A Laptop Gamer's Guide to Understanding Graphics Settings

For us PC gamers, eye-candy is everything. There’s nothing as exhilarating as playing a modern 3D title on high graphics settings.

If you’re used to gaming on your average laptop, you’re probably so accustomed to poor graphics that you don’t think of making things look clearer as that much a priority compared to if you were gaming on a desktop. After all, you usually see most of where you’re going, and your laptop often works well to ensure the game runs from start to finish without stutter which is what really counts, right?

That said, everyone wants the best experience possible for their money. Considering how much more expensive hardware is in laptops, understanding and tweaking your graphics settings to get the most out of your performance is even more paramount for laptop gamers than their desktop counterparts.

If you move your gaming exploits to a more equipped desktop rig, you’ll likely be taken aback by the sudden change in the game’s environment. Colors will be more accurate, gameplay will be smoother and everything will look much more real than it did on your laptop.

Then again, let’s say you were testing out a moderately demanding game like Crysis or Star Wars Battlefront, and you decide to move to Grand Theft Auto V. What you might have thought was a powerful laptop could immediately start to struggle to render GTA V’s more demanding game engine. At this point, you’ll have three options: abandon the game entirely, empty your bank account to purchase the best gaming laptop on the market, or take the time to understand what it is that’s making your system struggle, and maybe solve the problem.

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The first two choices may work, depending on your enthusiasm as a gamer and the weight of your wallet. But having a bit of knowledge about tuning graphics settings can help you achieve a proper balance between quality and performance. The truth is, you don’t need a $5,000 gaming laptop to play video games comfortably, however demanding they may be.

The purpose of this guide is to explain the settings you need to know, and how they will influence your gameplay.

We’ll start with the basics: screen resolution, refresh rate and the “frames per second” measurement, after which we’ll look at more advanced settings like vertical sync, anti-aliasing and bilinear/trilinear filtering. Finally, we’ll brush up on the various quality settings offered by individual games, such as motion blur, HDR rendering, textures, shadows and depth of field.

The Basics

When you launch a game and open the Settings menu, Resolution is often the first on the Video Settings list, followed by an on and off toggle between fullscreen and windowed modes. and a drop down menu where you can choose to effect either low, medium or high graphics configurations automatically.

You can select either of these options to configure the graphics settings without going into any specifics. But, it’s the PC gamer’s way to tinker on our own terms.

Screen Resolution

The resolution is the most basic setting you’re allowed to tweak. Now, in case you’re wondering what the numbers mean, they represent the pixel count in an image on your display, typically pixel columns vs. pixel rows.

Your gaming PC’s monitor will likely have one of these resolutions: 1280×720 (720p or Half-HD), 1920×1080 (1080p or Full-HD), 2560×1440 (1440p, 2K or Quad-HD), and 3840 x 2160 (2160p, 4K or Ultra-HD)

Screen Refresh Rate and “Frames Per Second.”

A video game is a series of continuously generated animated images, changing at an incredibly fast rate. The refresh rate is the number of times the display upgrades to show a new or existing image in one second. It’s measured in Hertz (Hz).

On the other hand, Frames per Second, or FPS, is the number of new images generated every second.

If these two numbers seem confusing, think about them this way: a 60Hz monitor refreshes 60 times in a second. However, if you’re running a demanding game at a high resolution, the rate at which new images are generated might be slower than the display’s refresh rate. Consequently, some refreshes will be showing the same image because it’s taking longer for the hardware to generate the next one. In the gamers’ universe, we call this “lagging.”

The resolution you choose has the greatest effect on performance because it determines the number of pixels your GPU will be rendering at a time. The higher the screen resolution, the bigger the images you’ll be subjecting your graphics card to process. This means that if you want good FPS rates, you’ll need to set a resolution with which your graphics card will be comfortable.

Currently, 1080p at 60FPS is considered the ideal gaming balance. You can start at 1080p and monitor the frames using FRAPS, and then either upscale or downscale if the number is higher or lower than 60FPS.

Advanced settings

Modern game developers usually place these settings in the Advanced Settings category, and typically advise against tinkering, unless a gamer knows what they’re doing.

Vertical Synchronization (V-sync)

It’s fairly common for the refresh rate to fall out of sync with the rendering cycle. When this happens, the screen refreshes before or after the game has started supplying a new frame. The result is an image break or “screen tearing,” where we see portions of two or more frames at a time.

To prevent the frame rate from going out of sync with the refresh rate, many games offer v-sync as an option in the graphics settings. Turning on v-sync will lock the FPS count to a value that corresponds to the monitor’s refresh cycle. If your display’s refresh rate is 60 Hz but the game is running at a higher FPS count, v-sync will lock the framerate to 60FPS

However, v-sync becomes problematic when your framerate drops below the screen’s refresh rate. If, in the case above, a dip in performance forces the framerate to go below 60 FPS, v-sync will automatically lock it to another synchronized value, i.e. 30 FPS, which being lower, will cause lagging.

If you have a NVIDIA graphics card, you can turn on Adaptive V-sync in the NVIDIA control panel. Adaptive v-sync disables a game’s v-sync, whenever the frame rate falls below the monitor’s refresh rate, reducing the possibility of lagging.

Anti-aliasing (AA)

Aliasing is the term used to describe the effect of images having hard and jagged edges, which result from the square edges of pixels.

If a screen’s resolution could be high enough, the pixels making up an image would be so many that structures and objects in a game would automatically appear smooth and continuous. However, even 4K resolution isn’t enough to deliver zero image aliasing. To reduce aliasing without the need to increasing resolution, we use anti-aliasing.

There are several ways a system can achieve anti-aliasing but Multisampling, or MSAA, is currently the acceptable baseline in games.

MSAA works by sampling sections of a color pixel and relating them to the samples from an adjacent different-colored pixel to ultimately display a pixel that is a combination of those two sampled pixels. The idea of Multisampling is to reduce the discrete color differences between one pixel and another, and ultimately create a seamless flow over a boundary.

A series of values always represent MSAA settings: 2x MSAA, 4x MSAA, 8x MSAA, and so on. These numbers refer to the number of samples that are taken from adjacent pixels. Generally, the higher the number, the more efficient anti-aliasing will be.

As you can probably already tell, MSAA demands a lot from a computer’s graphics card. The more the samples, the more taxing the anti-aliasing process is on the hardware. High MSAA settings are normally reserved for the high-end gaming machines, which come with powerful GPUs.

In addition to MSAA, some games will allow you to make use of other anti-aliasing methods, such as Fast Approximate (FXAA) and Morphological (MLAA). In both techniques, the image is rendered first, then scanned as a whole to determine the parts that need smoothing, as opposed to MSAA, where sampling and anti-aliasing are done during the rendering process. FXAA and MLAA are nearly as effective as MSAA but much easier on the graphics card.

Bilinear and Trilinear Filtering

In some way, texture filtering is related to anti-aliasing, except rather than smoothing pixels, we’re filtering texels. In computer graphics, a “texel” is the fundamental unit of a texture map, and it is to textures what the pixel is to images. Textures are represented by a regular arrangement of texels.

When rendering a 3D surface, the GPU will map texels to the appropriate pixels in the displayed image. When a pixel doesn’t directly correspond to the desired texel, filtering has to be done to determine the proper color for the pixel.

Bilinear filtering is the simplest form of texture smoothing. When a pixel doesn’t fall directly on a texel, bilinear filtering samples the four texels nearest to the pixel to determine its color. However, bilinear filtering has its limitations.

For instance, if you’re in Far Cry 3, roaming the Rook Island jungles and you glance down, the ground beneath your feet will be a detailed texture of green grass. But when you look off into the distance, the hills far ahead will appear blurry. This effect is known as mipmapping, and it’s a deliberate move that game developers play, where distant scenes are rendered at a lower-resolution texture than closer objects to make the processing load lighter on the GPU.

However, if you’ve set the game to use bilinear filtering, the jump from the close, detailed images to the low-resolution distant ones will be clearly visible.

For a smoother transition between mipmaps, trilinear filtering is used. Trilinear filtering works by taking samples of both mipmaps to create a continuous shift from one texture map to another.

Anisotropic Filtering (AF)

Turning on trilinear filtering in Far Cry 3 gives the game a soft gradual blur from closer scenes to further ones. But when you’re looking far ahead, the ground will look a bit blurry, and you’ll have to look down again for the detail to be restored.

Anisotropic filtering offsets this small but annoying effect by maintaining detailed textures when we’re viewing them at oblique angles. When turned on in Far Cry 3, Jason will be facing forward, but the grass below will still be as detailed as it would be if he looked down.

Like AA, AF settings are usually in multiples of two: 2x, 4x,8x and 16x. The higher the number, the larger the angle over which the game can allow you to face away from a subject while still keeping it in detail.

High AF settings will tax your GPU more than bilinear or trilinear filtering, but not nearly as much as anti-aliasing.

Quality Settings

The effects of quality settings will depend on the game but, typically, they raise and lower a variety of graphics assets, which alter the picture quality while affecting performance positively or negatively.

The common quality settings include:

Shadow

Increasing shadow quality may increase shadow resolution, enable soft and hard shadows, increase the distance at which shadows are visible, etc.

Texture

Raising and lowering texture resolution will have huge effects on visual quality and performance.

High Dynamic Range Rendering (HDRR)

HDR refers to the range of luminosity of an image. A render with high dynamic range will have its darkest areas as detailed as its brightest areas.

Motion Blur

Motion Blur is a post-rendering filter that causes frame streaking during in-game movement. It significantly impacts performance and is better left turned off.

Depth of Field (DOF)

The photography effect of blurring things in the background and making a close subject appear sharp and detailed can be turned on or off in most games, with little to moderate effect on performance.

Wrap Up

Finding the balance between performance and visual quality that is right for your system requires a full comprehension of the graphics settings above.

Admittedly, how these settings affect visual experience will depend on the game and your hardware. Nevertheless, knowing what tweaking them does, will give insight on the processes you can compromise on to play any game you want smoothly.

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