How to tweak your graphics card using only control panels

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How to tweak your graphics card using only control panels

Post  t0et0e on Thu May 24, 2012 5:45 pm

If you fire up a game for the first time without checking your graphics settings beforehand,

you're not getting the most out of your graphics board. Whether your PC runs a discrete

graphics card in a PCI Express slot or integrated graphics, your video drivers come with a

control panel that you can use to make your games look better--if you know what you're


These control panels, unfortunately, are not easy to work with. Over the years, AMD, nVidia,

and Intel have improved the user interfaces--but the underlying technology has also become

more complex, and the control panels have gained many more settings to manage.

If your system is powerful enough to run a typical 3D title above 90 or 100 frames per

second, then it has excess GPU horsepower that you could use to improve the image quality of

the game. Getting your machine to hit 60 frames per second while pumping up the graphics eye

candy will make your overall gaming experience much better.

The hard part is using trial and error--you change a setting, then play the game, then

change again--to find the sweet spot, especially since every game and every system is a

little different. My goal here is to give you some general guidelines for obtaining good

image quality, as well as for finding the right blend of image quality and performance.

Note that all of the following examples work with Windows 7. They'll likely work with

Windows Vista too. Windows XP users, however, may see differences--and some capabilities

(namely, features specific to DirectX 10 and 11) simply aren't available in XP.

Before we dive into the intricacies of in-game settings and graphics control panels, it's

worth discussing a few rules of thumb for prioritizing which settings to enable.

Start With the In-Game Control Panel
Start optimizing your game performance via the in-game graphics control panels.The settings

available in the game you're playing are often more optimized than the global settings you

can enable with the AMD or nVidia control panel. As an example, if the game allows you to

set antialiasing, use that setting rather than the Windows control panel setting. You'll

often see better performance in the game, along with improved image quality.

Pump Up Texture Detail and Anisotropy First
You may be tempted to start by cranking up the antialiasing. Sure, antialiasing removes

annoying jaggies, but if you turn it on while the texture detail remains low, you'll end up

with a muddy mess. Low-resolution textures will still look ugly with antialiasing turned on.

Anisotropic filtering with modern graphics cards can go as high as 16X with only a modest

decrease in performance. Yet anisotropic filtering makes a huge impact in the look of the

game as you move through the world, particularly with objects or textures that recede in the

distance as you view them--you'll see less image popping, and long hallways and receding

terrain will look smoother and more accurate.

Increase Resolution Before Antialiasing
Sometimes, bumping up antialiasing will actually reduce the detail you see in the game.

Antialiasing tends to soften what you see on screen slightly, and running antialiasing at

relatively low resolutions can often produce a game world that looks a little blurry. That's

a result of the color blending needed to create good antialiasing effects.

If you're running a game at, say, 1440 by 900 with antialiasing, consider turning off

antialiasing and bumping the resolution up to 1680 by 1050. The performance hit will be

roughly the same, but you might see a little more game detail.

Don't Turn Up Shadow Detail
When you're playing a game, you're always in motion, and you probably won't stop to gaze at

the scenery. High shadow levels can seem very immersive--if you're standing still. If you're

constantly on the move, you may notice an absence of shadows, but you'll often not see the

difference between medium shadows and high shadows. Maxing out shadow levels can often cause

a huge decrease in performance. Turn up this setting only after you've pumped up other

image-quality settings and are still running at high frame rates.

Avoid DirectX 10 and DirectX 11 With Low-Cost Graphics Cards
Don't get me wrong: DX10 and DX11 can offer substantial increases in 3D graphics image

quality. And due to improved multithreading in the DirectX libraries and drivers, installing

DirectX 11 can boost performance over DirectX 10 even if the game was developed prior to

DirectX 11.

However, graphics board companies do buyers a disservice by advertising cheap versions of

cards as being able to run the latest graphics APIs (application programming interfaces).

Technically, a Radeon HD 5450 can run DirectX 11 games in DirectX 11 mode--but the results

will look like a slideshow. Revert to DirectX 9 modes if you have a low-end GPU, and you'll

be pleasantly surprised by higher frame rates.

Usually you can use the in-game control panel to change the mode, but sometimes you'll need

a different executable or shortcut, such as with Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. And with some games,

the way to alter the mode is not always obvious. For example, in Crysis, you enable the

DirectX 9 mode by reducing the global detail settings to 'high' instead of 'very high'.

Experiment With Antialiasing Settings
Even if the game offers merely the usual 2X/4X/8X multisampling antialiasing schemes, those

aren't your only choices. Here's a case where using the Windows graphics card control panel

may be more useful, because you can fool around with transparency antialiasing or other


You can also turn on antialiasing modes that aren't available in-game, such as nVidia's CSAA

(coverage sample antialiasing), which can offer good image quality with less of a

performance hit than standard multisampling antialiasing. I'll talk about those modes in the

nVidia control panel section.

If your game provides more than the usual settings, experiment with them. You may find that

8X CSAA on nVidia cards looks just as good as 4X multisampling antialiasing but offers

better performance.

How to Use the In-Game Controls
Now that we've looked at a few rules of thumb, let's explore in-game settings and the

graphics control panels.

Most modern PC games come with a wealth of graphics options.Below I've used the recent

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat as an example, because it has assorted settings that take

advantage of the latest DirectX 11 graphics cards.

Of course, if you don't have DirectX 11-capable graphics hardware, you can't enable some of

these features, like tessellation, a technique that creates more-detailed geometry from a

base set of geometry defined within the game.

Each additional setting you dial up or turn on can adversely affect performance. You need to

determine which settings will give you the most image-quality bang for the buck, and then

decide which of those to enable. The key is to remember that you're always in motion in a 3D

game; you're rarely standing around and enjoying the environment.

Games that give you a wide assortment of adjustments for detail levels are terrific, and

allow you to experiment to your heart's content. Since the graphics control panels from AMD

and nVidia don't really let you change shadow or ambient occlusion (SSAO) settings, you have

to use in-game settings if you want to balance image quality and performance.

Unfortunately, not every game gives you that much control over graphics settings. Many

titles based on the Unreal Technology engine (BioShock 2 and Borderlands, for example) don't

allow you to set antialiasing, one of the most basic image-quality improvements.

You can edit configuration files manually, but that might result in what programmers

euphemistically call "unpredictable results"--namely game crashes, weird image-quality

flaws, and more.

nVidia Control Panels
Now let's take a look at the nVidia and AMD control panels. If you have an nVidia graphics

board, open the nVidia graphics control panel by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting

nVidia Control Panel from the context menu.

You should use the Windows control panel only if the game doesn't offer the appropriate

built-in settings--which happens often with antialiasing. nVidia's control panel has two

different antialiasing settings, one for standard multisampling antialiasing and the other

for transparency antialiasing.

Though you can enable them separately, there's really no point to turning on transparency

antialiasing if you don't have standard antialiasing enabled.

First set the antialiasing mode, then turn on the setting.

One interesting option in Antialiasing Mode is the 'Enhance the application setting' mode.

What this does is turn on CSAA for games that support multisampling antialiasing but don't

have explicit settings for CSAA. If that seems a little confusing, it is.

CSAA essentially allows you to add an antialiasing level (say, 8X) over the in-game level,

and to obtain that level of image quality without the performance hit of full 8X

multisampling antialiasing (MSAA). It's a little arcane, but it's worth experimenting with

if you have the time and inclination.

Transparency antialiasing reduces jaggies for transparent textures. Frequently, when you

turn on standard antialiasing, textures that include transparent elements--a chain-link

fence, for example--may reduce those jagged effects for distant objects, but the fence will

still have jagged edges.

Setting the nVidia transparency antialiasing.

nVidia also allows you to set game profiles explicitly. Click the Program Settings tab, and

you'll be greeted with a drop-down menu that permits you to set parameters for specific

titles. What you can do here is leave the global settings for stuff like anisotropic

filtering and antialiasing to Application controlled, and then set overrides for specific

game titles.

It's like having an in-game control panel, only you set it in the nVidia panel. This

approach is especially useful if you want to set aggressive image-quality settings for older

titles that are very fast on your system while allowing newer titles to be managed by their

in-game settings.

Adjust your control panel settings only for specific games.

This screen is a little confusing at first--everything seems to read 'Use global setting' or

'Not supported for this application'. However, each setting that is supported is actually a

drop-down box that allows you to change the setting. When you run the game, nVidia's driver

enables that setting for that game only.

Whether you use in-game settings or the graphics board control panels, you'll run into

problems. Graphics drivers and 3D games are complex pieces of software, and the interactions

between them are often unpredictable. Let's take a look at several typical issues and


Lack of Feature Support
I've already mentioned how games using the Unreal Engine often don't support antialiasing.

In a few games, such as Borderlands and Mass Effect 2, you can't even override the lack of

in-game antialiasing with the control panels. Certain rendering techniques in games, like

deferred lighting or render-to-texture, can also interfere with multisampling antialiasing.

Some tricks are available, such as downloading third-party utilities like RivaTuner, but

many of them are old and don't work under Windows 7 64-bit. Occasionally, driver updates

will permit you to force a feature such as antialiasing or anisotropic filtering, or the

game will be updated to allow that feature, but the only thing you can do is wait for the


In other cases, one particular feature in the game may prevent another from working. For

example, some games won't work properly with antialiasing and high dynamic range (HDR)

lighting, even though both features may show up in the game settings. Try them out for

yourself, and if you run into extreme performance degradation or image-quality issues, just

disable one of the conflicting features.

Driver Problems
Earlier, I mentioned how Catalyst AI would result in missing textures in Borderlands. It's

not uncommon for new games to have problems with existing 3D-card drivers. All drivers make

heavy use of optimizations, and sometimes that will cause a problem with a new game that may

use the latest build of DirectX.

Missing textures in Borderlands.

These issues may manifest as image corruption, game crashes, or very low frame rates. In

such cases, one tactic is to go to a very basic driver level and disable certain advanced

features in-game. For help, check the various online forums or do a Web search combining the

game name and your graphics card model.

On rare occasions, you may even have to wait for driver updates before playing a particular

game--thankfully, both nVidia and AMD are good about issuing driver "hotfixes" for popular

new titles that may encounter problems.

One other tactic that may seem counterintuitive is to roll back to an earlier driver.

Sometimes compatibility issues are accidentally introduced in newer driver releases, meaning

that if something breaks you'll have to uninstall the new driver and reinstall the old one

(which is usually still available from the manufacturer's Website).

Game Bugs
Sometimes you may encounter obscure bugs in a game that cause graphics issues. Given the

large array of hardware, PC game developers can't always test for all possible combinations.

For example, I've seen SSAO (screen space ambient occlusion) allowed as a setting on

graphics hardware that can't possibly support it. The result may be image corruption, a game

crash, or, if you're lucky, nothing happening aside from the feature not working.

Driver Residue
Driver Cleaner in action.The general rule of thumb is always to uninstall your existing

driver before installing a new one. If you don't, it's possible for traces of the old driver

to remain on the system; it may be a stray DLL, or a Registry entry that conflicts with a

new driver entry.

If you've been installing new drivers over older versions, you'll likely encounter game

crashes and severe image-quality problems. One solution is to download Driver Cleaner.

Though it used to be free, Driver Cleaner is now a $10 download--but it's worth it.

You're in Control
You may care about frame rate above all else, or be the kind of person to tweak every

available setting for the best possible image quality. Either way, don't forget to check

both the in-game graphics settings and your graphics card's control panel. Just a few tweaks

can result in a much more immersive and satisfying experience.

**** original post can be found here as this was a simple copy n paste***

original, comes with pics!

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