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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  • SiliconDoc - Friday, April 24, 2009 - link

    You failed to read his post, and therefore the context of my response, you IDIOT.
    Can you run a second ATI card for PhysX - NO.
    Can you run an ati card and a second NV for PhysX - not without a driver hack - check techpowerup for the how to and files, as I've already mentioned.
    Now you can take your stupidity along with you, noone can stop it.
  • pizzimp - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    From an objective point of view there is not really a clear winner. At the lower resolutions do you really care if you are getting 80 FPS Vs 100 FPS?

    IMO it is the higher resolutions that matter. I would think any real gamer is always looking to upgrade there monitor :).

    I wonder how old you guys are that are posting? Who cares if something is "rebadged" or just an OC version of something? Bottom line is how does the card play the game?

    IMO both cards are good. It comes down to price for me.
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 06, 2009 - link

    Ahh, you just have to pretend framerates you can't see or notice, and only the top rate or the average, never the bottom framerate...
    Then you must discount ALL the OTHER NVIDIA advantages, from cuda, to badaboom, to better folding scores, to physx, to game release day evga drivers ready to go, to forced game profiles in nvidia panel none for ati - and on and on and on...
    Now, after 6 months of these red roosters screaming ati wins it all because it had the top resolution of the 30" monitor sewed up and lost in lower resolutions, these red roosters have done a 180 degree about face.... now the top resolution just doesn't matter -
    Dude, the red ragers are lying loons, it's that simple.
    The 2 year old 9800X core is the 4870 without ddr5. Think about that, and how deranged they truly are.
    I bet they have been fervently praying to their red god hoping that change doesn't come in the form of ddr5 on that old g80/g92/g92b core - because then instead of it competing with the 4850 - it would be a 4870 - and THAT would be an embarrassment - a severe embarrassment. The crowing of the red roosters would diminish... and they'ed be bent over sucking up barnyard dirt and chickseed - for a long, long time. lol
    Oh well, at least ati might get 2 billion from Obama to cover it's losses ... it's sad when a red rooster card could really use a bailout, isn't it ?
  • helldrell666 - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    Well, you have a point there. But the card is still not operating on a WHQL driver, and the percentage of those who use 30" montiors is negligible compared to the owners of 22" / 24" monitors.

    I think this is probably due to the 256bit internal memory interface compared to the 484bit that the gtx275 has.even at xbitlabs the 4890 drops significantly in performance compared to the gtx285.

  • 7Enigma - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    From a subjective point of view you may feel that way, but from an objective point of view there is a clear winner, and it is the 4890. Left for Dead and Call of Duty are the only 2 30" display tests where the 275 significantly defeated the 4890. In all of the other tests either the 4890 either dominated (G.R.I.D., Fallout3), or was within 4% of the 275 which I would call a wash. At all other resolutions the 4890 was the undisputed leader. So I find it difficult to say there is no clear winner.

    What Nvidia should have done was not nerfed their 22" and 24" resolutions for the very few people that game at 30" with the latest drivers. To be honest I wish the article had included all of the results from the 182 drivers (they show just G.R.I.D. but allude to other games also having similar reduced results except at the highest res). It could very likely be a wash then if the 275 is more competetive at the resolutions 99% of the people buying this level/price of card are going to be playing at.

    Anand, any way you could post, even just in the comments, the numbers for the rest of the games with the 182 Nvidia drivers. I don't mind doing the comparison work to see how much closer the 275 would be to the 4890 if they had kept the earlier drivers.
  • 7Enigma - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    Ah, I see now that the 185's are specifically to enable support for the 275 card. So you can't run the 275 with the 182 drivers. Still would be interesting to see all the data for what happened to the 285 using the newest drivers that decrease the performance at lower resolutions. Reply
  • minime - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    First, thanks for your review(s). I'm a silent reader and word-of-mouth spreader for years.

    Second, don't you think reviewers should point their fingers a little bit more aggressively to the power-consumption? Not because it's trendy nowadays, but because it's just not sane to waste that much energy in idle (2D, anyone remembers?) mode. I was thrilled what you alone (don't take it as a disrespect) were able to achieve on the SSD issue.
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 06, 2009 - link

    PSST ! The ati cards have like 30 watts more power useage in idle - and like 3 watts less in 3d - so the power thing - well they just declare ati the winner... LOL
    They said they were "really surprised" at the 30 watts less in idle for the nvidia - they just couldn't figure it out- and kept rechecking ... but yeah... the 260 was kicking butt.. but... that doesn't matter - ati takes the win using 1-3 watss less in 3D..
    So, you know, the red roosters shall not be impugned !
    capiche' ?
  • VulgarDisplay - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    It appears that you may have had Vsync turned on which caps the game at 60fps in some of the CoD:W@W tests. It's pretty apparent something is up when the nVidia card has the same FPS at 1680x and 1920x. Either way it still seems like the 4890 wins at those resolutions which is different than most sites that pretty much say it's a wash across the board. I'll take nVidia's drivers over ATi's any day. Reply
  • SiliconDoc - Monday, April 06, 2009 - link

    Hey any little trick that smacks nvidia down a notch is not to be pointed out. Reply

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