Tweaking Windows for better game performance

Can background tasks bog low-budget gaming systems?

If you’ve ever examined the task list after a Ctrl-Alt-Del command, you’ve probably wondered if all those background processes affect the gaming performance of your system. Even a clean, fresh Windows installation sprouts a lengthy list of apps, tasks, and services that runs dozens of entries long. 

The concept of pruning this process tree to increase performance isn’t new. Utilities claiming to do this have been around so long, the idea has made its way into Windows itself, as outlined in our look at Win 10’s upcoming Game Mode.

Every system has a tide of tasks surging behind the desktop’s placid façade.

While desktop systems don’t yet show much benefit from Game Mode’s beta-version automated task elimination, testing on more limited, netbook-class hardware with hand-tuned task lists yields more noticeable results.

There’s a practicality to this approach. Low-power laptops and tablets have sharp limits on power and performance, so any gains or losses are magnified on these platforms, making the differences easier to see. Also, users with more powerful hardware have more options. Gamers with desktop systems can usually play less demanding games or turn the settings down, but alternatives dwindle for mobile users where the list of games and options to play with starts out short.

Micro machine

Lenovo’s new 11.6” 110S Ideapad netbook proved the perfect partner for this task-trimming test. This tiny, sub-$200, stylish student-class system sports a mere 2GB RAM and a modest dual-core Celeron N3060 that doesn’t even need a cooling fan. The Airmont-based CPU is similar to Intel’s Atom series, and manages Cinebench 15 scores of just 37 single-core and 68 multi-core. Weighing in at one third the performance of a single Kaby Lake core, this processor is a pipsqueak.

Every little bit counts, especially on lesser hardware.

The integrated Intel HD 400 IGP, based on Broadwell’s built-in HD 5300, fares better. Featuring 12 EUs and a 700MHz clockspeed, it supports modern features such as 4K output and H.265 decoding, but is mostly made with office tasks in mind. That doesn’t mean this dog won’t hunt when it comes to gaming, however. Testing yielded several popular 3D titles with near-playable framerates. Can careful cuts to system overhead turn this fashionable, functional featherweight into a contender?

Who goes and who stays

It pays to know a bit about Windows when deciding which apps and services to kill and which to keep running, but common sense and a few tips can take you pretty far. If you’re not sure what a background task is doing, finding out where the executable is stored can explain a lot. To discover the folder where any running program is kept, just right-click on its entry in the Task Manager and select Open File Location from the menu. This will pop up an Explorer window to the right location, which should help.

See what's hogging your resources.

Services are accessible from several built-in Windows utilities and are generally clearly labeled with descriptions of their functions and dependencies, so finding extraneous processes isn’t too hard. Common culprits ready for cutting are Superfetch, Themes, automatic  3rd party software update services, cloud drives, and screen sharing software. 

Services and Start up

While the best interface to learn about the services on your system is Window’s MMC Services console, which is summoned via the command “Services.exe,” another super efficient way to check for extra services is with the System Configuration utility. After a review you’re bound to find services you don’t need and never knew existed. Keep some notes, take screenshots, and prepare a system recovery snapshot before tinkering, so any changes you make can be quickly reversed in case something goes awry.

So many services. Which ones can be disabled?

Type “msconfig.exe” at any command prompt or the Start menu and hit Enter to bring up the System Configuration utility, one of Windows’s handiest tools. Click on the “Services” tab and check “Hide all Microsoft services” for a quick overview of all third-party processes installed on your system. While some of these will be required during gaming or other functions, such as the Steam client service, many will likely not be needed, so it’s the perfect place to start. 

If disabling services via checkboxes in the configuration utility seems risky for your system, you can also just halt (rather than disable) them via Microsoft’s preferred method, the Services console, and they will restart automatically next reboot with no intervention required. 

If you find a service or function built into Windows that you know you won’t be using but it starts with the system anyway, consider uninstalling it rather than disabling it. This can be accomplished via the Programs and Features control panel area, under the “Turn Windows features on or off” option. Note that if a service allows itself to be uninstalled in this fashion, it’s almost certainly not required for general desktop usage.

Kill those useless startup programs.

The Task Manager, accessed via Ctrl-Alt-Del or the “Taskmgr.exe” command, is also handy for system tuning and strip-down. The Startup tab provides a list of programs that run when your computer boots, along with a handy measurement of startup impact, which provides a good idea of how hard each hits the system. Right-clicking allows you to enable or disable each entry, and even look up the executable’s name via internet search if you aren’t sure about its function. Items here tend toward non-essential, but don’t forget to leave gaming-essential software intact or you won’t get far.

The task list itself is next and there’s bound to be a few extra processes running here as well. After the strip down and a reboot, take a look at what’s left running and kill any processes and apps unrelated to OS function or the game you’ll be playing; this should claim whatever overhead remains.

Several resources exist if you want to do some research on background task and services functions in Windows, including Elder Geeks Windows services page, and Black Vipers Windows 10 Service guide. They can help with identification of individual services and offer advice on what to disable and what to keep running.

Testing - OS and apps

A fresh, fully updated Windows 10 install with the typical suite of MS Office, Steam, Avast, Photoshop, Dropbox, Chrome, and the latest drivers were used as a software starting point and installed on the Lenovo’s upgraded, 128GB M.2 SATA drive. 

Since Netbook users are already careful curators of system resources, obvious offending processor parasites and application elephants were skipped from the start. This includes installer add-on toolbars, helper apps, Java, Flash, and the official Acrobat reader program so the results here are conservative. An elderly, unmaintained Windows installation that includes these and other accumulated kruft is bound to produce even greater deltas.

Three games and one synthetic benchmark were run with the system loading all startup apps, background tasks, and services normally, and then run again with the system stripped down to the essentials. Framerates, stuttering, and overall playability were noted for each, where applicable. 

Apps and services were halted or started with a combination of the task manager, system configuration app, and the services manager from the Microsoft management console in an operation limited to less than two minutes of tweaking and a single reboot. 

Normal systems had all desktop applications closed except an explorer window and a single browser tab, to simulate standard usage scenarios. Stripped systems had all startup items such as system tray utilities removed, non-essential services disabled, and most background tasks terminated prior to testing.

Torchlight

Long a favorite with RPG aficionados, Torchlight is easy on system resources and a perfect laptop game. The only title of the three games here able to climb out of low settings, Torchlight runs just south of playable on medium settings at the panel’s native 1366x768 resolution with shadows enabled.

Two scenes were selected for testing, one in town with plenty of people milling around, and one at the entrance to a dungeon. While frame rates stay just above 30 most of the time, there’s a sluggish feeling to motion and insufficient overhead to keep scenes from tanking when enemy mobs grow large. Resting framerates floated in the low 30’s.

Immediate improvements.

Stripping the system down results in a measurable difference of 3-6 fps in both scenes, which works out to an improvement of around 10-20% and boosted the resting framerate to 40. That’s enough to feel while playing, and it translates into smoother movement and fewer problems when the screen fills up with opponents.

Left 4 Dead 2

Valve’s perennially popular zombie shooter is next on the list and a big step up in difficulty for the lilliputian Lenovo. In addition to having Steam running in the background, L4D2’s Source engine is more demanding than Torchlight’s OGRE back-end, and FPS gaming in general likes all the fps it can get. 

Two scenes from Dead Center, one inside a safehouse and another overlooking a street, were used for resting frame rate numbers along with a playthrough of the second level to check for stuttering or other gameplay issues.

Indoor scene fps results for Left 4 Dead 2, stripped system on the right.

Using the standard configuration, the Lenovo manages 30 fps indoors and 25 fps outdoors on low settings using the panel’s native 1366x768 resolution, but skipped frames and pauses are more noticeable here than in the Torchlight tests, rendering the game difficult to enjoy.

Outdoor scene fps results for Left 4 Dead 2, stripped system on the right.

Results were again noticeably higher post system strip-down, and although the measured bump was mostly in the 4-10 fps range, the subjective results were even more pronounced during the level playthrough. While occasional skips remain, the nagging pauses that interfered with aim largely disappear, and the game’s famously fluid and fast paced feel is mostly restored.

DiRT 3 

While DiRT’s engine is known for scaling well, it takes more than turning off all the options to make it playable at this end of the computing spectrum. Averaging 28 fps with minimums dipping to just 21 fps, this game is the most demanding of the three and feels a little too choppy to play properly with standard system overhead at 1366x768. Racing games are better than most at dealing with low framerates, but this much time below 30 fps ruins the rally rush.

Stripped down, the Lenovo’s numbers jump around 10 percent for average framerates but a substantial and more important 20 percent increase for minimums, which are also seen a lot less frequently. This puts the average over the magical 30 fps mark and raises the lowest numbers to almost 26 fps, or just shy of the previous average.

Test results for DiRT 3, stripped system on the right.

That shift is enough to move DiRT back to the playable column, and makes it a sweep in favor of task trimming on low-end systems. All three games showed both measurable and noticeable improvements to performance and gameplay after a quick system strip down. 

Synthetic Showdown

After such decisive results in real-world testing, you might expect 3DMark to show a similar jump, but that wasn’t the case. While Ice Storm Unlimited scores were always higher for unloaded systems, the results were an infinitesimal difference and not visibly perceivable. This was true no matter what settings were applied for 3DMark.

Results for 3DMark’s Ice Storm benchmark were virtually identical. Stripped system results are on the bottom.

There’s a case to be made that synthetic results are less relevant than real-world testing, since you play games and not benchmarks, but there’s valuable data here. The 3DMark results tell us there’s not much of a difference in absolute terms between stripped and standard systems running focused, well-optimized code. This makes sense, since the hardware is the same. 

But if you are running edge-case software, like a game straining to pass 30 fps, the situation is different. Here the extra 5 fps gained in more organic, real-world gaming situations is plenty to make a perceivable difference, especially when those gains are reflected in minimum framerate scores. 

For these users, a quick task termination procedure or a properly tuned Game Mode makes a big difference in gaming satisfaction, and is well worth the effort. However, keep in mind that software tricks like these are just a stop gap to the real solution. So while it’s worth it to tweak in the meantime, don’t ignore the writing on the wall. Upgrade that hardware when you can!