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How Computers Work: Understanding Your Graphics Card's Display Properties

by: Brian Healy ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

You've got your new graphics card, and you want your games to look their best. How do you get your games looking glorious? This article explains the various display properties of a typical graphics card and how they work.

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    Understand Your Display Settings for Best Results

    A general understanding of the different display properties of your graphics card can help you get the most out of it, whether your primary purpose is for video editing or gaming. Knowing what each of the properties means will allow you to to get the best out of your graphics card, and this article will feature on the terms used to describe the settings associated with most modern games:

    Most modern games and graphics cards can perform additional effects on vertices and pixels in order to render more realistic images. These effects are usually customisable in the sense that the user can determine the level of settings to be used, as these extra effects can often be processor-intensive, causing additional strain and can sometimes adversely affect games performance.

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    How Graphics Cards Work: What Is Anti-Aliasing?

    Anti-aliasing is the process where jagged edges of objects are smoothed so that images appear with less distortion and so look more realistic. Most games, especially first-person shooters, come with customisable levels of anti-aliasing.

    Aliasing is commonly visible when trying to view a high resolution image at a low resolution and is more noticeable on curved or diagonal lines. The effect of aliasing is to resemble a series of steps which appear sharp and jagged. Most graphics cards support a software technology called FSAA (full-screen anti aliasing) which causes the image to appear softer and more realistic by blurring the edges of the jagged line by using colour shades.

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    What Is Anisotropic Filtering?

    Also known as AF, anisotropic filtering is a method of enhancing the surface texture of an object. Where anti-aliasing deals with smoothing the edges of an object, anisotropic filtering deals with what's inside those edges. Anisotropic filtering, like anti-aliasing can have an adverse effect on games performance, even more so when both are used together.

    There are commonly three settings in relation to anisotropic filtering. These are bi-linear, tri-linear and full anisotropic. The anisotropic setting is the most powerful setting, but will also give you a bigger performance hit. Settings for anisotropic filtering range from 2x to 16x; the higher the factor of anisotropic filtering the greater and more clear the detail is across a bigger distance of the on-screen display.

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    What is HDR?

    HDR is also known as High Dynamic Range Lighting and is what allows games to transition easily and realistically from light to dark areas and vice versa. Previously, areas of low light were rendered as black and areas that were excessively light were rendered as white. With HDR, the lighting is more realistic and can show enhanced detail within HDR rendered areas. However as with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, HDR can also deliver a performance hit.

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    What is Texture Mapping?

    This is the process of adding colour, texture and other details to an image. Rather than build an object entirely of polygons, texture mapping wraps an continuous image around an object, so that only those areas that need changed are altered, rather than having to constantly re-render the object.

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    What are Shadow Effects?

    Shadow effects cause objects and characters to cast shadows depending on the light source of the surrounding area. In the case of most games, shadows can be disabled entirely, or you can set the level of detail of a shadow; at the highest level settings, shadows are most commonly crisp and smooth and proportionate in size. They're also likely to move according to the movement of the light source or the player's actions. Lower settings may cause shadows to be more static and not quite as smooth. Again like other factors, high levels of shadow detail can impact on system performance.

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    Can I Use All These Effects?

    Depending on how powerful your PC is, and the graphics card you have installed, it may not be possible to fully utilise all these settings to their maximum. Each feature can have a detrimental effect on system performance, depending on the level of detail you select so its worth playing around with the settings in order to find out which works best, both in terms of display and gameplay.