PC Graphics Settings Explained – Part 1

As the first part of our guide to PC graphics settings, I will be covering the most common image settings found within the vast majority of games.

[Skill Level: I’m Too Young To Die]

Resolution refers to the total number of pixels – individual points of colour which are present within a display. Pixel count is determined by the number of pixels on a vertical basis measured by those on a horizontal basis. As pixels represent colour, the higher the pixel count, the higher the amount of detail that can be resolved from an image. The majority of modern displays have an aspect ratio of 16:9 (Widescreen) – televisions and monitors of the aspect ratio contain a resolution of 1920 x 1080p, also known as Full HD. Accepted as the standard resolution for PC gamers, a fair majority of PC gamers choose to experience their games at higher resolutions such as 2560 x 1440p (2.5K), as well as 3840 x 2160p (4K / Ultra HD).

With higher resolution gaming, images become far more sharper and clearer, allowing for increased detail being resolved from the image. As higher resolutions require additional processing power from graphics cards, gamers looking to play the latest Triple-A titles at resolutions such as 2.5K and 4K should ensure they have the necessary hardware to do so, especially if they intend on playing at high frame rates and maximum visual quality. For older titles however, GPU processing power doesn’t need to be as powerful. This is because older titles are not as visually demanding as the latest games, as well as later graphics cards being substantially more powerful than those which released prior.
Project Cars Perfect Pixels 4K

Providing 4X the amount of pixels as Full HD, 4K resolution is extremely demanding. For the latest titles to be played without having to compromise too much on graphical details or high frame rates, solutions such as the GeForce GTX 980Ti, GTX 1070, GTX 1080 and GTX 1080Ti are best suited from Nvidia based graphics cards. For AMD based graphics cards the R9 Fury, R9 Fury X and R9 Nano stand to be the only choices. While 4K gaming is viable on Mid-Tier graphics cards such as the GeForce GTX 970, GTX 980, R9 390X and the RX 580, compromises will have to be made to graphical detail settings in order to sustain a high frame rate. Typically requiring around 4GB – 8GB of Video Memory (VRAM) for suitable gaming on a 1440p or 4K display, it’s of high importance to make sure the GPU meets all the requirements for a pleasing experience. High core counts, fast clock speeds, and a wide memory bandwidth are just as important as VRAM when it comes to Ultra HD gaming. This means that Low-End GPUs with high amounts of VRAM will not be suitable for Ultra HD gaming

While an increase in resolution will deliver an increase in detail, sharpness and clarity from the image, high resolutions will not always result in an image appearing more “Realistic” for games which emphasis this artistic direction. An example of this resides in film. The transition from VHS to DVD, and from DVD to Blu Ray never resulted in actors appearing more “Real” or “Believable” due to an increase in resolution. The source image was based on real actors and environments, meaning the image simply gave way for enhanced clarity with less blur, pixilation and unwanted artifacts. the strive for realistic and natural images will always be determined by the artistic direction as well as the rendering techniques employed by the developers – such as lighting, shaders, texture quality, polygon count and animation. Resolution will only aid in presenting the image.

Refresh Rate & Frame Rate
As the standard refresh of televisions and monitors are limited to 60Hz, it is necessary for gamers to play their games at this refresh rate or higher for a suitable gaming experience. A 60Hz refresh rate means a moving image will be flashed on the display at a rate of 60 times per-second – also known as 60 frames-per-second (FPS). As television and film are recorded closer to 24Hz and 30Hz, televisions are able to refresh at two-intervals – 30Hz and 60Hz – and will do so responding to the video input. As the refresh rate is determined by the amount of available processing power, gaming at 60Hz as opposed to 30Hz will require 2x the amount of processing power. This stands true for those who choose to game at 120Hz rather than 60Hz, or 240Hz instead of 120Hz.

Many gaming displays will give way for higher refresh rates above 60Hz, but these can have extremely high hardware requirements for the latest visually demanding games. As game consoles will often target 30Hz for gaming, many PC gamers deem this as unacceptable as it is to close to that of television and film (They’re also elitists). This lower refresh rate can result in input lag, lower response times, less fluidity within the moving image and a sluggish-looking picture overall. With higher refresh rates, additional detail can also be resolved from the moving image as it is being processed at a higher rate. This is why most PC gamers will use 60Hz as the baseline, moving up to a higher refresh rate if the hardware allows it.

As GPU and CPU processing power stands as the determining factor for how visually impressive and how responsive a game looks and feels to play, the refresh rate should always be the priority. Games are moving images and as of such, the smoothness within the movement of that image should always be of primary importance. Where the refresh rate in PC gaming will always be variable due to each and every PC configuration having different performance levels from one another, refresh rates will not always be consistent. Unlike console games which generally target a fixed 30Hz, PC games may fluctuate during gameplay, depending on the level visual intensity of what’s taking place on the screen. For instance, a gameplay scene involving many explosions with a great number of vehicles and crumbling buildings. A scene of such magnitude would require drastically more processing power than a simplistic scene involving one to three characters having a conversation in an empty room.

Take note of Trip’s beautiful face no longer being beautiful. Screen-Tearing at its finest. [Enslaved: Odyssey to the West]
Depending on the performance level of the graphics card, frame rates may constantly scale. For those playing with a High-End graphics card where refresh rates are scaling between 70Hz and 100Hz, on a 60Hz screen this may result in “Screen-Tearing”, where by the image delivers invisible splits along the display, manifesting for milliseconds at a time. For those with lesser hardware frame rates may scale between 40Hz and 60Hz, because of this the image may result in “Stuttering” presented in the form of movement-judder. To combat these issues PC gamers have multiple choices. Those with lesser GPUs can lower the detail levels or the resolution of the game, as this will instantly free-up GPU resources. To eliminate Screen-Tearing and Stuttering all together, gamers can switch on Vertical-Synchronization (V-Sync) from the game’s options menu. This process works by stalling the output of the frame rate from the GPU, in an attempt to provide consistency with that of the monitor.

The downside to this method is that it can introduce additional stutter for those with graphics cards that exceed the refresh rate of the display. On the latest displays however, a dynamic refresh rate technology has been developed which allows for communication between the graphics card and the display. This gives way for scalable refresh rates which are synchronized to avoid both Screen-Tearing and Stuttering. On Nvidia based graphics cards a proprietary technology is used known as Nvidia G-Sync. For AMD based graphics cards an open-source software is available known as FreeSync. As the implementation of this dynamic refresh rate technology varies between each display manufacturer, not all monitors will include options for both G-SYNC and FreeSync.

AMD FreeSync Demonstration

Aliasing, also known as “Jaggies” or the “Staircase Effect” is the result of jagged-edges being formed from an image which suffers from low resolution or low-poly count objects in a game. Often noticeable on straight edges such as blades of grass, swords, lamp posts and ropes, character models and items of cloth can also suffer from extreme cases of Jaggies. The simplest method of combating this issue is to increase the resolution of the game. This will allow the increase in pixel count to smooth out pixilation caused by the aliasing. For those seeking an alternative method there are many options present within the technology of Anti-Aliasing.

SMAA – Subpixel Morphological Anti-Aliasing
Requiring a small amount of additional processing power in order to function, SMAA is the most favoured solution of Anti-Aliasing. Providing a sharper image over FXAA, yet nowhere near as demanding as other solutions such as MSAA and SSAA, this proves to be the number one choice. Scalable through X2, X4 and X8 – the higher the sample rate, the more demanding the solution.

FXAA – Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing
Using a post-processing solution – meaning the effect takes place after each frame has been rendered, a filter is applied over the entire image in order to mask the harsh results of aliasing. While this method requires no additional processing power it can introduce a less-sharper, blurry presentation, depending on how well it has been implemented.

Note the reduction in jagged-edges by enabling FXAA. Batman: Arkham City. [Image zoomed in for illustration purposes] [Courtesy of Nvidia GeForce]

MSAA – Multisampling Anti-Aliasing
Using a method of sampling each and every pixel while each frame is being rendered, MSSA determines how and where colour should be applied in order to combat pixilation, before presenting the image to the display. This method stands to be very intensive and can be extremely demanding of hardware, since it delivers the cleanest result.

Supersampling Anti-Aliasing – SSAA
As the most demanding method of all Anti-Aliasing solutions, SSAA should only be applied for those with High-End GPUs with performance to spare. SSAA works by rendering the internal image at a higher overall resolution than the display, before scaling the image back down in order to accommodate the display itself. This means a 1080p image which has been super-sampled to 4X the resolution will be rendered at 4K, before being scaled for the viewing area of the display. This results in the sharpest and most detailed image.

Determining the quality of textures that are present throughout the many surfaces of objects, materials and characters within a game, the resolution of textures will determine how sharp and accurate something may appear. Commonly represented as Low, Medium, High, Very High and Ultra, these presets determine the quality and the resolution of each texture. Requiring more VRAM from the graphics card for each increase in resolution, the majority of games will require a GPU will 3GB of VRAM for enabling the highest resolution textures on a 1080p display. For those gaming on displays with a higher resolution such as 1440p and 4K, enabling these higher quality textures will require an increase in the amount of available VRAM since it has to be presented on a display which is also of a higher resolution.

Rise of the Tomb Raider – Low Textures. Note the blurry stone wall. [Courtesy of Nvidia GeForce]
This can best be seen as screen resolution and texture resolution fighting for GPU VRAM. Those with graphics cards of the 6GB and 8GB variant will be fine for gaming at higher resolutions at the highest available texture quality. However, as stated previously with display resolution, just because a graphics cards has high amounts of VRAM such as 6GB or 8GB, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be a viable solution for 1440p or 4K gaming. Memory bandwidth and overall GPU performance must be factored in. Should gamers choose to enable texture resolutions which require more VRAM than what’s available on their graphics card (a display warning will usually be shown in games) the result of doing so may cause on-screen stuttering and less fluidity in frame rates. The reason for this is due to the game having to locate additional memory within the system, which results in slower DDR4 or DDR3 system RAM being used in combination with the faster VRAM of the graphics card.

Rise of the Tomb Raider -Very High Textures. Detailed regained. [Courtesy of Nvidia GeForce]
AF – Anisotropic-Filtering
As the determining factor for how distant textures should be appear at a specific quality and angle, AF provides a substantial improvement to image quality when enabled on the highest setting. Available in 2X, 4X, 8X and 16X distant textures may appear blurry and lacking detail when enabled at a lower quality. Also dependant upon VRAM, this should setting should be balanced against display resolution and texture resolution. Most noticeable in racing games and third-person games where large environments are presented directly ahead of the character, the benefits of 16X AF are evident and where available should be enabled.

Shadow Quality
Adding a sense of depth to the objects, characters and environmental scenery within a game, Shadow Quality is commonly interchanged with the term Shadow Resolution and is used as means to improve the overall detail of the image. Usually available in variations of Low, Medium, High, Very High and Ultra, other solution such as PCSS, HFTS, Soft Shadows, and AMD CHS. As shadows are cast in various ways depending on the light source and distance between characters and objects in a game, the quality, size and angle of shadows can all be affected depending on the chosen implementation.

While some games may factor Shadow Resolution into the Shadow Quality setting, some games may choose do so with separate adjustments. As Shadow Resolution will concentrate on the sharpness and clarity of a shadow – scaling from low resolution dithering with artifacts, to something more precise and natural relative to the player’s position in a game including as other objects. Shadow Quality may place a focus on the quantity and behaviour of shadows, as to how it may soften and react with light and colour from surrounding objects, changing at angles in reference to length, distance and width.

AO – Ambient Occlusion
Giving way to additional detail and depth within the quality of shadows, AO creates depth and change where the shadows of two surfaces meet or obstruct one another by casting light sources throughout the scenery. When Ambient occlusion is not present objects can appear as if they are not making contact with other surfaces in the game, as though they were floating. This can apply to any surface or object in a game regardless of how detailed or complex it may be. From a simple object such as a ball rolling down a street, or the multiple layers of cracks that run through brick wall or layers of rubble.

HBAO+ Enabled. [Courtesy of Nvidia GeForce]

AO Disabled. [Courtesy of Nvidia GeForce]
Ambient Occlusion
is available in two primary methods, Screen-Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO) and Horizon-Based Ambient Occlusion (HBAO) along with HBAO+ as an improved version of HBAO. SSAO creates this effect of depth using a less demanding method – by only taking into account what’s viewable on-screen SSAO doesn’t factor in the scene as a whole – but proves to be less demanding on GPU resources. HBAO proves to be far more realistic and provides far more coverage, factoring in the objects which are not appearing on the screen, yet still present in the scenery.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this feature & be sure to share with your fellow PC gamers!


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