After spending the past two weeks optimizing WoW performance on three different machines, and seeing ongoing requests on this forum for help, I figured I'd put all of my thoughts in one place.
The "short version" is a summary, with all of the info below. I am sure that there are things I've omitted, and so I will append this post as I get feedback. Feel free to post questions and I will try to answer them.
The Short Version
- RAM is the best upgrade, get 768 Megs or more
- Video cards make a huge difference - make sure you have one!
- In graphics settings, turn off full-screen glow.
- In graphics settings, find a compromise between performance and quality
- Make sure you have nothing running in the background while playing
- Run a spy-ware program at least once a week
- Defrag your hard drive
- Update your drivers
RAM is the single most cost effective upgrade to just about any system. While the "Minimum" requirements stipulate that you need at least 256 Megs, read this line carefully - 256 Megs of RAM is NOT enough! The real minimum for any kind of reasonable playability is 512 megs. I would strongly recommend at least 768 Megs with 1Gig or more being preferable.
RAM upgrades are available for just about any PC, laptops included. RAM is generally inexpensive in comparison to other upgrades. Put simply - RAM upgrades are the best upgrade in terms of performance per dollar.
Video Cards are upgradable on most desktop PCs. If your desktop is running with Intel Extreme Graphics, or any other on-board graphics gard, a cheap video card will make a HUGE difference in terms of Framerate and visual quality.
If you're on a budget, consider the Radeon 9200 128 meg. DO NOT get the "Special Edition" model. It is only a couple dollars cheaper, and is significantly slower. If your system supports PCIeX, the Radeon X300 is comprable.
If you can swing the extra cash, the card I would recommend is the Radeon 9600 (or X600 if you're using PCIeX). The difference is that the 9600/X600 has more 3d technologies and a faster clock speed. You will get shading effects and lighting effects that are not available on lesser cards.
Note (EDIT) - if you prefer GForce nVidia cards, there are equivalents to the cards I mentioned. I personally prefer ATI cards, but if you prefer nVidia cards, they are comprable in price and performance.
Note - you can not upgrade video cards on laptops (there are a few exceptions to this, but unless you have a high end gaming laptop, the video card is a part of the logic board and can not be changed).
Hard Drives are relatively cheap. Storage is not a premium like it used to be. You probably have noticed that when you are near an Auction house, your hard drive does a lot of spinning. If you don't already have one, I'd recommend upgrading to a 7200 RPM SATA unit. 7200 RPM units spin faster, and when the system is trying desperately to load up graphics for 100 players' armor, every bit helps.
The not so cheap upgrade - Le Monitor - If you are using an LCD that is not designed for gaming (less than 500:1 contrast ratio, slower than 16MS response time) you would be AMAZED if you knew what you were missing. This goes beyond improving performance, so I only mention it as a side-note. However, I wish you could see the difference on my two LCDs. My old one is a ViewSonic 15" that refreshes at 25MS and has a 250:1 Contrast Ratio and my new one is a Sasung 710N 17" that refreshes at 12MS and has a 600:1 contrast ratio. The difference is so drastic that even my girlfriend who was SOOO against me buying a new monitor finally understood when she saw the day-and-night difference.
Don't fool yourself
Do you have an AMD 3400+ w/ 4 Gigs of RAM, an nVidia Dual 6800 256 Meg card, a RAID Hard Drive and a couple grand of top-end boards to hold it all together? I thought not.
You have to be honest with yourself. Sure, some systems are up to the challenge of max settings, but most PCs are nowhere close.
So... The best we can do is strike up a compromise between quality and performance. Here is a list of a few of the settings and what I've learned from trial and error (and reading Blizz's Tech Support Forum):
(Note - these settings are accessible within WoW. Hit Esc to bring up the menu, then choose video options)
Full-screen Glow - This feature is only available on certain graphics cards. TURN IT OFF. It makes a slight difference in quality and has a very high cost in terms of system resources. Unless you are dead set on having it on, turn it off!
Terrain Distance - It is recommended that you set this at one notch above minimum. If your system is on the low end, set it to minimum. Setting this hgher than one notch over minimum has a very high cost in terms of performance, and it looks decent at min+1.
Anamorphic Filtering (sp?) - If your card supports this (Radeon 9600+ only I believe) make sure this is NOT set to minimum. It makes everything look much uglier. I personally settled on 2 notches above the minimum, and I used the ATI control panel to set Anamorphic Filtering at 2x. What this filter does is resample all of the graphics to keep them crisp. You can set it as high as 16x, but I found that 2x offered decent performance and quality on my average system. On my top-end system (which isn't really that high end) I settled on 8x, but the difference wasn't drastic.
Vertical Sync - in the options for your video card (Video options => Settings => Advanced) turn off vertical sync. This was actually a tip from Blizzard on the Tech Support forum.
Three easy steps...
1. Make sure nothing is running in the background when you are playing. This includes MSN, AOL, ICQ, File-sharing software, Internet Explorer, etc. etc. It is advised that you run a spy-ware search on your computer. Spybot Search and Destroy is free. If you haven't run a spyware sweep recently, I'd strongly recommend doing it ASAP. You'd be amazed how many grey-area illegal advertisers are wasting your system's resources.
2. Defrag your hard drive. This is something that many people overlook. It typically takes 3-5 hours, so do it while you're out or sleeping. Basically, defragging your hard drive will keep all of the files that WoW needs to access physically together on your hard drive. This means less time seeking, and less "pause" time when you approach a busy area like the Auction House.
3. Upgrade everything to the newest- Make sure you're running the latest version of Windows, and check for the latest graphics drivers for your graphics card from the manufacturer.
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