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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  • Warren21 - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Yeah, I don't know why they're playing this off as an RV770 overclock. RV790 is indeed a respin of RV770, but hey if nV can get by with 1000 different variants on the same GT200... Why not mention the benefits/differences between the RV770 and the RV790? Disappointed. Reply
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 6, 2009 - link

    I guess they didn't mention the differences ? Tell you what, when ati gets 999 more rebrands and catches up with their competitotr, we'll call it even, ok ?
    In the mean time, the 4870 crossfires with the 4980, and soon enough we'll have the gamer joe reviewers that downclock the 4890 and find it has identical results to the same clocked 4870 - at that point the red roosters will tuck their flapping feathers and go home.
    I know, it's hard to see it coming, when all you can see is s tiny dot of red, in a sea of 1000 choices of green. rofl
  • bill3 - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    According to info at other sites, the 4890 has 3 million more transistors (959 instead of 956, very little difference). It also has a somewhat larger die due to tweaks made to allow the higher clocks.

    Go to Firing Squad or Xbitlabs review, both have an certain ATI slide that explains the small changes in detail.
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 6, 2009 - link

    " Because they’re so similar, the Radeon 4870 and 4890 can be combined together for mix-and-match CrossFire, just like the 4850 and 4870. "
    I guess it's not a rebrand.
  • bill3 - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link">

    The slide is the first clickable pic on that page, actually. Didn't realize we could do links.
  • bill3 - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Or even better">

  • Proteusza - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Thanks guys, good read.

    The piece on PhysX kinda mirrors my thoughts on it - its not worth basing a GPU purchasing a decision on it because it affects so few games. If you design your game around PhysX, you end up making a gimmicky game, if you design a good game and think of good ways to let PhysX enhance it, you can make something good like Mirror's Edge.

    The way I think about PhysX is based on Amdahl's law, which says that overrall speedup of a CPU from an enhancement that affects only a certain class of application is affected by the amount of time spent using that certain class of application. In the case of PhysX, the amount of time spent using it is generally extremely low, and when it is used the effect isnt always noticeable or worth having.

    NVidia's marketing tactics leave a lot to be desired frankly, although I'm not naive enough to say AMD never tries a little marketing manipulation themselves.
  • Sylvanas - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Why on earth would you compare a newly released Nvidia driver to that of an ATI driver from December last year and a Hotfix at that? The latest ATI drivers have had substantial improvements in a few games and surely they would have sent you an up to date driver with the 4890 review sample- somethings not right there. Also, where was the overclocking comparisons? (some reviews stating 1ghz core 4890 no problem). What about Temps and Stock cooling fan noise?

  • 7Enigma - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    I'm a bit disappointed with the ATI card. That is pretty much the Sapphire Vapochill model with increased core (actually it's a slightly slower memory setting). At least the GTX 275 is something different. Reply
  • bill3 - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Wow lol..both cards are just rehashes. Calling the Nvidia card "something different" is a hell of a stretch.. it's just their same other cards with various clocks twiddled for the trillionth time.

    If anything the ATI card brings more to the table, as it offers much more clock headroom (1ghz is said to be well within reach) due to it's redesign, while the Nvidia card is nothing at all new intrinsically (aka it will overclock similar to the 285). Too be fair Nvidia's better clock-capable models (285) just came out a couple months earlier instead of now.

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