How to Survive as a Gamer on Low-End Hardware

PC gaming is an arena that’s plentiful for the enthusiast, but many modern titles simply won’t be enjoyable if you don’t have at least a modest gaming desktop. In this guide we’ll run over some ways that you can get the most of your old computer or entry-level laptop and perhaps even play some modern titles.

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Close Background Programs

Seriously, this might seem like a cop-out to pop into an article like this, but we can’t stress this enough. Background applications, even web browsers and Spotify make use of GPU accelerated rendering techniques that use up precious resources that aren’t at a premium on older GPUs and integrated chipsets. Closing them will not only free up some video memory, but reduce the strain on your memory controller if you have an integrated graphics card. Applications can and will use bandwidth because they have to read from memory to function, memory which could otherwise be used for rendering graphics.

Aim for Dual-Channel Memory

If you have an entry-level machine or laptop you’re likely not able to spend a huge amount on any upgrades, but before you shell out hard earned cash for video games, at least see if you can add another matching stick of RAM to your PC or laptop. Integrated graphics chipsets rely on shared system memory for graphics, which means that memory throughput – the amount of information your memory can deal with per second, is a really important factor.

Image shows dual channel memory slots on a standard desktop motherboard.
Image shows dual channel memory slots on a standard desktop motherboard.

Modern graphics cards, such as the popular nVidia GTX 970 typically has around 224GB/s of memory bandwidth, but a standard DDR3 single-channel memory configuration would yield typically less than 13GB/s. This is less than 6% of the GTX 970’s memory throughput, which isn’t even shared with the system. Upgrading your laptop or desktop’s memory configuration to add a matching stick of RAM can double your available memory bandwidth up to over 25GB/s, which is a huge increase in performance if you have an integrated graphics chipset.

Settle for Lower Resolutions

Back on to our memory argument once again, higher resolutions increase strain on the memory subsystems. This is why mid-level graphics cards such as the GTX 950 and R9 360 struggle so much at 4K, because even though they are still fairly powerful the 128-bit memory bus they have prohibits them running smoothly at 4K, which can increase memory strain by as much as 500% when compared to 1080p. It goes without saying that gaming at 800×600 may be a good idea on a low end machine, even if it does look a bit blurry. Consoles do this anyway, with the Xbox One struggling to run smoothly at 1080p on many titles for this exact same reason.

Don’t use 16x Anisotropic Filtering or any Anti-Aliasing

On high end machines, these might seem like free bonuses when picking graphics settings. Sure, sometimes they are. But on a low end machine, enabling these settings can cause major havoc and kill framerates as low end machines are almost always bottlenecked by pixel or memory throughput.

Image shows comparison between No AF and 16x AF
Image shows comparison between No AF and 16x AF

Anisotropic filtering is a technique used to make textures on models sharper at extreme viewing angles. The way it does this however is by increasing samples used for textures on models, which can be extremely memory intensive when used towards 8x and 16x modes.

600px-Antialiasing_-_new_example_2
Image shows difference between no AA and 4x AA

Anti-aliasing is a technique used to make the edges of models smoother by rendering the geometry of a model at a much higher resolution, then averaging the pixels at edges to reduce the effect of jagged edges. The problem with anti-aliasing however is that to render complex geometry like this requires yet again more memory throughput, which we likely do not have to spare.

Disable Shadows

Games nowadays make use of complex shadows, where many hundreds of models and even terrain might cast a high resolution shadow on to the environment in real time. These shadows are generally extremely computationally expensive, especially often as they have multiple shaders applied to them to simulate softness and focus. In a low end machine, there is probably not much spare computational resources to calculate this effect and lowering it or disabling all together can free up time for the game to render the geometry, resulting in smoother frame rates.

Image shows soft shadows in a video game.
Image shows soft shadows in a video game.

Buy a GPU

If you have £50 laying around and a desktop computer with a spare PCI-express slot, buying a graphics card could go a long way to help you play modern games. Don’t just pick up any GPU though, we have one particular model in mind. Generally, buying a low-end graphics card is a bad idea, they often do not scale well in terms of price-to-performance and you are usually better off spending a bit more to get one that offers a lot more.

The ASUS nVidia GT 730 with GDDR5 memory.
The ASUS nVidia GT 730 with GDDR5 memory.

Enter the nVidia GT 730.

More specifically, the GDDR5 version of the card. To no end of confusion, nVidia have released many versions of the card, some with 96 older generation graphics cores, some with 384 newer generation Kepler cores with GDDR5 memory. We don’t recommend the DDR3 models, or the older 96 core variants. But the GDDR5 model offers an attractive way to run past the bottlenecks of a slow memory bus and enjoy at least a playable 720p experience without breaking the bank.

There are countless reasons that we recommend this card:

  • It’s cheap, at only £50 including VAT.
  • It has 1-2 GB of faster GDDR5 memory.
  • It has an extremely low power requirement, no PSU upgrade required.
  • It’s a night & day difference compared to typical integrated graphics.
  • It has solid 720p gaming performance.

Of course if you have more cash available then you should definitely step up to a better graphics card, though this isn’t always possible for the laptop gamer. We’d advise buying second-hand graphics cards, but often times the power supply your system comes with may not be adequate to handle an older generation high-end card which could still use lots of power. Plus, they might not have the latest feature support so newer games may simply refuse to run. Be careful when buying second-hand graphics cards as you may still need to upgrade your power supply to handle the load.

Play Older Games

Heroes of Might & Magic III
Heroes of Might & Magic III

Possibly what you might not like to hear, but people still had great fun playing PC games 5 years ago. Try some older titles that your machine might be better equipped to have a stab at, you might just have some fun. Generally, any machine with integrated graphics should be able to play the feature games made some 4-5 years before it, with many casual games such as The Sims and League of Legends running well on old hardware anyway.

Final Words

We hope this information has been useful to you, it can be frustrating trying to game on low end hardware. Gaming on low end devices can be really painful and we want to make sure you squeeze every ounce of power to get the most out of your time when playing games.

If you’re in the UK, and are looking to upgrade your memory or buy a low-end graphics card – we recommend you contact us at enquiries@greymethod.org.uk or message our facebook page. We can provide you with the right memory or graphics upgrade for your circumstances, and we’ll give you a huge discount too if you show us your current setup!

About Matthew Hall 32 Articles
I am a developer and tech enthusiast with over a decade of experience working with a variety software stacks to create everything from websites to video games.

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