Now some of you may be scratching heads after reading my analysis on Nvidia’s Geforce GTX Titan, a beast of a card that changes a lot of things in the consumer market, especially for those of you reading this that can’t afford a high-end Tesla card. Part of Nvidia’s reveals about Titan was a new option in the drivers to overclock your monitor, giving you some free refresh rate performance so long as it didn’t spectacularly fail. You may be wondering to yourself, is this new, or exclusive to Titan? No, it’s not. And I can show you how it’s possible, if you follow me after the jump.
First, a disclaimer – by following this guide, you absolve myself and NAG Magazine and Tidemedia of any blame should things somehow go wrong. I’m not saying they will, since a lot of things are much better built these days, but there’s always that tiniest of chances that something will break.
Pretty much most monitors that operate at 60Hz can run at slightly higher frequencies in the 71 – 75Hz range, but its very dependent on the board used, the types of DAC chips on-board and your graphics card. You may have heard of these insanely cheap 27″ monitors that use the same LG IPS panels that Apple orders for their Cinema displays. Many of these monitors, sold under third-party brands like Catleap or Shimian, ship it with the basic essentials and, most of the time, no built-in upscaler, making them particularly good for gaming because there’s a minimal amount of input lag. Some buyers of the Catleap 27″ models have also had some success running them far beyond their rated speeds, in some cases 120Hz or more. But first, a crash course in refresh rates.
In CRT monitors, refreshing the monitor took place in a left-to-right and down fashion, finishing a line of pixels before moving to the next horizontal line. CRT monitors are still sought-after because their refresh rates are tied into their resolution and they suffer next to none of the issues LCDs had at launch. . At 640 x 480, it would have to run at 60Hz minimum. Moving up to 1600 x 1200 requires 85Hz minimum and this was both a higher resolution and refresh rate than contemporary LCD monitors. Adjustable refresh rates only came to CRTs in the late 80’s, with NEC making the first monitor that could support different refresh rates based on the capabilities of your GPU.
That was another pitfall in the past – inter-operability. You couldn’t just buy a GPU with the right connections and simply buy any screen. Your GPU had to support the refresh rate and resolution that your monitor requires, otherwise it’d be scaled down to a very, very small size. We didn’t have overscan options back then, so it was a small minefield buying a PC in those days. Thankfully, those are behind us.
LCDs also have their own inadequacies. Not only is everything produced today, from film to games like The Elderscrolls V: Skyrim, made to work properly at 60Hz, or 60 frames per second, or some other variant of the same standard; mostly everything today is tied to V-Sync because without it there’s screen tearing and graphical corruption. Skyrim in particular actually requires it to be turned on, else it won’t work properly. For most gamers, its a night-and-day experience changing from 60 to 120Hz and that benefit isn’t exclusive to those of us buying expensive monitors – you can try overclock your current one to gain a higher refresh rate.
You start by determining which GPU you’re using. For Nvidia owners, there’s already some options in the “Advanced Options” under “Change Resolution” in the Nvidia control panel that you can use, although the methods remain the same. For AMD Radeon users, you’ll be following the same methods I did below. You start by downloading an application called Custom Resolution Utility (important note: this doesn’t work on Windows XP). Loading up the application, you’re greeted by a landing screen with a myriad of resolution options, none of which you need to be touching right now. All you’re interested in is the “Detailed Resolutions” as that’s where the action happens.
Clicking on “Add” brings up a new screen and there’s a few settings that need to be filled in. For the purposes of this project, you can actually copy the settings I’m using and try entering in either 71.928 or 74.002 in the box for refresh rates. This sets your final speed and automatically adjusts the options for the Pixel rate and the horizontal rate. Its worth noting that this guide won’t work completely for any monitor size because I’ve only got a 1080p monitor here. If you’re looking for other resolution sizes and settings, you’ll have to post your questions to the guy that actually made this little app – ToastyX.
Once you’ve done that, click OK twice and reboot the computer. When you’re next in, you’ll need to right-click the desktop and navigate to your resolution options. Click on “Advanced settings” and the options to configure your monitor show up. Switch to the monitor tab, uncheck the box that hides modes it can’t display and when you click on the scroll-able list your custom refresh rate should be there. Choose it, click “Apply” and let the screen test itself. If it works, you’ll get a clear image. If not, you can wait 15 seconds and it’ll revert to the previously working rate. Repeat the previous process and see what refresh rates do work. With my screen, I’m able to hit 74Hz without changing anything else. Your mileage may vary.
When I did mine, I tested out Portal 2 with V-Sync and it was right on the limit of 74 fps. Subjectively, it felt like a smoother experience as well. With V-Sync disabled and testing Borderlands 2, my average fps before the overclock was 72 and I kept on seeing some occasional tearing – with the slightly higher headroom, I no longer have that issue. And in general, everything just looks and feels a little bit faster. There’s no eyestrain and even my mouse tracks much better now than before. Its only 14Hz extra but gees, what a difference. I can’t imagine what 120Hz must feel like.
Obviously, there are a few pitfalls here. This is dependant on your graphics card and you can’t do this with an Intel on-board chip, at least not to my knowledge. Nvidia cards work with CRU as well, but the final settings still have to be done inside the Desktop Manager, so it’s far easier going there first. You don’t have to worry about as many settings either as the drivers figure out some of the other stuff for you. Some monitors are poorer overclockers than others – Dell and HP are particularly difficult to work with. If you try a refresh rate above 75Hz you’ll need a dual-link DVI cable or HDMI to accommodate the higher signaling frequencies. In fact, DVI connections are recommended, although this can work on VGA as well. This method probably also won’t work on TVs.
Some games won’t work at the higher frequencies either and this mostly applies to console ports. If the game sees that 60Hz is available, it’ll use that occasionally over your custom settings. Again, your mileage my vary, but all my games work perfectly.
At the end of the day, this is free performance and it’s up to you to take the small risk involved in trying it out. What risk, do you ask? Well, you may have a crappy (older) monitor that wasn’t specced properly and the DAC chips don’t scale well, causing them to fail. For the most part this is risk-free, but beware the constant, omnipresent Murphy’s Law. It may be safe, but there’s always a small chance things can go wrong.
But…but… free speed! Those brave souls willing to try this out over the weekend should report back on whether they were successful or not. Enjoy the project!