Thursday, June 11, 2009

a gamer’s guide to pc care: desktop edition

i think it needs more rams A few weeks ago, I had this great idea – I should write a guide for PC gamers, showing them quick and easy ways to improve game performance at little to no cost to them! Little did I know what I was getting myself into – I have a pretty thorough understanding of these strange beasts and the way they work, and I was still surprised by the sheer number of exceptions, caveats and other stumbling blocks that PCs throw in the path of anyone who would dare do work on them. I still think this is a worthwhile endeavor, so I’m going to try, but let’s start things off with an obligatory, scary-sounding disclaimer:

Charge Shot!!! is not responsible for any damage you do to your computer as a result of following the instructions detailed below. We offer no support and no compensation for those who render their PC unusable. We also offer no guarantee that the following directions will work on your PC – this document is intended only as a set of steps which should work on most PCs.

That being said, I am a paid, trained and certified professional, and I definitely know what I’m doing – this is my day job, people, and I’m giving you the best advice I know how. All set? Let’s move on.

This particular post details some software updates that intrepid desktop PC gamers can use to improve their performance. There will be, I think, at least two other posts in this series – one for laptop gamers, and one who would like to shell out cash for hardware upgrades. If you’re interested in any of that stuff, you’d best sit tight, okay?

The first and easiest thing that any gamer can do for their PC is a driver update – for the uninitiated, a driver is a piece of software which tells Windows how to interface with a certain piece of hardware, in this case your graphics card. All devices in your computer have drivers, from the mouse and keyboard to the monitor down to the processor itself, and newer drivers can fix compatibility issues, unlock new features, and even speed games up. Our first task will be identifying your graphics card – we can’t update the driver unless we know what we’re updating.

To find out what you’ve got running in your desktop (if you don’t already know), the easiest thing to do is download a nice little utility from TechPowerUp! called GPU-Z. Download and run this guy, and it will give you all the info there is to know about the card – the only stuff we’ll need for our purposes right now is the manufacturer, and the information in the “Name” field:pay attention to what is circled you guys

So I’ve got an NVIDIA card, and it’s an 8400. Graphics cards typically come in series – for example, the 8400, 8600, and 8800 are all part of NVIDIA’s 8-series, the 9400, 9600 and 9800 are all part of the 9-series, and so on. All the major card manufacturers work in the same way. Most of your graphics cards will either be from NVIDIA, ATI, or Intel, and I’ll tell you how to download and install new software for each of them.

NVIDIA cards

The download page for NVIDIA cards is here, and it’s pretty intuitive. First, your product type: most people will have GeForce cards, though the workstation Quadro cards make it into a fair number of business-oriented PCs. Next, pick the product series I mentioned earlier, whether it be 8-series or 9-series or what have you, making sure you don’t select the notebook version of the chip. Then, select your operating system – the most common will be Windows XP 32-bit and Windows Vista 32-bit, though 64-bit versions of Vista aren’t too exotic. Now, click Search – the correct driver should come up. Check the license agreement box and click Download Now and then wait for the file to download. Once that’s done, skip to the Updating your drivers section to complete the process.

ATI cards

The ATI download page is here, and if anything it’s even more user-friendly than the NVIDIA page. Just select your operating system, your card series (almost universally Radeon) and the card you’ve got – they’re basically listed in chronological order, from top to bottom. You’ll want to download the Catalyst Software Suite, which includes the updated driver we want and ATI’s control panel, which can be used to tweak a lot of advanced settings. Once the file is downloaded, skip to the Updating your drivers section to finish up.

Intel cards

Owners of Intel’s integrated graphics cards… I weep for you, and another post in this series will have an entire section devoted to how you can upgrade that desktop with a more competent graphics solution. In the meantime, their download center is here, and it’s probably the most arcane of the bunch. GPU-Z should still give you the info you need, though – in the navigation bar on the left-hand side of the screen, hover over Graphics, then Desktop Graphics controllers, and then attempt to find the name which most closely matches the one GPU-Z tells you – the G45 chipset or whatever. If you can’t find your exact part listed, click the one that most closely matches what you’ve got and you should be fine. Now, select your operating system, whether that be XP or Vista in their 32 or 64-bit flavors. In the list that appears there should be something that says, approximately, Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator Driver for Windows XP (exe) – make sure that you get the exe version and not the zip version! Click to download, accepting any license agreements. Great, hopefully you’ve made it through Intel’s convoluted joke of a download page, and you’re ready to move on to the Updating your drivers section.

Updating your drivers

Owners of NVIDIA and ATI cards will definitely need to remove the old drivers first to remove the possibility of conflicts between the old and new versions. This is easily accomplished – in Windows XP, go to the Control Panel and select Add or Remove programs. In Windows Vista, go to the Control Panel, select Classic View in the left-hand navigation bar, and then select Programs and Features.

NVIDIA users ought to see an entry titled NVIDIA Drivers which ought to be removed. At this point, if you are given a list of choices, you should bubble in Remove only the following and check NVIDIA Display Driver – the problems which can result from removing anything else are outside the scope of this post. Allow everything to uninstall, and then restart the computer. When it starts back up, don’t be alarmed if your screen doesn’t look right – this will correct itself shortly. Now, find and run that driver file we downloaded from the NVIDIA Web site earlier, accepting all defaults. Once this is done, restart the computer again. Congratulations! You’ve been updated to the latest driver version!

ATI users have it a little easier – in the programs list, there should be an ATI Software Removal Tool, which if removed will take all the drivers and related files with it. Restart the computer, and then run the file we downloaded from the ATI Web site earlier, accepting all defaults. Restart again, and you’ll be updated to the latest version of your graphics driver!

Intel users need to do the same thing, basically – find the entry for the Intel graphics chip in the programs list, remove everything, and restart the computer. Then, run the file you downloaded from the Intel Web site, accepting all defaults, and restart when prompted. Barring any error messages or strange issues, you now have the latest driver version!

We’re done here!

This will get the vast majority of you desktop gamers out there updated with the latest software for your graphics card – you may not see any life-changing performance improvements, but having the latest graphics driver ensures that your hardware is running as well as is possible. Next week, I’ll cover laptops for you gamers on the road, and the week after I will discuss hardware upgrades you can make to get the most out of your computer. If you have any questions or comments, please comment! We’d like these guides to be as useful as possible for all of you, and if they get a strong response we’ll be more inclined to keep them coming. Until next week, happy gaming!