NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2010
Video & Graphics for Windows 7
By Vinny La Bash,
Regular Columnist, Sarasota PCUG, Florida

labash (at) spcug.org (click to email author)

Engage anti-aliasing. Activate the anisotropic filters. Fire the vertical sync generators. Is that Han Solo shouting orders to Chewbacca in a heroic effort to fend off Darth Vader and his evil galactic empire? No, it’s “geek speak” for language that was never meant to confuse us but often does, and anyone with a personal computer less than a few years old should know what these terms mean. Before we explain, let’s talk about flat panel displays and something called “native resolution.”

Flat panel monitors are far superior to CRT displays. With remarkable color reproduction, incredibly sharp pictures, and prices lower than a snake’s hip pockets, one would be hard pressed to justify a CRT purchase. Even if you wanted a CRT, try finding one in stores these days.

Flat panel displays are designed for a fixed resolution which is commonly called the “native resolution.” For example, a flat panel with a native resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels cannot display any other resolution without degrading image quality. If you force your flat panel to a different resolution, it has to scale the image by a process called interpolation which is the primary cause of lower quality images.

What we’re saying here is don’t try to change the native resolution of your flat panel monitor, and make sure that your video drivers are up-to-date. Let’s now turn to the main topic, getting the best pictures and videos your graphics chips can provide.

Anti-Aliasing: Anti-aliasing is a technique that minimizes visual distortions in curved and diagonal shapes. The amount of distortion varies with the size of the pixels on a display. When anti-aliasing is turned on it reduces the number of stair-stepped jumps from one column of pixels to the next. Most people know this effect as the “jaggies.” The advantage of this technique is that images tend to look more realistic. The downside is that your system will take a performance hit. It’s almost always worth the hit to have anti-aliasing turned on. Some systems will only allow you to turn anti-aliasing on or off. More advanced systems will let you adjust the degree of anti-aliasing. If your system is powerful enough and your graphics controls allow you to adjust the degree of anti-aliasing, crank it up to the max.

Anisotropic Filtering (AF): If anisotropic filtering is turned off, your graphics and video may look as if they are being viewed by someone in need of a cataract operation. The more distant the object, the more blurry it looks. Without getting into technical details, anisotropic filtering makes hair look like hair, fur look like fur, and textured surfaces look the way they do in real life. With anisotropic filtering turned on, these objects are not only recognizable, but crisp and well defined like abs on a body builder. That’s the good news. The better news is that your system suffers very little in terms of performance. Turn it on and keep it on.

Vertical Synchronization (V-Sync): V-Sync prevents a condition called “screen tearing,” where information from two successive video frames is shown as a single image. It shows up most often when the video image moves horizontally such as a camera pan in a move or a side scrolling video game. V-sync works by stopping the video card from putting another image in the display memory until after the monitor has finished its current refresh cycle. For V-sync to work properly it’s important that your display refresh rate be set to manufacturer’s specifications. The downside to V-sync is that it subjects your system to a performance hit, but unless you’re dealing with high end video applications or 3-D games, this should not be a problem for most systems.

Shadow Quality: Shadow quality is a relatively recent addition to graphics capabilities. It’s used mainly in games to make shadows appear realistic to create atmosphere and draw players into the scene. Few things can destroy a mood faster than a distorted shadow in a role playing game. It’s tough to take the game seriously when shadows look cartoonish, or downright wrong.

For the best images, max out your lighting and shadow effects. Scenes come alive and make the game very realistic. It may not always be a good thing when you’re competing in a multi-player match. Turn it off in those situations or your opponents may have better frame rates than you.

Texture Quality: You wouldn’t buy a brand new car and scrape off the paint. It will still be a smooth ride, but the car looks like scrap metal. With texture quality set low or turned off completely, surfaces can lose their detail and appear featureless. Texture detail doesn’t cause your graphics circuitry to hyperventilate so you gain a lot by turning it on. As long as your graphics memory is at least 512MB, you won’t see any noticeable performance degradation by bringing it up to full strength.

Understanding these features will allow you to configure your system for outstanding visuals. As long as you have the latest drivers for your video components and enough video RAM, there is no reason why you shouldn’t reward yourself with the best images your system can produce.

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