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

    If the 4890 is in fact a respin then I retract my original comment. My point if just a simple OC was that they were basically rebranding (binning) parts that could clock higher than the stock 4870 and selling it as a new card. That seems not to be the case, and so I can't be at fault if the Anand article didn't address this.

    Regardless of whether the Nvidia card is in fact similar to the other offerings it does have disabled/enabled parts that do make it different than the 285 and 260.

    I'd still really like to see one of the Vapochill units up against the 4890. I'm pretty confident you could get to the stock 4890 speeds, so it's just a matter of whether $70 is worth the potential to OC much higher than the 4870 (if these 1gig core clocks are the norm).

    What we really need to see though is the temps for these cards under idle/load. That would be extremely helpful in deciding how good they are. For example if we see the 4890 at its stock speed is significantly cooler than the 4870 (and they haven't done much to the heatsink/fan), then the Vapochill 4870's just don't stand a chance. If we find the 4890's are similar or higher in temp than the stock 4870's, then it seems much more like a rebadge job.
  • MadMan007 - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    If you look at it objectively the GTX 275 is something more different than the HD4890 unless there are undercover changes in the latter of which we haven't been made aware. HD4890 = clock bumped HD4870 exactly, GTX 275 = 240SP 448-bit memory interface GT200b which was not available as a single GPU card. Reply
  • bill3 - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    Meh..Madman Nvidia are still just playing around with the exact same modular component sets they have been, not adding anything new. Besides as even you alluded it isnt even a new card, it's just half the exact previously existing configuration in a GTX295

    But as I said 285 is clocked higher than 280, I'm assuming Nvidia did die tweak to get there (at the least they switched to 55nm). They just did them 3 months ago or whenever, ATI is just now getting to it.

    But for todays launches, imo ATI brings more new to the table than Nvidia, ever so slightly.
  • Snarks - Tuesday, April 7, 2009 - link

    Ati was the first with the 55nm core.. or did you mean something else?

    the GTX275 is just simply a 280GTX with a few things disabled is it not?
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 6, 2009 - link

    Right, they brought ambient occlusion to the table with their new driver.... LOL
    Man , I'm telling you.
    The new red rooster mantra " shadows in games do not matter " !
    ( "We don"t care nvidia does it on die and in drivers, making it happen in games without developer implementation ! WE HATE SHADERS/SHADOWS who cares!" )
    I mean you have to be a real nutball. The Camaro car shop doesn't have enough cherry red paint to go around.
    I wonder if the red roosters body paint ATI all over before they start gaming ? They probably spraypaint their Christmas trees red - you know, just to show nvidia whose boss...
    Unbelievable. Shadows - new shadows not there before - don't matter... LOL
  • Warren21 - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    I'm surprised they didn't mention it, maybe they hadn't been properly briefed, but yes the HD 4890 IS a different core than the HD 4870.

    It uses a respin on the RV770 called RV790 which has slight clock-for-clock performance increases and much better power efficiency than the RV770. Case in point: higher clocks yet lower idle power draw. It's supposed to clock to 1 GHz without too much hassle granted proper cooling also.
  • Live - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    This review was kind of a let down for me. It almost seems Nvidias sales rep terrorized you so much the last year so you felt compelled to write about CUDA and PhysX. But just as you said from the beginning it’s not a big deal.

    As a trade off temperatures, noise and power seems to have gone missing. You talk about Nvidias new driver but what about ATIs new driver? Did you really test the ATI cards with “Catalyst 8.12 hotfix” as is stated on the test page?!? Surely ATI sent you a new driver and the performance figures seem to support that. I is my understanding that ATI has upped their driver performance the last months just like Nvidia has. No mention of IQ except from Nvidias new drivers. No overclocking which I had heard would be one of the strong points of the ATI card with 1 GHz GPU a possibility. I know you mentioned you would look at it again but just crank up the damn cards and let us know where they go.

    Dont get me wrong the article was good but I guess I just want more ;)

    ATI sems to win at “my” resolution of 1680x1050, but then again Nvida has some advantages as well. Tough call and I guess price will have to settle this one.
  • dubyadubya - Friday, April 3, 2009 - link

    I agree noise and temps should be in all reviews. So should image quality comparisons. While we are at it 2d performance and image quality comparisons should really be part of any complete review. It seems frame rates are all review sites care to report. Reply
  • The0ne - Thursday, April 2, 2009 - link

    You and others want more but yet keep bitching about mentions such as CUDA and PhysX. If Anandtech doesn't mention then someone has to complain why they weren't and weren't included in the test. For example the recent buyers guide. And when they do mention it and said it doesn't do anything much and left it alone there's bitching going on. I really don't get you guys sometime. Reply
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 6, 2009 - link

    Well it's funny isn't it - with the hatred of NVidia by these reviewers here. Anand says "he has never played Mirror's Edge" - but of course it has been released for quite some time. So Anand by chance with the red rooster gone has to try it - of course he didn't want to, but they had to finally mention CUDA and PhysX - even though they dpn't want to.
    Then Anand really does like the game he has been avioding, it's great, he gets near addicted, shuts off PhysX, notices the difference, turns it back on and keeps happily playing.
    Then he says it doesn't really matter.
    Same for the video converter. Works great, doesn't matter.
    CUDA - same thing, works, doesn't matter, and don't mention folding, because that works better on NVida - has for a long time, ATI has some new port, not as good, so don't mention it.
    Then Ambient Occlusion - works great, shadows - which used to be a very, very big deal are now with the NVidia implementation on 22 top games, well, it's a "meh".
    There's only so many times so many added features can work well, be neat, be liked, and then the reviewer, even near addicted to one game because of the implementation, says "meh", and people cannot conclude the MASSIVE BIAS slapping them in the face.
    We KNOW what it would be like if ATI had FOUR extra features Nvidia didn't - we would NEVER hear the end of the extra value.
    Anand goes so far as to hope and pray openCL hits very soon, because then Havok via ATI "could soon be implemented in some games and catch up with PhysX fairly soon".
    I mean you have to be a BLIND RED ROOSTER DROOLING IDIOT not to see it, and of course there is absolutely no excuse for it.
    It's like cheering for democrats or republicans and lying as much as possible depending on which team you're on. It is no less than that, and if you don't see it glaring in your face, you've got the very same mental problem. It's called DISHONESTY. Guided by their emotions, they cannot help themselves, and will do everything to continue and remain in absolute denial - at least publicly.

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