Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/1261



Introduction

For the past year and a half or so, ATI and NVIDIA have fought a hard battle over leadership in the desktop graphics market with very little in the way of outside competition. Before that, NVIDIA held a comfortable position in the industry after 3dfx started to struggle. There is the occasional release of a Matrox card, PowerVR poked around for a little while, and the ultra low end "just VGA" market has always been filled with the likes of Trident (bought by XGI last year). The desktop graphics arena is filled with the bones of companies who have tried to gain a foothold in one of the most greusome markets in computing. Six month product cycles and always staying one step ahead of the competition is not something that many companies can survive.

S3 (under the wing of VIA) is a company with a second chance at the graphics market, and today we are previewing their upcoming DeltaChrome S8 Nitro graphics card which will be offering users another choice in DirectX 9.0 hardware. This card is supposed to compete in the midrange segment with the likes of the venerable ATI Radeon 9600 and NVIDIA GeForce FX 5700 series cards. Of course, the numbers we will see here aren't final numbers as this is a preview of the hardware running on beta level unfinished drivers. OpenGL numbers will be especially low, but S3 says DirectX numbers will be closer to what we can expect.

We will be able to garner an idea of what we can expect to see from the DeltaChrome S8 Nitro when it is finally finished. We will also be able to explore the features of the card and the drivers and take a look at how much value this card could potentially have.

Does the S3 Graphics DeltaChrome S8 Nitro have the potential to deserve the label of a midrange card? Does S3 have any hope in making a solid reentry into one of the toughest markets on earth? Read on to find out.



The Card

The DeltaChrome S8 Nitro is a DX9 class card supporiting 2.0 vertex and pixel shaders sporting 128MB of ram. We have a few details of the S3 Graphics implimentations, but we have meetings scheduled with them over the Game Developers Conference (GDC) to learn the full details of their architecture which we will bring you in our final review of the card. For now we will tackle the basics.

The S8 Nitro has 4 vertex and 8 pixel shaders. The pixel shaders support both full and partial precision floating point (with full precision being 24bit per channel and partial precision being 16bit per channel). They are able to do up to 8 Z test operations per clock under the right conditions, they support what ATI and NVIDIA are calling 4x rotated grid antialiasing, and upto 16x anisotropic filtering.

Currently, S3 calls thier antialiasing algorithm 2xAA, but under 2x mode, the pixel is sampled twice both horizontally and vertically (which is technically correct, but doesn't fit the established standard). It is likely that the nominclature will end up changing at some point. The maximum resolution at which they support AA is 1024x768, and, eventhough the functionality isn't exposed, it would be possible to do 16 sample AA (what S3 would call 4xAA) at lower resolutions. Obviously this is not going to be fast, and it is unlikely that this functionality will be exposed in the shipping version of the product.

The cards anisotropic filtering may or may not end up being adaptive, but at this point things are still being sorted out. When the card ships, we will run it through the paces with the AF tester. For now, this will be a topic of discussion for our meetings over the GDC.

In testing the hardware we did notice a few visual glitches (which are to be expected from prerelease hardware and drivers), and S3 has assured us that they will be addressing all the issues we noticed. Of particular interest to us were the glitches we saw in DX9 titles as we are very interested in the quality of support the DeltaChrome architecture offers DX9 games. It is still too early to tell if the things we were seeing were due to limitations that can't be worked around or were just the normal run of the mill prerelease issues we were expecting to see. Determining the quality with which the DeltaChrome S8 Nitro will support the latest software won't really be something we can reasonably expect to do at this point.

S3 Graphics has indicated, however, that the type of DirectX performance we will be seeing in our preview will be in the neighborhood of what we will be seeing from shipping product, while OpenGL titles still have lot of room for optimization. The poor OpenGL performance others have seen from the DeltaChrome S8 non-nitro with previous drivers has been improved a bit, but S3 still assures us that they have a lot of breathing room. Again, this is only a preview and we will have to wait until we see final hardware and software to make a firm judgement on the OpenGL side of things.

The card we tested came with an analog, DVI, and video output port, and does not require external power. We also recieved an HD component output dongle that we didn't test for this preview. For the performance tests, the analog port was used.



Software Features and Drivers

Recently there has been a push to expand the value add of a graphics card to include nifty software features that either provide some sort of timesaving function or offer extended eye candy. S3 is not behind the curve on this one, as they pile plenty of features into their driver. Currently located under the advanced settings in Display Properties, S3 offers goes above and beyond the normal color, gamma, info menues and offers things like their Chromotion video options.

Using pixel shaders, S3 has built in functionality to apply realtime filters to video overlays. This sort of thing can be implimented on any architecture that supports pixel shaders, but building this feature into the driver is kind of cool. They even include some filters to do such things as depixilization (which they call deblocking), though we aren't going to do a full exploration of this feature until we take a look at these cards from a multimedia perspective. Those who enjoy ATI's pixel shader eye candy will probably like this feature as well.

The other really interesting feature is the driver based screen rotation setting.

This feature is designed for those who want to turn their LCD panels on their sides and get some added screen height, or for tablet PC users who want to be able to pick the angle at which they view their tablet. We have seen this kind of functionality demoed in a tablet PC that used Analog Devices MEMS accelerometers to determine the proper screen angle (this tablet used an NVIDIA card). S3 Graphics gives us a nice interface with which to manage our screen angle. As far as the quality of each card's impilmentation of rotated screen functionality, we will have to wait for in depth coverage as we are still researching the details of implimentation on platforms other than S3 Graphics.

In getting back to the basics, we can't ignore the most used panels of the advanced settings menu: the DirectX and OpenGL settings. First, we'll take a look at the DirectX settings.

This is where we can change the antialiasing and anisotropic fitering levels if we wish. The settings pictured here are the settings we used when testing without AA and AF enabled.

We see here that there are significantly fewer options available for OpenGL. This is due to the fact that S3 has spent most of their time with the DirectX side of things and is currently in the process of refining its OpenGL support. We are told that current internal drivers offer such things as antialiasing under OpenGL (as well as improved performance). As a result of our available options, none of our OpenGL game tests will include antialiasing.

The last thing to mention is that in playing around with all our driver options, we did experience a couple crashes of the advanced settings windows while playing with options. Again, this is prerelease software and this kind of thing is to be expected. These issues should disappear as launch time approaches.



The Test

For this preview, we will be using a subset of our game test used in our fall round up series, and we will be using the same test platform as in the budget GPU shootout. In fact, we will simply be dropping our DeltaChrome data into the budget GPU shootout graphs since this is simply a preview and not a real test of final performance -- we should only expect to get a fairly general idea of where things are and where they may go. Here is a list of the hardware we used:

AMD Athlon 64 FX-51
ASUS SK8V (VIA K8T800 chipset)
2x 512MB Registered DDR (2-2-3-6)
Seagate 120GB 7200 RPM (8MB Buffer)

As far as drivers go, midrange cards used the ForceWare 52.16 and Catalyst 3.8 drivers, while the budget cards made use of the 53.03 and 3.9 versions. The driver revision we will be using for the S8 Nitro is 15.08.09.b driver.

We have chosen not to do a full image quality analysis at this point becuase we feel it would be a waste of time. These drivers are very early and things are still very much in flux. There are already internal drivers that fix parts of the problems we will note in the following tests, and issues pointed out in previews such as this will most likely be addressed by S3 as well. We have seen how final WHQL certified drivers can change image qulaity between revisions, but fluctuations are even more dramatic on preview hardware and software. We will mention any visual issues we had when running certain tests, but beyond that we will wait for the actual release of the product to post our full analysis on uncompressed screenshots in all their glory.




Aquamark 3 Performance



With Aquamark 3, the S3 Graphics DeltaChrome S8 Nitro puts in a showing in the low midrange or upper budget level of performance. We did see some motion issues with fog and smoke effects which could very well be any one of alpha blending issues, Z test issues, or shader issues. As these are prerelease drivers and hardware, we should expect some issues to exist, but this type of thing does need to be fixed before the card comes to market.


Final Fantasy XI Performance

There were some severe rendering problems with the Final Fantasy XI benchmark where single polygons would fill the screen. Currently S3 is looking into this issue for us, and its not a stretch to think that this issue is also related to the absolutely horrible performance the card has on this benchmark. We will chalk this one upto some needed attention from the driver team for now. Hopefully they will be able to fix whatever has gone wrong here.



GunMetal Benchmark 2 Performance

This is basically a DX8 game with DX9 vertex shaders. Here we are seeing upper budget level performance once again. At points, framerate did drop to 3.5fps, and some of the lighting effects seemed a little brighter than they should have been, but this game didn't look too bad overall. Since this game insists on setting its own antialiasing levels, we saw the setting report 1xAA rather than 2xAA. This may or may not be doing what we would expect in this game since the way AA is implimented in the DeltaChrome S8 Nitro is different from that of NVIDIA and ATI. We will be following up with S3 about his matter as well.



Halo Performance

S3 has informed us that the issues we saw with Halo are known, and that the problems should be fixed in current internal driver sets. The first thing we noted was that Halo reported that the video card didn't meet minimum specs for running at the settings we had specified. We told it to run anyway and noticed a few rendering problems (missing polys and glitches) mostly in the sky and ground of scenes. Again, performance is falling in the upper budget and lower midrange levels.



Jedi Knights: Jedi Academy Performance

The status of the current OpenGL driver is less than optimal, and we did note some rendering issues along with the very slow speed. To reiterate what we've said before, S3 hasn't yet gotten rolling on OpenGL optimizations and has said that they expect performance to be much higher very shortly. They indicate that they have internal builds of the driver that run OpenGL code better than this, and we will have to wait until we get closer to release before we see just how much improvement we can expect.



Unreal Tournament 2003 Performance

When we enabled AA and AF, we noticed that, along with a larger relative drop in performance than NVIDIA and ATI, the 2D text above each player had some clarity issues. This will probably be one of those issues that gets worked out as the final driver version approaches, and fixing it will most likely also mean improving performance a bit.



Warcraft III Performance

When moving to antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, we see that the Nitro becomes a little more of a high powered budget card.



Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory Performance

Here we saw some rendering issues with the smoke effects which was most likely either a depth test or alpha blend problem. This is also an OpenGL game so it is good to see that not all OpenGL performance is as bad as Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Again, these issues will hopefully be taken care of before launch.



Final Words

So can S3 Graphics make it in the DirectX 9.0 market segment? Honestly, time will have to tell as we've only been able to catch a small glimpse of what exactly is on the horizon for this card. The performance of the DeltaChrome S8 Nitro was not poor, but S3 still has a ways to go to make it a solid, marketable product in todays climate.

If the image quality issues we noted in this article can be worked out (along with OpenGL performance), and if S3 is able to provide full and complete DX9 support without compromising on image quality in any game, they will have a very nice higher end budget card on their hands (especially since the budget cards from ATI and NVIDIA tend to skimp on the support in some cases). The card could also be marketed on the lower end of the midrange market, but what it all comes down to is price. If this card costs the same as an ATI 9600 Pro or an NVIDIA 5700Ultra, it would most likely not be worth it (unless S3's driver team finds some sort of performance breakthroughs heretofore unheard of).

The other problem is that NVIDIA and ATI are getting ready to bring their second generation DX9 parts to market. Both camps will have improved performance and levels of support, as well as products that hit the entire gambit of price ranges. The longer it takes S3 Graphics to push out the DeltaChrome S8 and S8 Nitro products, the tougher their situation will become (unless they are very willing to sacrifice on retail pricing).

The value add aspects of the hardware could also be fairly attractive, and we would like to see things like saved settings associated with applications (like NVIDIA does) make their way into this cards featureset as well.

Another option S3 has open to is will be to use an S8 Nitro-like core for integrated graphics on VIA boards (since VIA owns S3, it is very likely that this will happen: Savage chips are currently used). If S3 can offer better speed and feature/API support than Intel's Extreme Graphics, it is very likely that VIA could help to put a dent in the Intel integrated graphics juggernaut. If there is one thing that has always been extremely lacking it is integrated graphics quality.

What it all comes down to is that the DeltaChrome does have potential. It may be a bit to early to tell exactly where that could take us, but more competition in the graphics market place is good for everyone. Here's to hoping that S3 can fix their current issues and bring a solid competitor to market in a timely manner.

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