All New Gaming Test Suite

On the gaming side, the changes are rather more substantial. We’ve decided to wipe the slate clean and select all new titles for 2012. Actually, that’s not entirely true—I’ve been running tests with Civilization V and Total War: Shogun 2 for a while, but we’re now updating the settings for the benchmarks and all laptop editors will test with the following games and settings. Note that we tried to get a good selection of game genres in the list; depending on how you want to classify the games, we have four games representing first person/third person action games, two strategy games, one RPG, and one simulation/driving game. We also have representatives of several major engines—Unreal Engine 3, Frostbite 2, and Source being the most noteworthy. We’ve tried to overlap our desktop gaming suite, and while we won’t use identical test suites, we do overlap on six of the titles.

The other big change is that we’re ramping up the quality settings this year. Previously, we had both Low/Minimum and Medium settings at 1366x768. Unfortunately, we often ran into games where minimum quality looked, frankly, awful; in other games the difference between our Low and Medium settings ended up being negligible. For 2012, then, we’ve decided to skip the “minimum” detail testing and select settings that we feel most gamers will actually like using. [Update: we're changing the naming convention to avoid name space conflicts.]

Our Value setting for the test suite loosely corresponds to last year’s “Medium” settings, all run at 1366x768; our new Mainstream settings bump the resolution to 1600x900 and increase quality to roughly match last year’s “High” settings; finally, our Enthusiast settings enable 4x MSAA in all seven titles and increase the resolution to 1920x1080, basically matching the “Ultra” settings of 2011. We’ve tested each game on several setups with the goal of choosing settings that will result in reasonable quality and performance differences between the three settings. With that out of the way, here’s a rundown of the games.

Batman: Arkham City: The sequel to 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City continues the story of the Dark Knight with a free roaming playground to explore at your leisure. Graphically, the game is similar to the original title, only now the PC version has (properly working) DX11 support. The DX11 features come at a serious performance cost, however, so our Value test setting will leave them off. Note that even in the game settings, DX11 features are disabled unless you choose the maximum “Extreme” preset—and you’ll really need a beefy PC to handle the workload at that point!

We’re using the built-in benchmark so that readers can compare our results with their own hardware. Our Value settings use the Medium defaults; for Mainstream we switch to the High defaults and enable DX11 features; finally, for Enthusiast we use the Extreme preset and enable 4x MSAA. If you’re wondering, leaving DX11 disabled largely removes performance differences between the various settings, at least on moderate hardware. We tested at 1366x768 with Low, Medium, High, and Very High settings and found the average frame rates only dropped around 20%; enabling DX11 on any of the other modes results in a drop of around 40%.

Also worth noting is that Batman supports PhysX, but we won’t be testing with PhysX as that’s only available on NVIDIA hardware. That said, we do want to mention that PhysX definitely improves the gaming experience, with enhanced fog effects, more debris, cloth effects, and certain weapons (e.g. the freeze gun in one scene) fire polygons instead of sprites/textures. My own impression is that Batman with PhysX enabled and DX11 disabled generally looks better than Batman with DX11 enabled and PhysX disabled. If you want all of the goodies enabled, you’ll need very high-end hardware, beyond what most laptops can support—we’d suggest GTX 560M SLI as a bare minimum for the Extreme preset with PhysX enabled at 1080p.

Battlefield 3: We’re switching our Battlefield choice from Bad Company 2 to Battlefield 3, though in practice performance is frequently similar. For this title, we’re using FRAPS and using a two minute tank “on rails” sequence from the Thunder Run single player mission. Performance in the single player missions is highly variable depending on the level, and multi-player is even more so, but we need something that provides consistency between test runs. The Frostbite 2 engine puts quite a hefty load on your GPU, and if you want all the eye candy enabled you’ll need more than your typical mobile GPU. For BF3, our Value settings use the Medium preset; Mainstream uses the High preset; and Enthusiast uses the Ultra preset. BF3 also supports DX10 and DX11, and we leave the DirectX version support set to “Auto”; outside of Intel’s HD 2000/3000 hardware, that means all laptops will run in DX11 mode.

Civilization V: Civ5 is an interesting title in that the use of driver command lists allowed NVIDIA to optimize performance and get a healthy boost in frame rates not long after it launched. AMD has yet to implement command lists (AFAIK), but as we showed in our HD 7970 review, there may be other factors at play. We continue to use the built-in LateGameView benchmark, and it’s worth noting that the turn-based nature of Civ5 makes lower frame rates more palatable than in shooters. For our detail settings, Value has all of the video settings at Low; Mainstream uses High settings on everything (with the High detail strategic view enabled); Enthusiast is the same, only with 4x MSAA enabled. We use the DX10/11 executable and set the configuration file to allow the use of both SM41 and SM50 (Shader Model 4.1/DX10.1 and Shader Model 5.0/DX11).

DiRT 3: Our replacement to DiRT 2 is a simple update to the latest title in the series. As with BF3, this time we’re letting all systems use DX11 hardware—early indications are that DX11 improves performance at Low to High presets, but it creates a pretty massive performance drop at the Ultra preset. We run the in-game benchmark. Our Value setting will use the Medium preset; Mainstream will use the High preset, and Enthusiast will use the Ultra preset with 4x MSAA. (Note that just moving the detail slider from High to Ultra results in a ~40% drop in frame rate while adding 4xAA accounts for another 10-15%, so there’s a pretty sizeable gap between our Mainstream and Enthusiast results.)

Elder Scrolls: Skyrim: Skyrim is one of two titles in our updated list that doesn’t (currently) support DX11. There may be a patch at some point to improve the situation—there are some old conflicting statements from earlier this year where Skyrim was claimed to support DX11—but for now we’re using whatever the game has in the latest patch (e.g. as of early January, 2012). Texture quality is not one of the strong points of Skyrim, with frequently blurry textures (thanks to the console cross-platform nature of development), but at least dragons are now properly attacking with the latest updates.

As far as benchmarking goes, Skyrim appears to be far more taxing on the CPU side of things than on graphics, particularly for desktop gamers, but mobile graphics hardware is several rungs down the performance ladder so we’re going to use it. Our Value setting uses the Medium preset with antialiasing off, anisotropic filtering set to 4x, and texture quality set to medium with FXAA disabled—the latter basically uses a full screen blur filter to remove jaggies while increasing blurriness. For Mainstream, we use the High preset and turn antialiasing off. Last, for Enthusiast, we use the Ultra preset but drop antialiasing to 4xAA. Note that enabling antialiasing, at least on a GTX 560M, appears to have a minimal impact on performance; however, that may not always be the case so we’re sticking with our standard of no-AA at Value and Mainstream settings and 4xAA at the Enthusiast settings.

Update: The 1.4 patch of Skyrim dramatically improved performance, and Bethesda also released a high resolution texture pack for the PC. We will use the high resolution texture pack at the Mainstream and Enthusiast settings going forward.

Portal 2: Portal 2 is our representative of the Source engine, and like the other Source games released so far from Valve, that means no DX10 or DX11 support. That doesn’t mean the game isn’t graphically demanding, though it may have different bottlenecks than many of the other titles. We use an in-house demo file where the player combines speed gel with portals, switches, and an Excursion Funnel to advance through the map. Like most Source engine games, frame rates tend to be quite a bit higher than other titles. Our Value settings use trilinear filtering with multicore rendering enabled, and Shader/Effect/Model/Texture detail are all at Medium (with paged pool memory available set to High). Mainstream maxes out all of the settings with the exception of antialiasing, which remains off, and Enthusiast adds 4x MSAA to the mix.

Total War: Shogun 2: Wrapping up our gaming list is Total War: Shogun 2, a game which holds the dubious honor of being the slowest loading title in our test suite—by a large margin. Initially launched as a DX9 title, a patch later added DX10/11 support. Graphically, it’s difficult to tell what differences the various rendering modes have, but DX11/SM5.0 does appear to have substantially better SSAO. The patch that added DX11 features also added a built-in benchmark, the introduction to one of the scenarios, which we use for our testing. Our Value settings use the Medium preset, Mainstream will use the High preset, and Enthusiast uses the Very High preset with 4x MSAA enabled. In addition to enabling the DX11 engine, all of our settings files are set to use SM5.0 code where applicable.

2012: Meet Our New Mobile Benchmark Suite Benchmarks and Closing Thoughts
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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 07, 2012 - link

    I don't know anyone that uses PowerDirector 10, so I'd be curious about how it's viewed (note: I'm not a video editor by any stretch). WinZip on the other hand is a far more interesting option; I'll keep an eye out for that one. :-) Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Saturday, January 07, 2012 - link

    I'd note that we dropped our video encoding benchmark on GPU Bench midway through the year last year, because GPU accelerated video encoding was actually CPU limited. Performance quickly plateaued at GTX 460/Radeon 5750 levels, as at that point the GPUs outran the CPU. Reply
  • QChronoD - Friday, January 06, 2012 - link

    Would it be possible to add the screen size to the specs listed for each system in Bench? It's kinda silly to be missing since that's one of the primary criteria people use to narrow down models. Reply
  • ArKritz - Friday, January 06, 2012 - link

    Wouldn't it make more sense to just use medium presets for the medium benchmark, high for high, ultra (or very high) for ultra and just drop the "low" benchmarks altogether? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 07, 2012 - link

    Basically, we've done what you suggested, only we call the settings Low, Medium, and High rather than Medium, High, and Ultra. It just seems weird to call test settings Medium/High/Ultra--or take it to another level and test at High/Very High/Extreme--when we can call the settings Low/Med/High. It's just semantics. Anyway, the settings were selected for two things:

    1) Get reasonable quality for the target res/setting (Min/Low is often insufficient)
    2) Make sure there's a difference between the detail settings (this is why we don't test DiRT 3 at Ultra and Ultra + 4xAA for instance).

    In several games, the difference between many of the settings is negligible, both in terms of quality and in terms of performance. We don't feel there's much point in testing at settings where games run at 100+ FPS unless there's no other option (e.g. Portal 2), and likewise we didn't want to have results where it was basically same quality, different resolution (unless we couldn't find a better option). Batman is another example of this, as 1366x768 at Low settings is only slightly slower than 1366x768 at Very High settings. Anyway, the main thing was to let people know exactly how we plan to test in one location, so that I can just link it in future reviews.
    Reply
  • Gast - Saturday, January 07, 2012 - link

    Have you looked at changing the names to providing some sort of meaning other than just the level of the test? Something along the lines of "Playable, High Quality, Max Quality"

    Changing the names from Medium, High, and Ultra will be jarring for me. When skimming I will see "Low" and think the minium settings needed to run the game. Which is different than the "playable" or "medium" settings you are presenting.

    While I can learn to adjust to this change, irregular AT readers might not and walk away with the wrong impression of what the test was representing.
    Reply
  • PolarisOrbit - Saturday, January 07, 2012 - link

    I agree that when you use the terms "low / medium / high" there is an implication that you may be referring to the in-game settings rather than your interpretation of the different settings that are worth benchmarking. A careless reader may not notice the difference.

    To me, it makes sense to compare a cheap laptop to the cheap level and an expensive laptop to the expensive level (obviously I mean expensive gaming laptop since for a gaming benchmark). So I would suggest dividing it by market segment like so:
    low -> value settings
    medium -> mainstream settings
    high -> performance settings
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 07, 2012 - link

    Our charts will continue to list the game settings we use for testing, plus I intend to link back to this article on the gaming section so that new readers can understand exactly what we're testing. We could also call the settings "Value/Mainstream/Performance" or something, but all that really says to me is "they are using custom settings so make sure you know what is being tested". Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

    I think at some point I need to go through the games and capture screenshots at our Low/Med/High settings as well to give a better indication of what the various settings mean -- and maybe add a "minimum" screenshot as well to show why we're skipping that in most titles. That probably won't happen until post-CES though.
    Reply
  • Gast - Saturday, January 07, 2012 - link

    "they are using custom settings so make sure you know what is being tested"

    That's basically what I'm pushing for. If would be ok if your medium test was very similar to the medium setting, but since almost all of your tests have a naming conflict with in game settings (low test = medium settings) I would find it helpful to call them something different.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 07, 2012 - link

    Okay, I've gone ahead and renamed the benchmarks to Value/Mainstream/Enthusiast, as I can see where confusion might otherwise result. Hopefully I caught all the references, but if not I'm sure someone will set me straight. :-) Reply

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