Half-Life 2 Performance Benchmark Previewby Anand Lal Shimpi on September 12, 2003 12:34 AM EST
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What's Wrong with NVIDIA?
Getting to the meat of the problem, how can it be that NVIDIA could perform so poorly in a native DirectX 9 code path and do better, but not extremely, in their own special "mixed mode." In order to understand why, we have to look at the modifications that Valve made to the NV3x code path; taken directly from Gabe Newell's presentation, here are the three major changes that were made:
Special Mixed Mode for NV3x
- Uses partial-precision registers where appropriate
- Trades off texture fetches for pixel shader instruction count (this is actually backwards, read further to learn more)
- Case-by-case shader code restructuring
So the first change that was made is to use partial-precision registers where appropriate. Well, what does that mean? As we've mentioned in previous articles, NVIDIA's pixel shading pipelines can either operate on 16 or 32-bit floating point numbers, with the 32-bit floats providing greater precision. Just like on a CPU, the actual FPUs that are present in the pixel shader units have a fixed number of local storage locations known as registers. Think of a register as nothing more than a place to store a number. With the NV3x architecture, each register can either hold one 32-bit floating point value or it can be used as two 16-bit floating point registers. Thus, when operating in 16-bit (aka partial precision) mode, you get twice as many physical registers as when you're running in 32-bit mode.
Note that using 32-bit floating point numbers doesn't increase the amount of memory bandwidth you're using. It simply means that you're cutting down the number of physical registers to which your pixel shader FPUs have access. What happens if you run out of registers? After running out of registers, the functional units (FPUs in this case) must swap data in and out of the graphics card's local memory (or caches), which takes a significantly longer time - causing stalls in the graphics pipeline or underutilization of the full processing power of the chip.
The fact that performance increased when moving to partial-precision (16-bit) registers indicates that NVIDIA's NV3x chips may have fewer usable physical registers than ATI's R3x0 series. If we're correct, this is a tradeoff that the NVIDIA engineers have made and it is to conserve die space, but we're not here to criticize NVIDIA's engineers, rather explain NVIDIA's performance here.
Next, Gabe listed the tradeoff in pixel shader instruction count for texture fetches. To sum this one up, the developers resorted to burning more texture (memory) bandwidth instead of putting a heavier load on computations in the functional units. Note that this approach is much more similar to the pre-DX9 method of game development, where we were mainly memory bandwidth bound instead of computationally bound. The fact that NVIDIA benefited from this sort of an optimization indicates that the NV3x series may not have as much raw computational power as the R3x0 GPUs (whether that means that it has fewer functional units or it is more picky about what and when it can execute is anyone's guess).
The final accommodation Valve made for NVIDIA hardware was some restructuring of shader code. There's not much that we can deduce from this other than the obvious - ATI and NVIDIA have different architectures.