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Does playing game when it's windowed increase performance? Decrease it?

Does the same also hold true to fullscreen mode? I've always thought that playing on Fullscreen meant a higher fps boost, but I never confirmed this.

Is there a difference between the two, and if so, what are they?

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The answer is: It depends on the game and how it's implemented. Is there a specific game you had in mind? –  Steinin Feb 27 '13 at 21:58
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I feel there might be a good question in here, as games are pretty unique to how they behave when in fullscreen. That said, it's also something fairly easily testable, and an effort should have been prior to asking. –  Frank Feb 27 '13 at 22:40
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There are too many variables to give a solid 100% answer. It really depends a lot on specific hardware setups, and can vary game by game. –  Coronus Feb 28 '13 at 0:03
    
In general, what's the effect on performance? I've heard that if you play on Windowed, the computer has to render the Desktop of your computer, so it takes up more RAM, thus decreasing performance, but I'm not an expert on the subject nor have I actually seen any change –  DISREGARD MODS ACQUIRE REP Feb 28 '13 at 2:17
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7 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Depends on the resolution you play at. If your game resolution is your desktop resolution, then fullscreen is likely to be slightly faster than windowed mode in all scenarios, for the reasons enumerated by Philipp.

Honestly, however, on my dated hardware I take a much greater performance hit by running games at desktop resolution than I do by playing at a lower resolution through the window manager. If your desktop resolution is not your game resolution, by all means do play in windowed mode.

Fullscreen mode at non-native resolution means that instead of shifting graphics output to a rectangle on the screen (something relatively fast), your computer instead has to scale the picture from the game resolution to your native resolution with bicubic filtering or better (expensive!).

Even if it is your monitor itself that does the heavy lifting, or if you disabled hardware scaling at higher resolutions (in which case you still have to translate pixel coordinates), you will get terrible performance and occasionally crashes whenever you Alt-Tab from and to the game.

Finally, not all operative systems allow you to skip the screen compositing system altogether. A notable exception is certainly Ubuntu (which can draw notifyOSD notifications on top of games); I don't know how Macs work here.

So, if getting every single last drop of framerate is your priority here, only play in fullscreen mode:

  • If you're using Windows (or Mac?), and
  • If you're playing at your screen's native resolution, and
  • If you can't get a speedup by playing at lower resolutions in a window, and
  • If your desktop is set at your screen's native resolution.
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Just to add to your answer about native v display res, the limiting factor in graphics performance can frequently be the pixel shaders that, as implied by their name, operate on every pixel. In that scenario, having fewer pixels to operate on can and does make all the difference in how quickly the game can render a frame. –  Seth Battin Feb 28 '13 at 17:28
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@SethBattin even when there weren't pixel shaders, drawing a line on the screen is afaik an O(n) operation, n being the number of pixels in the line. I don't know off the top of my head what the performance for triangle filling is, but I guess it's O(n) as well (except n is pixel "squared" here). –  badp Feb 28 '13 at 17:40
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Ah, I thought you meant the performance suffers during gameplay as well as switching to and from the game. Yes, it does seem a bit slower to switch to and from a fullscreen game running below your monitor's native resolution. –  kotekzot Feb 28 '13 at 17:57
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You appear to be comparing apples to oranges (running the game at higher resolution full-screen vs. lower-resolution windowed). If you were to run that same game at a lower-than-desktop-resolution resolution but in full-screen, you'd likely get better performance than in windowed. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 1 '13 at 22:56
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Also, except in rare instances, it's always the monitor that does the "scaling" from lower resolutions, not the GPU - that is why monitors have a list of supported resolutions. And the "terrible performance/crashes when alt+tabbing" are completely dependent on the game and GPU driver being poorly coded; it was pretty common in the Windows 98 days, but but pretty rare now (the notable exception being the Source engine). –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 1 '13 at 23:04
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When an application runs in fullscreen mode, it runs in "exclusive mode". That means it has full and direct control over the screen output.

But when it runs in window mode, it needs to send its output to the window manager (windows explorer) which then manages where on the screen that output is drawn. This takes some additional performance. The performance penalty, however, is greatly reduced in newer version of windows.

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Which newer version(s) of Windows? –  The Annoying Pyro Feb 28 '13 at 13:34
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When I switched from XP to 7 I found the performance tax on windowed 3d applications to be a lot lower. Most likely because the whole window manager is hardware-accelerated when using the Aero Glass user interface. I never used Vista so I don't know how the performance was there. –  Philipp Feb 28 '13 at 13:39
    
Starting with Vista. –  Ansis Malins Oct 21 '13 at 14:38
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General: Games in Fullscreen have better Performance, just because the explorer.exe of Windows can take a break. In window mode, it has to render the game and averything else you have open. But, if it is fullscreen, it renders everything from your desktop when you shift there. Specific: I have not experienced any improvement in a game when switching to window mode, the fps were going always down (testet with Counter Strike, World of Warcraft, Anno, Crysis, Starcraft, Diablo, Skyrim).

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On the other hand, from personal experience games in fullscreen mode tend to be terrible at context switching when you need to alt-tab out for whatever reason. Windowed mode tends to be much more polite about it. –  Shadur Feb 28 '13 at 16:16
    
of course, but from the performance point oft view (which was the question) fullscreen is better. –  souichiro Feb 28 '13 at 17:10
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I'd like to make a quick addendum that could be useful for some players reading this topic: when recording gameplay, most applications can not retrieve frames from many games that are running in fullscreen mode. Using windowed or windowed-fullscreen modes will usually provide full access to those frames, and is many times required for best results.

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To add to the other answers, in case of games like Oblivion, Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim, running in Windowed mode could help make the game more stable (prevent crashes) and reduce stuttering. Games like these also usually have issues with alt-tabbing, so running in Windowed mode will help.

Mods have been created to run these games in "Fake Fullscreen mode" (actually runs the game in Windowed mode, but makes it appear that it is fullscreen), e.g:

Also, from this question: How to force Maximized Fullscreen mode in any game?

I have seen several games that have a video display mode that is windowed with no borders, at the same resolution as the desktop. It's sometimes called "Borderless Windowed" mode, or "Maximized Fullscreen" mode. It seems to balance the trade-off between running in fullscreen, and running a game in windowed mode.

Fullscreen vs Windowed

A game in fullscreen mode fills your screen and is more immersive. Supposedly fullscreen mode provides better performance, but I don't anything about that (nor have I recently observed better performance in fullscreen mode). The most common caveat is that your computer chokes momentarily if you alt-tab to go do something else. Playing in windowed mode allows you to switch to other tasks with no delay, or even multitask. Windowed mode also seems to be better for users using dual displays.

In Maximized Fullscreen mode, the game is in windowed mode, but the borders and title bar are removed and the resolution matches your desktop's. In effect, it looks like you're playing in fullscreen mode, but you can still switch to other applications with no delay. Sounds like the best of both worlds to me!

enter image description here

Multitasking is great if I happen to be respawning, waiting for a loading screen, or if I need to look up information about the game (like looking up quest info for MMOs). Clicking on the game pushes the other (naughty, immersion breaking) windows and the taskbar into the background, seamlessly filling the full screen.

Unfortunately most games don't seem to include this feature yet.

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I noticed this in League of Legends. I somewhat have an outdated PC and when I play LoL in fullscreen my fps were bound to 10-20 fps. I noticed a borderless option and for the heck of it, I tried it. Don't know how, but somehow it manages to stay above 50 fps. xD

Borderless all the way..

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I've tried using Minecraft in both Fullscreen and Windowed mode. Since Windowed mode has to draw all the stuff around the game, it might get the game a little FPS drop, but since Fullscreen renders a bigger picture, that would make an FPS drop too. I'd say they're pretty much equal.

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This answer is pretty much speculation. You said you tried it in both modes; what were the FPS results? I'd also like to see results from more than a single game in an answer, since the question wasn't limited to a single game. –  Coronus Feb 28 '13 at 20:06
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