Every year, gaming enthusiasts from all over the world look forward to new games. I know I do. Most of these games are presented during the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). There’s no surprise there, since the event features all the upcoming, major titles from some of the biggest video game publishers in the world. For instance, CD Projekt Red – the company behind the Witcher game series – unveiled its newest title, a game that nearly every gamer has been waiting for since its teaser in 2013, Cyberpunk 2077. It looks fantastic and definitely worth the five-year wait, but we all know the question that is on everyone’s mind right now: will it fry my PC? The same goes with other games. Some gamers are already looking forward to experiencing the top-notch visuals that newer – and more demanding games – have to offer.
If you’re one of those gamers who has an older computer set, then you might have already encountered the term ‘anti-aliasing’ (along with V-Sync and ambient occlusion) as you’re adjusting your game’s graphics settings to make it less demanding. Turning it off means your game can run more smoothly because it demands less out of your computer. Most passionate gamers are not too keen on doing this, however, as they want to make sure they take in the absolute best that their games have to offer. However, if by chance you encounter the misfortune of getting a game that’s out of your PC’s league, this might be a necessary step. While this term is no longer a stranger to long-time gamers, some users might need more information to understand what it is and what it really does. Let’s take a look at all the information that you need in order to understand the ins and outs of anti-aliasing.
First, a little bit of background…
Do you still remember Lara Croft’s polygon-like “curves” in the older versions of the Tomb Raider games? Unfortunately, I do. Don’t get us wrong, it’s a classic game, and a lot of newer games now are using pixelated graphics for its nostalgic appeal, but if you compare it to how Lara Croft looks like in the upcoming title, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Video games started out as colorful pixels on-screen and I still enjoyed hours looking for the princess, castle after castle, after all. Well, video game graphics still use pixels now. That’s how images are formed: a series of pixels sitting right next to each other. The difference is that the pixels now are much, much smaller, so they form smoother images.
Since there are pixels present in the game graphics, it’s only given that you’ll still be seeing those jagged edges in the images. This is what you call ‘aliasing’. Using that definition of the word ‘aliasing’, you can probably guess what ‘anti-aliasing’ entails. To put it simply, it’s the near-absence of those jagged edges. This technology blends the edges of the pixels with other surrounding pixels to try to create the illusion of a smoother edge. If you think this task is a piece of cake, you are mistaken. You’re basically telling your computer to go over millions of pixels each frame and make the edges smoother. It will improve your gaming experience, sure, but it will also drag your PC’s performance down. This is why turning off anti-aliasing is one of the go-to solutions to improving a game’s performance.
Most games released in the last 5-10 years don’t look so bad, but you will notice – although it might not be THAT obvious to someone who doesn’t pay that much attention to details – a clear difference to the image quality in-game when you turn anti-aliasing on.
However, it’s still not as simple as that. There are different methods of anti-aliasing that vary based on the amount of computing it needs and how it actually blends the image pixels. Let’s take a look at each of them.
Different Types of Anti-Aliasing
Multisample Anti-aliasing (MSAA)
This type of anti-aliasing method is the most commonly used in this list. This is because it gives the perfect balance between quality and performance. What it basically does is that it takes each pixel and manipulates the edges so that it becomes a color that is somewhere in between the two pixels with different colors. This creates a blending effect that gives the illusion of smoother, curved edges rather than tiny squares. More commonly, you can set it up to 2x, 4x, or 8x sampling. The higher the value, the better your in-game graphics will be. The good thing about using MSAA is that your computer has a bit of breathing room left, especially if you’re not using that much of an advanced equipment, but still provide better image quality. It doesn’t affect your framerates as much as the other methods of anti-aliasing.
Temporal Anti-Aliasing (TXAA)
This type of anti-aliasing utilizes MSAA and combines it with filters that are commonly used in computer-generated images (CGI), the same technology used in blockbuster movies with fancy, mind-blowing effects. It uses samples both inside and outside each pixel. This can make smooth transitions, which can look great in games with moving foliage. It’s the option that gives you the most out of quality. Be wary, though, because it demands a higher level of performance from your computer. Games that were released in 2014 or earlier look great using this anti-aliasing method.
Morphological Anti-Aliasing (MLAA)
This anti-aliasing method, just like the TXAA, is a filtering technique that occurs post-processing. Using color data, it actively looks for the jagged edges in images through the differences among the pixels. Compared to the TXAA method, which prioritizes quality over performance, MLAA is not that taxing on your computer. It is much more efficient at balancing quality and performance as it only uses what is necessary. There’s no more need in sampling areas that it will simply even out in the end. The downside to this method is that it can sometimes be faulty when it comes to blending, mixing up background and foreground portions of the overall image, sometimes resulting in distorted text.
Supersample Anti-Aliasing (SSAA)
This is the oldest, most basic method of anti-aliasing and from which every other method has evolved. It is also the most effective method by far, but be warned. This will take up a lot of memory on your computer, so you better have the right equipment for it. The reason behind that is that it takes each individual pixel and analyzes its color and that of the pixels surrounding it. SSAA works by rendering your game graphics at a higher resolution and then it downsamples – AKA shrinks – the image to adapt to that resolution, hence the image becomes sharper.
Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing (FXAA)
The FXAA method, as you might have guessed from its name alone, is a faster and more demanding technique of anti-aliasing. The great thing about this is that it processes all of the pixels on the screen, smoothing all of their edges. It does more work than MSAA because it doesn’t disregard pixels that resulted from shader effects. You get a pretty obvious decline in the amount of aliasing in your images but it would cost you – a lot. Think along the lines of 10 – 15 % of your framerate, but is it worth it? Yes, it is. However, the processing of the pixels is so inclusive that you might get more edge reduction than is necessary, but the occurrence is so seldom it’s not worth noting.
Which one is the best for you?
Alas, let’s talk about which anti-aliasing method is actually worth your time. Depending on your computer setup and the types of games that you play, the answer may vary. For instance, you’ll still find a lot of games that are more compatible with MSAA since it used to be the choice method for years. However, if you’re going to take a look at much newer games, MSAA just isn’t cutting it anymore. It has become somewhat outdated after the appearance of the newer anti-aliasing techniques.
On the other hand, SSAA is best suited for high-end PCs, like those with multiple, powerful GPUs. You can definitely use it on older games, but honestly, if you’re going to overwork your PC, you might want to save it for when you want to see some stunning, in-game visuals. A word of caution, though, and I cannot emphasize this enough: SSAA is a daunting method of anti-aliasing that can easily cut your PCs performance down by a third of its original value. If you’d like to risk it and play at a framerates in the 30s, then by all means, dig in. You’ve been warned.
So, a middle ground, then. Either TXAA or MLAA – depending on whether you’re using Nvidia or AMD, respectively – can balance out the performance and quality. Both methods are very efficient without it being as archaic as MSAA or as heavy-duty as SSAA. It also doesn’t smooth edges to the point where they end up being too blurry for our taste, which is what the FXAA does.
I still remember the first time I tinkered with a game’s graphics settings and ended up turning anti-aliasing on without knowing what it was. Yup, the game crashed. Well, I eventually got my revenge. I got a better PC setup. (Take that, anti-aliasing!)
Anti-aliasing can sometimes be an intimidating concept to a new gamer. We’ve all been there. It’s important to know that anti-aliasing is there for a purpose: to make our gaming experience better and more immersive. If you know what kind of equipment you’re working with and what kind of performance you want out of your computer, then it would be easier to decide which method is more applicable to your setup.