Here’s whether it’s safe to run games in real-time priority:
It is safe to run games in real-time priority, in that you won’t break your computer or ruin anything in the process.
With modern computers, you’re unlikely to even have unintended negative side effects.
But, with older machines and specific modern setups, this could cause the computer to run slowly or crash.
So if you want to learn all about what happens if you run your games in real-time priority, then this article is for you.
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What Is Real-Time Priority?
Real-time priority is something Windows uses to describe how the processor allocates resources when carrying out tasks.
In less-technical terms, it’s a priority function for any one of the things your computer is doing at a given moment.
Real-time priority is the highest priority level that exists in Windows (other systems use the concept of priority, but they might use a different name).
So, if you set a game to real-time, then it’s getting access to computer resources ahead of other operations that might run.
Let’s look at this a little deeper to better understand what is happening.
How Does Real-Time Priority Work in Windows?
Let’s imagine that you have to write a paper for school.
While you’re working, you have music playing on Spotify.
You might also browse the web to do research for the paper (and maybe as a distraction from the paper now and then).
When you’re doing these various things, your computer has to multitask.
Multitasking is actually incredibly complicated from the computer’s perspective.
It has to allocate a lot of different resources in the right amounts so that everything feels smooth and responsive on your end.
One tool used to do this is priority.
Typically, Windows will automatically assign priority levels to the many tasks running at a time.
In the example above, Spotify might get a higher priority than the word processor you are using to write the paper.
What does this mean?
It means that Spotify will get more access to the central processing unit (CPU) while it is running.
This means that the computer is able to go through the lines of code that make Spotify work a little faster than the lines of code that make the word processor work.
If Spotify requires more CPU power to run correctly, then this priority assignment is good.
If things are working as intended, Spotify will play music just fine, and your word processor will be perfectly responsive as you type.
That’s how things work by default, but you can manually change the priority of tasks running on your computer.
When you do, it changes how much access those tasks get to the CPU as they run.
What Are the Different Real-Time Priority Settings?
In order to understand what real-time priority means for running a game, it might help to look at the different priority settings that exist on Windows.
There are six in total, and real-time is the highest of them. Here are the others:
- High. Unless you manually change priority, this is reserved for tasks that demand significantly more CPU power than average.
- Above normal. Spotify is likely to land here or on normal.
- Normal. As the name implies, this is the standard setting for tasks.
- Below normal. This is for tasks that don’t require much power or don’t activate very often.
- Low. This is the bottom setting. Tasks at this priority only get leftover processing power when everything else is running satisfactorily.
How Does Real-Time Priority Impact Performance?
Ideally, raising the priority of a task will help it to run faster, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
The truth is that a lot of tasks actually interact with other tasks in order to function.
For any app you use on your computer, there are various services and kernels running behind the scenes in order to make it all work.
Here’s a simple example.
If you play a game on your computer, it probably interacts with your mouse and/or keyboard.
The primary mouse and keyboard functions run on kernels that are unrelated to your game.
You know that because you can use both of them even when the game isn’t launched.
So, in order for the game to work properly, it has to interact with other software on the computer that makes essential stuff work.
Now, let’s think about that in terms of priority.
If you set your game to run in real-time priority, then it is going to get a lot of attention.
The mouse and keyboard will be at a lower priority.
What this means is that if the game ends up using enough CPU power, it will hog the resource, and your mouse and keyboard could become sluggish or even unresponsive.
Even though the game is running at a higher priority, the gaming experience isn’t necessarily improved.
What you’ll find is that manually optimizing priority is often a matter of research and trial and error. It’s not as simple as raising the priority on a game to make it run better.
Is It Safe to Run Games in Real-Time Priority?
Now, we can get back to the central question.
Will you break anything if you mess with the priority?
The short answer is no.
If you change the priority and things don’t work out so well, you can always change it back.
This doesn’t damage the computer or anything like that, and it shouldn’t impact CPU temperature management or put the computer in any kind of danger.
The real risk is that you will run into unintended consequences. As long as you understand those and how to deal with them, you should be fine.
What Can Go Wrong With Real-Priority and Games?
You should have a fair idea of what priority means and how it impacts your system.
With that new knowledge, it should be a little easier to understand how and why that can lead to negative outcomes.
Now, it’s entirely possible that changing the priority of a game will improve its performance.
It’s rather likely that changing the priority will have no noticeable impact on your experience.
It’s also possible that things will be worse. If that’s the case, these are the most likely things you will experience.
#1 Auxiliary Slow Down
This is a common side-effect of changing priority, but it’s only really going to matter if your game is a resource hog.
If your CPU isn’t anywhere near maxing out when you play the game, the priority settings shouldn’t make a noticeable difference.
Then again, you’re likely looking into priority specifically because your game is taxing the CPU.
In that case, setting the game to real-time could very easily make other functions effectively slow down.
You already saw an example of how this can impact things like the mouse and keyboard, but the real scope is a lot wider.
It’s hard to predict what additional tasks might slow down, and it’s even harder to predict what that will mean for your gaming experience.
Suffice it to say that things can get unexpectedly worse.
#2 Computer Freeze
This is a more extreme example, and again, it is only a risk if the game pushes your CPU to its limits.
If you’re in that camp, then increasing the game’s priority can freeze the entire computer.
Here’s how that might happen.
The game genuinely uses 100% of the CPU’s capacity.
Since it’s the top priority, other functions have to wait for the CPU to free up some usage before they can do anything.
Some of those other tasks might be critical to the computer in a general sense.
While those critical tasks are waiting their turn to operate, your computer freezes up.
Since the computer is frozen, the game can no longer free up CPU usage, and you end up stuck.
Let me emphasize that this does not directly harm the computer.
You haven’t bricked it or caused permanent damage.
You can force a restart (by holding the power button).
When the computer comes back on, the game won’t be running, so everything is fine.
You’ll want to lower the game’s priority before you try to play again.
#3 A Blue Screen or Crash
Blue screen errors were a lot more common on older versions of Windows, but they still show up every now and then.
Even without a blue screen, a computer can crash.
Instead of freezing, the computer kills the operating system and shuts itself down.
This can happen rather suddenly, and it’s possible to lose unsaved data.
The problem here is basically the same as a computer freeze.
The real-time priority game is hogging resources that the computer needs to run critical tasks. When those tasks fail, you get a crash.
Once again, this doesn’t mean that your computer is ruined. You just need to reset the priority before you launch the game again.
#4 Poor Multitasking
This is a rather common side-effect of manual priority management.
Since you don’t know exactly how the different tasks on the computer interact, you have to guess as to what each priority setting should be.
If you guess wrong, then you can cause an essential task to slow down, and that has a cascading effect on the computer in general.
On your end, this will look like poor multitasking.
Do you remember that example from earlier where you were listening to music while writing a paper?
If the priority setting hurts multitasking, then Spotify might stutter or have trouble loading the next track.
Conversely, your word processor might give you the “thinking” icon, or your browser might run at a crawl.
These are all examples of reduced multitasking. The good news is that you can reverse the situation and set the priorities back to what they were.
How Do You Change Real-Time Task Priority?
We’ve covered what this all means.
How do you actually do it?
The easiest way to control priority is in the Task Manager.
You can find that by typing it into the search bar after you hit the Window button.
Once you pull up the Task Manager, navigate to the “Details” tab. There you will find a list of all of the tasks that are currently running that you can manage.
You can right click on any of them, and you’ll see an option for the priority.
Hover over it, and then you can choose the priority that you want.
Since you’ve just read a bunch of warnings relating to how this can go wrong, a bit of prudence is suggested.
Pay attention to the priority before you change it. That way, if things don’t work out well, you’ll know how to change it back.