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Low And High Settings, Defined

Tom's Hardware Charts: 2009 Mainstream Graphics Update
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We divide graphics cards into two quality categories: High and Low Settings (highest and lowest graphics quality). Cards fall into one or the other of these categories depending on their overall performance characteristics. This new breakdown improves the comparability of graphics chips by design. The High Settings category is for powerful graphics chipsets. Because these are always improving and getting faster, everything remains open to new challengers at the top of our rankings.

More mainstream cards suffer when graphics sliders or resolutions are set too high in games, as these offers are quickly overwhelmed, resulting in unplayable frame rates. Because it’s simply impractical to play games at the demanding settings we use on the faster boards, we extended our charts to include lower resolutions and lower graphics quality (in the Low Settings category).

By and large, older graphics chipsets fall into the low-end category (for instance, the GeForce 7-, Radeon X1000-, or HD 2000-series cards). They typically don’t support DirectX 10 and may not work at all or be too painfully slow to use with high settings. Model numbers for graphics cards are often helpful when assigning them to a category. Anything with a number less than x600 (for example, GeForce 8400 GS, GeForce 9500 GT, Radeon HD 4550, or Radeon HD 4350) won’t perform well enough to support higher graphics quality and larger resolutions.

High Settings usually offer the upper range of graphics quality that a game supports. We ran our tests for these charts with 4x anti-aliasing (AA) and 8x anisotropic filtering (AF). If a game permitted it, we used 8x AA and 16x AF. These settings target ever-higher graphics performance, which keeps increasing over time thanks to faster GPUs, plus SLI and CrossFire configurations. That’s why our scale remains “open at the top.”

By contrast, our Low Settings category targets weaker graphics boards. Graphics quality settings will be set at or near their lowest levels, and we use the DirectX 9 API as a baseline. That’s about as low as gaming graphics can go. For some time now, modern games have accommodated lower-end cards, so that even slow graphics cards produced reasonable frame rates. Those who want higher performance must reduce display resolution or tweak graphics driver settings. Our highest level of testing here is 4x AA and 8x AF. We also tested with AA and AF turned off.

High Settings
Low Settings

Fallout 3

  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 No AA and AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 4x AA 8x AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 8x AA 15x AF Very High Quality

Far Cry 2

  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 No AA and AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 4x AA 8x AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 8x AA 16x AF Very High Quality

F.E.A.R. 2

  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Maximum Quality
  • 1920x1200 No AA and AF Maximum Quality
  • 1920x1200 4x AA 8x AF Maximum Quality

Left 4 Dead

  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 No AA and AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 4x AA 8x AF Very High Quality
  • 1920x1200 8x AA 16x AF Very High Quality

The Last Remnant

  • 1680x1050 No AA 4x AF High Quality
  • 1920x1200 No AA 4x AF High Quality

Tom Clancy’s EndWar

  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF High Quality
  • 1920x1200 No AA and AF High Quality
  • 1920x1200 4x AA 8x AF High Quality

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X

  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF High Quality
  • 1920x1200 No AA and AF High Quality
  • 1920x1200 4x AA 8x AF High Quality

3DMark06

  • 1280x1024 SM2 Score
  • 1280x1024 SM3 Score
  • 1280x1024 Score

Cumulative Frame Rate High Settings

  • All Frames

1680x1050 4x AA High Settings

  • All Frames

1920x1200 No AA High Settings

  • All Frames

1920x1200 4x AA High Settings

  • All Frames

1920x1200 8x AA High Settings

  • All Frames

Fallout 3

  • 1280x1024 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1280x1024 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality

Far Cry 2

  • 1280x1024 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1280x1024 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality

F.E.A.R. 2

  • 1280x1024 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1280x1024 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality

Left 4 Dead

  • 1280x1024 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1280x1024 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality

The Last Remnant

  • 1280x1024 No AA 4x AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 No AA 4x AF Low Quality

Tom Clancy’s EndWar

  • 1280x1024 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1280x1024 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X

  • 1280x1024 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1280x1024 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 No AA and AF Low Quality
  • 1680x1050 4x AA 8x AF Low Quality

3DMark06

  • 1280x1024 SM2 Score
  • 1280x1024 SM3 Score
  • 1280x1024 Score

Cumulative Frame Rate Low Settings

  • All Frames

1280x1024 No AA Low Settings

  • All Frames

1280x1024 4x AA Low Settings

  • All Frames

1680x1050 No AA Low Settings

  • All Frames

1680x1050 4x AA Low Settings

  • All  Frames

Notes about CPU performance: CPUs nearly always slow high-end graphics cards down. The lower the display resolution and the lower the graphics quality, the more impact a CPU has on maximum frame rates. To minimize this effect, an overclocked CPU, a high resolution, or very high graphics quality settings make good sense. For cards in our High Settings tests, the lowest resolution was 1680x1050 with AA turned on. This means that graphics cards must perform well just to work okay. At a 1920x1200 resolution with AA disabled, games with DirectX 9 graphics engines will be more limited by CPU performance rather than actual graphics performance.

For the Low Settings category, an overclocked CPU is a must-have because lower graphics quality and resolution don’t do much for better graphics chipsets, and maximum frame rates are therefore highly dependent on CPU performance. In any case, this kind of test only makes sense for those who seek to measure unadulterated graphics card performance. In practice this is illogical, because nobody’s going to equip an overclocked $1,000 PC with a $50 graphics card to play 3D games.

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