The Return of Supersample AA

Over the years, the methods used to implement anti-aliasing on video cards have bounced back and forth. The earliest generation of cards such as the 3Dfx Voodoo 4/5 and ATI and NVIDIA’s DirectX 7 parts implemented supersampling, which involved rendering a scene at a higher resolution and scaling it down for display. Using supersampling did a great job of removing aliasing while also slightly improving the overall quality of the image due to the fact that it was sampled at a higher resolution.

But supersampling was expensive, particularly on those early cards. So the next generation implemented multisampling, which instead of rendering a scene at a higher resolution, rendered it at the desired resolution and then sampled polygon edges to find and remove aliasing. The overall quality wasn’t quite as good as supersampling, but it was much faster, with that gap increasing as MSAA implementations became more refined.

Lately we have seen a slow bounce back to the other direction, as MSAA’s imperfections became more noticeable and in need of correction. Here supersampling saw a limited reintroduction, with AMD and NVIDIA using it on certain parts of a frame as part of their Adaptive Anti-Aliasing(AAA) and Supersample Transparency Anti-Aliasing(SSTr) schemes respectively. Here SSAA would be used to smooth out semi-transparent textures, where the textures themselves were the aliasing artifact and MSAA could not work on them since they were not a polygon. This still didn’t completely resolve MSAA’s shortcomings compared to SSAA, but it solved the transparent texture problem. With these technologies the difference between MSAA and SSAA were reduced to MSAA being unable to anti-alias shader output, and MSAA not having the advantages of sampling textures at a higher resolution.

With the 5800 series, things have finally come full circle for AMD. Based upon their SSAA implementation for Adaptive Anti-Aliasing, they have re-implemented SSAA as a full screen anti-aliasing mode. Now gamers can once again access the higher quality anti-aliasing offered by a pure SSAA mode, instead of being limited to the best of what MSAA + AAA could do.

Ultimately the inclusion of this feature on the 5870 comes down to two matters: the card has lots and lots of processing power to throw around, and shader aliasing was the last obstacle that MSAA + AAA could not solve. With the reintroduction of SSAA, AMD is not dropping or downplaying their existing MSAA modes; rather it’s offered as another option, particularly one geared towards use on older games.

“Older games” is an important keyword here, as there is a catch to AMD’s SSAA implementation: It only works under OpenGL and DirectX9. As we found out in our testing and after much head-scratching, it does not work on DX10 or DX11 games. Attempting to utilize it there will result in the game switching to MSAA.

When we asked AMD about this, they cited the fact that DX10 and later give developers much greater control over anti-aliasing patterns, and that using SSAA with these controls may create incompatibility problems. Furthermore the games that can best run with SSAA enabled from a performance standpoint are older titles, making the use of SSAA a more reasonable choice with older games as opposed to newer games. We’re told that AMD will “continue to investigate” implementing a proper version of SSAA for DX10+, but it’s not something we’re expecting any time soon.

Unfortunately, in our testing of AMD’s SSAA mode, there are clearly a few kinks to work out. Our first AA image quality test was going to be the railroad bridge at the beginning of Half Life 2: Episode 2. That scene is full of aliased metal bars, cars, and trees. However as we’re going to lay out in this screenshot, while AMD’s SSAA mode eliminated the aliasing, it also gave the entire image a smooth makeover – too smooth. SSAA isn’t supposed to blur things, it’s only supposed to make things smoother by removing all aliasing in geometry, shaders, and textures alike.

8x MSAA   8x SSAA

As it turns out this is a freshly discovered bug in their SSAA implementation that affects newer Source-engine games. Presumably we’d see something similar in the rest of The Orange Box, and possibly other HL2 games. This is an unfortunate engine to have a bug in, since Source-engine games tend to be heavily CPU limited anyhow, making them perfect candidates for SSAA. AMD is hoping to have a fix out for this bug soon.

“But wait!” you say. “Doesn’t NVIDIA have SSAA modes too? How would those do?” And indeed you would be right. While NVIDIA dropped official support for SSAA a number of years ago, it has remained as an unofficial feature that can be enabled in Direct3D games, using tools such as nHancer to set the AA mode.

Unfortunately NVIDIA’s SSAA mode isn’t even in the running here, and we’ll show you why.

5870 SSAA



At the top we have the view from DX9 FSAA Viewer of ATI’s 4x SSAA mode. Notice that it’s a rotated grid with 4 geometry samples (red) and 4 texture samples. Below that we have NVIDIA’s 4x MSAA mode, a rotated grid with 4 geometry samples and a single texture sample. Finally we have NVIDIA’s 4x SSAA mode, an ordered grid with 4 geometry samples and 4 texture samples. For reasons that we won’t get delve into, rotated grids are a better grid layout from a quality standpoint than ordered grids. This is why early implementations of AA using ordered grids were dropped for rotated grids, and is why no one uses ordered grids these days for MSAA.

Furthermore, when actually using NVIDIA's SSAA mode, we ran into some definite quality issues with HL2: Ep2. We're not sure if these are related to the use of an ordered grid or not, but it's a possibility we can't ignore.

4x MSAA   4x SSAA

If you compare the two shots, with MSAA 4x the scene is almost perfectly anti-aliased, except for some trouble along the bottom/side edge of the railcar. If we switch to SSAA 4x that aliasing is solved, but we have a new problem: all of a sudden a number of fine tree branches have gone missing. While MSAA properly anti-aliased them, SSAA anti-aliased them right out of existence.

For this reason we will not be taking a look at NVIDIA’s SSAA modes. Besides the fact that they’re unofficial in the first place, the use of a rotated grid and the problems in HL2 cement the fact that they’re not suitable for general use.

Angle-Independent Anisotropic Filtering At Last AA Image Quality & Performance


View All Comments

  • avaughan - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    When you review the 5850 can you please specify memory size for all the comparison cards. At a guess the GTS 250 had 1GB and the 9800GT had 512 ?

  • ThePooBurner - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    With a full double the power and transistors and everything else including optimizations that should get more band for buck out of each one of those, why are we not seeing a full double the performance in games compared to the previous generation of cards? Reply
  • SiliconDoc - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    Umm, because if you actually look at the charts, it's not "double everything".
    In fact, it's not double THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, bandwidth.
    For pete sakes an OC'ed GTX260 core 192 get's to 154+ bandwidth rather easily, surpassing the 153.6 of ati's latest and greatest.
    So, you have barely increased ram speed, same bus width... and the transistors on die are used up in "SHADERS" and ROPS....etc.
    Where is all that extra shader processing going to go ?
    Well, it goes to SSAA useage for instance, which provides ZERO visual quality improvement.
    So, it goes to "cranking up the eye candy settings" at "not a very big framerate improvement".
    So they just have to have a 384 or a 512 bus they are holding back. I dearly hope so.
    They've already been losing a BILLION a year for 3+ years in a row, so the cost excuse is VERY VERY LAME.
    I mean go check out the nvidia leaked stats, they've been all over for months - DDR5 and a 512 bit, with Multiple IMD, instead of the 5870 Single IMD.
    If you want DOUBLE the performance wait for Nvidia. From DDR3 to DDR5, like going from 4850 to 4890, AND they (NVIDIA) have a whole new multiple instruction super whomp coming down the pike that is never done before, on their hated "gigantic brute force cores" (even bigger in the 40nm shrink -lol) that generally run 24C to 15C cooler than ati's electromigration heat generators.
    So I mean add it up. Moving to DDR5, moving to multiple data, moving to 40nm, moving with 512 bit bus and AWESOME bandwidth, and the core is even bigger than the hated monster GT200. LOL
    We're talking EPIC palmface.
    In closing, buh bye ati !
  • silverblue - Thursday, September 24, 2009 - link

    Let's wait for GT300 before we make any sweeping generalisations. The proof is in the pudding and it won't be long before we see it.

    And don't let the door hit you on the way out.
  • SiliconDoc - Thursday, September 24, 2009 - link

    Oh mister, if we're waiting, that means NO BUYING the 5870, WAIT instead.
    Oh, yeah, no worries, it's not available.
    Now, when my statements prove to be true, and your little crybaby snark with NO FACTS used for rebuttal are proven to be wasted stupidity, WILL YOU LEAVE AS YOU STATED YOU WANT ME TO ?
    That's what I want to know. I want to know if your little wish applies to YOU.
    Come on, I'll even accept a challenge on it. If I turn out to be wrong, I leave, if not you're gone.
    If I'm correct, anyone waiting because of what I've pointed out, has been given an immense helping hand.
    Which BY THE WAY, the entire article FAILED TO POINT OUT, because the red love goes so deep here.
    But, you, the little red rooster ati fanner, wants me out.
    ROFL - you people are JUST INCREDIBLE, it is absolutely incredible the crap you pull.
    No of course you won't !
  • silverblue - Friday, September 25, 2009 - link

    Another problem I have with people like you is the unerring desire to rant and rave without reading things through. I said wait for GT300 before doing a proper comparison. Have you already forgotten the mess that was NV30? Paper specs do not necessarily equal reality. When the GT300 is properly previewed, even with an NDA in place, we can all judge for ourselves. People have a choice to buy what they like regardless of what you or I say.

    I'm not an ATI fanboy. I expended plenty of thought on what parts to get when I upgraded a few months back and that didn't just include CPU but motherboard and graphics. I was very close to getting a higher end Core2 Duo along with an nVidia graphics card; at the very least I considered an nVidia graphics card even when I decided on an AMD CPU and motherboard. In the end I felt I was getting better value by choosing an ATI solution. Doesn't make me a fanboy just because my money didn't end up on the nVidia balance sheet.

    I'll take back the little comment about letting the door hit you on the way out. It wasn't designed to tell you to go away and not come back again, so my bad. I was annoyed at your ability to just attack a specific brand without any apparent form of objectivity. If you hate ATI, then you hate ATI, but do we really need to hear it all the time?

    If the information you've posted about the GT300 is indeed accurate and comparable to what we've been told about the 58x0 series, then that's great, but you're going to need to lay it out in a more structured format so people can digest it more readily, as well as lay off the constant anti-ATI stance because appearing biased is not going to make people more receptive to your viewpoint. I remain sceptical that your leaked specs will end up being correct but in the end, GT300 is on its way and it'll be a monster regardless of whatever information you've posted here. I'm not going to pretend I know anything technical about GT300, but you must realise that what you've essentially done in this article is slate a working, existing product line that is being distributed to vendors as we speak in a manner that's much slower than ATI had intended yet you're attacking people for being interested in it over the GT300 which hasn't been reviewed yet, partly because you think the product is vapourware (which isn't really the case as people are getting hold of the 5870 but at a lower rate than ATI would like). Some people will choose to wait, some people will jump on the 58x0 bandwagon right now, but it's not for you to decide for them what they should buy.

    Now relax, you're going to have a heart attack.
  • SiliconDoc - Wednesday, September 30, 2009 - link

    What a LOAD OF CRAP.
    I don't have to outline anything, remember, ALL YOU PEOPLE cARE ABOUT IS GAMING FRAMERATE.
    And that at "your price point" that doesn't include "the NVIDIA BALANCE SHEET". - which io of course, the STRANGEST WAY for a reddie to put it.
    Oh, do we have to hear it... blah blah blah blah...
  • CarrellK - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    If a game ran almost entirely on the GPU, the scaling would be more of what you expect. You can put in a new GPU, but the CPU is no faster, main memory is no faster of bigger, the hard disk is no faster, PCIE is no faster, etc.

    The game code itself also limits scaling. For example the texture size can exceed the card's memory footprint, which results in performance sapping texture swaps. Each game introduces different bottlenecks (we can't solve them all).

    We do our best to get linear scaling, but the fact is that we address less than a third of the game ecosystem. That we do better than 33% out of a possible 100% improvement is I think a testimony to our engineers.
  • BlackbirdCaD - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    Why no load temp of 5870 in Crossfire??
    Load temp is much more important than idle temp.
    There is lots of uninteresting stuff like soundlevel at idle with 5870 in crossfire, but the MOST IMPORTANT is missing: load temp with 5870 in crossfire.
  • SiliconDoc - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    I just pulled up the chart on the 4870 CF, and although the 4870x2 was low 400's on load system power useage, the 4870 CF was 722 watts !
    So, I think your question may have some validity. I do believe the cards get a bit hotter in CF, and then you have the extra items on the PCB, the second slot used, the extra ram via the full amount on each card - all that adds up to more power useage, more heat in the case, and higher temps communicating with eachother. (resends for data on bus puases waitings, etc. ).
    So there is something to your question.
    Other than all that the basic answer is "red fan review site".
    The ATI cards are HOTTER than the nvidia under load as a very, very wide general statement, that covers almost every card they both make, with FEW exceptions.

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