Ever wonder how your favorite games render smooth graphics? Ones that somehow manage to look great no matter which device you’re on? Well, a lot of it comes down to a little technique called anti-aliasing. But what is anti-aliasing, and how does it work, exactly?
This article is here to answer just that. We’ll take you through the different types of anti-aliasing – yes, there are several – and let you in on how each one works, and which you should use in your favorite games. By the end of it, you’ll be a master in the art of anti-aliasing. Or, at the very least, know enough to sound cool in front of your gamer friends. Ready to go? Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
What is Anti-Aliasing?
Computer graphics are made up of pixels. Thousands upon thousands of tiny square dots that blend to create complex 2D images and 3D scenes. And this works perfectly fine – as long as the image takes the shape of a square.
But what happens when graphics feature rounded edges and corners? How are those supposed to render correctly if we’re only working with square pixels? Enter anti-aliasing.
Anti-aliasing is a rendering technique that enhances the appearance of lines and edges, aka jaggies, found in computer graphics. Anti-aliasing works by literally smoothing over the rough spots and delivering a perfectly rendered image to a screen near you.
But this process of smoothing over those jagged lines comes at a cost. Namely, in the form of processing power.
There have been hundreds of attempts to reduce the strain on the GPU and render images in a way that doesn’t drain your graphics card. Some have stuck, while others have faded away into nothing. Nowadays, there are only a handful of anti-aliasing methods commonly deployed in video games.
So… what are they, and how can they help you achieve better graphics and higher performance in your favorite titles?
Types of Anti-Aliasing
There are several different types of anti-aliasing. The most prominent? FXAA vs SMAA vs MSAA vs TXAA vs SSAA.
While there is some overlap in the way each type works, they all use varying methods to deliver a smooth and attractive end result. But that begs the question: which type of anti-aliasing is the best?
To answer that, let’s look at how each type of anti-aliasing works. We’ll start with the least graphically intensive and work our way up.
FXAA stands for fast-approximate anti-aliasing. Developed by NVIDIA, it’s among the least graphically demanding types of AA. How’s it work? Quite simply, the edges of images are smoothed over based on how they appear on your screen.
This is in contrast to traditional anti-aliasing, which analyzes the edges of entire images and 3D models before spitting out the result. As you might expect, FXAA is much easier on the graphics card and processor, making it optimal for gaming. The downside? Images aren’t quite as sharp as if you had legitimate 3D edge detection. But it still gets the job done.
TL;DR? An intelligent post-processing smoothing of edges. Easy on the GPU.
SMAA (also known as TAA/SMAA T2X) refers to sub morphographic anti-aliasing. It’s a type of morphological anti-aliasing, which means that the anti-aliasing is applied post-processing, or after the initial rendering. This process achieves a high-quality final image thanks to algorithms that calculate contrast and detect edges intelligently, using fewer resources. The process is similar to FXAA, but there’s less blurring of the final product.
TL;DR? A more intelligent post-processing smoothing of edges. Also easy on the GPU.
MSAA stands for multisample anti-aliasing. It’s a type of spatial sampling anti-aliasing and a sub-type of supersampling (which we’ll get to in a minute). Basically, MSAA reduces the overall graphical strain of anti-aliasing by analyzing just the edges of objects (as opposed to the entire graphic) before rendering the final image. Moreover, MSAA only samples each shade of pixel once before applying approximate smoothing to all of the locations that require anti-aliasing. This significantly lightens the load on your processors.
TL;DR? Samples the edges of graphics within a scene to produce smoother lines. Moderately demanding on the GPU.
TXAA stands for temporal anti-aliasing. This method is used when the speed of moving objects within a scene are faster than the user’s frames per second. When this occurs, objects within the scene tend to appear and jump out at you suddenly. As you might expect, this results in fragmented gameplay.
How does TXAA work? The GPU computes the approximate location of every object within a scene and determines which pixels are covered at any given time. Then, an averaging filter uses this information to blend the foreground and background within the scene before delivering an anti-aliased rendering.
TL;DR? Samples the edges of graphics and injects a temporal algorithm to soften a scene. Highly demanding on the GPU.
SSAA stands for supersampling anti-aliasing. Supersampling is a spatial anti-aliasing technique that removes the jagged lines from images. It does this by expanding the resolution, then analyzing (or sampling) the entire image or 3D scene. Edges are detected, and the average color of these edges is returned. The objects within the scene are then blended into their surroundings to diffuse the jagged lines and render optimized, buttery-smooth graphics.
This process outputs the best quality graphics, but it also places a hefty load on the GPU. It can be toned down by reducing the number of samples taken, but this will, naturally, reduce the overall quality.
TL;DR? Samples the entire scene to render beautiful edges. By far the most demanding on the GPU.
Which Anti-Aliasing is the Best?
And which type of anti-aliasing should you use? While the answer depends on your particular machine and its graphical capabilities, there are a few guidelines we ought to note.
1. Use FXAA or SMAA on lower-end rigs and when you want to maximize your performance. Naturally, FXAA is the best choice for competitive gaming and eSports.
2. Use MSAA on mid-range rigs and when you want to strike a balance between performance and looks. MSAA works excellently alongside the best gaming laptops and PCs on the market.
3. Use TXAA or SSAA when you want to prioritize looks over performance. SSAA is highly demanding on your GPU, but it results in absolutely stunning scenes that’ll take your breath away.
We understand that there’s a lot of confusion around anti-aliasing and how it’s used in gaming. That’s why we’ve created this guide– to answer the internet’s most frequently asked questions on the subject.
Have a question you don’t see listed here? Be sure to leave a comment, or shoot us a message on our contact page.
What is the meaning of anti-aliasing?
Anti-aliasing is a rendering technique used to smooth out the edges of computer graphics and 3D scenes.
Is anti-aliasing necessary?
No, it is not. But is anti-aliasing important? Absolutely– it dramatically enhances the appearance of your favorite graphics and games.
What is the use of anti-aliasing in games?
What is anti-aliasing in games, specifically? When used in a game, anti-aliasing provides clearer images, sharper graphics, and fluid frame-by-frame motions.
Do you want anti-aliasing on or off?
If you’re concerned about looks, turn anti-aliasing on. If you want to maximize performance, use FXAA anti-aliasing or turn it off.
Is anti-aliasing good for FPS?
Generally speaking, no. But it does result in smoother gameplay.
Which is better: FXAA or SMAA?
SMAA renders better graphics and does so at roughly the same strain on the GPU as FXAA.
Which is better: MSAA or SSAA?
SSAA renders prettier graphics, but MSAA is better for performance.
Enjoy our guide on anti-aliasing? If so, you’re sure to enjoy our other technical topics that go into the techniques used to create and enhance your favorite titles. Check ‘em out below: