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What is Frame Rate and Why is it Important to PC Gaming?
November 20, 2018
It’s not uncommon to hear the “techier” types of gamers talk about frame rates, especially when it comes to competitive play. For casual gamers, their PC's frame rate typically isn’t high on their list of priorities if it even makes their list at all. However, when you get to advanced gaming with triple-A (AAA) titles, frame rate plays a critical role in both your competitive and non-competitive experience.
If you’re not sure what frame rate is, why it matters, or how it can affect your gameplay, here’s a guide to help you find the information you’re searching for.
What is frame rate?
Sometimes known as “update rate” or “burst rate,” the frame rate is the frequency in which a consecutive series of frames or images can appear on a display panel. It applies not only to computer graphics in video games but to all motion capture systems including film and video cameras.
This frequency is usually measured by frames per second (fps). For example, at 30 fps, 30 distinct images would appear in succession within one second. If the fps is too low, movement will appear jagged and jerky.
But you can also run into problems if your fps is too high due to synchronization errors, which could overload your monitor and cause it to malfunction.
How a high frame rate impacts video performance and quality
Cameras, whether they’re moving or still, operate under the same principle. A lens opens for a period of time, light is exposed, and an image is captured, thus creating a “frame.”
In the case of moving pictures, film is typically recorded or digitally captured and then converted between 24 to 60 fps for smooth transitions, whereas flipbook animation is usually around 12 fps. When we talk about monitors, we generally use the term hertz (Hz). 1 fps equals 1 Hz.
If you were to do a frame rate comparison between a 60 Hz monitor and a 120 Hz monitor, you may not notice a significant difference, despite one being twice as fast as the other. However, there’d be a significantly noticeable gap in video quality when comparing 24 Hz to a 60 Hz console due to the latency in frame delivery.
Why does frame rate matter?
At a minimum, 24 fps is what you need for distinct frames to appear as one moving image, whether you’re streaming movies or battling online competition. However, the higher you go from this number, the faster and smoother your display quality and viewing experience will be.
If you’re a serious gamer, playing on a quality monitor with an optimized frame rate is an absolute must. Otherwise, your opponent might be able to see more quickly and leave you in the dust, while frustrating glitches and tears could separate the difference between victory and defeat.
With a low frame rate speed, you could end up experiencing choppy video quality or major lag times when live streaming. If your monitor can’t keep up with the video game graphics, it might double or triple certain frames in the video feed, which creates the slow visual effect on your display.
This might not be a big deal to low-key gamers, but if you’re trying to make it to the big leagues, one glitch can send you and your team to the bottom of the ranks. Even in the early days of Unreal Tournament or StarCraft, gamers knew the importance of having a high frame rate.
Split seconds make a world of difference when you turn the corner as a first-person shooter, or when an opponent attacks your stronghold in a real-time strategy game. Being able to process more frames in a shorter amount of time gives you a competitive edge by keeping images sharp and reaction times high.
Target frame rate
The target frame rate for gamers is preferential, since having a steady connection with the graphics card is sometimes more important than having a fast one. PC action games are played best at 60 fps, but otherwise, a frame rate of 30 fps or higher should be fine.
Why? Your frame rate at slow points isn’t as important as when action peaks. If you’re barely getting 30 fps, it could drop much lower when the game gets hectic, severely impacting your performance when you need it most.
The bigger the objects and the less action displayed, the more tolerable a low frame rate will be, such as in games like Far Cry that have a huge map to explore.
Fast-paced, first-person shooter games like Call of Duty need an average of 30 fps or more, but you won’t be able to stand playing FIFA (which covers more pitch and smaller objects) with less than 60 fps.
It’s all about balancing frame rate and graphics quality for the games you like to play. 60 fps will lend you an incredibly smooth gameplay, but a lower frame rate speed will give you better graphics. The choice is yours, but if you’re looking for a stable balance, 45 fps is a good target.
How to perform a frame rate test on your monitor
Now that you understand how frame rate affects gameplay, you might be curious to see at what rate your current system is running. There are various ways to check your frame rate speed to see what performance you’re getting.
Do you love playing games on Steam? The popular platform comes with a frame rate counter overlay in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, allowing you to check your frame rate speed whenever you like (if no games are launched).
Gamers who are playing with NVIDIA® graphics hardware that supports ShadowPlay can also enable an in-game fps counter. To set it up:
Using the NVIDIA GeForce™ Experience
1. Open the app settings
2. Enable “Share” mode
3. Click the “Overlays” button
4. Select the “FPS Counter” tab
You can also choose to have frame rate settings automatically applied to different game profiles for optimized in-game experience without having to tweak the graphics yourself.
Test using VideoLAN
If you’re not a Steam player and want to test your display fps, there are a handful of different programs you can use. VideoLAN is one option. It’s a free, open-source, multi-media player platform compatible with Xbox™ and most media files, including DVDs.
1. Install VideoLAN
2. Go into the Windows™ menu
3. Select “Media Information”
4. Go into the “Codec Details” tab
5. Select the stream or video you want to know more about
6. Once you get here, everything about your various frame rate speeds should be laid out for you to see
How to increase your frame rate
If you run a frame rate test and decide you’d like to increase the speed of your fps for better transitions, there are a few methods you can try to before investing in a computer monitor with a faster Hz:
Drop your resolution display settings to a lower contrast
Change your video playback settings
Update your graphics card drivers with better hardware
Use PC optimization software that changes fps for you
If these tips to boost your fps don’t work, it may be possible to manually change your frame rate yourself by going into your display settings and checking whether anything was potentially altered. When all else fails, it might be time to invest in a higher-quality monitor that can make your favorite games run faster.
Enhancing your gaming experience with improved frame rates
If you really want to advance your gaming to the next level, you might have to upgrade your hardware to get there. If you see no improvement in fps using money-saving strategies, it’s time to jump up to a better monitor or advanced graphics processor that can turn your in-game experience into an immersive reality.
Run some tests, check your settings, tweak where necessary, and if your frame speed is still too low, upgrade to a gaming rig that can provide better performance. When titles and glory are on the line, glitching and lag times are the last thing that should stand in your way.
About the Author: Sean Whaley is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Sean is a content creation specialist based in San Diego, California. He has a wide breadth of knowledge when it comes to computer hardware, programming, and PC gaming.