Optimize Your PC for Gaming

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Optimize Your PC for Gaming

Person playing computer game
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Optimizing your PC for gaming can be a daunting task especially if you are not familiar with the internal hardware, operating system and overall configuration of your PC. Most game developers publish a set of minimum and recommended system requirements which outline what type of hardware is required for the game to run at an acceptable level. There is really no getting around these requirements and the optimizing your PC for gaming guide will not show you how to make an older PC run a new game that doesn't meet the minimum system requirements. You can't make a 10-year-old PC run the latest new release or big budget blockbuster with the high-end graphics and latest shader model no matter how much tuning and optimization you do. So why aren't your games running smooth when your gaming right meets or even exceeds the minimum and recommended system requirements?

The steps that follow will take you through some basic tips and recommendations for optimizing your PC for gaming so that you can get the most out of the hardware and get your games running smoothly again. It is useful for both those that have an aging PC that just meets the minimum requirements as well as those that have the latest and greatest graphics card, CPU, SSD and more.

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Get to Know Your PC Hardware

Hardware from my previous gaming rig. circa 2008.
Hardware from my previous gaming rig. circa 2008.

The starting point for optimizing your PC for gaming is to make sure that your PC meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements published. Most developers or publishers make both the minimum and recommended system requirements available to help gamers out in determining if their rig can handle the game. That's not to say that PCs that have hardware below the minimum requirements can't run the game, many times they can but the fact is you're most likely not going to get the most out of your gaming experience if the graphics stuttering every few seconds.

If you built your own gaming PC or at least selected the hardware installed then you probably know exactly what your PC is running, but if you are like many and bought an off the shelf gaming PC you may not know the exact hardware configuration. Windows provides various methods for seeing what hardware is installed and recognized by the operating system, but it is rather clunky and not straight forward. Luckily there are a few applications and websites that can help you determine this fairly quickly.

Belarc Advisor is a small Windows and Mac application that can be installed and run in under five minutes. It provides a wealth of information about both the hardware and operating system installed on your PC including the CPU, RAM, graphics cards, HDD and much more. This information can then be used to compare against a game's published system requirements to determine if your PC is capable of running it.

The website CanYouRunIt by System Requirements Lab provides a simple one click solution to determining if your PC can run a particular game. While there's really more than one click required due to a small application installation, it is rather easy to use. CanYouRunIt analyzes your PC hardware and operating system comparing it to the selected game's system requirements and provides a rating for each requirement.

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Update Graphics Drivers & Optimize Graphics Card Settings

Graphics Card Utilities
Graphics Card Utilities.

One of the first tasks to check off your list when trying to optimize your PC for gaming is to make sure that your graphics cards are updated with the latest drivers. As the focal point for your gaming experience, it is essential to keep your graphics card updated. Failing to do so is one of the primary causes for poor PC performance while gaming. Both Nvidia and AMD/ATI provide their own applications for managing graphics card drivers and optimizing the settings, Nvidia GeForce Experience and AMD Gaming Evolved respectively. Their optimization settings and recommendations are based on a wealth of information they have gathered over the years for different types of hardware configurations. Having the latest drivers can even help boost the performance of older games as well.

More on Graphics Cards: Browse the Best Budget Graphics Cards

Optimizing your graphics card frame rate is also a good avenue to pursue when looking for performance increases. There are a number third-party applications that allow for the tweaking of graphics card settings and overclocking for performance boosts. These include MSI Afterburner which allows you to overclock any GPU, EGA Precision X, and Gigabyte OC Guru to name a few. In addition, there are utility programs such as GPU-Z which provides details hardware specifications and settings of your graphics card and Fraps which is a graphics utility that provides frame rate information.

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Clean Your Startup and Shutdown Unnecessary Processes

Windows Task Manager, running processes and startup services
Windows Task Manager, running processes and startup services.

The longer you have your PC, the more applications you are likely to install. Many of these applications have tasks and processes that run in the background even if the program is not currently running. Over time these background tasks can take up considerable system resources without our knowledge. Some general tips that to be followed when gaming include: closing any open applications such as a web browser, MS Office program or any other application that's running, prior to starting the game. It's also always good to start gaming with a fresh reboot of your PC. This will reset your system to the startup configuration and closes out any lingering tasks that may continue to run in the background after programs are closed. If this doesn't help improve your gaming you'll want to move onto the next set of tips and recommendations.

Kill Unnecessary Processes in Windows Task Manager

One of the quickest ways to boost your PCs performance is to clean all of the startup programs and processes that you find unnecessary to have running whenever your PC is on. The Windows Task Manager is the first place to start and is where you can find out what is running and taking up valuable CPU and RAM resources.

The Task Manager can be started a number of ways, the easiest of which is by right-clicking on the Task Bar in Windows 7 and selecting Start Task Manager. Once opened navigate to the "Processes" tab, which shows you all of the underlying programs and background processes that are currently running on your PC. The number of processes is mostly irrelevant as most of them have a fairly small memory and CPU footprint. Sorting by CPU and Memory will show you those applications/processes that are taking up your resources. If you're looking to get a boost right away, ending the process from within the Task Manager will clear up CPU and Memory but it does nothing to prevent those background tasks from starting up again on your next restart.

Cleanup Startup Programs

To prevent programs and processes from starting up every time you restart your PC requires some changes to the System Configuration. Press the Windows Key + R Key to pull up the Run Command window and from there enter "msconfig" and click "OK" to pull up the System Configuration window. From here click on the "Services" Tab to see all of the programs and services that can be set to run when Windows starts. Now if you want to stop every third party application/process from running at start up simply click on the "Hide all Microsoft services" and then click "Disable All", it's as simple as that. If you're like many of us, though, there are programs that you'll want to keep running in the background so it's better to go through each listing and disable manually. Once you have completed a reboot is required for the changes to take effect. In Windows 8/8.1 the startup programs are found as a new tab within the Task Manager window rather than the system configuration as in Windows 7.

Applications to Free Up System Resources for Gaming

If you prefer to leave the startup programs and processes as they are then other options to boost your PCs performance which include the use of third-party applications. Below briefly summarizes some of these applications and what they do:

  • CCleaner - CCleaner is an application that takes the mystery out of registry clean up, allowing users to easily clean up orphaned Windows registry keys & entries leftover from uninstalled applications. It also cleans up many different types of temporary files, memory dumps and more that can all contribute to slowing down a PC.
  • Razer Game Booster - If you don't want to make changes to your startup configuration Game Booster from Razer is the tool for you. It helps you manage your computer's resources, allowing you to configure and optimize your PC settings based on the games you play so they run at optimal performance. It also includes extra features such as a screenshot capture, HDD defrag and frame rates.
  • MSI Afterburner - MSI Afterburner is a graphics card overclocking utility which is completely free to download and run and can be used with any time of graphics card. Overclocking can be a tricky undertaking but Afterburner presents it in a simple and intuitive format.
  • Spybot, Malware Bytes or other Anti-Malware Program - Malware is one of the most common problems in degrading PC performance. Running regular scans using an Anti-Malware application such as Spybot or Malwarebytes will go a long way in keeping your PC humming along.

These are only a handful of the best-known and well-regarded applications that will help boost the performance of your PC both for gaming and overall use. More information on your operating system and hardware other About.com sites including our Windows site and PC Reviews Site

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Defrag your Hard Drive

Windows Disk Defragmenter
Windows Disk Defragmenter.

Note: The below information does not pertain to solid state drives. Disk defragmentation should not be performed on SSDs.

The hard disk drive is another potential aspect of your PC that can cause slowness over time due to capacity and disk fragmentation. In general, when your free hard disk storage space gets to around 90-95% capacity there is the potential for your system to begin to slow down. This is due to virtual memory which is temporary space on an HDD that is allocated to the operating system as "extra" RAM/memory for the CPU to use. While virtual memory from your HDD is much slower than RAM it is sometimes required when running applications that are memory intensive. Performing a general clean up that involves cleaning out temporary internet files, temporary windows files and programs no longer in use is the best way to free up space quickly without having to purchase additional hard drives or cloud storage.

Disk fragmentation happens through the general use of your PC. This includes install/uninstall of applications, saving documents and even surfing the Web. With traditional hard disk drives, data is stored on physical discs that spin, over time data gets scattered across the disk platters which can make for longer disk read times. Defragging your HDD re-organizes the internal data on the disk platters, moving it closer together and thus increasing read times. There are a number of third-party applications such as Defraggler and Auslogics Disk Defrag but the basic Windows disk defragmenter tool is really all you need. To access the Windows Disk Defragmenter, click on the start menu and enter "defrag" in the search bar. From the window that opens you can either analyze or begin the defragging.

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Upgrade Hardware

If all else fails the full proof way of improving your PC's performance while gaming is by upgrading hardware. Apart from the CPU and Motherboard, most pieces of hardware can be swapped out and upgraded to something faster. Hardware upgrades that can boost gaming performance include upgrades to your hard drive, graphics card, and RAM.

Upgrade your Hard Drive to a Solid State Drive

Solid state drives have come down in price considerably over the past couple years making them affordable for more people. For games installed on an SSD will see an immediate boost in startup and load times. The one drawback is that if your OS/Primary drive is a traditional HDD, then you may see some bottleneck with the operating system still.

Upgrade your Graphics Card or Add Multi-Graphics Card Setup

Upgrading your PC's graphics card will help in the rendering and animation of graphics and allow for smooth movements, high frame rate, and high-resolution graphics. If you have a motherboard with multiple PC-Express slots then you can add multiple graphics card using either Nvidia SLI or AMD Crossfire. Adding a second or even third or fourth graphics card will boost performance, the cards must be identical and depending on how old the card is you may get diminishing returns. That is multiple "older" graphics cards may still be slower than a newer single graphics card.

More on Graphics Cards: Dual Graphics Cards

Add or Upgrade RAM

If you have available RAM slots, installing new DIMMS will help eliminate stuttering during gameplay. This occurs when your RAM just meet or are a little below the minimum recommended requirements for RAM since the game and background processes that are required will be competing for the same resources. Increase the speed of your RAM is also another way to boost performance. This can be done by purchasing new, faster RAM or by overclocking. However, one caveat with faster RAM - it is better to have slower RAM than less fast RAM. That is if your games stutter with 4GB of slower RAM they will still stutter with 4GB of faster RAM, so upgrading to 8GB of slower RAM would stop the stuttering.

More on RAM: RAM Buyers Guide

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