One of my favorite aspects of PC gaming is the immense customization possible with your games' visual quality and performance. It's not only possible to customize various graphical settings in-game to best suit your level of performance, but driver settings can be adjusted as well to help you optimize your games. And if you're really into getting the most out of your games, you can tweak the configuration files of the game and even download mods to improve performance or add new content.
Most of the time, PC gamers try to strike a balance between visual fidelity and performance; raising one decreases the other. However, one of the easiest ways to get better picture quality out of your PC gaming without any sacrifice in performance is with "triple buffering." It's totally free, and the difference can be dramatic. Let me explain.
Most PC gamers are probably familiar with the concept of vertical synchronization, or v-sync. When you're playing a video game, the game displays frames out of sync with the refresh rate of your monitor, which results in a visual "tearing" effect. This is especially noticeable when there are flashing lights in a game, or when you are turning rapidly. There is a fantastic explanation of this phenomenon at Tweakguides.com.
Fortunately, V-Sync fixes this tearing by synchronizing the monitor with your graphics card. Unfortunately, however, this can often result in a substantial frame rate loss. This is because graphics cards use what is called a "double buffer" At any one time, two frames are present in the card's frame buffer—the image being displayed, and the image being rendered.
V-Sync synchronizes your graphics card with the refresh rate of your monitor. So, for example, all current LCD monitors running through a DVI connection have a maximum refresh rate of 60hz. Since there are two frames in the frame buffer, if the game is unable to produce 60 frames per second, the graphics card must wait the monitor refreshes its image again—exactly 2/60 of a second. The result is that if V-Sync is enabled and you cannot get 60 frames per second at your desired level of graphical fidelity, the frame rate cuts in half to 30. If you cannot generate 30 frames, it will drop to 20, and so forth.
This is where "triple buffering" comes in. Triple buffering generates a third frame in the frame buffer, so there is always a frame ready to be displayed. If you have ever tweaked your driver display settings for your nVidia or ATI card, you have probably noticed the triple buffering option. Unfortunately, for reasons no one seems to be quite sure of, this setting only applies to games rendered in OpenGL. However, aside from Doom 3 and other games using the Doom 3 engine (Prey, Quake IV, etc.), the vast majority of games are rendered using Microsoft's Direct 3D, also known as DirectX. So in order to use triple buffering in Direct 3D games, it's necessary to use a third party program.
That program is called Direct 3D Overrider, and it is available for free as a pack-in with Rivatuner, a free graphics card overclocking and tweaking utility. Simple download Rivatuner, open the folder in the "all programs" list, and click on Direct 3D Overrider. The program opens in the system tray, uses no resources, and allows you to play video games with the best possible image quality. It can be configured to boot on startup, so you never even have to think about it.
There is one minor downside: Triple buffering cannot be used with SLI or Crossfire (dual card) systems. This is because triple buffering doesn't work with the type of rendering used in those setups. Some people have gotten it to work in SLI, however, by forcing "split frame rendering" in the nVidia control panel under "3D settings".
But if you have a single-card system, there's simply no easier way to improve image quality without sacrificing any performance. You can download Rivatuner here: http://www.guru3d.com/index.php?page=rivatuner