What does it take to run Fallout 4 at 1080p60?

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It’s our contention that the best possible PC gameplay experience comes from matching both native resolution and refresh rate to your monitor. Right now, the most popular gaming display configuration features a full HD pixel-count running at 60Hz: 1080p60. On the face of it, Bethesda’s Fallout 4 isn’t the most technologically complex game on the market, and you can get some great results running on fairly modest kit – but hitting 60fps with a good degree of consistency is actually a substantial challenge.

In this guide, we’ll be testing the game across a series of PC configurations covering off many of the major gaming CPUs and graphics cards on the market. We’ll be targeting 1080p60 primarily, but as we scale up to the likes of the R9 390 and the GTX 970, we’ll be seeing what it takes to run the game at higher resolutions. At the absolute top-end, the so-called uber-cards – AMD’s R9 Fury X and Nvidia’s GTX 980 Ti – will be tested at 4K, with some intriguing results.

Bethesda’s recommended specs for Fallout 4 are interesting. CPU-wise, a quad-core i5 from the Sandy Bridge era or a Phenom II X4 are apparently the minimum – paired with either a GTX 550 Ti or a Radeon HD 7870 (two cards that are hardly comparable – the AMD card is much faster). At the higher end, an i7 4790 is recommended or else AMD’s eight-core FX-9570. Radeon R9 290X or the GTX 780 are the suggested top-end GPUs. 30GB of hard drive space is required, along with 8GB of RAM.

Real-life recommended specs are actually a lot less onerous: the hard drive space and the eight gigs are basically non-negotiable, but a modern Core i3 processor or AMD’s FX-6300 are perfectly serviceable, while a GTX 750 Ti or a Radeon R7 370 are fine for handing in better-than-console visuals at full HD. Assuming console visuals are the baseline, you can see here that the Digital Foundry budget PC hands in an excellent experience – though we do recommend instigating a 30fps cap. In fact, the settings chosen here actually produce a visually richer experience than either PS4 or Xbox One owing to further object draw distance.

It’s PC vs console here as our budget PC takes on both Sony and Microsoft boxes, handing in consistently higher frame-rates with improved quality settings.

What are the best CPUs for running Fallout 4?

Fallout 3 and Skyrim’s engine was designed very much with dual-core processors in mind to the point where an overclocked Pentium G3258 (a bargain basement dual-core part) will run either of these games just as well as a full-blown i7, but the Creation Engine has moved on now. Fallout 4 is multi-core aware and utilises all eight threads found in our Core i7 4790K. You need to be careful about CPU benchmarks for the title you might see – the game can be very light on utilisation in many areas, but in detail intensive environments or in combat with many enemies in the arena, Fallout 4 can dip beneath 60fps even on our our overclocked i7. Reaching 60fps in easy with virtually any modern processor, but sustaining it across a run of play is highly challenging.

Fallout 4 is a difficult game to benchmark at the best of times. Similar to Skyrim, it runs with v-sync permanently engaged and runs its game physics systems as a factor of the refresh rate of your monitor. You can force the game to run unlocked via the Nvidia GPU control panel (AMD’s didn’t work for us – more on that later), but beyond 60fps, the game systems run faster – you run faster, physics run faster. In confined areas, the speed increase is almost Benny Hill-like in nature.

We tested a range of CPUs paired with an overclocked Titan X running at 1080p, and unlocked to boot. You’ll see the lowest recorded frame-rates below, but the bottom line is this: performance on Core i3 processors, plus the AMD FX-6300 and the FX-8350 were all highly variable, whether we ran the game on ultra or high settings (high or even medium is preferable here). Bearing in mind that v-sync is currently unescapable, we recommend running Fallout 4 with a 30fps cap for the most consistent experience with budget hardware. To stand a good chance of consistently hitting 60fps on high settings or above, you’ll need an Intel quad-core processor, or better.

We tested the Core i5 4690K and the Core i7 4790K at both stock frequencies and with a 4.6GHz overclock in place. The i5 is just about powerful enough to hand in a consistent 60fps experience on high settings in all but the most strenuous locations. On ultra, even the 4.6GHz overclock isn’t quite enough. The i7 offers an extra slice of performance but even at 4.6GHz, ultra level settings will see drops beneath 60fps. Owners of older i5s – particularly those paired with slower DDR3 RAM – will almost certainly have issues sustaining 60fps throughout the run of play. Check out the sidebar concerning the impact of faster RAM: if you’re running 1333MHz or 1666MHz DDR3, swapping that for 2400MHz RAM can make a substantial difference and definitely helps with your lowest frame-rates. We even saw substantial gains in CPU-bound areas with a Core i5 4690K.

Another aspect worth noting is that these benchmarks were taken using ultra settings. In one particular scenario, dropping down to high saw a frame-rate increase of seven percent, while dropping down further to medium saw a massive 31 per cent increase to performance. Essentially, the more things drawn in the scene, the more the CPU is burdened. Even running on medium settings with some graphical presets pushed to high, Fallout 4 can still look impressive and can help stabilise frame-rate.

1920×1080, Ultra Settings, Titan X GPU Low/Avg FPS
Core i3 4130 [?] (3.4GHz, two cores, four threads) 25.0 / 48.1
Core i5 4690K [?] (Max 3.9GHz, four cores, four threads) 30.0 / 64.5
Core i7 4790K [?] (Max 4.4GHz, four cores, eight threads) 51.0 / 80.7
FX-6300 [?] (Max 4.1GHz, six cores, six threads) 23.0 / 48.4
FX-8350 [?] (Max 4.2GHz, eight cores, eight threads) 30.0 / 55.5
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The best sub £100 / $130 graphics cards for Fallout 4: GTX 750 Ti

Our favoured graphics hardware in this price-range falls between the GTX 550 Ti and the Radeon HD 7870 proposed by Bethesda. Nvidia’s GTX 750 Ti and the Radeon R7 370 both offer 2GB of VRAM, which is enough for running Fallout 4 using its ultra-level texture preset. There’s also enough compute onboard to match and exceed the visual balance chosen by Bethesda for the console versions of the game.

Our recipe for settings is straightforward enough. In the game’s configuration menu, select the high preset, dip into the advanced area and drop lighting to high and then drop shadow quality and shadow distance to medium, while lighting drops from ultra to high. We have some overhead left over, so we dip into the distance slider menu and move object fade up to match the actor fade preset beneath.

Both of these GPUs have decent overclocking headroom, but the biggest bottleneck you’ll face in a budget build with Fallout 4 seems to be the CPU, so gains to lowest frame-rates are limited. Bearing in mind the title’s v-sync limit, we have benched here by measuring the lowest frame-rate, the average, plus the percentage of frames not not delivered 60fps. The end result is interesting – both of these GPUs battle it out very closely, but the lowest recorded frame-rate sees the AMD card hit harder, while the GTX 750 Ti at its nadir hits a still creditable 30fps.

It’s a recurring theme we’ll see elsewhere in this piece. Consistent Fallout 4 performance across the run of play relies heavily on the CPU and AMD’s driver has a higher overhead, leading to frame-rate drops. For that reason, the GTX 750 Ti once again gets the nod.

AMD and Nvidia’s budget graphics hardware hands in accomplished performance when paired with a cheaper Core i3 processor. There’s little to tell them apart, though the GTX 750 Ti’s ability to hand in higher bottom-end frame-rates gives it the edge.

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The best sub £200 / $200 graphics card for Fallout 4: GTX 960

We’re looking at four different cards in this category – the R9 380 and the GTX 960 are at the higher end, and typically come in 2GB and 4GB configurations. Meanwhile, cheaper versions are also available – the GTX 950 (2GB only) and the R7 370 (2GB/4GB). For our tests, we used 2GB versions of all of them, bar the R9 380, but VRAM allocation makes little odds here – at 1080p, Fallout 4 is perfectly happy with just 2GB.

In our tests, we paired each card with a Core i5 4690K running at stock settings (although our Asus motherboard automatically increases max turbo on all four cores to 3.9GHz) and we ran the game on high settings. An additional preset – ultra – is available, but it’s fair to say that high offers a substantial visual increase over console quality, and ultra only offers a fairly minor upgrade beyond that.

Despite running the latest 15.11 beta driver recommended to us by AMD, the R7 370 and R9 380 fall short. There’s a mysterious lack of performance on both, with GPU monitoring tools noting some major drops in utilisation. Typically, the R9 380 is significantly faster than the GTX 960 – and it’s actually our best buy in this price bracket. But here, even the GTX 950 is faster, while the R7 370 just isn’t at the races.

The importance of RAM

RAM

If sustaining 60fps is proving challenging, we have some advice for you: consider faster RAM. We ran through a series of traversal sequences using a Core i5 4690K paired with a Titan X running at 1080p – in short, a scenario designed to remove the GPU as a bottleneck and stress the CPU. We then re-ran the test with faster memory. Below you’ll find our lowest and average frame-rate results from three different configurations:

  • 1600MHz: 36.0/54.6
  • 2133MHz: 39.0/61.0
  • 2400MHz: 44.0/66.9

That’s a 22 per cent increase in performance with faster RAM comparing the slowest to the fastest. Now, this scenario is an exaggeration as the GPU is a major limiting factor in performance and by using a Titan X at a low resolution, we have removed that bottleneck. So are there any real-life applications?

Well, click on the shot above to see that – yes – faster RAM can make a difference in general gameplay, even with Fallout 4’s v-sync cap, and without an outlandish lack of balance in system components. Essentially, when the CPU is the bottleneck, faster RAM can provide an often dramatic increase in performance. However, before considering an upgrade, make sure your motherboard is compatible with faster memory. Usually this functionality is reserved for the top-end chipsets.

There are still some disappointing drops in performance regardless of GPU though, even on Nvidia products. Our advice? Consider our ‘better than console’ settings we use with the budget cards, and overclock. This combination increases frame-rates significantly, and gets you pretty close to a sustained 1080p60 throughout the run of play and you don’t lose too much of the game’s visual finery. The only really noticeable visual artefact is shadow distance – some of which fade-in from nowhere rather too close for comfort. Also consider faster RAM if your board supports it – even 2400MHz DDR3 is pretty cheap these days when it’s on sale.

Four mid-range GPUs tested here in combination with a Core i5 4690K running at stock – the R7 370, R9 380, GTX 950 and GTX 960. The latter card is the best option – with overclocking and some quality tweaks, we get very close to a consistent 1080p at 60fps

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The best £200 / $300+ graphics card for Fallout 4: GTX 970

We move up another level here by pairing our GPUs of choice here with the Devil’s Canyon Core i7 4790K – a faster version of the 4690K with hyper-threading enabled. Fallout 4 makes use of all eight threads, but definitely prefers higher clock-speeds. We had no problem at all running our i7 at 4.6GHz, but most enthusiast-level boards will automatically run the i7 across all cores at its max single-core turbo – in this case, 4.4GHz.

In this price range, there are four contenders – the GTX 970, GTX 980, R9 390 and R9 390X. However, unfortunately we do not have access to the R9 390X. However, even the GTX 980 feels somewhat over-priced these days, living in a kind of No Man’s Land between the valuerific GTX 970 and the much more powerful GTX 980 Ti.

For our Fallout 3 testing here, we run at 1080p and 1440p on ultra settings, effectively maxing the game out. All quality settings are ramped to the max, and the view distance on all elements is stretched out as far as it goes. What’s clear is that once again, the AMD card has real issues handing in consistent gameplay. CPU load is clearly an issue here as remarkably, running the game at 1440p – a 77 per cent increase in pixel density – makes only the smallest impact on overall performance. It’s a bizarre state of affairs as just like the R9 380, usually we recommend the 390 as the card of choice in this price sector.

The GTX 970 storms to a commanding lead at 1080p, and we suspect that the lowest reported frame-rates here may well be down just as much to the CPU as the graphics card. Our Zotac GTX 970 only features a miniscule +20MHz factory overclock, and we can happily add 200MHz more to the core and 400MHz to the RAM. That’s more than enough for 1080p, while 1440p at similar frame-rates is possible with just minimal tweaks to quality settings – consider dropping shadow quality and shadow distance to high, or indeed choose the high preset to give yourself further headroom.

If you’re looking to run the game at ultra settings at 1080p60, the GTX 970 is the card for you here. Here we’re comparing it with the R9 390. AMD’s card is generally faster, but it has real issues holding its performance level in Fallout 4.

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Beyond 1440p: GTX 980 Ti and R9 Fury X

For our final round of testing we retained our overclocked Core i7 4790K and paired it with two of the most powerful graphics cards money can buy – AMD’s R9 Fury X and Nvidia’s GTX 980 Ti. The idea here was to see what the cards could do at 4K at high settings. Frame-rates are necessarily much lower – this is the equivalent of running four 1080p screen simultaneously, after all – but results are surprisingly good overall. What’s interesting is that if you’re interested in running the game on ultra, frame-rates always stay north of 30fps, even in our stress test areas, so a frame-rate cap might be a good idea. However, we feel that running on high using an adaptive sync 4K or ultra-wide 1440p display is the ticket here.



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Alternatively, dropping settings down to our ‘better than console’ equivalents and overclocking the GTX 980 Ti can get you perilously close to a pretty sustained 4K60 experience. We also tried using DSR upscaling from 1080p – 3325×1871 offers around 86 per cent of 4K resolution and should get you something approaching a 60fps lock for most of the duration, particularly if you overclock.

Available options with the R9 Fury X beneath 4K are somewhat more limited – the lower you take the resolution, the more likely you are to hit the CPU limit owing to what we assume is the driver overhead. And that’s the major takeaway for AMD owners based on the beta driver we were recommended any way – high and ultra settings incur a substantial CPU load which really doesn’t agree with Radeon hardware, producing some uncharacteristically low performance on quad-core processors. The performance deficit is substantial, so hopefully this will be addressed by a driver revision some point soon.

Fallout 4 running at high settings at 4K resolution. The GTX 980 Ti and Fury X are very closely matched, with Nvidia’s card only having a small edge. However, at lower pixel-counts – like 1440p – the GTX 980 Ti storms ahead.

  • Click on the links above to buy these graphics cards from Amazon with free shipping.

In conclusion, tweaking Fallout to ensure an absolutely consistent 60fps frame-rate can be a little frustrating – and one thing we should point out is that while our tests were taken from what we believe to be a representative sample, there will almost certainly be areas that push your hardware even more – especially if you’re playing on ultra. Our key advise here is pretty straightforward: don’t always assume that frame-rate drops are down to your graphics hardware – Fallout 4 seems to have a very complex relationship with the CPU, and areas with intense detail are just as likely to cause issues for your processor as they are for your graphics card. Secondly, faster RAM will improve your lowest frame-rates – but remember that only boards using the top-end chipsets support overclocked memory.

Secondly, on mid to high-end rigs, there’s a big temptation to ramp everything up to ultra. There’s perhaps the sense that you’re missing out on something special if you don’t. Well, the computational impact of ultra settings is substantial, but the visual improvement over the high preset isn’t really worth it. A good compromise may well be to select the high preset, keep the distance fade settings in the advanced menu as they are, then push up the other quality presets as high as they will go – this should iron out many of the CPU-related dips in performance.

Overall, Fallout 4 is an eminently scalable game – the fact that we can pair a Core i5 processor with a GTX 960 and get close to a locked 1080p60 with an improved visual presentation over console is a pretty decent feat. Like the console versions, the PC release has its issues, but after spending the last week with the PC version, we feel pretty confident in saying that it’s the best of the bunch – and you don’t need a supremely powerful computer to get a good experience.

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