your native resolution. So if you’re playing at 1920×1080, your GPU will render that scene at 3840×2160. Then, the GPU will bring it back down to the original size. Ultra HD footage is condensed onto a normal HD screen, effectively removing jagged edges (technically, it’s making those jagged edges too small to be noticeable on a lower-resolution screen).

Multisampling anti-aliasing (MSAA) works in a slightly different way with the same effect: instead of rendering each pixel individually, MSAA renders pixels in groups. This can cut down on performance requirements at the expense of minor quality issues.

Is it Worth It?

Anti-aliasing is particularly noticeable on lower resolutions, where each pixel becomes more noticeable. On lower resolutions, it won’t have as much of a noticeable impact (no matter what “PC Gaming Master Race” crew members might tell you).

If you’re trying to boost in-game performance, then bumping anti-aliasing from 16x to 8x might be a good place to start – especially if you don’t notice the difference.

Anisotropic Filtering

What Is It?

Anisotropic filtering adds details to faraway objects. With anisotropic filtering turned off, these objects may be blurry. It’s a type of texture filtering designed to enhance standard texture filtering, which is called “isotropic” filtering.

How Does It Work?

Isotropic filtering (the basic texture filtering) uses a square pattern that doesn’t look good for fixed-perspective scenes.

Anisotropic filtering replaces those square patterns with more detailed patterns – like rectangular and trapezoidal patterns – to improve textures.

Is It Worth It?

Anisotropic filtering, like anti-aliasing, is very resource-intensive. If you need a boost to performance, turning anisotropic filtering off can help you out a lot – even reducing it from 2x to 1x can have an enormous impact.

In games where you’re looking across long distances – say, in open-world RPGs like Skyrim – then anisotropic filtering can have a huge impact on scene quality. In some games, however, it may seem like a bit of a waste of performance.

Texture Quality

What is It?

Texture quality may be the most important setting in your game. It’s arguably the most noticeable setting in everyday gameplay. Texture quality controls the resolutions of almost everything in your game: objects in your games have textures ranging in resolution from low to medium to ultra (the specific names vary between games).

How Does it Work?

Textures are applied to different objects. Lower resolution textures require less VRAM than higher-resolution textures. That’s important because the other graphic settings listed here typically rely on GPU processing power – not memory.

Is it Worth it?

Texture quality may be the most noticeable graphic setting in the games you play. It’s definitely worth it – especially if you have VRAM to spare.

Think of texture quality like your desktop wallpaper. If you have an HD screen, what happens when you stretch out a 1280×960 over top of it? It becomes fuzzy and blurred. That’s what happens when you use low texture settings.

Lighting Quality

What is It?

You know up above, how I said that texture quality was the most obvious graphic setting? Lighting quality is the only other graphic setting that comes close.

Lighting quality controls – you guessed it – the quality of lighting within your games. It’s particularly noticeable in games that deal with lots of low-light environment with lots of shadows and incoming stream of light.

How Does it Work?

Lighting quality is a little more complicated than the other graphics settings here, but it basically reduces the resolution of light to basic points. This can cause weird, unrealistic reflections.

The higher your lighting quality is, the more complex reflections will be. Every time you walk through a game, your GPU has to perform complex calculations to determine how that light should be bouncing around. The higher the setting is, the more complex those reflections can be.

Is It Worth It?

Lighting quality is especially important for games where you’re exposed to environments with a mix of light and darkness. Basically, any scenes where light is bouncing off surfaces around you will look better with higher lighting quality.

Lighting quality may be the most performance-intensive setting listed so far. Raising lighting quality always has a drastic effect on performance. Going from Low to Ultra on the light quality slider is usually quite noticeable – although dropping your setting from High to Medium may not be as bad – especially if you need a performance boost.

Shadow Quality?

What is It?

Shadow quality is fairly self-explanatory. This setting controls the quality of shadows in your game. The higher the setting is, the more realistic shadows will be. Lower quality shadows tend to be blocky and unrealistic.

How Does it Work?

Just like with lighting quality, shadow quality effectively controls the resolution of shadows. Every time your game encounters a shadow, your GPU has to perform complex calculations to determine the shape of the shadow based on the object that is casting the shadow.

Is It Worth It?

In some games, you can turn off shadows completely, which usually looks awful. Low shadow quality, unfortunately, doesn’t look much better. Once you bump up to medium, high, and ultra settings, it can become less noticeable. Typically, the difference between high, medium, and ultra is the quality of shadows in the distance.

Shadow quality, like lighting quality, is one of the most performance-intensive settings in the gaming world (for the same reasons as light: complex interactions between light and shadow have to be calculated every time you look around).

Vertical Synchronization (VSync)

What is it?

VSync is the runt of the litter when it comes to graphics settings. It was a big deal back in the days of CRT monitors. Now, in 2015, it’s not quite as useful: although it’s still a bit noticeable.

VSync will synchronize your monitor with your graphics card to eliminate something called “tearing” on the monitor. When your frame rate exceeds the refresh rate of your monitor, you’ll get a “tearing” effect on the screen. Tearing is like what you see when a photo gets torn apart and stitched back together: the images look kind of right, but something is a little off.

How Does it Work?

VSync helps your monitor and graphics card communicate with each other more easily. It synchronizes the performance of the two devices. Instead of your video card rendering frames as soon as it’s able to, VSync caps your performance at your monitor’s refresh rate (like 60 frames per second).

Is It Worth It?

If you’re constantly averaging over 60 frames per second, then VSync is usually worth it. If you’re under 60fps, however, then you should probably just turn it off to boost performance.

The only other reason you’d want to turn off VSync is to avoid latency: some gamers claim that VSync creates noticeable latency on the mouse cursor and the keyboard. It’s tough to notice, but if you’re a Major League Gamer, I guess every frame counts.

How to Optimize All Graphics Settings at Once

You want to know what else is great about being a PC gamer? Software like GeForce Experience. GeForce Experience can change your in-game graphics settings based on your current hardware.

The software actually looks at all of the PC gamers who have a rig just like yours. Then, it looks at the smoothest graphics settings for people with those rigs. It changes your settings based on that information.

Long story short, you get better gameplay without messing with any of the settings listed above. Awesome, right?

AMD users have a similar software program called AMD Gaming Evolved. There’s also Razer Game Booster, which isn’t affiliated with either Nvidia or AMD video cards.

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