Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/1355




Introduction

In the seemingly never-ending wait for a final version of 64bit MS Windows to hit the streets, the only recourse for those who want a stable and reliable 64bit operating system on their desktop is Linux (or Apple's OS X, if x86 isn't a prerequisite). While support for x86-64 under Linux is solid, neither 32bit nor 64bit Linux can run the vast majority of computer games on the market, and many die-hard Linux fans still use a dual boot set-up in order to get their gaming fix. The hope for gamers and 64bit (fortunately or not) lies in the 64bit version of Windows.

Recently, ATI released a beta version of their 64bit Catalyst drivers, and we spent some time playing around with various hardware and games on this new platform. There is some good, and there is some bad (as is always the case), but it is definitely a good thing that ATI has joined NVIDIA in the 64bit public beta department. The more testing that can get done on these drivers before their release, the smoother the transition should be when final versions of everything become available.

What we eventually expect to see when running 32bit games under a 64bit OS is a slight improvement in performance, but nothing to write home about. The main reason for this is the availability of extra resources to the operating system and drivers running on the system. The increased availability of registers and other enhancements of x86-64 will provide the operating system with a slightly more efficient means of managing processes and resources. Drivers will also have this added benefit when bridging the gap between software and hardware. The 32bit software is still limited by what it percieves as the limitations of the hardware, so it won't be able to really take hold of the possibilities for performance improvement.

Until 64bit versions of the software that we know (and love) will come along, we won't be able to tell what the true benefit of the once again reworked architecture will be. But for the purposes of this review, we want to see equivalent or slightly improved performance. This will tell us whether or not Microsoft is on track with WoW, and how far along the ATI and NVIDIA driver teams are in producing a solid 64bit product.




Driver Overview

One thing that needs to be mentioned right off the bat is OpenGL support. While we could run most of the OpenGL based games that we had on NVIDIA hardware, ATI's drivers couldn't load up a single OpenGL based game that we tested. While just about everything here is pre-release beta software, the fact that Warcraft III (which ran fine under DirectX) couldn't start up in OpenGL mode seems to indicate that it isn't a game support issue, but an API support issue.

Both NVIDIA and ATI have their strong and weak points (as we will see from the tests), but they are both continually refining these drivers in preparation for the final version of the 64bit edition of Windows XP. Having played around with the first versions of the OS to make it onto the street, and the first versions of drivers for everything, we can honestly say that we are seeing some promising improvements. It's not quite time to migrate over, but the time is coming when it won't make sense for Athlon 64 users to be running a 32bit operating system.

The other major issue that we had was with hardware support. ATI claims in the release notes for their first 64bit beta driver that the X800 series of cards are supported. We tried multiple platforms including VIA and NVIDIA chipsets and multiple software configurations, but we could not ever get an X800 based card to load ATI's 64bit Catalyst driver. The install would not find the card, and when we specifically selected the ATI driver for use with our card via the hardware manager, the system would crash before the install could complete. If we, instead, attempted the install from safe mode, we could avoid the crash, but immediately we entered into an infinite loop of rebooting, which could only be fixed by going back into safe mode and uninstalling the driver.

This is beta software, to be sure. But we had at least hoped for a little more luck knowing that ATI had listed it as supported hardware.

Of course, the beta driver with which we have to work from NVIDIA came out earlier than the 6800, so there is no support for NV40 under 64bit Windows yet, but we have been speaking with them about the possibility of grabbing a beta with NV40 support for testing. If there is any demand for it, we are considering a follow up article when we get our hands on 64bit drivers that support both R420 and NV40.




The Test

Our test platform for 64bit is the same platform that we used in our most recent 32bit reviews on the NVIDIA 6800 and ATI X800 parts, and the only thing that has changed is the software running on the hardware.

Performance Test Configuration
Processor(s): AMD Athlon 64 3400+
RAM: 1GB OCZ PC 3200 2:2:2:6
Hard Drive(s): Seagate 120GB 7200 RPM (8MB Buffer)
Video Card(s): NVIDIA GeForce FX 5950 Ultra
ATI Radeon 9800 XT
Motherboards: FIC K8T800
Driver Versions: Catalyst Beta 1 for WinXP 64
ForceWare 57.30 for WinXP 64

Again, it is important to remember that not only are we looking at beta video drivers, we are also running on a beta operating system. All of our games are 32bit games, and, as such, they will all be running within the WoW64 component of Windows (which still needs some work in the area of compatibility). Some of our games didn't work because they weren't supported by the driver, and some games didn't work because Windows couldn't handle running them. It really is hard to tell at this point what's wrong with what and where.

Two games that we really wanted to see make it into this test suite that didn't were Painkiller and FarCry. Currently, we have only been able to play around with the demo versions of Painkiller, neither of which we could get to run (though, we hear that the retail version of the game is playable). FarCry ran beautifully, and we were really excited about it. Unfortunately, one of the few things that we ran into which was less than functional was the benchmarking functionality. We couldn't record or playback any benchmarks at all.

It is also important to note that ATI and NVIDIA do not currently have drivers that support R420 and NV40 based cards under a 64bit operating system. We have asked each of them if they could provide us with a beta 64bit driver so we could run some tests on the latest and greatest hardware, but we have yet to get our hands on anything. We will definitely keep you posted.




Halo


Halo

While the performance of the NVIDIA part drops almost 25% when running under their 64bit drivers, ATI's performance doesn't budge. Again, these are beta numbers, and neither one is what we expect to see from final shipping products. Both ATI and NVIDIA should have increased performance in the 64bit environment.




Final Fantasy XI


Final Fantasy XI

Here, we see that NVIDIA is able to push this MMORPG out to the screen slightly faster under 64bit. This is a welcome surprise during beta testing, as it bodes well for the types of increases in performance that we should be able to see in some cases. It is possible that we're seeing this increase not because of the graphics driver, but because the graphics driver doesn't hinder the performance boost that the OS is able to give the game through better resource management.




Unreal Tournament 2004


Unreal Tournament 2004

Again, we see a modest increase out of NVIDIA's camp with only a slight decrease under ATI's 64bit drivres. Of course, so far, the ATI offering has been faster than NVIDIA, even if performance went down when moving to the beta platform. Of course, we can't actually speak about what the field will look like when we have a shipping OS and drivers when numbers are this close.




X2: The Threat


X2: The Threat

Here, we see relatively similar performance between platforms for each camp.




Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne


Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne

Once again, only slight drops in performance for both ATI and NVIDIA when running beta drivers on a beta operating system.




Final Words

So, all in all, things look to be on track for ATI, NVIDIA, and Microsoft. Having experienced the joy of WoW for 16bit applications on Windows NT back in the day, even this early beta version for 32bit apps seems like a miracle. Of course, just because something is better than a previous iteration doesn't make it good - Microsoft will need to have WoW ready to support the vast majority of applications and games on the market if the 64bit version of Windows XP is going to gain any real acceptance in the marketplace.

Along with Microsoft, the biggest issue for NVIDIA and ATI right now is software support. Both camps need to push a little harder to make sure that their driver isn't going to cause problems with 32bit games running under WoW. Of course, it is very hard to hit a moving target, and all things considered, everything looks alright. The only really big thing to point out is the lack of support for anything OpenGL under the current ATI driver. Obviously, such a large issue will be addressed and taken care of by ATI, but we would have liked to have seen something that we could test at this point.

We would also have liked to test R420 and NV40, but, again, it's all beta drivers and operating systems and really new hardware. Getting their 64bit drivers in working order is more important to ATI and NVIDIA than adding support for the latest bleeding edge product that they've released.

Software support has been a long time in coming to AMD's hardware, but we are very happy to see that everything is progressing nicely. Software support is lacking; there are some stability issues, and performance is just about to the level that we would expect. Here's to the hope that the completion of the development of 64bit software goes smoothly to all involved.

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