Zwift on PC: The Ultimate Guide to Running Zwift at Its Very Best (2022)

To experience Zwift at ultimate visual quality and performance, a Windows PC is required. This article is not intended to provide a comparison between the pros and cons of the various platforms, but rather to offer advice on running Zwift at its very best, which means at the highest levels of detail, resolution, and frame rate. Whilst there are many people who happily run Zwift on their mobile phone, tablet, Apple TV, or laptop, some may be considering ways to improve their experience.

There are many misconceptions addressed here – primarily that Zwift is all about the graphics card (not the whole story), that the CPU doesn’t matter (inaccurate), that you need an ‘expensive high-end gaming rig’ (incorrect) and that PCs inherently aren’t as stable as other platforms for running Zwift (codswallop). PCs do require some additional effort to set up versus other platforms, but I firmly believe the results are worth it.

The information here is based on having personally put together over 70 dedicated Zwift PCs for members of the community, and hundreds of hours of testing and discussion with fellow nerds enthusiasts. At this point, my own PC has been rebuilt and changed at least ten times…

Warning: a better-looking, smoother Zwift will not make you faster or stronger (unless it gets you on the bike more often). It’s just nicer. We’re all paying to stare at Zwift, so why wouldn’t we want it at its best? If you’re already content with a lower level of detail and/or a low frame rate, this article is not intended for you!

It’s important to note that almost all of what follows is NOT particularly good advice for PC gaming in general, because Zwift is different to most other modern games and there are diminishing returns beyond a certain point of investment. You don’t need the latest and most expensive parts. This guide is primarily aimed at those who want to use their PC solely or mainly for Zwift and want a great experience without wasting money unnecessarily. Despite recent graphics card supply and pricing issues, it’s still possible to do this for much less money than you may think.

Overview – Key components for Best Performance and Value in Zwift

Processor: Ideally use a CPU with strong raw (single thread) performance, to combat the frame rate swings when it’s busy. Zwift doesn’t take advantage of modern CPUs with many cores though, so don’t waste your money on an expensive, high-end model. Large performance improvements brought about by Intel’s 12th generation mean the choice is simple: if you want 60fps as often as possible then go for a new ‘Alder Lake’ i3 quad core CPU. I own the i3-12100F and it’s superb at keeping frame rates high in Zwift. If you don’t mind the frame rate dropping to around 30fps however, then just save the cash and build with a 4th gen ‘Haswell’ i3 dual core CPU from the i3-41X0 range, which represents by far the best value for money for Zwift. Notwithstanding incredible bargains, virtually every CPU in between ends up poor value because they’re either not as good as 12th gen, or too expensive compared to 4th gen.

  • Performance/New: Intel Core i3-12100F
  • Value/Used: Intel Core i3-41X0, or equivalent 4th gen Xeon if streaming/multitasking is your thing
  • Ultimate: Overclocked Intel Core i5-12600KF

Graphics Card: For Ultra profile, look for a mid-range Nvidia graphics card of 900 series or newer with at least 2GB of VRAM. Remember that without a strong CPU as mentioned above then you’ll see the same bottlenecks no matter what graphics card you have, so don’t waste money on something really expensive if your CPU will just hold it back a lot of the time anyway. Don’t even bother with the 1080p in-game resolution setting, all the graphics cards listed here are capable of at least 1440p which looks better on a 1080p display.

  • Ultra profile, 1440p resolution: Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, 1050 Ti or 1650
  • Ultra profile, 2160p (4K) resolution: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980, 1060, 1650 SUPER or higher
  • Ultimate: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 or higher, including any GeForce RTX graphics card

Display: To ensure the smoothest experience in all circumstances, an adaptive sync monitor (with compatible graphics card and DisplayPort) works best to iron out frame rate swings. A big TV is immersive, but you’ll almost certainly encounter stuttering at some point unless your CPU and graphics card are both strong enough to keep the frame rate consistently high.

  • Smoothest: Freesync, G-Sync Compatible or G-Sync monitor
  • Most immersive: Huge 1080p or 4K TV
  • Ultimate: 120Hz 4K adaptive sync TV with HDMI 2.1 and RTX 3000 series graphics card

Memory: 8GB of DDR4 (or DDR3, depending on the CPU platform chosen) is plenty of system RAM for Zwift. More RAM won’t improve anything, in fact the game runs just as well in terms of frame rates on as little as 2GB, albeit with low-quality textures. You absolutely do not need 16GB+, as other modern games demand. RAM speed and latency doesn’t matter much to Zwift, so just grab the best value deal you can find.

Storage: A 120GB SSD is easily enough storage for a PC with Windows and Zwift. The game can take a while to apply updates and load worlds, so be sure your system is running on an SSD rather than a mechanical HDD. In normal usage, starting the PC, loading Zwift, and getting to the pairing screen should take less than 60secs – even on budget hardware.

OS: Windows 10 is the easiest operating system to recommend for the foreseeable future, ideally clean installed onto the SSD from scratch. Installing as little extra software as possible ensures maximum stability.

Zwift uses OpenGL, so AMD graphics cards should generally be avoided for a dedicated Zwift PC due to how poorly their Windows drivers perform in this regard. It’s not that they won’t work, it’s just hugely inefficient. If AMD is the only choice, stick to the RX 580 and above. You will also be able to use adaptive sync with a Freesync monitor.

The Basics

Graphics in Zwift are determined by just two variables; the profile and the game resolution. Beyond manually tweaking some aspects of the configuration files (there’s a brilliant guide here on Zwift Insider) only the resolution is determined by the user, via the in-game settings menu.

The PROFILE is the level of detail determining polygon count – foliage, depth of field, texture resolution, reflections, lighting and shadows, and environmental elements such as water effects and wildlife seen – and the profile is chosen automatically by the game. What you see is based on your computer’s graphical ability and cannot be changed. For computers using integrated graphics (without a dedicated/discrete graphics card), you will almost always see the Basic detail profile. This is the lowest tier of graphics in Zwift and is the same as phones, most tablets, and all Apple TV models.

These profiles increase through Medium and High, up to Ultra for mid-range graphics cards and above. Zwift HQ manually account for every graphics card and decide on a profile for it, hence the reason why some people with newly released graphics cards sometimes see less detail than they are expecting for a while. Almost all consumer graphics cards from 2015 onwards receive Ultra profile, so in this respect there’s literally no difference between a GTX 960 and an RTX 3090 costing many times as much. What’s actually on screen is exactly the same.

The RESOLUTION determines how sharp the game appears on screen, and is accessed via the in-game settings menu. It’s not affected by your physical output resolution, it’s the internal render resolution within the game itself. This ranges from 576p through to 2160p (4K). Rather unhelpfully, these options use the same naming scheme so it’s understandable why some people get confused between the two (for example when considering the capabilities of the Apple M1 devices, which have been assigned High profile, not Ultra). Selecting the higher resolution options and hoping to maintain 60fps+ in the most demanding areas will require a stronger graphics card, but it won’t change the graphics you see – that’s based on the profile which is automatically determined.

Higher resolutions are just increasingly sharper and cleaner in terms of jaggies. Note that you’re not limited to the physical resolution of your display – for example with a 1080p TV or monitor, the 1440p in-game setting is ideal because it looks better with negligible impact on performance – just be aware that going up to 2160p (4K) has significantly higher demands. This is most notable in areas of dense foliage such as the Watopia jungle, Titans Grove, New York, and the Yumezi section of Makuri Islands. Dust clouds when following a large group are particularly taxing, and can bring even high-end graphics cards to their knees.

To recap, profile and resolution in Zwift are two separate things. To see the Ultra PROFILE you will simply need any decent mid-range Nvidia graphics card from 2015 or newer in your PC. To be able to select the highest RESOLUTIONS in the game’s settings menu and maintain 60fps as often as possible, the demands on the graphics card increase, particularly in areas of dense foliage and when a lot of dust kicks up.

Which Graphics Card?

Choosing a graphics card is easier to determine than it may appear, given that the profile is automatically selected and all mid-range graphics cards and above get the highest amount of detail with Ultra profile. All you really need to consider – aside from your budget of course – is the resolution you want to use, and whether you want to use adaptive sync (more on that later). The resolution you choose from the in-game settings menu doesn’t change what you see on screen, in terms of features and visual effects. It just looks sharper, that’s literally it.

Assuming Ultra profile at 60fps is the target, then for the 1440p in-game resolution setting an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, 1050 Ti or 1650 is fine. These graphics cards are from three different generations but are all good for 1440p which looks great on a 1080p TV or monitor.

For the 2160p (4K) in-game resolution setting you’ll want at least an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980, 1060, or 1650 SUPER. Again, these are all different generations and are broadly similar in terms of Zwift performance at 4K. Anything higher, including any GeForce RTX model, just provides more headroom. The higher up each range you go, the most likely it is that your frame rate will stay at 60fps in the most graphically demanding areas. For example, a GTX 1070 would stay at 60fps more often than a GTX 1060, and an RTX 2060 even more often. There are diminishing returns of course, so be sensible. Spending more and more on the graphics card doesn’t make sense if your CPU is going to hold it back regularly – say if big group events are your favourite thing to do on Zwift.

Don’t worry about VRAM capacity, there’s no benefit in Zwift to having more.

Bear in mind that the 900 and 1000 series cards (GTX 1050 Ti excluded) are out of production, so you’ll need to trawl the used market for one of those. Keep your eyes peeled and try to grab something to suit your needs at a reasonable price; there’s really no need to buy a brand new, current-generation RTX 3000 series card for Zwift unless money is no object or the price difference is negligible.

It does get a little more complex if you wish to use adaptive sync for the smoothest experience though. To get the best from an affordable Freesync or G-Sync Compatible monitor then you need a 1000 series or newer graphics card with DisplayPort. Using adaptive sync on older generations of Nvidia graphics cards such as the 900 series requires an expensive dedicated G-Sync monitor. If you want to utilise adaptive sync on a modern 4K TV with HDMI 2.1, then you’ll need an RTX 3000 series card.

Unfortunately, in the current climate it may well be a case of using whatever you can find for a reasonable price. It’s worth noting again that whilst AMD graphics cards offer really good value for regular gaming, they perform particularly poorly in Zwift. This is due to their Windows drivers for the specific programming interface it uses (OpenGL) being much less well optimized than those offered by Nvidia. If you only have AMD graphics cards to choose from, then an RX 580 and above should be okay and you will be able to utilise adaptive sync with a Freesync monitor. But stick to Nvidia for the best results.

The CPU Problem

Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. In a solo ride, in a relatively quiet area of say Watopia or London, virtually any decent graphics card will be able to hold 60fps in Ultra profile without much bother at all. However in a big group ride, following a popular Pace Partner or around busy spawn points, you will find that the frame rate tanks and for most systems this means the experience starts to stutter. This is irrespective of the graphics profile assigned and resolution selected. The impact can vary in significance, from being barely noticeable right down to making Zwift an expensive slideshow. The unfortunate truth is that this behaviour happens to everyone and it’s not the graphics card which is struggling. It happens because Zwift is very limited in how effectively it utilises the CPU in a system. All the data being sent to and from the servers about the riders around you requires crunching before the graphics card can be told where to draw everyone, and this process doesn’t take advantage of modern CPUs with many cores and hyperthreading. It all relies on raw processing power – that is, how much work the CPU can do in the shortest time possible.

What helps to prevent the frame rate dropping in these circumstances is not a stronger graphics card as many believe, but a CPU that can process the position data more quickly. This is almost always an Intel CPU; whilst AMD’s Ryzen series of CPUs are often good value and provide a great upgrade path because all Zen generations released to date can normally be installed in the same motherboard, up until the most recent 5000 series CPUs, their single-thread performance has trailed behind the Intel equivalents. In addition, because Zwift doesn’t benefit in any way from high core and thread counts, there’s no benefit to buying more than a quad-core CPU.

This unique combination of requirements means the 12th generation ‘Alder Lake’ Intel Core i3-12100F is the standout option for anyone looking to build with new parts. It’s cheap and does the job brilliantly, preventing the frame rate from dropping below 60fps in all but the very biggest group events. Ryzen CPUs have been excellent for value over the last few years and a lot of what you’ll see online will recommend them for gaming PC builds, but for Zwift in particular, the 12th gen Intel CPUs truly change the landscape. The i3-12100F beats even flagship i7 and i9 CPUs from previous Intel generations (and the very best Ryzen models) when it comes to single-thread performance, making it the obvious choice if you’re looking to build or upgrade a PC for Zwift. As the platform gets more popular with more riders online at once, the benefit of a strong CPU increases irrespective of the graphics card you use, whereas even the best graphics card will always be held back in Zwift by a weaker CPU when it’s busy.

If you want to hold 60fps even more consistently, consider an i5-12600KF. This ideally requires an expensive enthusiast-tier motherboard and adequate cooling – adding to the cost – as well as the patience to find stable overclock settings. For most people there’s no need to go down this route over an i3-12100F for Zwift unless you’re happy to spend the extra effort and money. Higher tier 12th gen models exist but the returns diminish rapidly.

Note that both the i3-12100F and i5-12600KF need to be used with a dedicated graphics card (denoted by the ‘F’ suffix); they do not have integrated graphics which makes them cheaper to buy. If the 12th gen CPUs are too expensive, more budget-friendly options are detailed later in the guide.

To help demonstrate the impact of being CPU limited, and with excellent analysis courtesy of Zwiftalizer.com, here are two examples from popular Tour de Zwift group events. It can be clearly seen that as the number of riders nearby (and therefore data transferred, represented in yellow) increases, the frame rate in blue decreases.

In both examples the frame rate drops down from the desired 60fps as the pen populates and the event begins, before recovering back to 60fps once the field becomes suitably stretched. Despite the frame rate becoming lower than desired, the GPU utilisation during this period is much lower than expected, because it’s limited by the CPU. Only 100 of the nearest rider avatars are ever rendered on screen in Zwift, doubly confirming that the low frame rate is not caused by too much load on the GPU. Note that there are two differences between these PC configurations – in the second screenshot a substantially weaker graphics card is used and the resolution setting has been dropped from the very highest (4K) to the very lowest (576p). Despite these changes, the behaviour is exactly the same in both examples, because the CPU used for the tests is the same and so the limiting factor is unchanged.

The game needs to know and be able to visualise the live positions, speeds, and drafting physics of potentially thousands of other riders at the same time and lots of these calculations are done at the client end – on our systems. The graphics card’s GPU becomes severely under-utilised whilst this is going on because it’s waiting for instructions from the CPU, and so the frame rate drops. It may seem counterintuitive but it’s preferable for a GPU to be working at a high utilisation in games, that way you’re getting the maximum out of it. Utilisation being low means it’s being stopped from working its hardest by some other aspect of the system – a bottleneck. Or to put it the other way around, if GPU utilisation was at 100% (the graphics card trying its best) and the resultant frames rates were lower than desired then it would be clear that upgrading to a stronger graphics card would improve performance, but that’s often not the case in Zwift. Likewise, reducing the resolution setting does not help when the CPU is the limiting factor. So you shouldn’t spend too much money on a graphics card, because that’s not where the bottleneck is whenever there are lots of other riders nearby.

It’s worth noting here that since its launch and up until the time of writing, the whole of Makuri Islands and particularly Neokyo is inexplicably CPU limited at all times, even when there are no other riders around. This behaviour is different to every other world on Zwift. So if the frame rate is much lower than you are expecting on Neokyo, it’s almost certainly because your CPU isn’t strong enough, NOT your graphics card.

Mitigation with Adaptive Sync

There’s no sign that the fundamental behaviour of Zwift will change, so all we can do is mitigate it. The only ways to retain a smooth performance are to have a CPU and graphics card that are both strong enough to prevent the frame rate dropping too far, or to accept that the performance will always suffer in certain circumstances and use your display to address it with adaptive sync technology. For several years now, Freesync support has been available on Nvidia graphics cards for its 1000 series graphics cards and newer when using a DisplayPort cable (it won’t work over HDMI). Previously you needed to buy a high end dedicated G-Sync monitor but this is no longer the case with more recent graphics cards. Likewise, if you want to run Zwift on a big screen and always have the smoothest experience, HDMI 2.1 TVs are becoming more affordable and can usually utilise adaptive sync technology. This requires a current generation RTX 3000 series graphics card though.

On a typical TV or fixed refresh rate monitor, a drop in frame rate results in a mismatch which introduces stuttering. Adaptive sync smooths out frame rate drops at the other end of your system by ironing out the stuttering associated with mismatched frame rates and refresh rates. When adaptive sync is operating, a display automatically adjusts its refresh rate in real time to match your frame rate – smoothing out all the fluctuations.

This makes adaptive sync a great solution for a game ‘on rails’ like Zwift, where the frame rate can change by a large amount purely due to the circumstances of the ride. It removes the stutter, and there’s no tearing. Ideally you want a wide enough adaptive sync range to allow for every eventuality you will encounter, so check the specifications of any monitor you are considering using. On 144Hz gaming monitors you’re basically covered no matter what, because even below the adaptive sync range, Low Framerate Compensation (LFC) kicks in to avoid stuttering.

Whilst Freesync now works with Nvidia graphics cards in addition to those from AMD, unless a Freesync monitor is officially certified as ‘G-Sync Compatible’, then you won’t know if adaptive sync will work correctly with an Nvidia graphics card until you try it. So be sure to check online reviews, Reddit, etc to see how other people got on; you’ll normally find someone somewhere has tried the particular monitor model and reported back. Most of them work just fine even without certification, but it’s worth checking before spending your money. High-end dedicated G-Sync monitors will always work perfectly, even with older graphics card models such as the 900 series.

Summary

  • The frame rate always drops when it’s busy, and how severe this is depends on the CPU, not the GPU.
  • A 12th generation Intel i3 is good enough to maintain 60fps in all but the most extreme of circumstances.
  • It’s not necessary to buy the latest and greatest graphics card, and there are diminishing returns.
  • You DO NOT need to spend mega money on a gaming PC to get a great experience in Zwift, so don’t!
  • Spend your money in the right places if you want to mitigate stuttering issues caused by frame rate drops.
  • This is much easier with an adaptive sync monitor but is also increasingly possible with modern TVs.

Nvidia Driver Info

There are very few options in the Nvidia Control Panel which really help the experience, and the only important one is to enable triple buffering (it’s disabled by default). This setting allows the frame rate in Zwift to be truly variable, rather than dropping hard to 50% refresh rate – usually 30fps on a typical TV or monitor – and sometimes being stuck there. This hard drop behaviour is caused by Vsync, which Zwift uses as standard. Disabling Vsync introduces tearing though, so keep it enabled in tandem with triple buffering for the best results. It’s worth noting here that I have seen no evidence whatsoever that the Nvidia driver version used has any bearing on stability or performance when it comes to Zwift. So don’t worry about it.

System RAM and Storage

Zwift only requires 8GB of system RAM, and typically uses less than 2GB when you’re riding. In fact the only real reason to have as much as 8GB is because the game automatically serves up low-quality textures otherwise. If you’re streaming and/or heavily multitasking then 16GB may be more suitable, but it’s absolutely not necessary for Zwift alone, and adding more RAM doesn’t help performance. Likewise, RAM generation, speed, and latency doesn’t affect much in Zwift so just go for the best value deal you can find. You will need DDR4 for a modern platform, and potentially DDR3 for something older.

Nobody likes waiting for updates or the game to load, so be sure to install both Windows and Zwift on an SSD. These are extremely good value because they absolutely transform the general performance of any computer. If your system will only be used for Zwift, a 120GB SSD is plenty of space. With an SSD, Windows typically starts up in around 15 seconds, Zwift updates take a few minutes at most, and the game loads to the pairing screen in 30 seconds or less. If you’re usually waiting longer than this and don’t already have an SSD, I strongly recommend buying one to replace your HDD.

Whichever storage type you use, ideally you should clean install Windows 10 from scratch before downloading Zwift. All in this should take less than an hour, depending on your internet connection speed. The less software you can have on your Zwift PC, the more likely it is to be stable, and it makes troubleshooting easier.

Building on a Budget

If you’re not willing or able to stretch to a modern 12th generation i3 for Zwift, then the next best option is to drop down to 4th gen. That’s not to say that the CPU generations in between aren’t better, it’s just that the incremental steps up in performance are nowhere near enough to justify the extra cost versus just going straight up to 12th gen. Even flagship CPUs from previous generations aren’t as good at Zwift as the i3-12100F, despite often costing many times as much and normally requiring expensive motherboards and cooling solutions to get the most from them through overclocking. So if 12th gen is too expensive then you’re better off accepting the frame rates will drop when it’s busy and go for something older at the best price to performance ratio. If you’re using adaptive sync then the impact is far less obtrusive anyway.

With this in mind, by far and away the best value options are 4th gen ‘Haswell’ i3 CPUs such as the i3-4130/50/60/70. These are dual-core CPUs with hyperthreading, which is all Zwift needs to work well. If you’re streaming and/or heavily multitasking then a quad-core may be better, so look for a Haswell Xeon CPU which fit in the same motherboards without issue and are far cheaper than their equivalent consumer i5 and i7 counterparts whilst performing just as well. With any of these 4th gen CPUs, the frame rate will drop to around 30fps when there are a lot of other riders around. When you consider how cheap and readily available the 4th gen platform parts are, this is outstanding value for the money, and being prudent on the CPU may allow you to buy a better graphics card.

To save even more money, look for an ex-office desktop PC with the aforementioned i3-4130 (or similar) already installed and ready to go. There are loads of these systems available cheaply on the likes of eBay. Ideally get one without proprietary power connectors inside, which makes upgrading the power supply much easier if required. Good examples are the HP ProDesk 400 G1 MT, Dell Inspiron 3847, and Acer Veriton M2631G. Upgrade it in accordance with the rest of this guide – 8GB of system RAM, 120GB SSD, and clean install Windows 10 – then begin your search for a reasonably-priced graphics card… good luck!

The absolute minimum graphics card I would recommend for Zwift is a GT 1030 (GDDR5 version), which gets Medium profile and can often do 60fps at the 1080p resolution setting when not otherwise limited by the CPU. Whilst this is clearly inferior to the Ultra profile cards mentioned earlier, it still represents a much-enhanced experience over phones, most tablets, and Apple TV. Importantly, Medium profile gets rider shadows, which make a huge difference to the overall look and feel of the game.

I find repurposing cheap old PCs like this for Zwift particularly satisfying; PCs that may have been otherwise destined for landfill. Helping to reduce e-waste whilst getting fantastic results on this platform at low cost feels like a win for everyone.

Whatever you decide to go for, I hope this guide has helped in some way and you manage to put together a PC which makes your Zwift experience more enjoyable. Cheers, and Ride On!

Acknowledgments

Huge thanks to J.Levie, M.Hanney, S.Louvet, M.Wozniak, S.Norman, S.Clogg, C.Peerman, and many others on the ZPCMR Facebook group for their input and help when compiling this guide.

Appendix

Related Posts

Top Articles

You might also like

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Francesca Jacobs Ret

Last Updated: 10/18/2022

Views: 6398

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (48 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Francesca Jacobs Ret

Birthday: 1996-12-09

Address: Apt. 141 1406 Mitch Summit, New Teganshire, UT 82655-0699

Phone: +2296092334654

Job: Technology Architect

Hobby: Snowboarding, Scouting, Foreign language learning, Dowsing, Baton twirling, Sculpting, Cabaret

Introduction: My name is Francesca Jacobs Ret, I am a innocent, super, beautiful, charming, lucky, gentle, clever person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.