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How to optimize your Windows PC for gaming

The very hardest of hard-core gamers buy pricey computers optimized for the games they love, but most of us can't afford that luxury. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy high-quality, resource-intensive games on our workhorses, though.

More than most other consumer applications, games make the most of the latest generation of hardware advances and drive the evolution of faster, smarter silicon. Unfortunately for many of us, that means that some games are either unplayable or less enjoyable on machines that are a little older or a little cheaper than top-of-the-line gaming computers. While there are limits to what we can do short of investing in a gaming computer, it's still possible to tweak ordinary machines to get a little extra juice when we want to play the latest FPS. Here's what you can do: 

  • Buy new parts. The most common gaming problems are caused by sluggish graphics cards, insufficient RAM, and pokey processors. Rather than plunk down a few grand for a new machine, you could instead check out your hardware profile in the Control Panel, compare your specs to your game's recommendations, and upgrade as needed. Changing RAM is easy for most computers, but changing video cards can be tricky for laptop users and changing processors can be a hassle for anyone. Still, this is where you can make a big difference. 
  • Clean up your hard drive. You should be doing this regularly anyway, but this might be the motivation some people need to take it seriously. I use CCleaner to take care of the heavy lifting--it's easy and can take care of most of your problems with a weekly sweep. You should also automate your Windows update and set your machine to defrag and check the hard disks every week or so, though you may need more oomph to play the hottest games. 
  • Overclock. This is pretty advanced--and pretty risky. You can set your video card or main processor to run more quickly, but at a cost of quite a bit of extra heat (which can damage nearby components if left unvented) and a shorter lifespan for the overclocked chip. You are much better off skipping this step unless you either know your way around hardware hacking or you've got a good, trusted, patient friend who knows what he or she is doing. Ask around! 
  • Use Game Booster 3. This free Windows software basically lets you roll back your system to life support only, so more resources can be used by your game. It's easy to install and use--just run it, then tell it to kill unnecessary processes. Even better, you can restore them after you're done gaming and need to get back to work. There are other optimization tools contained in Game Booster 3 (some of them are basically maintenance operations, but they're bundled for ease of use), so explore and see which work best for you. 
    Game Booster 3
    Game Booster 3

It all comes down to how much time and money you're willing to invest to boost performance. For some, it may be worth it to buy a dedicated gaming machine, but for most of us, it makes sense to tweak our systems and accept that there will eventually be some games that are just too much for our old machines. Then it's time to buy a new one and restart the tweaking process.