What’s the ideal resolution for a PC game? Ask most players and they’ll immediately answer, “Whatever your monitor can support.” That’s the obvious solution—after all, it would hardly make sense to render graphics at higher than your equipment can actually output and your eyes can see, right? …Right?
A Quick Primer on Supersampling
Perhaps not. Now that PC game developers have become experts at getting their games to run at 60 frames per second even on middling hardware, and even under-$200 graphics cards are getting ridiculously powerful and efficient, a new technique to make games look better has emerged. It’s called “supersampling,” among other names, and the basic gist is that the game renders its graphics at a resolution above what the monitor can display…then scale it down to your monitor’s native resolution. Various software-only solutions for this have been around for awhile, but now video cards are powerful enough to brute force the technique onto games that don’t natively support it.
The benefit is that you “see” graphics at a much higher level of detail, avoiding some basic pitfalls like aliased polygon edges and lighting artifacts. You’re basically using your GPU’s graphical power to render images at a much higher resolution than your eyes can see on the screen, causing various subtle but pleasing enhancements to the way polygonal edges and lighting effects appear. This can be achieved in other ways with more complex anti-aliasing techniques, but GPUs now have enough juice to dispense with the subtlety and just render things much more sharply behind the scenes. The downside, of course, is that your graphics card has to work harder render super-high-res graphics and then down-sample the image to fit it in your display…which can make the game run below 60 frames per second (or whatever your monitor’s refresh rate is), giving you diminishing returns in terms of visual performance.
Here’s an Overwatch character being rendered with standard, screen-matching resolution on the left and a 200% super sampling technique on the right. Both are displaying at 1080p, the maximum resolution of many standard monitors. But the image on the left is being rendered in the game’s engine at 1080p, while the image on the right is rendering at 4K (3840×2160). Note the smoother, less jagged lines at the edge of rendered objects like Lucio’s goggles and the more even transition of shadows and skin tones. And predictably, I observed a significantly lower framerate while the game ran at 200% of its normal resolution, dropping down into the 40s and 30s during complex battle scenes where previously the game ran at a rock-steady 60fps.
The results of applying super-sampling techniques can vary from system to system, and even game to game. The general consensus among the performance-minded enthusiasts who use the technique is that it’s best for older PC games or low-performance console ports, which don’t usually require the full power of your gaming PC and sometimes lack more complex anti-aliasing options. These games can handle 60 frames per second even when over-rendered. It’s also a great tool for taking artistic or interesting screenshots or recording high-quality video, if you’re into that.
Here’s a pretty good example of the fine detail that can be added by artificially boosting the resolution, in this case via AMD’s proprietary Virtual Super Resolution.
There are two basic ways to achieve this: through your graphics card’s driver program, or through the game itself. Note that only a few games support the latter option at the moment. We recommend trying both if they’re available to you.
Option One: Enable Supersampling via the Graphics Card
This method is going to force Windows itself to render images at greater resolution than would normally be possible.
NVIDIA Graphics Cards
For NVIDIA GPU owners, open the NVIDIA Control Panel, than click on “Adjust desktop size and position.” Make sure that the “Override the scaling mode set by games and programs” option in section 2 is checked.
Now click on “Change resolution” under the “Display” column on the left-hand side. Click “Customize,” then “Create Custom Resolution.”
You want to make a new scaled resolution that’s higher than native, but scales with your monitor’s aspect ratio: 16:9 for most widescreen displays, 16:10 for some rarer “pro” displays, and 4:3 for older LCD and CRT monitors. So for example, if your regular monitor has a 1920×1080 resolution (which is a 16:9 ratio), you can add a new resolution at 2560×1440, or bump it up to a full 4K resolution at 3840×2160—both of which are also 16:9 ratios.
Click “test” to see if your monitor will accept the new resolution—some won’t, just displaying a blank screen or error message. If that’s the case, you’re more or less out of luck, and you need to proceed to the game-specific section below.
If the test is successful, you’ll now have a new resolution option in Windows’ Display Settings (right-click on the desktop, then click “Display Settings). You can simply set the resolution higher before beginning your game and adjust the rendering resolution as necessary. Note that with the NVIDIA Control Panel, it’s possible to add multiple custom resolutions in Windows.
AMD Graphics Cards
AMD’s implementation of these techniques is called “Virtual Super Resolution.” VSR is supported on Radeon HD 7790 GPUs and newer, at various boosted resolutions that shift based on the available power of your card—the Radeon R9 series can handle virtual resolutions of up to 4K.
AMD’s implementation is also a bit more user-friendly than NVIDIA’s: just open the Radeon Settings program, click “Display,” then switch the “Virtual Super Resolution” option to “On.” Games should then be able to be adjusted to resolutions higher than your maximum Windows resolution without affecting the actual system settings.
It’s possible to apply different resolutions and enable them in Windows on non-supported Radeon cards, but it’s much more difficult and time-consuming, requiring edits directly to the Windows registry. Here’s a guide, but please proceed with caution.
Option Two: Enable Supersampling In-Game
Some recent games allow rendering of game elements at higher resolution than native maximum. The exact location of the setting will vary from game to game, but it’s generally in the “Display” or “Graphics” section.
Here it is in Shadow of Mordor:
And Overwatch, under the “Advanced” tab:
And in Batman: Arkham Knight.
Note that in all three examples above, they’re being displayed on my 2560×1440 monitor. If your game refuses to display above your monitor’s maximum resolution (without the more fundamental graphics tweaks in the GPU section above), it doesn’t support this feature.
Image source: AMD