Anti-aliasing is the hidden backbone behind how your games look. It serves a simple purpose – repairing jagged edges that appear in games – but the details are complicated. We’re here to demystify the anti-aliasing options you see in games so you can get the image quality and performance your gaming PC Needs.
Among all graphics settings you need to change in PC games, anti-aliasing is one of the most important. It can hurt your performance or make your game look terrible if not properly exploited. But with a few tips on what anti-aliasing settings to use, you can optimize any game in seconds.
Before answering what anti-aliasing is, we need to talk about what aliasing is. Aliasing occurs when a curved line is drawn across square pixels. It is a byproduct of how computer graphics are rendered, as a pixel can only display one color at a time. Antialiasing attempts to smooth aliasing.
You’ll mostly find it in games and photo editing apps. You can see an example of aliasing in Destiny 2 below. The railing spans multiple square pixels, creating a jagged line where one pixel ends and the next begins.
The idea of anti-aliasing is to remove or smooth out those jagged edges. There is a wide range of techniques to achieve this. You probably interact with some form of antialiasing on a daily basis, even if you’re not playing games or editing photos. Your browser, for example, uses anti-aliasing for text.
While there are several different techniques for anti-aliasing, they boil down to two main approaches. The first is oversampling. In these cases, the anti-aliasing technique enlarges the image to a higher resolution and uses this extra detail to smooth out any rough edges in the final image.
The second is to guess – really. Instead of rendering the image at a higher resolution, some antialiasing techniques use an algorithm to look at nearby pixels and guess where the extra detail should go.
This is not an exhaustive list of anti-aliasing techniques. Many techniques are combinations or slight variations of other techniques. We focus on the types of anti-aliasing you’ll actually find in games today.
Supersample Antialiasing (SSAA)
Supersample Anti-Aliasing, or SSAA, is the most basic form of anti-aliasing. It works by taking a higher resolution image and downsampling the pixels to match the native resolution. The end result avoids jagged edges by averaging the colors near the edges.
In SSAA 4x, one pixel is expanded to four. A sample is taken from each, then the four pixels are downsampled to a single pixel that averages the color. SSAA still produces the best anti-aliasing results, but it’s also the most demanding, as it essentially renders the image at a higher resolution. Due to its performance tax, SSAA is not an option in most modern PC games.
Multi-Sample Antialiasing (MSAA)
Multi-sample anti-aliasing, or MSAA, is a less expensive form of SSAA. Instead of going through the tedious process of sampling every pixel, MSAA only comes into play where aliasing could become a problem (a benefit), which saves a lot of computing resources.
In a scene, there are often adjacent pixels that have exactly the same color. These don’t need to go through the supersampling process, which is the idea behind MSAA. Although much less demanding than the SSAA, the MSAA still strains your hardware.
Fast Approximate Antialiasing (FXAA)
Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing, or FXAA, is a post-process form of anti-aliasing. This means that instead of fiddling with rendering, it’s an algorithm that steps in after the fact to clean up jagged edges. This makes it much less demanding than MSAA and SSAA, but at the cost of image quality.
FXAA uses a high contrast filter to find the edges before sampling those edges and blending them. It doesn’t average single colors like SSAA and MSAA, so it tends to look fuzzier around the edges.
Temporal anti-aliasing (TAA)
TAA, or Temporal Anti-Aliasing, is similar to FXAA. It is a form of post-processing anti-aliasing that samples every pixel in an image. However, it samples a different location in each frame and uses past frames to blend the samples.
It is temporal, or time-based. Antialiasing happens by blending past and current pixels, which cleans up many of the blurry edges caused by FXAA. TAA does come with its own issues though, such as ghosting where a previous sample is transferred to a new frame, creating a blurry effect.
TAA is the backbone of Nvidia Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS)and that’s one of the main reasons AMD’s FidelityFX Temporal Super Resolution (TSR) and Super Resolution 2.0 (FSR) are capable of producing such quality results.
Subpixel Morphological Antialiasing (SMAA)
Subpixel Morphological Antialiasing, or SMAA, is very similar to FXAA. It uses edge detection and blurs pixels around hard edges. The main difference is that SMAA draws a bit more from your GPU to take multiple samples along these edges.
For this reason, SMAA tends to provide better image quality than FXAA while not requiring as much power as MSAA or SSAA. However, it has fallen out of favor in recent years as TAA achieves a similar balance with better results.
You can adjust anti-aliasing settings in the graphics settings of most games. You will see it either listed as just anti-aliasing, or as a type of anti-aliasing (FXAA, MSAA, etc.) The settings usually speak for themselves, apart from the postman. Some techniques, like MSAA, come with a number that marks the quality of the anti-aliasing (MSAA 4x is better than MSAA 2x, for example).
If you want to configure anti-aliasing universally, you can do so through your graphics card software. For Nvidia, open the Nvidia Control Panel and access Manage 3D settings. By default, the Antialiasing mode the setting is set to App controlled. You have three options:
- Disabled: Disables anti-aliasing in games by default.
- Enhance Application Setting: Allows you to enable additional anti-aliasing beyond what a game provides (useful in titles with an anti-aliasing toggle).
- Override any application setting: Allows you to set your own anti-aliasing based on the factor Antialiasing setting section.
Additionally, you can enable FXAA in the Nvidia Control Panel. Since FXAA is a form of post-process anti-aliasing, you can apply it to any game, either as a stand-alone form of anti-aliasing or in addition to what you set in the Game.
In AMD’s Radeon Software, you can also configure anti-aliasing. Move towards Settings > Graphics and click on the Advanced scrolling menu. You have similar settings to Nvidia for anti-aliasing: disable it, improve it or replace it. Radeon Software, however, provides more tools for the type of anti-aliasing you want to apply:
- Multisample: This is MSAA, which you can apply in addition to existing antialiasing or as a standalone setting.
- Adaptive Multisample: This is Adaptive MSAA, which improves MSAA by applying anti-aliasing to surfaces with transparent elements.
- Supersampling: This is SSAA, which is the most demanding form of anti-aliasing.
You will also find options for MLAA, or Morphological Anti-Aliasing. It’s basically AMD’s version of FXAA, which you can apply in a single post-processing pass of anti-aliasing or in addition to any anti-aliasing you set in-game.