For a vast majority of us, the OS installed on our PC is a means to an end. It’s more of a tool shed: we get excited about what’s hanging on its walls or what’s inside, not the container itself. But as tool sheds go, Windows 10 seems to be evolving in ways that make what we do with our PCs better and more engaging. This month we’re talking about Game Mode, one of the bullet points of Microsoft’s Creators Update, slated to arrive in the spring. According to Microsoft, Game Mode is designed to increase the performance of games, regardless of whether you bought them on Steam, GOG, the Windows Store, a brick-and-mortar retail store, or anywhere else.
Last month’s Software Tips & Projects article revealed some promising performance advantages for those running Win 10 and a DirectX 12-capable graphics card. Microsoft has tied new versions of DirectX to the contemporary OS before, for instance, DirectX 10 and Windows Vista. But in addition to supporting any Win32 and UWP (Universal Windows Platform) title, Game Mode is API and DirectX version-agnostic, which means there should be benefits for Doom running in Vulkan or OpenGL, Microsoft’s UWP-based Forza Horizon 3, Gabe “Windows-8-is-a-catastrophe” Newell’s Half-Life 2 Episode 2, and any future installment of that franchise should hell freeze over and pigs take wing. So to recap, Game Mode can deliver better game performance, for all of our games, and the cost of admission is merely Windows 10. Where do we sign up?
What Does Game Mode Do?
According to Microsoft, Game Mode aims to increase peak and average frame rates, or consistency. It does this by giving the crucial game processes priority access to the CPU and GPU resources they need when running in the foreground. As a result, background processes will necessarily run slower, but if you’re like most people, the game will be running full screen and occupying 100% of your attention anyway.
Because the feature isn’t quite ready for consumers, there’s not a whole lot of documentation that details exactly how the OS gives games higher-priority access to system resources in Game Mode. As we went to press, there was no list of games that benefit the most, or even a range of performance improvements to expect. Given the varying ways in which games leverage system resources, we wouldn’t expect every game to benefit in the same ways. At this point, we still don’t know if Game Mode juggles background OS resources, those dedicated to third-party apps, or both.
Although there’s a distinct lack of information from Microsoft, we’re not completely in the dark. Game Mode, as well as a few other notable features from the Creators Update, is currently available in a handful of the Windows 10 Preview builds, which any Win 10 user can install and begin checking out at any time.
Be An Insider
If you want to try Game Mode right now, ahead of the official launch of the Creators Update coming in the spring, you’ll need to join the Windows Insider Program by visiting insider.windows.com and clicking the Get Started button. Microsoft has been using the Insider Program to deliver frequent updates and early software builds to particularly enthusiastic Windows users. As long as you’re OK with software that may lack polish and, more critically, stability, the Insider Program is a good place to go to get an early look at what Microsoft has in store for the Windows platform. To complete the sign-up process, just sign in with your Microsoft account.
Start by signing up for the Slow Ring, but if that fails to result in the build you’re looking for, install the ISO or opt for the Fast Ring.
The next step is to make sure you have the prerequisite Windows 10 Anniversary Update installed. To check, you can download Microsoft’s Upgrade Assistant at bit.ly/2kpErZI. Double-click the executable to launch the app, and you’ll either get a notification that you have the Anniversary Update installed or you’ll be prompted to install it via the utility. Once that step is complete, click Start, Settings, Update & Security, and then click Windows Insider Program at the bottom left of the window. If your Windows Insider account is already linked to your Win 10 profde, you can click the Get Started button under the Get Insider Preview Builds heading. If not, click the Link A Microsoft Account button to activate the Preview Builds button and click it when you’re finished.
Beware All Ye Who Enter Here
Before you install a preview build, you’ll be faced with a strongly worded warning that cautions users that proceeding may result in the need to reinstall Windows from scratch. You should probably not do this using your primary PC, and even if something doesn’t crop up that prompts a complete reinstall, there will be some rough edges, and frequent changes are likely occur to the UI of the previewed utilities and features. If this warning causes you to hesitate, we recommend waiting for the official Creators Update. The warning screen also has hyperlinks for the Privacy Statement and Program Terms should you desire more information. If you’re ready to install the latest preview build, click the Next button and then click Confirm to acknowledge that you are aware that a reinstall may be required if you want to remove a preview build from your PC. Restart your PC by clicking the appropriate button.
Fast Or Slow?
If you installed the Anniversary Update, you probably don’t remember coming across anything in the OS that designates the new features as such. So too, Creators Update doesn’t appear in your update history; it’s all about build versions. You can look up your build version number by clicking in the text box on the Taskbar and typing winver, then pressing ENTER. Before we installed our first preview build, our Windows version was 1607 (OS Build 14393.693).
If you’re following along, you need to return to the Settings, Update & Security, Windows Insider Program screen. There will be a drop-down box below the Choose Your Insider Level. Use it to set select the Fast, Slow, or Release Preview Ring, which is how Microsoft’s developer-centered posts refer to the different tiers. Selecting the Fast Ring is for PC experts only and results in newer features sooner, but there’s a greater risk that you’ll encounter bugs, inconvenient quirks, and (rarely) system-killing issues. The Slow Ring provides minimal risk to your installation, and the Release Preview Ring installs only updates for the current branch. This latter most option is the default setting, but if we leave it as is, we won’t get the Creators Update anytime soon. If possible, go for the Slow Ring. The only way to determine if the ring you chose will deliver the Creators Update is to try it out and see what Windows Update delivers.
Typing winver into the Taskbar search box and pressing ENTER lets you see the Windows 10 build version you currently have installed.
After making your selection, Microsoft reports that a background process will launch to check your system compatibility and register it with the company’s release system. It might take as many as 24 hours for the updates for your selected ring to arrive. On the Update & Security screen, click Windows Update, and then click Check For Updates, let them install, and restart your computer when prompted. After an update, we were running OS Build 14393.726, which was still not a preview build. As it turned out, we had to wait a day to get a prompt that a Windows Insider Preview build was ready to install.
As we went to press, Windows Insiders on the Slow Ring were granted access to OS Build 14986.1001. Although considered a part of the Creators Update (this build included Microsoft’s new Paint 3D utility), Game Mode doesn’t get added to the mix until Preview Build 15019. Aside from running the “winver” command to determine the presence of the new feature we’re looking for, you can go to the Settings menu and look for the Gaming icon. Sure enough, when we checked, it wasn’t there.
So Now What…
Although we weren’t able to get an 0S Build of the Creators Update with Game Mode on the Slow Ring as we went to press, things may have changed by the time you try it. The Slow Ring is definitely the safer option, so we recommend trying it first. If OS Build 15019 or later still isn’t coming through on the Slow Ring, then you have two options: install it from an ISO or opt for the Fast Ring. If you chose the latter, choose Fast from the Settings, Update & Security, Windows Insider Program screen, restart the PC, and then check for updates until a new build shows up. Incidentally, this is what we opted to do. If you’re in more of a hurry, you can follow the instructions below.
The Impatient Route
If you don’t want to wait for a Game Mode preview build to show up, either on the Slow or Fast Ring, you can install one of a handful of Windows Insider Builds manually using the ISOs that Microsoft makes available. Before you proceed, make sure you have access to your Windows 10 product key, as you’ll be prompted for it during the installation. If you want a quick way of looking up your key, check out a utility like the Magical Jelly Bean Key finder (bit.ly/Yi9BC0). which scans your Registry for the product key and displays it in handy text form. Next, visit bit.ly/2edph9N. sign in with your Microsoft Account, and then use the Select Edition drop-down menu to choose the build you’d like to install.
When you opt to download the ISO, start by selecting an OS Build 15019 or higher and your preferred language, then click the 32-bit or 64-bit hyperlink that corresponds to your current installation and wait for the 4GB download to complete. The next step involves mounting the ISO file to perform an in-place upgrade. Navigate to the ISO file using File Explorer, right-click it, click Properties, and then click the Change button adjacent to the Opens With command. Select Windows Explorer, click Apply, and then click OK. Now just right-click the ISO file, which for us was named Windows 10_InsiderPreview_ Client_x64_en-us_l 5025.iso, and click Mount. To begin the installation, double-click the ISO file to open the contents in File Explorer, double-click Setup.exe, and then dismiss the UAC prompt by clicking Yes. If your machine is connected to the internet, leave the Download And Install Updates radio button selected and click Next, or click the Not Right Now button and click Next. Input your product key and follow the on-screen prompts to continue.
Showtime For Game Mode
Finally, after much fiddling, we managed to get our hands on OS Build 15025. To toggle Game Mode, press the Windows key, click the Settings icon, Gaming, and then Game Mode from the menu on the left side of the screen. We also checked the Get Game Mode Notifications checkbox. The OS Build we were testing had a known issue where Game Mode was enabled by default, but the slider showed that it was in the Off state. Switching it to On kept the setting enabled, but the slider’s status was accurate. Also make sure that the Game Bar toggle in the Gaming menu is set to On. To enable Game Mode on a per-game basis, you’ll need to press the Windows key + G shortcut while the game is running, click the Settings icon, and then click the checkbox that enables Game Mode for the game. Although not specifically directed to do so, we restarted each game after enabling or disabling Game Mode.
Our test system consists of a 10-core, 20-thread Intel Core i7-6950X installed in a GIGABYTE GA-X99-Ultra Gaming motherboard with 16GB HyperX Predator DDR4-3000. We installed a lightly overclocked GIGABYTE GeForce GTX 1060 G1 Gaming. We wanted to make sure to hammer the graphics card as much as possible while still
maintaining playable frame rates, so we tested everything at 2,560 x 1,440. Our storage subsystem consists of a 240GB OCZ Vertex 3 MAX lOPS SSD for the OS and a 1TB WD Black HDD. Were running the 64-bit edition of Windows 10 Enterprise.
It’s pointless to use synthetic benchmarks to show the advantages of Game Mode, so we kept our testing focus on modern games that you’d be most likely to be playing as we went to press. Many of these games have a DirectX 12 running mode, but as we proved last month, AMD and NVIDIA cards don’t benefit equally under DX12, so in every instance where we had the option, we selected DX11. The games we ran included HITMAN, Rise Of The Tomb Raider, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dying Light (Windowed), and Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor. Although these are the games we recorded scores for, we also tested the feature with a handful of other games, including ASTRONEER, Ashes Of The Singularity, Forza Horizon 3, Halo 5: Forge, Sniper Elite 4, and Metro: Last Light.
For our testing, we recorded frame rates from several runs and averaged the three closest sets of scores. Those are the numbers that appear in the charts. In the charts, we wanted to look at both average frame rates and the minimum frame rates, because these are the two areas where Game Mode is purported to have an impact. Additionally, because Game Mode’s in-game toggle switch is accessed through the Game Bar, you won’t be able to turn the feature on in any game that doesn’t let you open the Game Bar. Most of the games we tried let us access the Game Bar, those that didn’t would once switched to Borderless or Windowed mode.
As you can see, our results are more than a little underwhelming. Although there are some games that look like they benefitted, there are others that look like they suffer to the same degree. Game Mode failed to affect scores by more than a single frame or two, and as a result, we’re not confident that the feature is having an impact.
We knew that Game Mode was going to be wet behind the ears when we started, so we fully expect Microsoft to
make improvements and tweaks between now and when the Creators Update arrives for everyone. But there’s also a chance that our system, or high-end systems in particular, just won’t benefit much. Using this as a working theory, we even disabled hyper threading and Turbo Boost, and we down-docked our Core ¡7-6950X to 2GHz, hoping it would become a bottleneck and force Game Mode to do something about it. Alas, it didn’t affect performance at all. Which, if nothing else, serves as an indictment against using Intel’s $1,650 processor (or any enthusiast-grade processor for that matter) solely for gaming.
There are a couple of things we noticed while testing games with Game Mode. First, you can technically enable Game Mode for an app that is not a game, in the same way that you open the Game Bar by pressing the Windows key + G shortcut and using the checkbox to designate the app as a game. Could Game Mode be used to give any application a performance boost? Another question we have about Game Mode is whether the Game Bar needs to be accessible for the feature to work. In some instances, including Dying Light, we were able to force the full-screen game to run in a window using the ALT + ENTER shortcut, but back in full screen, we had no way of knowing if Game Mode was active. As we mentioned above, we checked the Get Game Mode Notifications checkbox from the Settings, Gaming, Game Mode menu, but we never once saw the notification pop up.
Another problem with our testing could have been the fact that we weren’t running any additional applications while we performed the benchmarking. But if Game Mode only makes its presence felt when there’s a bunch of stuff running concurrently with the game, then we’d argue that most enthusiasts and experienced PC gamers already put their PCs into a DIY game mode every time they play. As a rule, we also tend to steer clear of utilities that chronically consume more than their fair share of system resources, so it’s possible that Microsoft’s Game Mode didn’t have a whole lot of headroom to recover wasted CPU cycles for us. We’re not ready to close the book on WinlO’s Game Mode just yet, and in the coming weeks and months, rest assured we’ll be keeping a close eye on the feature and any performance gains it might be capable of delivering.