You’ve been living too perfect of a life if you’ve never used the phrase “it’s been a long day,” and for NVIDIA it has most definitely been a very long day. Just over two weeks ago the graphics industry was shook by some very hard hitting comments from Gabe Newell of Valve, primarily relating to the poor performance of NVIDIA cards under Half Life 2. All of the sudden ATI had finally done what they had worked feverishly for years to do, they were finally, seemingly overnight, crowned the king of graphics and more importantly – drivers. There were no comments on Half Life 2 day about ATI having poor drivers, compatibility problems or anything even remotely resembling discussions about ATI from the Radeon 8500 days.

Half Life 2 day was quickly followed up with all sorts of accusations against NVIDIA and their driver team; more and more articles were published with new discoveries, shedding light on other areas where ATI trounced NVIDIA. Everything seemed to all make sense now; even 3DMark was given the credibility of being the “I told you so” benchmark that predicted Half Life 2 performance several months in advance of September 12, 2003. At the end of the day and by the end of the week, NVIDIA had experienced the longest day they’ve had in recent history.

Some of the more powerful accusations went far beyond NVIDIA skimping on image quality to improve performance; these accusations included things like NVIDIA not really being capable of running DirectX 9 titles at their full potential, and one of the more interesting ones – that NVIDIA only optimizes for benchmarks that sites like AnandTech uses. Part of the explanation behind the Half Life 2 fiasco was that even if NVIDIA improves performance through later driver revisions, the performance improvements are only there because the game is used as a benchmark – and not as an attempt to improve the overall quality of their customers’ gaming experience. If that were true, then NVIDIA’s “the way it’s meant to be played” slogan would have to go under some serious rethinking; the way it’s meant to be benchmarked comes to mind.

But rewind a little bit; quite a few of these accusations being thrown at NVIDIA were the same ones thrown at ATI. I seem to remember the launch of the Radeon 9700 Pro being tainted with one accusation in particular – that ATI only made sure their drivers worked on popular benchmarking titles, with the rest of the top 20 games out there hardly working on the new R300. As new as what we’re hearing these days about NVIDIA may seem, let us not be victim to the near sightedness of the graphics industry – this has all happened before with ATI and even good ol’ 3dfx.

So who are you to believe? These days it seems like the clear purchase is ATI, but on what data are we basing that? I won’t try to build up suspense senselessly, the clear recommendation today is ATI (how’s that for hype-less journalism), but not because of Half Life 2 or any other conspiracies we’ve seen floating around the web these days.

For entirely too long we’ve been basing GPU purchases on a small subset of tests, encouraging the hardware vendors to spend the majority of their time and resources optimizing for those games. We’re not just talking about NVIDIA, ATI does it too, and you would as well if you were running either of those two companies. We’ve complained about the lack of games with built-in benchmarks and cited that as a reason to sticking with the suite that we’ve used – but honestly, doing what’s easy isn’t a principle I founded AnandTech on 6+ years ago.

So today we bring you quite a few new things, some may surprise you, some may not. ATI has released their Fall refresh product – the Radeon 9800XT and they are announcing their Radeon 9600XT. NVIDIA has counterattacked by letting us publish benchmarks from their forthcoming NV38 GPU (the successor to the NV35 based GeForce FX 5900 Ultra). But quite possibly more important than any of those announcements is the suite of benchmarks we’re testing these cards in; how does a total of 15 popular games sound? This is the first installment of a multipart series that will help you decide what video card is best for you, and hopefully it will do a better job than we have ever in the past.

The extensive benchmarking we’ve undertaken has forced us to split this into multiple parts, so expect to see more coverage on higher resolutions, image quality, anti-aliasing, CPU scaling and budget card comparisons in the coming weeks. We’re working feverishly to bring it all to you as soon as possible and I’m sure there’s some sort of proverb about patience that I should be reciting from memory to end this sentence but I’ll leave it at that.

Now that the long-winded introduction is done with, let’s talk hardware before we dive into a whole lot of software.

The Newcomers
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  • Anonymous User - Friday, October 24, 2003 - link

    I believe a few of these benchmarks are misleading. The flight simulator 2004 results are a perfect example. It's obvious that the frame rates are limited to the refresh rate of the selected resolution, which is different for different cards (example: 125 Hz, 75 Hz, and 60 Hz). I would suggest fixing your method of benchmarking or removing the games with incorrect results from your benchmark suite, since it misrepresents the NVIDIA card's true performance. I would have thought the stepped frame rates on cards of WIDELY varying performance would have clued you guys in on the problem, but I guess not.
  • Anonymous User - Tuesday, October 21, 2003 - link

    Anand have refused to give ATi the credit they deserve. In every bench where ATi prevailed they managed to find some fault with the benchmark rather than find fault with nVidia's cards\drivers. Those 5 "Marginal" benches belong to ATi ...but Anand can't very well award them or it looks too one sided. The summing up recommends ATi, but not because the cards are better, apparently it's because you can't predict what the future holds (???). It's time Anand got it's hand out of nVidia's pocket and told it like it really is ...The current crop of nVidia FX cards Suck as much as they Blow. They can't produce the goods without cheating and favourable reviewers. To those that would choose nVidia over any other manufacturer, no matter what they produce! You just got Screwed over.
  • Anonymous User - Monday, October 20, 2003 - link

    Thank God! At last a review that means something!
  • Anonymous User - Thursday, October 16, 2003 - link

    The 9800 XT is already on my upgrade list. Thanks you Anandtech once again for helping me make an imformed decision. One game I would like to see is Papy's Nascar Racing 2003 as it can be a real bear to run.
  • Anonymous User - Sunday, October 12, 2003 - link

    OMG I predicted this a few months ago. That Nvidia would start messing with the filtering. Setting it to a lower value than what the end user thinks it is set at.

    An analogy: What if you set your graphics card to 1280 rez but in the game the driver forces the game to load at 1024 or even 800x600 rez.

    Well I know most of you would figure it out but I know lots of people that could be fooled.

    Take it a step further and use bilinear filtering when the person sets it at trilinear. This is not as obvious, it forces the card to do 1/2 the work it would be doing if tri filtering was invoked.

    So basically Nvidia drivers have fooled Anandtech into praises. It makes Anand either look like a fool or greedy.

    Either way this review is tainted.
  • Anonymous User - Saturday, October 11, 2003 - link

    Everyone should read this article. It explains what Anandtech could not.

    Added on October 9, 2003:

    AnandTech made an extremely extensive article about the performance and image quality of the current high-end graphic cards like Radeon 9800XT and GeForceFX 5950 Ultra (NV38). Beside the game benchmarks with 18 games, the image quality tests made with each of those games are strongly worth to be mentioned. AnandTech uses the Catalyst 3.7 on ATi side and the Detonator 52.14 on the nVidia side to compare the image quality. In contrast to the statements of our youngest driver comparison, AnandTech didn’t notice any general differences of the image quality between the Detonator 52.14 and 45.23 and therefore AnandTech praises the new driver a little into the sky.

    This however not even absolutely contradicts itself with our realizations. The nVidia-"optimizations" of the anisotropic filter with texture stages 1 till 7 in Control panel mode (only a 2x anisotropic filter is uses, regardless if there were made higher settings) are only to find with proper searching for it, besides most image quality comparisons by AnandTech were concerned without the anisotropic filter and therefore it’s impossible to find any differences on those pictures. The generally forced "optimization" of the trilinear filter into a pseudo trilinear filter by the Detonator 52.14 is besides nearly not possible to see on fixed images of real games, because the trilinear filter was created in order to prevent nearly only the MIP-Banding which can be seen in motion.

    Thus it can be stated that the determined "optimizations" of the Detonator 52.14 won’t be recognized with the view of screenshots, if you do not look for them explicitly (why however AnandTech awards the driver 52.14 a finer filter quality than the driver 51.75 is a mystery for us, then the only difference between them is a correctly working Application mode of the Detonator 52.14). Thus the "optimizations" of nVidia are not to be really seen
  • Anonymous User - Thursday, October 9, 2003 - link

    Has any else noticed that the Nvidia 5600 ULTRA gets whooped by the ATI 9600 Pro in this article? This is sharp contrast to the AnandTech's last review on the two cards here==> What's going on here??
  • avijay - Wednesday, October 8, 2003 - link

    I have a problem the viewing the results of the tests they way they are now posted. Could it be possible to put the graphs the way it used to be, i.e., not use flash. Cos I access the site thru a public network and flash movies or similar things don't load and hence I haven't been able to view the graphs for the past few articles now. Thanks.
  • Anonymous User - Tuesday, October 7, 2003 - link

    I am only interested in 1600x1200 or higher, with AA & AF turned on. I could not imagine spending >$500 and using 1024x768, etc. Perhaps AnandTech could include benchmarks at the high end of resolutions, AA & AF, especially considering they are reviewing the "best" or "most expensive" graphics card available to the consumer.
  • Anonymous User - Tuesday, October 7, 2003 - link

    The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind can be a great benchmark, with a little .ini file tweaking so that it shows the FPS in the corner.

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