How to Get Rid of Lag
Intro & Graphics Lag
You might be playing Black Ops, Bad Company 2 or Team Fortress 2 online; or maybe you're ploughing your way through enemies in Crysis 2, Fallout: New Vegas or GTA IV. It doesn't matter what the game is, or whether you're playing multiplayer or singleplayer - at some point the dreaded word Lag will be used. That one word sums up a world of frustration for PC gamers everywhere. But what exactly causes this periodic lack of responsiveness in a game? Is there any way to get rid of it, or at least reduce it? Let's get to the bottom of this annoying phenomenon.
One Word, Many Causes
Right off the bat, the word "lag" itself is a problem. Why? Because it's a general term and not particularly descriptive. Sure, we all know that lag refers to some kind of slowdown or reduced responsiveness during a game, but we need to get more specific. There are multiple causes of lag, so let's cover the symptoms and solutions for each one of them.
The granddaddy of all lag, this is the result of a general slowdown in graphics, and is a common occurrence for any gamer. Basically, your system just can't produce enough Frames Per Second (FPS) to make everything feel nice and smooth. Anytime graphics lag happens, you'll typically get a reduction in the responsiveness of your controls. Your actions take a fraction longer to be reflected in the graphics on-screen because it takes your system a bit more time to create each new frame of graphics and send it to your monitor.
This sudden drop in FPS is guaranteed to cause some lag
Example: You've just turned the corner into a courtyard where several guys are firing away, maybe a smoke grenade is going off nearby, and there's an explosion or two for good measure. Frustratingly, you get plugged before your character can react in time. You know you haven't gone soft, it's that damn lag!
Solution: But how can you be sure that it's graphics lag that's causing your problem? Get scientific and use the free FRAPS utility to measure your actual framerate. Launch FRAPS before starting up your game, and look at the FPS figure it provides when you're in the game. Any time that little yellow counter drops below around 25-30 FPS or so, especially in fast-paced games, you're going to feel some amount of graphics lag. If it drops below around 15-20 FPS then you'll really feel it. If you're getting serious framerate dips, then there are only two solutions.
The first is to customize your game's graphics settings and optimize Windows so that you consistently get higher FPS. Here's what you need to do just that:
Optimal Playable Settings:
Windows Optimization Guide:
Certain game settings affect performance more than others. Settings like antialiasing and ambient occlusion for example can reduce your framerate significantly. If your framerate is choppy, try turning them off. If you are heavily pressed for performance, reduce the graphics resolution.
Pay particular attention to raising your minimum FPS. There's no point running around with 100 FPS most of the time if your framerate crashes down to the low teens during heavy combat.
The second is tougher on the wallet, but at some point you'll realize that no amount of optimization can help you if your system just isn't up to the task; you need to upgrade your hardware. For graphics lag, the most important update is a new and more powerful graphics card. Check the performance charts in the Optimal Playable Settings and Game Guides links above to get an indication of what type of card will give you the FPS you're after at particular settings in different games.
OK, so you think you're getting enough frames to remove graphics lag from your list of culprits. How come things still aren't smooth? Enter Stutter Lag, which occurs during periods where the game appears to stutter or momentarily freeze. To understand this problem, you need to picture the chain of events which lead to the game image appearing on your screen, as detailed here. Basically, all game data has to first load up from your drive before your CPU and graphics card (GPU) can do anything with it. At various points that data is held in temporary storage areas such as your system memory (RAM) or video memory (VRAM) to help your CPU or GPU access it more quickly when it's needed. You can see that there are several areas which could be to blame for game data not flowing smoothly through your system. When that data hits points where game information is not being transferred fast enough, you get stuttering and momentary freezes.
Stuttering can even make cruising the boulevard a chore
Example: You're wandering through a wide open game world, enjoying the sights and sounds. You really feel immersed in the game. But every few yards you get these annoying small pauses which really break the atmosphere. It gets worse whenever you enter new areas, or at the start of some combat, or if you turn around very quickly, and you wish it'd just go away.
Solution: The first step is to optimize your Windows settings so that your system operates as efficiently as possible. It's all detailed in the Windows Optimization Guide as mentioned earlier. This is critical, because even the best hardware will stutter if your Windows and BIOS settings aren't right, if you don't correctly strip back unnecessary background programs and services, and don't maintain your system properly.
The next step is to lower particular game settings which are notorious for increasing stuttering. Texture-related settings are known to cause stutter lag if set too high for your system to cope with. Textures are everywhere in a game, and the more detailed they are, the larger the amount of data that has to be transferred back and forward on your system, and the more hitching and stuttering you're likely to get. So lower textures before lowering other settings if you want to reduce stutter, especially if you have a graphics card with a low amount of video RAM.
One trick which helps reduce stutter lag during online games, where one badly-timed stutter can lead to an early death, is to go to spectator mode when first entering the game, and spectate for a minute or two. Switch through various players if possible to allow as much of the different types of game data to preload before joining in the match.
When all else fails, you'll need to upgrade your hardware. Nobody said being a PC gamer would be cheap. But where do you begin to even consider which piece of hardware to upgrade? The quickest method if you're running Windows Vista or Windows 7 is to look at your Windows Experience Index (WEI), found under the Performance Information and Tools component of the Windows Control Panel. Check to see which component has the lowest score, because despite what you may hear, the WEI is actually a reasonable indication of your system's weakest point. That's why your overall WEI Base Score is always equal to your lowest component score, not an average of all your scores.
Any stuttering on this system is likely due to the Primary Hard Disk
Consider these tips:
- Drive: If you have an older hard disk drive (HDD), then this will definitely contribute to stutter lag. Upgrade to a new and faster model, as HDDs are cheap these days. If you have the dollars to spare, then splash out and buy a Solid State Drive (SSD) instead. With no moving parts and blazingly fast random access times, SSDs can noticeably reduce stuttering in all games.
- RAM: Relatively cheap and easy to upgrade, increasing your system RAM doesn't result in more FPS, but it almost always results in smoother gameplay, since more data can be held in RAM, and RAM is faster to access than any drive. I recommend 4GB or more if you play recent games.
- GPU: If you like your eye candy, you need a GPU with a decent amount of Video RAM. High quality textures and settings like Anti-aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering eat up a lot of memory, especially at higher resolutions. The more VRAM you have, the more game data can be held there, and the less need there will be for your system to constantly swap out this data from VRAM.
One dead giveaway that you have hardware-based stutter lag is your drive light: if it's on or constantly flickering whenever you experience stuttering, your system is struggling to load/swap data fast enough to keep things smooth.
Sometimes, even the smoothest FPS without a hint of stutter in a game still feels odd. Controlling your character on screen doesn't feel sharp and snappy, even after you've adjusted the mouse sensitivity setting. This Control Lag can affect all inputs to the game, though it's usually the laggy mouse that gives it away.
Quick hotshot, take out that guy to your left!
Example: You're rushing forward when you notice a guy sneaking to your left, raising his gun up to take you out. You whip around and fire off a shot, but it feels like you're dragging your mouse through glue, and you miss the target - just as he scores a direct hit on you.
Solution: If you're absolutely sure that it's not graphics lag, and you don't notice any stuttering, then there are three key things you can do.
First make sure your device drivers are all up to date and configured correctly. While most devices work in Windows without the need for third party drivers, without the right driver some input devices may not function properly in games. Check your manufacturer's website or check Windows Update for the latest drivers for each input device.
Second, several control-related game settings can cause input lag even on the fastest of systems. The two most common settings which can noticeably affect how responsive your mouse movements feel are Mouse Smoothing and Mouse Acceleration. Mouse smoothing attempts to average out your movements so there are no noticeable jumps in the movement of your cursor/crosshair as you move your mouse. The problem is that this also results in a laggy and less precise feel, especially when trying to aim quickly at a target, so disable it. Mouse acceleration affects how far your cursor/crosshair moves depending on how quickly you move your mouse. Faster movements lead to larger changes in the cursor/crosshair's position, while slow movements lead to smaller and more precise shifts. This can be useful on the Windows Desktop, but in most games it can make it difficult to consistently hit a target under various circumstances because of its unpredictable effect on your aim, so it's also best disabled. Check the game guides linked further above for more details.
One last setting which is a very common cause of both graphics lag and control lag is Vertical Sync (VSync). When VSync is enabled, because of the way it works, it not only has the potential to reduce your FPS by up to 50% or more, it also frequently introduces control lag. Disabling VSync is the quickest and easiest way to both reduce graphics lag and control lag. If you find the 'screen tearing' which occurs when VSync is disabled annoying, then you can enable VSync and also enable Triple Buffering to counter most of its negative effects.
It's interesting to note that Lag was a term originally used only in multiplayer games. This is because when you're playing an online-based game, some level of lag (delay) is inevitable. All your actions need to be sent to a central server for the other players to see what you're doing on their screens. At the same time, the server constantly has to send data on the other players' actions to your computer. There is an unavoidable delay between when the data is sent, and when it is received by either party, which was nicely covered by the term lag. We can call it Ping Lag now to be more specific.
With slight bullet drop and no ping lag, this should be a headshot.
Example 1: You've got the enemy in your sniper sights and as he runs across your screen you squeeze the trigger when you're absolutely certain that his head is square in the middle of your crosshairs. But in the game he continues running along, unhurt and now aware that there's a sniper lining him up for a kill. You scream obscenities into your microphone and accuse the other player of hacking!
Example 2: This time you're the one in the sniper's sights, and you're out in the open. His first shot misses you, and you just manage to get behind a wall - when somehow you still wind up getting killed by the sniper. "Dammit!" you say to yourself, "This guy is definitely hacking... how can he shoot me through a solid brick wall?"
Solution: Nine times out of ten, the other person isn't hacking. It's just ping lag. This form of lag is unique only to multiplayer online games, and again, has to do with small delays in data transmission. These delays are measured by your Ping, which is the time taken for a round trip of data from your machine, to the server, and back again, in milliseconds (1,000 milliseconds = 1 second).
There's no way to completely remove ping lag, because data can't be instantaneously transferred between everyone playing on a remote server. However most online games attempt to cover up ping lag by using some sort of lag compensation so that things don't look or feel laggy on the screen. You can't really change how a particular game deals with ping lag as that's coded into the engine, but you can reduce the frustration of constantly missing what looks like a sure shot, or being hit when you think you've moved out of the way, by making sure you join a server where your ping is low. This means finding a server which is located physically close to you, preferably in the same country, or even the same city if possible. The closer the server, the lower your ping is likely to be. A ping of 100 or less is good enough to give you lag-free gaming and help lower your blood pressure.
Your Ping is usually on the scoreboard
To find out your ping on a server, check for a Ping column in the game's server browser, or on the scoreboard. Some games don't show an actual ping figure, they may have a meter or a warning, perhaps with a particular color, where green typically stands for a good (low) ping and red stands for a bad (high) ping. Remember, ping lag isn't really about how fast your connection is. As long as you have a broadband connection, you should be able to play most online games without ping lag if you join a server with a lower ping.
Unrelated to ping lag, but equally as annoying is Packet Loss. This phenomenon is actually a connection-related problem, because some of the packets of data travelling between you and the server are being dropped somewhere along the line. This means some of your actions won't be reflected in the game, and often you will see a rubber-band or warping effect, and things will become jerky and unpredictable. The only thing you can do at your end is to make sure you disable any background programs which are using your Internet connection at the same time. This includes any file downloading/sharing, messaging or similar programs - they can result in both ping lag and packet loss during online games. If you check with others on the server and they're also experiencing the same problem, the server is to blame and you may need to find another server or wait it out.
Lag free, charged up and ready to rock
Try as you might, some form of lag is always going to occur in PC gaming. Unless you have a megabuck machine and a perfect connection to the best game servers available, one or more of the forms of lag above will hit you from time to time. The trick is to understand what's causing your particular flavor of lag, and put the right solution into effect.
So the next time the cry "Lag!!!" goes up while you're playing a game, just remember that such a simple word has a whole bunch of complex causes. And remember, lag is also the perfect excuse if your aim is off ;)