What is CSAA?

Taking another step forward in antialiasing quality and performance, NVIDIA is introducing Coverage Sample Antialiasing with G80. Coverage Sample AA is an evolutionary step forward in AA technology designed to improve how accurately the hardware is able to determine the area of a pixel covered by any given surface. CSAA can be thought of as extending MSAA. NVIDIA is calling all of their AA modes CSAA, even though common AA modes (2x, 4x, and now 8x (8xQ to NVIDIA)) are performed exactly the same way MSAA would be performed.

To enable modes that more accurately represent each polygon's coverage of a pixel, NVIDIA has introduced an "Enhance the application" option in their driver. This option will allow you to enable a desired MSAA mode in a game (either 4x or 8x) and then "enhance" it by enabling 8x, 16x, or 16xQ CSAA. This will make the 4xAA requested in the game look like 8xAA or 16xAA. Enhancing 8x to 16xQ gives the effect of 16xMSAA without the huge performance impact that would be associated with such a setting.

To understand how it comes together, lets take a quick look at fragments and the evolution of AA.

We usually refer to fragments as pixels for simplicity sake (and because Microsoft decided to use the term pixel shader rather than fragment shader in DirectX), but it helps to understand what the difference between a pixel and a fragment is when talking about AA methods. A pixel is simply a colored dot on the screen (or stored in a frame buffer). The different pieces of data that go into determining the color of a particular pixel are called fragments. For example, if 2 triangles cover the area of a single pixel, both will be processed as fragments. Texture look ups will be done for each at the pixel center, and a color and depth will be determined, and any of this data can be manipulated by a fragment (pixel) shader. Without AA (and ignoring blending, transparency, etc...), only the fragment that is nearest the viewer and covers the pixel center will determine the color of the pixel. Antialiasing techniques are used to make the final pixel color reflect an accurate blend of the colors that cover a pixel.

A sub-pixel can be thought of as a zoomed in look at the area a pixel covers, so for example instead of a single pixel it can be viewed as a 10x10 grid of sub-pixels. Current popular FSAA (full screen AA) methods use the calculated colors of multiple sub-pixels that fall within the area of a pixel rather than just the pixel center to determine the final color. Super Sample AA takes each of these sub-pixels through the entire pipeline to determine texture and pixel shader output at each location. This is very accurate, but wastes lots of processing power without providing a proportional benefit. This is because sub-pixels that fall on the same surface don't usually end up with very different colors. MSAA only looks at one textured/shaded sample point per fragment. The colors of the sub-pixels on a polygon are the same as the color at the center of the pixel, but each sub-pixel gets its own depth value. When two polygons cover the same pixel, we can end up with different colored sub-pixels. Blending these colors proportionally results in properly antialiased polygon edges.

CSAA extends MSAA by decoupling color and depth values from the positions of the sample points within a pixel. Color values are determined at the pixel center, and color and depth data are stored in a buffer. The extension of this in CSAA comes in that we can look at more sample points in the pixel than we store color/Z data for. Under NVIDIA's 16x CSAA, four color values are stored, but the fragment coverage information for each of 16 sample points is retained. These coverage sample points are able to reference the appropriate color/Z data stored for the polygon that covers them.

While NVIDIA couldn't go into much detail on the technology behind CSAA, we can extrapolate what's going on behind the scenes in order to make this happen. For each triangle that covers a pixel, each CSAA sample point gets a boolean value that indicates whether or not it is covered by the triangle. Color/Z data for the fragment are stored in a buffer for that pixel. For this whole thing to work, each CSAA sample point must also know what color in the buffer to indicate. If we assume position is predefined, the most storage that would be needed for each CSAA point is 4 bits (one boolean coverage value plus 3bits to index 8 color/Z values). The color and Z data will be significantly larger than 8 bytes per pixel, especially for floating point color data, so the memory footprint shouldn't be much larger than MSAA.

As fragments are sent out of the pixel shader, sub-pixel data is updated based on depth tests, and coverage samples and color/Z data will be updated as necessary. When the scene is ready to be drawn, the coverage sample points and color/Z data will be used to determine the color of a pixel based on each fragment that influenced it.

So what are the downsides? We have less depth information inside the pixel, but in most cases this isn't as important as color information. We do need to know depth at different sub-pixel positions in order to handle intersecting polygons, but doing this with a different level of detail than color information shouldn't have a big impact on quality.

The other drawback is that algorithms that require stencil/Z data at sub-pixel locations will not work correctly with CSAA in modes where there are more coverage samples than colors stored. In these cases, like with the stencil shadows used in FEAR, only the coverage samples located where color values are taken are used. This effectively reverts these algorithms to MSAA quality levels. CSAA will still be applied to polygon edges, and stencil algorithms will still work with the decreased level of antialiasing applied.

At a basic level, CSAA can provide more accurate coverage information for a pixel without the storage requirements of MSAA. This not only gives gamers an option to enable higher quality AA, but the option to enable higher quality AA without a large performance impact. While the explanation of how it does this may be overly complex, here's a simple table to help convey what's going on:

General Purpose Processing with G80 CSAA Image Quality
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  • yyrkoon - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    If you're using Firefox, get, and install the extension "flashblock". Just did this myself today, tired of all the *animated* adds bothering me while reading articles.

    Sorry AT guys, but we've had this discussion before, and its realy annoying.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    Do you want to be able for us to continue as a site? Because ads support us. Anyway, his problem is related to not seeing images, so your comment about blocking ads via flashblock is completely off topic. Reply
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    Of course I want you guys to continue on as a site, just wish it were possible without annoying flashing adds in a section where I'm trying to concentrate on the article.

    As for the off topic part, yeah, my bad, I mis-read the full post (bad habit). Feel free to edit or remove that post of mine :)
    Reply
  • archcommus - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    What browser are you using? Reply
  • falc0ne - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    firefox 2.0 Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    If Firefox, I know there's an option to block images not on the originating website. In this case, images come from image.anandtech.com while the article is on www.anandtech.com, so that my be the cause of your problems. IE7 and other browsers might have something similar, though I haven't ever looked. Other than that, perhaps some firewall or ad blocking software is to blame - it might be getting false positives? Reply
  • archcommus - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    Wow to Anandtech - another amazing, incredibly in-depth article. It is so obvious this site is run by dedicated professionals who have degrees in these fields versus most other review sites where the authors just take pictures of the product and run some benches. Articles like this keep the AT reader base very very strong.

    Also wow to the G80, obviously an amazing card. My question, is 450W the PSU requirement for the GTX only or for both the GTX and GTS? I ask because I currently have a 400W PSU and am wondering if it will be sufficient for next-gen DX10 class hardware, and I know I would not be buying the highest model card. I also only have one HDD and one optical drive in my system.

    Yet another wow goes out to the R&D monetary investment - $475 million! It's amazing that that amount is even acceptable to nVidia, I can't believe the sales of such a high end, enthusiast-targeted card are great enough to warrant that.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    Sales of the lower end parts which will be based off G80 are what make it worthwhile, I would guess. As for PSU, I think that 450W is for the GTX, and more is probably a safe bet (550W would be in line with a high-end system these days, although 400W ought to suffice if it's a good quality 400W). You can see that the GTX tops out at just under 300W average system power draw with an X6800, so if you use an E6600 and don't overclock, a decent 400W ought to work. The GTX tops out around 260W average with the X6800, so theoretically even a decent 350W will work fine. Just remember to upgrade the PSU if you ever add other components. Reply
  • photoguy99 - Thursday, November 09, 2006 - link

    I just wanted to second that thought -

    AT articles have incredible quality and depth at this point - you guys are doing great work.

    It's actually getting embarrasing for some of your competing sites, I browsed the Tom's article and it had so much fluff and retread I had to stop.

    Please don't forget the effort is noticed and appreciated.
    Reply
  • shabby - Wednesday, November 08, 2006 - link

    It wasnt mentioned in the review, but whats the purpose of the 2nd sli connector? Reply

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