Your CPU is the both the heart and the brains of your PC. When it starts picking up the slack for your GPU, you can lose some noticeable gaming performance. How can you get your GPU to take over for your CPU?
Your games are using your CPU instead of your GPU because of settings, software bugs, or hardware problems. The biggest culprits are settings that prioritize computing on the CPU or iGPU rather than the GPU itself. You should also make sure to update all games and turn off any background software to free up processing power.
You’re gaming, which means you need your GPU to put in some work! Let’s take a look at some PC 101 and get your GPU back to processing.
Tech Terms: CPU vs GPU vs iGPU
Your Central Processing Unit is the core of your PC. This little piece of hardware is where nearly all of the basic calculations that control your software are conducted. The CPU is great at a diverse set of tasks and can respond to dynamic and demanding computing needs.
Your Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU, is very similar to your CPU in terms of both its physical architecture and its function. However, GPUs are specialists designed to handle graphics processing. GPUs often have more raw processing power than CPUs, but they can only handle a narrow range of processing jobs.
We also have to talk about the iGPU. These Integrated Graphics Processing Units are essentially a CPU with a GPU tacked on, such as my AMD Ryzen 5 2400G:
They trade performance and raw power for energy and space savings. You’ll see these in laptops, tablets and budget computers more often than in proper gaming PCs.
Why is My Game Using CPU Instead of GPU?
Your games might be using your CPU inside of your GPU for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason is that there’s a setting that’s causing your games to skip over your GPU in favor of processing all your graphics on the CPU. You can sometimes find these settings in performance management software, which we explore later.
You should also make sure that there isn’t a hardware compatibility issue. Your graphics card will be partially limited by the strength of your CPU. The most high-powered graphics card coupled with a low-end CPU will naturally have the CPU maxing out before the graphics card can even get to work.
Can I Force Games to Use GPU Instead of CPU?
In some cases, you cannot force games to use your GPU over your CPU. This comes down to the fact that a CPU and a GPU are designed to process different tasks and a GPU simply cannot handle the kind of processing that a CPU can accomplish.
You might be thinking “uhm, we’re talking about gaming here”, but many games actually use the CPU a lot – this is especially true for less graphically intensive games like Minecraft. These can often max out the CPU, but leave the GPU close to idle.
However, assuming that your game should be using a fair chunk of your GPU, you can often change settings in your PC to make sure that your games use the GPU for all of their graphics processing needs. You can make sure that your GPU is handling all of the graphical work, which frees up your CPU for other software and background operations.
How to Fix Games Using CPU Rather Than GPU
There’s various reason why you might want to free up your CPU. This will make your games run smoother and allow you to run programs in the background, like Discord and other apps, without any problems. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common ways you can shift some of the processing load over to your GPU.
Rule Out Hardware Issues
Firstly, you want to ensure that your GPU is properly seated in the PCIe slot and that it has all the correct drivers. If there is no “GPU” section in Windows Task Manager, for example, it’s possible that Windows can’t recognize your graphics cards.
This will definitely result in all your games maxing out GPU, since the game can’t make use of the graphics card. To resolve this, open your case and ensure that your GPU is correctly seated in the PCIe slot, and that the correct power cables are going to it. Then boot up the PC, and ensure that you have installed the correct drivers for it.
Install Any Updates
Just like with any computer problem, your first port of call should be to check for any updates. You should check for updates to your games, the platforms that your games run on like Steam, or system updates for your Windows operating system. This often automatically download the latest drivers for your graphics card (and other PC components), too.
Outdated software can be slower on its own, but it can also have compatibility problems that can cause it to spike CPU usage and use the wrong processing unit in your PC.
Check Your Game for Patch Notes and Known Bugs
You also want to check over the patch notes for the games that you’re playing. The updates and patches that are regularly pushed out on games can have unintended consequences. This is especially the case for AAA games that put a lot of demand on your CPU and your GPU.
You should check the list of known bugs for anything that might be causing problems with CPU and GPU usage for the game that you’re playing. It might be that you have to wait for the developers to patch your specific bug.
Cyberpunk 2077 was infamous for this reason: the initial release was buggy and had various performance issues, resulting in the “1.5 patch” version which fixed many of these problems.
However, there are some stop gaps solutions you can do to save your CPU usage while you wait. These solutions include dropping the graphics quality on your games, lowering the frame rate, and changing your PC’s graphics settings to prioritize the GPU over the CPU or iGPU.
Check In Performance/Tuning Software
Your PC probably has several different programs that allow you to do some performance tuning – such as “AMD Software Adrenalin Edition” or “Intel® Extreme Tuning Utility“. The software that comes with your graphics card will also likely allow you to select where your computer will process graphics.
If you have such an option, you should make sure that your computer is set to process your graphics on your GPU rather than the CPU or the iGPU.
If you have the settings on “auto” or “default” your PC might be automatically sending the graphics processing work to the CPU or iGPU. This setting is the biggest culprit of problematic processing for gaming PCs.
Windows Power Saving Options
One of the truths of gaming is that maximum performance often means maximum power settings. It’s hard to squeeze high-end graphics out of a system that has the power saver mode turned on:
Trying to have the best of both worlds can cause processing problems as the PC attempts to deliver on high performance graphics, but still keep processing low to save power.
The solution here is to decide which one of these is more important to you and your gaming style. You can choose the power saver mode and bring your graphics quality down accordingly to save some energy costs and lower the temperature in your PC. However, you can also turn your PC to default or performance power settings to give your CPU and GPU the resources they need to run at maximum graphics settings.
Integrated GPUs and Dedicated GPUs
Another thing worth noting is whether or not your gaming rig has an integrated GPU or a dedicated GPU.
An integrated GPU is more common on laptops, which includes gaming laptops. Some systems even have an integrated GPU alongside a dedicated GPU. You need to make sure that your machine is set to use the dedicated GPU to process your graphics.
If you only have an integrated GPU, you might need to scale back the graphics settings in order to prevent your CPU from doing too much work. This doesn’t mean going back to Playstation One graphics, but it does mean bringing down the 120 frames per second, ray tracing, and other cutting-edge graphic features to something your system can handle without breaking a sweat.
Most games have a “Graphics Settings” menu which allows you to easily tweak this. Disabling graphics quality to medium or high (instead of “ultra”) and turning down (or off) anti-aliasing is usually worth trying before diving into the other available options.
Task Manager Isn’t Always Accurate
One difficult thing to consider is that the task manager isn’t always accurate when it’s reporting GPU usage. The task manager has a bad habit of reporting GPU usage far lower than what it actually is. You could be using 80 to 90% of your GPU while the task manager tells you it’s barely on.
You can get third-party monitoring software to check the performance of your GPU. You can also use a clever workaround that uses heat monitoring in your GPU and CPU to check their relative activity levels and compare that to what the task manager is telling you.
I tend to use either GPU-Z or GPU Temp (third-party software), and these are good enough for me – but everyone’s approach here can vary, so I won’t dwell too much on the various software options open to you.
Lower Your Frame Rate and Graphics Settings
If you tried everything up to this point and you’re still experiencing CPU spikes and low GPU usage, you might just need to lower your graphics settings.
The most demanding graphics settings put a lot of strain on a PC. This can be a bit too much for some PCs to handle. When the graphic demands are too high, they can spill over to the CPU which can ultimately cause performance issues across the game and your system. It’s often better to go for more moderate graphics settings then to have a CPU that’s struggling to run the game to begin with.
Some games also allow you to set a maximum FPS, which can be an easy way of reducing the demand on your CPU and GPU without worrying about all the other settings:
Make a CPU Upgrade or Overclock
Your CPU sets the pace of the rest of your PC. If you have an outdated CPU, but the latest graphics card, your graphics card is going to be held back by your outdated CPU. This means you could be experiencing spiking at CPU usage while your graphics card is chilling out.
You can solve this problem by making sure to upgrade your CPU to something more modern that can handle a more robust graphics card. You can also try overclocking your CPU to give it a little extra wiggle room when it comes time to processing performance gaming:
The Nuclear Option: Reinstall Windows
As with all computer problems, we’ve always got the nuclear option as our last choice. If nothing seems to be able to solve your CPU usage rows, you can always reinstall Windows.
This will reset your system to its factory default settings and remove any system change that might be lost in the works that could be ruining the balance between your CPU and your GPU. Just don’t forget to back up any important files before you do the reinstall so you can have a clean start along with all of your data.
You can back up the local save data for your games to make sure that everything from save files to custom settings and controller options get carried over when you reinstall Windows.
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