Anti-Aliasing: What is it and What is the Best Mode?

Today’s gaming world is riddled with top-notch visuals. All thanks to major titles investing in high-end graphics.

But the question in every gamers mind- should you minimize graphics quality to improve performance or maximize image quality without minding performance?

This is where anti-aliasing comes in. You will want to know which anti-aliasing mode works for you to get the best performance. In other words, you have to play around with the settings to hit the right balance of image quality and gaming performance.

What is Anti-Aliasing?

Anti-aliasing uses different techniques to smooth out jagged lines on your screen. Most PC gamers will have come across the term on the graphics settings menu. You may have even turned it off to make your games less demanding on your PC. That is for those running demanding titles on PCs that can barely handle the extra demand.

But if you are all set with a high-end gaming PC, complete with a 4K monitor, don’t bother with anti-aliasing. Your image performance is already top-notch and you’ll probably never experience jagged lines.

When you see all the jagged edges on your images, that is what we call aliasing. Anti-aliasing comes in to blend the surrounding pixels with that of the edges of the pixels which in turn creates the illusion of smoother edges.

Types of Anti-Aliasing Modes


Anti-aliasing comes in two different groups. There is the group that blurs the rough edges commonly known as post-processing anti-aliasing. And then there’s the second group that uses the sampling method. It increases the sample rate by delivering a higher number of pixels than what the screen requires. It then down-samples to match the pixels to your resolution.

The sampling method is preferred if you want to maintain high image performance without minding high PC performance costs. The post-processing method is great if you can’t sacrifice high frame rates for greatly improved picture quality.

Super Sampling Anti-Aliasing (SSAA)


Also known as Full-Screen Anti-Aliasing (FSAA), this was the earliest form of anti-aliasing. Compared to modern techniques, it is fair to call it a bit rudimentary. This technique divides individual pixels into multiple coverage samples. It then analyzes the surrounding pixels of each of the samples. An average is arrived at which determines the overall color of the original pixels.

However, analyzing a single pixel is demanding in making corrections to an edge. That is why a game has to be rendered at a higher resolution than the screen needs. As such, the technique can acquire more precise color data from each sample. This results in smoother lines and edges.

The downside to this technique is its huge performance cost.

Multi-Sample Anti-Aliasing (MSAA)

This technique is an improvement of the SSAA regarding performance costs. It is the most common mode of anti-aliasing since it smoothens out the edges without heavy computer demands. This technique does not require sampling a single pixel on a large scale. Instead, it samples two or more pixels which are adjacent to each other. It does not render higher resolution than the screen needs and it does not analyze the whole screen.

MSAA deals with only the edges. This way, it does not need lots of computational power. The method is dependent on color manipulation around different geometric shapes to produce smoother edges.

The drawback with MSAA is in the accuracy. Since it does not analyze every pixel equally, the jagged-correction is not as great as with SSAA.

This method, does not, however, affect your frame rates which is why it is quite popular.

Fast-Approximate Anti-Aliasing (FXAA)

This is a technique in the post-processing group. This method is the least demanding on your PC. It is also the most popular of post-processing anti-aliasing. The technique does not require complex calculations on pixels and geometric shapes. It simply applies extensive blurring to overshadow the jagged lines. You get a better image-not best, but with no performance impact.

Getting a blurry image is not on many gamers’ minds. But if you are running an old PC, it is the only choice when you can’t risk impacting gaming performance.

Morphological Anti-Aliasing (MLAA)

This method is AMD’s proprietary Anti-Aliasing technique. MLAA uses sampling and blurring to smooth out edges. Its image quality is more noticeable since it requires a bit of computer horsepower to do it.

MLAA relies on color data to actively look for jagged lines in images. It looks at the differences in performance of the different pixels, and applies the blurring technique where and when it is needed. It does not tax your PC, but can sometimes result in distorted text due to inaccuracies when blending and mixing foreground and background portions.

Another combined anti-aliasing solution is Sub-Pixel Morphological Anti-Aliasing (SMAA). This method strikes the sweet spot between MSAA and FXAA in performance cost and image quality. It does not just apply blurring, but it also aims at smoothing out specific pixels around the edges.

There’s also Conservative Morphological Anti-Aliasing (CMAA). It combines SMAA and FXAA. Its performance cost is in between SMAA and FXAA while its image is smoother than FXAA’s.

Temporal Anti-Aliasing (TXAA)

This is NVIDIA’s Anti-Aliasing mode. The method combines MSAA together with post-processing and filters to deliver smooth edges. TXAA uses samples both outside and inside each pixel. The temporal filters result in higher quality images but require an equally high level of performance from the PC.

With such a high level of graphics improvement, there’s a catch. This technique only works with Nvidia’s GTX-600 Series and Kepler GPU graphics cards.


Good to Know

Depending on your graphics card, you can get excellent imagery using Virtual Super Resolution (VSR) by AMD or Nvidia’s Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR). These techniques target games that don’t support real anti-aliasing.

DSR and VSR allow your GPU to render frames at a resolution that’s higher than your monitor. It then scales back to the monitor’s native resolution resulting in a higher quality image.


Which is the Best Mode for You?

By now, you understand how the different anti-aliasing modes interact with your PC.

The simple way to put it- FXAA works for low-end PCs while MSAA is best for midrange gaming PCs. And if you are running a high-end gaming PC, SSAA is an excellent option for you.

But it’s not that simple.

The type of games you play and your PC setup can quickly change the type of anti-aliasing mode to use. Games before 2014 did well with MSAA but newer games do not see any improvements with this technique. That is why you may need to bring in MLAA for AMD graphics cards and TXAA for Nvidia for newer games.

Conclusion

Anti-aliasing is in your graphics menu settings for a purpose. All that you require is to know your computer set up so that you can balance image quality and gaming performance. Otherwise, you may turn on anti-aliasing and end up with a fried PC or be stuck with poor frame rates.

Bottom line, pick the type of anti-aliasing that fits your needs. 

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