If you’ve ever installed a game on Windows, you must’ve seen a pop-up installing some version of DirectX on your PC. While we mostly ignore any dependencies that our games require, these are some of the most important things affecting your gaming experience.
Software optimization, in addition to powerful hardware, is what makes games play well. Since developers can’t do much about the hardware you use, they often optimize their games as much as possible to run on a variety of hardware.
This is where tools like DirectX come into play. It is the reason why Windows dominates PC gaming today.
What Is DirectX and What Does It Do?
DirectX is a series of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) made by Microsoft for Windows and Xbox that gives game developers access to low-level hardware features. They give the developer more control over how the game works with the hardware, allowing them to fine-tune games for performance on various hardware.
In its simplest form, DirectX facilitates communication between a game and the PC’s hardware, including the GPU, memory, and sound card. DirectX is somewhat like a middleman, facilitating communication between hardware and software.
Older games, such as the ones that ran on DOS, had direct access to the system’s hardware. This meant that developers could change configuration files to optimize their games.
With Windows 95, access to low-level hardware features was restricted as a security measure. The side effect was that games could no longer interface with the hardware directly.
To fix this, Microsoft launched DirectX in 1995 with Windows 95. Since then, the API has seen continuous support and updates to bring it to its latest version at the time of writing, DirectX 12 Ultimate.
Since its launch, DirectX has had the following modules. Keep in mind that while DirectX is still critical to PC gaming, several of these components have been updated or deprecated and might not be used in modern games.
- DirectX Graphics: This includes two APIs, namely DirectDraw and Direct3D, for drawing 2D and 3D graphics respectively.
- DirectInput: Handles interfacing with keyboards, mice, joysticks, controllers, and other input devices. This component has been changed to XInput after DirectX version 8, which is exclusively for Xbox controllers.
- DirectSound: Handles sound playback and recording. DirectSound3D (DS3D) is used for 3D sounds.
- DirectX Media: This includes a number of smaller APIs.
- DirectAnimation: For 2D web animations.
- DirectShow: For media playback and streaming. It also contains plugins for audio signal processing and DirectX Video Acceleration for hardware-accelerated video playback.
- DirectX Transform: For web interactivity.
- Direct3D Retained Mode: For higher level 3D graphics.
- DirectPlay: Handles networked communication between games. Now deprecated.
- DirectMusic: For media playback of tracks made in the DirectMusic Producer.
- DirectX Media Objects: Handles objects streaming for encoders, decoders, and effects.
- DirectSetup: This isn’t an API but is meant to install DirectX components.
DirectX isn’t the only graphics API out there, but it is the most common considering Windows’ popularity. DirectX is also exclusive to Windows, unlike other APIs like OpenGL or Vulkan, which have cross-platform support.
Does DirectX Impact Game Performance?
Yes, it does. DirectX is a pretty big deal for Windows because otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to run games on the OS.
Hardware options to deck out a PC or laptop are endless these days. You’ve got multiple generations of CPUs and GPUs from different manufacturers and different motherboard and memory standards from countless others. This means there’s an almost infinite number of hardware combinations that each game has to support.
As you can guess, this makes it incredibly difficult for game developers to optimize their games for the hardware. Previously, developers had to write their own drivers for multiple GPUs. However, APIs like DirectX are standardized, meaning one driver from Nvidia or AMD will do just about everything, regardless of your hardware.
This makes it extremely easy for developers to optimize their games and does so for a variety of hardware capabilities. Note that stronger hardware will still win in terms of performance in most cases, but the software optimization made possible by DirectX allows games to run better across the board.
Additionally, DirectX also enables features like ray tracing, mesh shaders, sampler feedback, and variable rate shading. These features may or may not be supported by your hardware, but game developers need to enable them for games. The effects range from anything from better in-game graphics and lightning to more FPS and overall performance.
What Version of DirectX Should You Use?
DirectX is backward compatible, so you should always use the latest version of DirectX possible. That’s not to say you need to worry about DirectX versions on your computer. Chances are you most likely already have the latest DirectX version your PC or hardware supports.
DirectX 12 Ultimate is the latest version at the time of writing. DirectX12 and DirectX 11 were already quite feature-packed, but DirectX 12 Ultimate builds on top of that to add more features for next-generation hardware.
Checking your DirectX version is a simple task:
- Press Windows Key + R to open the Run prompt.
- Type dxdiag and hit Enter.
This opens the DirectX Diagnostic Tool, which shows all the important system data you need to know, including what DirectX version you’re running and what features are enabled. There are other ways of opening the DirectX Diagnostic Tool if the Run prompt doesn’t work for you.
On modern versions of Windows, such as 10 and 11, installing or updating DirectX requires running a Windows update. If, for whatever reason, your DirectX isn’t the latest version (DX12 Ultimate at the time of writing), you can start a Windows update like you usually do, and it should show up as a downloadable update.
Optimization Plays a Big Role in Gaming
DirectX has been powering games and multimedia programs on Windows since Windows 95. With Microsoft continuing to blur the lines between Windows and Xbox, DirectX is also evolving to allow game developers to build and optimize games that run on a wide range of hardware capabilities.
This makes PC gaming accessible to a much larger audience. Especially people who don’t run top-of-the-line PC hardware.
With Nvidia and AMD releasing their strongest GPUs yet, Intel trying to break into the GPU market, a drop in GPU prices, and some big game releases for 2023 lined up, it sure is an interesting time for gamers.