Many gamers refer to any performance problem in an online game as “lag.” But if your computer’s frame rate is low, that isn’t the same thing as lag — lag and low FPS are different problems with different causes.

This article was written because so many gamers call any performance issue “lag.” Understanding what is and isn’t lag will help you identify and fix performance problems when they occur.

Low FPS Is a Computer Problem

Low frames per second (FPS) appear as your entire game behaving slowly. If your frame rate is low enough, playing the game may feel like watching a slideshow as only a few different frames appear on your screen per second. In less extreme cases, the game will feel jerky and slow — just the opposite of smooth.

Frame rate issues aren’t caused by network problems. If you have a low frame rate, that’s not the game experiencing lag — that’s your computer failing to keep up with the game. You may need a faster graphics card, more RAM, or a better CPU. Your hard drive may be too slow, causing the game to slow down as it’s forced to read data from your hard drive. You may have too much junk software running in the background, competing for resources.

In other words, low FPS is a problem with the game’s performance on your computer. It doesn’t have anything to do with your network connection.

Lag Is a Network Problem

Lag isn’t a result of a problem with your computer; it’s a result of a problem with your network. It may be a result of the game’s servers experiencing problems, but it’s also likely that a network problem is occurring somewhere between your computer and the servers. If you’re far away from the game’s servers — perhaps you’re in Europe playing a game on North American servers — your latency (often referred to as your “ping” time) may be high. (Learn more about latency here.)

Lag shows up very differently from low FPS. If your game is lagging heavily, your FPS may still be very high. If you’re playing a multiplayer game, the game may be completely smooth, but other players may be stuck walking in place or teleporting around. When you shoot at someone in an online FPS, you may always miss because your latency is so high that, by the time your shot reaches their place, they’ve long since moved away. Actions you take in an online game may happen noticeably later — latency is the time it takes for your computer to communicate with the server.

Lag often refers to the delay caused by consistently high latency (also referred to as high pings), but you can also experience “lag spikes” where everyone else in the game appears to pause in place, followed by their characters teleporting or racing to new locations as the game receives updates.

To improve lag, try a different server, use Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi, upgrade your networking hardware, or–if you have a particularly slow internet connection–pay for a better package.

Low FPS and Lag are Sometimes Linked

Low FPS and lag sometimes show up at the same time, complicating things.  For example, if you’re playing a massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) and your character is standing in a major city with hundreds of other characters running around on your screen, you may experience both low FPS and lag. The lag occurs because the server is struggling to keep up and slowing down with so much happening in one place at once, while the low FPS is a result of your computer struggling to draw all those characters on your screen at once.

In this case, low FPS and lag have the same cause — more people than the game can handle in one place at the same time — which may confuse some gamers into thinking they’re the same thing. But they’re not — the large number of players is causing both performance problems on your computer (low FPS) and network issues (lag).

Why You Should Care

This isn’t just some abstract argument about kids these days using words wrong. If you understand the difference between lag and low FPS, you can identify problems and have a better shot at fixing them.

If you’re experiencing low FPS, your computer’s hardware just can’t keep up (or you have too much junk software running in the background) and you can fix it by upgrading your computer’s hardware (or reducing the game’s graphical settings).

If you’re experiencing lag, that’s a network problem. You may need to wait for the situation to improve, switch to a closer server, or fix problems on your local network.

In some poorly coded games, it’s possible that network problems could result in low FPS. However, this isn’t generally the case.

Image Credit: Hexidecimal on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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