The Windows 10 Creators Update—which you can get manually if it hasn’t rolled out to you yet—brings with it a new “Game Mode” that focuses on improving performance for game applications.
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The gaming press has been talking about Game Mode a lot, but we’ve still heard relatively few details from Microsoft itself—perhaps because the feature isn’t quite the obvious boon to gamers that the name implies. While Game Mode will technically improve the performance of games running in Windows 10, the feature is about consistency and reliability, not necessarily pure performance gains expressible in extra frames-per-second. It’s an important distinction, and one that should temper the excitement of Windows users.
What Game Mode Is
In essence, running a game in Game Mode tells Windows that you’d like to focus on the game in terms of system resources. If you have processor or RAM-intensive programs like Chrome running in the background on the Windows desktop, those applications will be de-prioritized in favor of the game running in the foreground.
According to an interview with Microsoft’s Game Mode program manager Kevin Gammill on Rock Paper Shotgun, Game Mode actually got its start on the Xbox One. The Microsoft-branded game console understandably shares a lot of software DNA with Windows, and it’s also capable of running basic programs in the background, like Pandora, Skype, and Twitter. Part of the Xbox One’s system code forces it to prioritize its resources on an active game over background apps. And that feature made its way to Windows 10.
It makes sense that this feature will be most evident in “Xbox Experience” games—titles that are cross-platform for both the Xbox and the Windows Store and which use Microsoft’s Xbox interface— as opposed to something like Steam or Origin. Game Mode is automatically enabled for some of these Windows Store titles, and gets turned off should you switch to another program with the game running in the background. Game Mode is available on all games (indeed, on all Windows programs) via manual activation.
What Game Mode Isn’t
The new Game Mode option is not a “turbo button” for your Windows games. (And incidentally, neither was the original Turbo Button.) In fact, initial testing of the Game Mode on high-end gaming PCs have shown little in the way of tangible improvements to speed, as tested by PC Gamer. Testing on a system with a dedicated graphics card showed frame rates that were more or less the same with Game Mode on and off. One game even showed a small but consistent dip in performance with Game Mode enabled.
My own informal testing on an i5/GTX 970 desktop showed similar results. A laptop with an i5 processor and Intel 5500 series integrated graphics fared a little better, showing about 10% faster frame rates in some intensive games. But the difference is not enough for my laptop to comfortably run graphics-intensive modern games as if it had a discrete GPU.
Game Mode is designed for stability and smooth playback, not for squeezing every last ounce of power out of your CPU and GPU. Believe it or not, modern game engines are already pretty good in terms of system efficiency. And even though Game Mode will prioritize an active game over background processes, it won’t do so at the expense of the stability of Windows itself. So Game Mode won’t give you 10 extra frames per second on a benchmark, but it might keep a background app from suddenly demanding priority access to your processor and causing a noticeable dip in performance. Those who want to squeeze some extra oomph out of their current setups without spending any extra money might want to look into overclocking, instead.
That being said, Microsoft will continue to tweak Game Mode, as it does with all of Windows, so it’s possible that more impressive performance improvements could be on their way. Just don’t hold your breath.
How to Activate Game Mode Manually
Game Mode should dynamically turn itself on and off for games purchased from the Windows Store. But since the selection of full games on the Store can be charitably described as “awful,” that’s not a big help to the majority of gamers using services like Steam, Origin, or Battle.net. Luckily, it’s easy to activate Game Mode in a standard game.
Once a game is open, press the Windows Game Bar hotkey, which is set to Windows+G by default. You can also press the center Xbox logo button if you’re playing with an official Xbox controller. When the bar appears, click the “Settings” gear icon on the right. If you can’t see it, you may need to set the game to Windowed mode instead of Fullscreen in the graphics options—don’t worry, you can change it back after you’re done.
Next, check the box next to “Use Game Mode for this game.”
And that’s all you have to do. There are no extra options to configure, so you can close out of the Game Bar settings menu and get back to your game. After that, the game should always use Game Mode when it’s running and in the foreground.
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