When it comes to PC gaming, frame rates and user experience matter—even the best titles will suffer if their beautifully rendered virtual worlds slow to a crawl. But no matter your particular setup on Windows, you’ll find numerous tweaks that can ensure a smooth, frustration-free ride, and maybe that extra bit of responsiveness you need to succeed.
1. Update your graphics drivers
You won’t want to go into battle, hit the racetrack, or launch into space without having the latest Nvidia or AMD graphics drivers installed on your GPU. It’s one of the most important pre-game checks you can do, and it’s straightforward, too.
You may already have an Nvidia or AMD auto-update tool on your system, and you can check by searching for it from the taskbar. If not, you can download utilities from both Nvidia and AMD that will analyze the hardware on your system and get the right drivers from the web. You can also look for these drivers manually on the Nvidia or AMD websites.
If you’re not sure what graphics card you have installed, search for “device manager” from the taskbar and run the program that appears as the best match. Open the Display adapters list to see your GPU—you can even right-click on the entry and choose Update driver from here if you prefer.
Drivers handle the communications between your graphics hardware and the software on your system (including installed games). The newer and more up-to-date your drivers are, the faster and smoother that communication will be. That applies to OS-level software updates, too—make sure to check if you have any pending via Update & Security in Windows Settings.
2. Check the in-game options
Every game has its own set of configuration options, and it’s worth spending time to familiarize yourself with them, as tempting as it might be to just launch into the action as quickly as possible. These settings can make a significant difference, and it’s worth losing a few pixels overall if it means that the ones left on screen are moving more smoothly.
Obviously we can’t give you instructions for every single game out there, but these settings shouldn’t be too difficult to find—they’re often available on a game’s opening splash screen. On Grand Theft Auto V for PC, for example, choose Settings, then Graphics and Advanced Graphics to configure the screen resolution, maximum refresh rate, shadow quality, and how far into the distance the game renders scenery (all of which will affect how fast or slow the game runs).
3. Check for pre-installed software
If you’ve bought a gaming PC or laptop from a recognized gaming brand—such as Razer, Alienware, Gigabyte, and many others—it may have come with a utility or two for optimizing your gaming experience. We can’t tell you about every software option for every gaming brand, but if you have a look through the installed programs on the Start menu, you should be able to spot any obvious candidates.
To give one example, Gigabyte gaming laptops come with the Aorus Control Center, which provides feedback on current GPU, CPU, and memory load. It also lets you boost the processor and graphics card speed, in return for a higher power draw and louder fan whirring, if you want to squeeze out some extra performance from your system.
If you can’t find any such utility but think one should be there, it’s always worth checking with the manufacturer directly (which usually means reading through the relevant support forums on the web). You may need to manually download the utility if it wasn’t installed when the computer was put together (or if you’ve inadvertently removed the application without realizing what it is).
4. Find your own optimization software
You don’t have to settle for the optimization software package that came with your PC (if there is one), because there are plenty of alternatives available. Razer Cortex is free and one of the best, and you don’t need a Razer machine to use it. It’ll intelligently allocate system resources to your games when they need them, limit non-gaming apps, and generally squeeze as high a frame rate as possible from your hardware setup.
Game Fire is another option that offers a similar array of tweaks and optimizations—shutting down unnecessary background processes, making sure your rig is using RAM efficiently, and watching out for potential slowdowns on your internet connection. It will set you back $18, but there’s a free version with basic functions included so you can decide if you like it (and see if it actually makes a difference) first.
5. Free up some disk space
Games handle huge amounts of data as you roam around the virtual worlds they create, so the more free disk space you can offer them, the better. If storage space is at a premium on your system, you might have already noticed games starting to struggle and slow down as a result.
Making sure there’s plenty of empty space on your hard drive is a boring but effective way of maximizing your chances of having a smooth gaming session. Get rid of games, applications, and files that you’re no longer using and reap the benefits—you can transfer files to the cloud if you need to, and uninstall programs from the Apps section of Windows Settings.
6. Overclock your computer
Overclocking—pushing your system components beyond manufacturer-approved limits—used to be the exclusive domain of gaming enthusiasts, but now just about anyone can give it a try. The software applications are easier to use than ever, though we’d recommend doing some reading around the topic first just to give yourself a grounding. It’s also important to note that overclocking is done at your own risk (you’ll almost certainly void your hardware warranties).
Overclocked components mean faster gameplay, but you’ll need a CPU and/or GPU that’s been built with overclocking in mind. Many now are, but it’s worth double-checking your system specs. If you’ve bought a prebuilt gaming rig designed to be overclocked, you may find it comes with a utility for that very task.
It’s not an exact science, but you basically nudge up the speed of your CPU and/or GPU until you notice bugs and crashes, then dial it back down to a safe level. Apps like Intel Extreme Tuning Utility, AMD Ryzen Master, MSI Afterburner, and Asus GPU Tweak are good ones to start with to see what’s possible on your system.
7. Rely on plug-in power
In an effort to maximize battery life, Windows tends to dial down the performance settings when you’re away from a power socket, so you should always be gaming while plugged in if at all possible. (This only applies to gaming on a laptop, of course.)
To check up on this and other battery and power configuration options and override them if necessary, open the Windows Settings dialog, then choose System > Power & sleep > Additional power settings > Change plan settings > Change advanced power settings. You’ll finally reach a dialog box where you’ll be able to make adjustments to how the system processor and graphics run on battery power.
8. Shut down background processes
When you’re busy gaming, you’ll want as little as possible running in the background, sucking up precious CPU, GPU, and RAM resources, as well as internet bandwidth. Close down non-essential, non-gaming programs from the taskbar by right-clicking on them and choosing Close window from the menu that pops up (if you’ve got any files open and unsaved, you should see a prompt asking if you want to save them).
Plenty of Windows programs like to run in the background just in case you need them—you’ll usually see these down in the notification area or system tray in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. To check what’s running in the background, right-click on a blank area of the taskbar and choose Task Manager, then Processes (if you can’t see the Processes tab, click More details).
Shut down anything on the list that you’re not actually using by selecting it and choosing End task. If you’re not sure what is a specific process, run a quick web search on it—some of them might be necessary for your games and Windows itself. A little bit of trial and error may be required here.
9. Turn off notifications
Getting an email notification halfway through a particularly grueling capture the flag level might not make a huge difference in terms of performance, but it definitely isn’t going to help your concentration. It may also mean the difference between victory and defeat for you or your team.
Manage notifications from the System and Notifications & actions section of Windows Settings, or choose System, then Focus assist to set particular times of the day when notifications aren’t active. You can also mute notifications through the Xbox Game Bar app built into Windows—hit Win+G to bring it up.