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THE HOW-TO GEEK GUIDE TO MINECRAFT / HOW-TO GEEK SCHOOL

How-To Geek

Lesson 2: Improving Minecraft Performance on Old and New Computers

Minecraft

In our first Minecraft lesson we did the most important thing: setup a Minecraft account, installed Minecraft, and created our first world. If you only read the first lesson in this lengthy series you’ll still be completely ready to play. Today we’re looking at the second most important thing: optimizing Minecraft for the smoothest play experience possible.

Most people are caught off guard by how resource intensive Minecraft is. On the surface it looks so simple: just a sea of low-resolution blocks and what appears to be rather elementary game mechanics. The game is so much more sophisticated than its simple wrapper would suggest.

Beneath the surface there is an enormous amount of activity going on. The CPU and GPU alike are taxed to bring together the Minecraft worlds we enjoy exploring.

The game engine is responsible for rendering everything you see, keeping it all updated, tracking how all the elements interact with each other (like when lava meets water or the player falls off a cliff), rendering the lighting as the day changes into night, spawning and despawning the game’s creatures, and dozens of other little subtle changes. It might look like a simple game compared to super slick modern game with photorealistic graphics but there is a ton going on under the hood.

Whether you have a low-end computer that’s struggling with the game or a high-end computer that provides you with a zippy Minecraft experience, however, there are a variety of tweaks and tricks you should know about to ensure you have a stable and enjoyable time with the game. Let’s look at all the ways you can tweak things to ensure you’re getting the best Frames Per Second (FPS) you can.

Preparing the Computer

While the in-game, tweaks are important, and we’ll get to them in a moment, there are several things you want to do before you even start Minecraft to ensure you’re not inadvertently killing the game’s performance.

Lighten the Load

Unless you’re running a beefy computer, the first thing you should do in your quest to improve Minecraft performance is shut down any application you aren’t using while actually playing, e.g. while you might leave your music app playing in the background, there’s no reason to leave a word processor and a web browser open and sucking up resources.

In addition, if you’re playing on a laptop you should always keep the laptop plugged into the wall while you’re playing Minecraft. Laptops generally throttle GPU and CPU performance while on battery to conserve energy and give you more time between recharges. That’s great when you’re finishing a book report but not so much when you’re gaming.

Update Java

Minecraft runs on Java, so any issues with the general Java installation and version on your computer will bleed through and cause troubles with Minecraft ranging from decreased FPS to outright failure to run.

First, if you’re running a 64-bit computer/operating system (many computers these days are 64-bit) you want to run the 64-bit version of Java. If you’re unsure, check the system settings of your machine.

Windows users can open a command prompt and type in:

wmic os get OSArchitecture

The returned value will indicate if the OS is 32 or 64-bit.

Second, make sure that version is up-to-date. As of the time of this publication, Java 7 is the general release of Java. You can run Java 8 to squeeze out even more performance.

Third, ensure you only have one copy of Java installed. Many Minecraft players report issues when there are multiple copies of Java (older versions alongside newer versions, 32-bit alongside 64-bit, etc.) on their machines.

Update Your GPU Drivers

When you’re just using a computer for web browsing, paying the bills, and other lightweight tasks, it hardly matters if you have updated GPU drivers as any performance enhancements and fixes will likely go unnoticed.

When it comes to a game like Minecraft where you can really make a computer sweat, however, all those little updates in the new driver package can really help. Check the make and model number of your GPU and then visit the manufacturer’s website to see if there are updated drivers available.

Monitor Minecraft with the Debug Menu

The basics in the previous section will ensure you’re not restricting your performance before you even get started. Once you do fire up Minecraft though, the best thing you can do is start monitoring your performance in-game. You don’t have to keep the monitor on all the time, but it’s quite handy for getting a sense of how various performance tweaks and in-game events impact performance.

Launch Minecraft and turn on the debug information by pressing F3 on your keyboard.

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Keeping this text overlay on temporarily while playing can really help diagnose issues with the game. Let’s break down what information you’re getting. The very first line on the top of the left-hand side is the most immediately useful as it shows your game version and in parenthesis, your FPS (Frames Per Second) and number of recent chunk updates.

Remember how we mentioned that Minecraft maps are essentially infinite? While that’s true, no desktop computer will be able to render the entire map at once, so the game relies on “chunks.” Each chunk is 16×16 blocks wide and 256 blocks tall (the height limit of the world). As you move about the game loads additional chunks, one 16x16x256 hunk at a time. Each chunk loads in continuity from the bedrock at the bottom of the world all the way to the sky.

On faster computers this process happens rapidly and you’ll see the world expand quickly in front of you as you fly around. On slower computers, things can grind to a bit of a halt if you’re trying to zoom over the world in Fly Mode. Fortunately, if you’re just moving around on foot then you’ll be moving slowly enough that even less robust computers shouldn’t struggle too much.

So looking at the debug output above, our two most important and immediate readouts are in the first line: FPS and chunk updates. If your FPS dips below 30, the game will appear less smooth than video playback and you will definitely detect a little choppiness here and there. If it dips below 15 or so frames per second, you’ll experience choppiness as you move around. Below 10 frames per second and the game becomes essentially unplayable.

The second piece of the first line, the chunk updates, indicates how many chunks have just updated. If you’ve been sitting idle for a few minutes, this number will be low (and possibly zero). If you’ve just moved quickly around the map using Fly Mode (as we did when the above screenshot was captured) you’ll have a very high update number as your movement has forced the game to load a bunch of new chunks and potentially update chunks you’ve passed over again.

Reading these two numbers together is helpful in determining why your frame rate (the FPS number) is lower. If you’ve just flown over a brand new part of the map, blown something up with a big pile of TNT, or otherwise forced the game to do some serious updating, it wouldn’t be unusual to see your FPS number drop and your chunk update number climb.

If the game has been loaded for some time and you’re not actively moving around (and loading new chunks in the process), your frame rate should climb/stabilize. If your frame rate is still low while you’re idling or barely moving around, it’s possible that your machine doesn’t have the power for a smooth Minecraft experience.

Optimizing via the Video Settings Menu

Before you throw in the towel however, let’s take a look at the things that are in your control (and don’t require you to purchase a new video card). If you’re struggling with low frame rates, hop into the in-game menu, by pressing the “ESC” key while playing, and then navigating to Options -> Video Settings.

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Let’s work our way down the list of settings to highlight which ones you should focus on in your effort to squeeze out better frame rates. We’ve explained all of them, but put the ones relevant to increasing FPS in italics.

Graphics Fancy is more resource intensive; it turns on shadow rendering, dynamic water, volumetric clouds, and transparent leaves, among other things. Switch to “Fast” to disable the effects and increase FPS.
Render Distance How far the Minecraft engine renders the game, in chunks, from the player’s current position. Lowering this number increases FPS.
Smooth Lighting This setting has a very minimal effect on performance; we suggest leaving it on because toggling it to the lower settings is pretty ugly (and you gain very little FPS boost in return).
Max Framerate This section is actually a bit counterintuitive. Your computer cannot display a frame rather higher than the refresh rate of monitor so limiting it to the refresh rate of your monitor (30, 60, or 120hz) is recommended.
3D Anaglyph For use with traditional red-blue 3D glasses.
View Bobbing When on, the players head bobs slightly while walking; when off, the view is stable.
GUI Scale Adjusts the onscreen display (e.g. quick access bar and health/hunger). If you’re playing on a very large monitor and find the GUI to be too small, you can fix it here.
Advanced OpenGL Only works on machines with GPUs that support OpenGL 2.0+; helps increase FPS by only rendering what is visible to the player. There’s no risk in turning it on (if you don’t have the right GPU, nothing will happen).
Clouds Turning the clouds off offers a very minor increase in performance.
Brightness No effect on performance, simply a gamma-style adjustment of in-game light levels.
Particles Turning off particles (e.g. the smoke from torches) offers a very minor increase in performance.
Fullscreen Switching the game to full screen mode can increase performance as more of the GPU is directed explicitly toward the game.
Use Vsync Vsync locks your frame rate to the refresh rate of your monitor. Turn this off if you’re routinely getting less than the refresh rate of your monitor (e.g. your monitor is 60Hz but you usually only get 25FPS) because it can cause lag and a really annoying stuttering of the on-screen image. If you have a powerful computer Vsync is an easy way to frame limit your FPS to the current monitor’s refresh rate.
Mipmap Higher levels offer higher texture smoothing; decreasing Mipmap level can increase performance but at the cost of uglier textures.
Anisotropic Filtering Works with the Mipmap system and restores detailing (especially on surfaces viewed at a distance or at an angle); turning off the AF can increase performance.

 

A note about Vsync before we proceed: if you have a powerful computer it’s useful to turn off Vsync temporarily to assess whether or not your performance tweaks are useful, but you should turn it back on when you’re done. While it might be thrilling to see you can squeeze out 500+ FPS with your brand new GPU, the reality is anything above the refresh rate of your monitor is wasted and just extra stress on your GPU. If your monitor is 75Mhz that means it cannot display more than 75 frames per second and anything above that is effectively useless as your eyes will never see it.

If fiddling with those settings helps a little but not enough, don’t despair. In our upcoming Advanced Minecraft series we’ll show you how to mod the game with performance enhancing mods that can squeeze out 30+ FPS on older hardware.

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Before we leave the debug screen, there’s one other very useful bit of information for a new player tucked away in the debug menu: the second block of data on the screen that starts with “x:” is your coordinate/direction data. X/Z correspond to how far you are away from the center of the world map (think of this as the X/Y coordinates on a typical coordinate graph), the Y value corresponds to your height (1 is the bedrock at the very bottom of the map and 256 is the upper threshold of the buildable space in the game).

Finally, F indicates the direction both in name (e.g. North) and degree (e.g. -155). Using more advanced materials in the game you can build a primitive compass, but it doesn’t come close to providing the kind of precision and usefulness the specific coordinates on the debug screen do.

We recommend making notes using the debug screen coordinates when you find something cool you want to return to or if you’re going to wander far away from your home base so you can find your way back again. In the screenshot above, for example, if we got lost and needed to hike back to our little house we’d need to trek back to coordinates -258.66 x -1949.82 to reach home sweet home.

Next Lesson: Meet the Biomes of Minecraft

Tomorrow’s lesson will be focused on the beautiful geography of Minecraft: for such a simple looking game there are so many sights to see!

Your homework for tonight is to continue exploring your new Minecraft world in Creative Mode to familiarize yourself with the movement commands as well as beginning to explore the wide variety of terrains (and the features therein). Tomorrow we’ll put a name to all the new places you’ve discovered.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 06/10/14