New Drivers From NVIDIA Change The Landscape

Today, NVIDIA will release it's new 185 series driver. This driver not only enables support for the GTX 275, but affects performance in parts across NVIDIA's lineup in a good number of games. We retested our NVIDIA cards with the 185 driver and saw some very interesting results. For example, take a look at before and after performance with Race Driver: GRID.

As we can clearly see, in the cards we tested, performance decreased at lower resolutions and increased at 2560x1600. This seemed to be the biggest example, but we saw flattened resolution scaling in most of the games we tested. This definitely could affect the competitiveness of the part depending on whether we are looking at low or high resolutions.

Some trade off was made to improve performance at ultra high resolutions at the expense of performance at lower resolutions. It could be a simple thing like creating more driver overhead (and more CPU limitation) to something much more complex. We haven't been told exactly what creates this situation though. With higher end hardware, this decision makes sense as resolutions lower than 2560x1600 tend to perform fine. 2560x1600 is more GPU limited and could benefit from a boost in most games.

Significantly different resolution scaling characteristics can be appealing to different users. An AMD card might look better at one resolution, while the NVIDIA card could come out on top with another. In general, we think these changes make sense, but it might be nicer if the driver automatically figured out what approach was best based on the hardware and resolution running (and thus didn't degrade performance at lower resolutions).

In addition to the performance changes, we see the addition of a new feature. In the past we've seen the addition of filtering techniques, optimizations, and even dynamic manipulation of geometry to the driver. Some features have stuck and some just faded away. One of the most popular additions to the driver was the ability to force Full Screen Antialiasing (FSAA) enabling smoother edges in games. This features was more important at a time when most games didn't have an in-game way to enable AA. The driver took over and implemented AA even on games that didn't offer an option to adjust it. Today the opposite is true and most games allow us to enable and adjust AA.

Now we have the ability to enable a feature, which isn't available natively in many games, that could either be loved or hated. You tell us which.

Introducing driver enabled Ambient Occlusion.

What is Ambient Occlusion you ask? Well, look into a corner or around trim or anywhere that looks concave in general. These areas will be a bit darker than the surrounding areas (depending on the depth and other factors), and NVIDIA has included a way to simulate this effect in it's 185 series driver. Here is an example of what AO can do:

Here's an example of what AO generally looks like in games:

This, as with other driver enabled features, significantly impacts performance and might not be able to run on all games or at all resolutions. Ambient Occlusion may be something some gamers like and some do not depending on the visual impact it has on a specific game or if performance remains acceptable. There are already games that make use of ambient occlusion, and some games that NVIDIA hasn't been able to implement AO on.

There are different methods to enable the rendering of an ambient occlusion effect, and NVIDIA implements a technique called Horizon Based Ambient Occlusion (HBAO for short). The advantage is that this method is likely very highly optimized to run well on NVIDIA hardware, but on the down side, developers limit the ultimate quality and technique used for AO if they leave it to NVIDIA to handle. On top of that, if a developer wants to guarantee that the feature work for everyone, they would need implement it themselves as AMD doesn't offer a parallel solution in their drivers (in spite of the fact that they are easily capable of running AO shaders).

We haven't done extensive testing with this feature yet, either looking for quality or performance. Only time will tell if this addition ends up being gimmicky or really hits home with gamers. And if more developers create games that natively support the feature we wouldn't even need the option. But it is always nice to have something new and unique to play around with, and we are happy to see NVIDIA pushing effects in games forward by all means possible even to the point of including effects like this in their driver.

In our opinion, lighting effects like this belong in engine and game code rather than the driver, but until that happens it's always great to have an alternative. We wouldn't think it a bad idea if AMD picked up on this and did it too, but whether it is more worth it to do this or spend that energy encouraging developers to adopt this and comparable techniques for more complex writing is totally up to AMD. And we wouldn't fault them either way.

Index The Cards and The Test
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  • 7Enigma - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Deja vu again, and again, and again. I've posted in no less than 3 other articles how bad some of the conclusions have been. There is NO possible way you could conclude the 275 is the better card at anything other than the 30" display resolution. Not only that, but it appears with the latest Nvidia drivers they are making things worse.

    Honestly, does anyone else see the parallel between the original OCZ SSD firmware and these new Nvidia drivers? Seems like they were willing to sacrifice 99% of their customers for the 1% that have 30" displays (which probably wouldn't even be looking at the $250 price point). Nvidia, take a note from OCZ's situation; lower performance at 30" to give better performance at 22-24" resolutions would do you much better in the $250 price segment. You shot yourselves in the foot on this one...
    Reply
  • Gary Key - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    The conclusion has been clarified to reflect the resolution results. It falls right into line with your thoughts and others as well as our original thoughts that did not make it through the edits correctly. Reply
  • 7Enigma - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Yup, I responded to Anand's post with a thank you. We readers just like to argue, and when something doesn't make sense, we're quick to go on the attack. But also quick to understand and appreciate a correction. Reply
  • duploxxx - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Just some thoughts:

    There is only 1 single benchmark out of 7 where the 275 has better frame rates for 1680 and 1920 resolution against the 4890 and yet your final words are that you favor the 275???? Only in 2560 the 275 is clearly the better choice. Are you already in the year 2012 where 2560 might be the standard resolution of the sales, it is only very recent that the 1680 became standard and even then this resolution is high for global OEM market sales. Your 2560 is not even few % of the market.

    I think you have to clarify your final words a bit more with your choice.... Perhaps if we see power consumption, fan noice etc that would be added value to the choice, but for now, TWIMTBP is really not enough push to prefer the card, I am sure the red team will improve there drivers as usual also.

    anything else i missed in your review that could counter my thoughts?
    Reply
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 6, 2009 - link

    Derek has been caught in the 2560 wins it all no matter what with the months on end of ati taking that cake since the 4870 releasse. No lower resolutions mattered for squat since the ati lost there - so you'll have to excuse his months long brainwashing.
    Thankfully anand checked in and smacked it out of his review just in time for the red fanboy to start enjoying lower resolution wins while nvidia takes the high resolution crown, which is- well.. not a win here anymore.
    Congratulations, red roosters.
    Reply
  • duploxxx - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    just as addon, I also checked some other reviews (yes i always read anandtech first as main source of info) and i saw that it is cooler then a 4870 and actually consumes 10% less then a 4870 so this can't be the reason either while the 275 stays at the same 280 power consumption. Also OC parts are already shown GPU above 1000.... Reply
  • cyriene - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    I would have liked to see some information on heat output and the temperatures of the cards while gaming.
    Otherwise, nice article.
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    This is an extreme omission. The fact that the 4890 is essentially an overclocked 4870 means with virtually nothing changed you HAVE to show the temps. I still stick by my earlier comment that the Vapo-chill model of the Sapphire 4870 is possibly a better card since it's temps are significantly lower than the stock 4870, while already being overclocked. I could easily imagine that for $50-60 less you could have the performance of the 4890 at cooler temps (by OC'ing the vapochill further).

    Comon guys, you have to give thought to this!
    Reply
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 6, 2009 - link

    Umm, they - you know the AT bosses, don't like the implications of that. So many months, even years, spent on screeching like women about nvidia rebranding has them in a very difficult position.
    Besides, they have to keep the illusion of superior red power useage, so only after demand will they put up the power chart.
    They tried to get away with not, but they couldn't do it.
    Reply
  • initialised - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    GPU-z lists the R790 as having a surface area of 282mm2 while the R770 has 256mm2 but both are listed as having the same transistor count. Reply

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