All computers eventually start to creak in their old age, but with a few quick tweaks and techniques, you can prolong their life for years – especially if you're willing to lose a bit of modern glitz to play the games that work them the hardest.
Here's our guide to enjoying the best entertainment, without necessarily spending a fortune on new hardware.
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1. Clean your PC
Like all applications, games benefit from a clean system. Before you even think about buying new hardware, do some spring cleaning.
Even Windows 7 benefits from a slash-and-burn reinstall every few months to get rid of the cobwebs, memory-resident apps and other shackles that so easily accumulate over time. If games are running slower than they used to, it's a very good first step to take.
2. Install more memory
Any major component of your PC can be a drag on your system if it isn't powerful enough. Memory is one of the cheapest to upgrade, and the easiest – you simply pop in new sticks and you're done.
If you have 4GB RAM and a 64-bit version of Windows installed, you should be good for anything on the market. If you're not sure what you should buy, you can visit www.crucial.com and run its System Scanner tool. This will tell you both what memory to buy, and how much you need.
3. Change your video card
If you didn't buy a dedicated gaming PC, or your PC is a couple of years old, the graphics card in it is likely to be mediocre to terrible. Any 3D game relies on having a powerful graphics card to crunch the numbers, but buying one isn't necessarily as easy as just plugging one in.
Graphics cards can be incredibly big, and your case needs both the space and the cooling to handle that. They also need to be connected to your PC's power supply, and if that's not powerful enough, the card won't work even after you fit it.
Be sure to check all the specifications before ordering. Given a choice between ATI and Nvidia cards, we currently recommend Nvidia.
4. Update your drivers
It's easy to forget, but the best video card in the world will struggle without the most up-to-date drivers.
If you have trouble with a game, updating the drivers should always be the first step – it'll expect you to have everything ready for it. This can be a pain, but a necessary one.
5. Boost your CPU
If you don't have a decent video card, there's little that any CPU will do for you on its own. However, it still plays a key role in determining how fast your system performs.
Dual-core is fine for the overwhelming majority of modern games, but quad-core is obviously better if you can afford it. You don't realistically need anything more than that at the moment, though.
6. Forget about overclocking
It may sound like heresy, but overclocking your CPU is unlikely to make any real appreciable difference to most games – a difference, yes, but generally one that will be measured in a few extra frames.
If you plan to try it anyway, make sure your cooling can stretch that far. Generally, though, overclocking has become something you do because you enjoy overclocking, and it can safely be avoided if you're not comfortable getting your hands that dirty.
7. Clean up
On the other hand, if you don't mind a little dirt, this is a great time to check the state of your case. If it's full of dust and the airways are blocked, it won't be getting cooled properly, which can seriously affect the performance of your components.
To clean it out, switch the power off and use a can of compressed air to clear away the dust. This is especially important if your PC is on the floor.
8. Consider solid state drives
With all the pieces in place, it's time to look at your hard drive. This is the perfect time to look at a solid state drive for both Windows and your game files. They're smaller than regular drives, but the performance more than makes up for that.
We recommend having two drives, the second one a nice, big, traditional terabyte model to hold things like videos and photos, leaving the main drive entirely for the applications it does so well. You'll want a large one though – modern games are incredibly big, and they're only going to get larger as the graphics improve.
9. Cut back
If your games are still running slowly, it's time to start switching things off . Be aware that when you do this, you're going to notice the effect of it much more.
A lack of something like anti-aliasing is incredibly obvious when you're intentionally staring at a jaggy object. When the bullets are flying, you're unlikely to notice as much. As a case in point, many console games don't bother with it at all.
10. Check your PC's v-sync settings
Now for the mysterious v-sync. This is vertical-synchronisation, and when it's switched off , you can encounter problems if your graphics card is churning out data faster than the monitor can display it.
This gives an effect called 'tearing', which can make it look as though the game is stuttering or lagging when it's actually performing above and beyond. Leave v-sync alone.
11. Turn off filtering
Anisotropic filtering is similar. It looks good, but it's the kind of looking good that you don't really notice in the middle of a game. It does slow down rendering, though. Switch it off for an immediate performance boost.
12. Remove reflections
Real-time reflections are one of the most intensive graphical effects around, but you won't lose much by switching them off. We're all so used to water being just a coloured plane that you're more likely to notice an effective reflection for being good than to chafe at its absence.
13. Tone down shadows
Shadows are a fundamental part of many games' atmospheres, and it's a shame to lose them. Instead, you normally get to tone them down to something easier for the game to render – for instance, switching off soft edges, or replacing the carefully rendered shadow with something simpler, like a blended circle.
14. Turn down your effects
Before you start switching things off, try turning them down. We don't actually recommend losing all anti-aliasing if you can avoid it, but you probably don't need it at 8x power. Try dropping down to just 2x and seeing if that makes any difference.
15. Tinker with your graphics card settings
If the game itself doesn't give you any options that you can tweak to improve its performance, your graphics card might.
The ATI Catalyst Control Center, for instance, offers an option called Overdrive, which lets you do basic graphics card overclocking on the fly, without you having to open up your computer's case.
16. Tweak the resolution
This is the easiest thing to turn down if you need a performance boost, but also one of the most problematic. LCD screens are designed to work with a specific resolution, and setting it lower will make your game smeary. If you do crank it down, don't go too far.
17. Turn it down
Other options vary from game to game, but the standard advice is easy – if it can be lowered, try lowering it.
Games aim for a mid-range system by default. Turning down texture quality is a great way of speeding up games with lots of close-up action.
18. Shut down other apps
Before launching your game, press [CTRL]+[ALT]+[DELETE] to bring up the Task Manager and shut down any memory-hungry applications. Web browsers, mail clients and office apps are a particular drain. Leave your antivirus and firewall applications, though!
19. Software solutions
There's a diverse range of applications out there that claim to be able to speed up your PC, but most of them can safely be ignored. If you have the basics covered, your performance will be fine. If you don't, software tweaks won't make much difference.
20. Check for malware
Malware could be getting in your way, without being as obvious as the viruses of old. You should be running antivirus software, but if nothing else, get something like Windows Security Essentials.
21. Online issues
In online games, the best PC in the world will struggle if it doesn't have a good network connection. If you're wireless, make sure the signal strength is solid, or look into upgrading your router/receiver. If you still have Wireless G (or worse, B), it's time for Wireless N.
22. Wire it up
Look into getting a wired internet connection. Depending on how your house's electricity is wired up, you may be able to use a pair of HomePlugs to create a wired network using the power lines, getting faster performance and removing wireless interference issues.
23. Check your PC's ping
When online, the easiest way to check your performance is to look at your 'ping'. The lower it is, the better. Under 100 is essential for fast action games. If it's higher than that, you need to play on better/closer servers, or check what else you have running.
24. Get a gaming router
Look for a dedicated gaming router, or one capable of prioritising certain types of traffic. This will give the lion's share of the connection to any games, where every packet counts, while letting more laid-back applications do their jobs as well.
25. Choose games carefully
If you can't get games running smoothly, look for titles that are more friendly. Casual games have low system specs and can still look and play well. Check out PopCap's range or the indie Diablo clone Torchlight.