The question of image quality is much more complicated than determining which video card renders a scene the fastest. Years ago, we could say that the image that came out of two different computer systems should be exactly the same because developers controlled every aspect of how their program ran with software, rather than leaving some decisions to the hardware on which the program was running. With the advent of hardware acceleration, developers could get impressive speed gains from their software. As a side effect, the implementation of very basic functionality was defined completely by the designers of the hardware (e.g. ATI and NVIDIA). For example, a developer no longer needs to worry about the mathematics and computer science behind mapping a perspective correct texture onto a surface; now, all one needs to do is to turn on the hardware texturing features that they want and assign textures to surfaces. In addition to saving the developer from having to code these kinds of algorithms, this took away some control and made it so different hardware could produce different output (there is more than one correct way to implement every feature).

Obviously, there are many more pros to hardware acceleration than cons. The speed gains that we are able to make in real-time 3D rendering alone excuse any problems caused. Since the developer doesn't need to worry about writing code worthy of a Ph.D. in mathematics (as that is left to the GPU designers), games can be developed faster or more time can be spent on content. The only real con is the loss of control over how everything is done.

Different types of hardware do things differently. There is more room for choice in how things are done in 3D hardware than in something like an x86 processor. For one thing, IHVs have to support APIs (DirectX and OpenGL) rather than an instruction set architecture. There is much more ambiguity in asking a GPU to apply a perspective correct lighted mipmap to a surface with anisotropic filtering than in asking a CPU to multiply two numbers. Of course, we see this as a very good thing. The IHVs will be in constant competition to provide the best image quality at the fastest speed with the lowest price.

Unfortunately, defining image quality is a more difficult task than it seems. Neither ATI nor NVIDIA produce images that match the DX9 reference rasterizer (Microsoft's tool to estimate what image should be produced by a program). There is, in fact, no “correct” image for any given frame of a game. This makes it very hard to draw a line in the sand and say that one GPU does something the right way and the other one does not.

There is the added problem that taking screenshots in a game isn't really the best place to start when looking for a quantitative comparison. Only a handful of tests will allow us to grab the exact same frame of a game for use in a direct comparison. We are always asking developers to include benchmarks in their games, and this is a feature that we would love to see in every benchmark.

The other issue with screenshots is trying to be sure that the image we grab from the framebuffer (the part of the GPU's memory that holds information about the screen) is the same as the image we see on the screen. For instance, NVIDIA saves some filtering and post-processing (work done on the 2D image produced from the 3D scene) until data is being sent out from the framebuffer to the display device. This means that the data in the framebuffer is never what we see on our monitors. In order to make it so people could take accurate screenshots of their games, NVIDIA does the same post-processing effects on the framebuffer data when a screenshot is taken. While screenshot post-processing is necessary at the moment, using this method introduces another undesirable variable into the equation. To this end, we are working very hard on finding alternate means of comparing image quality (such as capturing images from the DVI port).

When trying to render scenes, it is very important to minimize the amount of useless work a GPU does. This has led to a great number of optimizations being implemented in hardware that attempt to do less work whenever possible. Implementing such optimizations is absolutely necessary for games to run smoothly. The problem is that some optimizations make a slight difference in how a scene is rendered (such as approximating things like sine and inverse square root using numerical methods rather than calculating the exact answer). The perceptibility (or lack thereof) of the optimization should be an important factor in which optimizations are used and which are not. Much leeway is allowed in how things are done. In order to understand what's going on, we will attempt to explain some of the basics of real-time 3D rendering.

Color and Alpha


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  • Nate420 - Monday, December 22, 2003 - link

    I think the people bitching about the article being biased to one side or another are biased themselves. Let go of your hangups with ATI and Nvidia and read the article again. IMO the article was well written and about as unbiased as it could be. The fine folks at Anandtech are human after all. Reply
  • titus - Saturday, December 20, 2003 - link

    Here's something no one pointed out:
    Check the Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy screenshots, and notice how the NVIDIA employs the light sabre alpha-blending almost in *post* processing, so that even the head and body (which obstruct our view of the light sabre) glow as much as where it isn't obstructed.

    ATI's alpha blending works in that only visible areas 'glow', however, where it does glow, it is as irregular as heck.

    Point is, they both have faults with alpha blending.
  • valnar - Wednesday, December 17, 2003 - link

    Derek #30,

    I bought a Leadtek GeForce 4 Ti4400 some time ago on the review that it was a speedy, stable and "cool" card for DirectX games. It was all those, but a piece of visual junk otherwise. DVD's looked horrible because of the lack of a gamma adjustment. I had to settle for brightness/contrast alone which made it washed out. The overall contrast between 0 black and 255 white in any photo program was no where near my current Radeon 9600, or even an older Matrox G400. It makes it hard to do any kind of calibration for photo work, let alone enjoy the occasional DVD.

    My 2 cents...
  • DaveBaumann - Sunday, December 14, 2003 - link

    “WRT dx 10, it still seems to me that nvidia is closer to ps3 support than ati. I will definitely give the Meltdown presentations some more in depth study time though.”

    Derek – As I said, PS3.0 is already part of *DX9*, DX10 will be PS/VS4.0. Please read out DirectX Next article to gain an understanding of the directions DX10 is taking

    We need to fill in the gap between DX9 PS/VS2.0 and DX10 PS/VS4.0, being the update to DX9.0 that will allow hardware targets for PS/VS3.0. Regardless of whether NVIDIA are closer to PS3.0 or not that doesn’t mean that ATI will have issues support it – ATI hadn’t support true multisampling FSAA before R300 and yet leapfrogged NVIDIA in this respect, NVIDIA hadn’t supported PS1.4 before the FX series and yet they went to PS2.0 Extended – what they currently support doesn’t necessarily have much bearing on what they are going to support.

    “I know (as do many who were present when David Kirk was speaking about the issue) that the FX hardware supports Multiple Render Targets.”

    FX natively supports MET’s, not MRT’s. The FX series would probably need the driver to support MRT’s by packing and unpacking instructions.

    I asked a developer about the difference between MRT’s and MET’s and this was his reply:

    “MRT are a lot more flexible, effectively upto 4 render-target can be rendered to simulatously, the only real restrictions are same size and for some chipsets (ATI but not AFAIK PowerVR) same format.
    MET are special textures that are wider than usual (usual being upto 4 channels (i.e. RGBA), MET aren't really anything special there just >4 channel textures (RGBAXYZW). It may be possible in MET's are different formats for each 'logical' texture. i.e. 8bit per channel RGBA and float16 XY.
    MRT are much better as you can mix and match standard render targets as you like. MET have to be special cases where MRT can be used much more like any render target.

    Both are handy but MRT is the perferred route (AFAIK MET were added to Dx9 to try and cope with the GFFX style pack/unpack render targets). MRT are much more the theorytical idea, you can choose to render to multiple places at teh same time.”

    [Derek] “I'm not sure if flexible float buffers fall into the same catagory, but I will look into it.”

    NVIDIA has some odd addressing restrictions, outside of DX’s standard requirements (for any revision), with their float texture support that restricts use for output buffers a conditional flag needs to be added to DX9 to support these restriction on NV’s hardware. This flag is likely to be added to the update to DX9 that will also allow hardware PS/VS3/0 support next year.
  • DerekWilson - Sunday, December 14, 2003 - link

    Dave (27+29),

    Thanks for responding in so thuroughly.

    WRT dx 10, it still seems to me that nvidia is closer to ps3 support than ati. I will definitely give the Meltdown presentations some more in depth study time though.

    I wasn't quite clear on a couple things with NV supporting DX9... Not all of the features are exposed with current drivers even thought the hardware is capable of them. I know (as do many who were present when David Kirk was speaking about the issue) that the FX hardware supports Multiple Render Targets. We could not get any confirmation on a reason this feature is not yet enabled in software (and I will leave the speculations to the reader). I'm not sure if flexible float buffers fall into the same catagory, but I will look into it.

    Of course, my original assesment of these facts not mattering except from an experience for NVIDIA standpoint still stands.

    I really appreciate your comments Dave, please keep them coming.

    And Valnar (#25):

    I am really looking forward to doing just what you are asking for in future reviews. I don't feel comfortable with doing such analysis on any real current display technology, and am looking for ways to capture the output of cards over DVI. I can use photoshop for as much analysis as necessary to compare images at that point (including spectrum/brightness and crispness or blurryness of text).

    Of course, this stuff won't test the cards ramdac, which is still very important. I'm hoping to also come up with some solid 2D benches in the coming year that should include such analysis.

    Please keep the comments and suggestions coming as I am very open to including the kinds of information you all want.

    Derek Wilson
  • DaveBaumann - Saturday, December 13, 2003 - link

    "So what about the missing 24bit fpu in the FX series which have 16 and 32bit the latter being very slow. Doesnt this mean that the FX series is not even compliant?"

    No. DirectX9 specification say that the *minimum* precision requirement for "full precision" pixel shaders is FP24 - this being the minimum requirement means that anything above that is also deemed as full precision. FP16 is the minimum requirement for partial precision shaders.

    "And given the scarcity of DX9 games at present, inevitable that FXs will run into trouble in the future"

    Its not an inevitability, but it may make developers live a little more difficult in the interim since, as NVIDIA themselves point out, they will have to work a little harder to make them optimal for FX hardware. Whether or not that means that some development houses will put off implementing serious use of DX9 for the time being is a real question.

    However, I'd say that the DX9 talk doesn't tell the whole story as ATI's shaders appear more effective even with many DX8 shaders in many cases. For instance, look at these performance numbers with a test application:

    GF FX 5950, 52.16:
    PS 1.1 - Simple - 938.785889M pixels/sec
    PS 1.4 - Simple - 885.801453M pixels/sec

    9800 PRO
    PS 1.1 - Simple - 1489.901123M pixels/sec
    PS 1.4 - Simple - 1489.822754M pixels/sec
  • Pumpkinierre - Saturday, December 13, 2003 - link

    Thank you 27 for explaining compliant versus full DX9. So what about the missing 24bit fpu in the FX series which have 16 and 32bit the latter being very slow. Doesnt this mean that the FX series is not even compliant? And given the scarcity of DX9 games at present, inevitable that FXs will run into trouble in the future, Reply
  • DaveBaumann - Friday, December 12, 2003 - link

    “The FX cards support full DX9. In fact, they support more than the minimum to be DX9 cards and support some features that people speculate will be in DX10 (fp32, longer shader programs, etc...).”

    Derek, the FX series supports the full features required for DX9 “compliancy”, they do not support “full” DX9 – there are numerous optional features within DirectX specifications that IHV’s can choose to support or not. Two such features within DX9 is the support of flexible float buffers and MRT’s, neither of which the FX series do support.

    The lack of float buffer support is causing some head scratching among developers as it would generally make their life easier (check with some to see if they would find it useful if all vendors would support it) – float buffers are already use in some game which means that the FX series can’t support some options (check Tomb Raider). MRT’s also have their uses, and we’ve published some research work from one developer on lighting which is made easier by the support of MRT’s:

    As for the “speculation of the FX’s support for what will be in DX10” please check the Micorsoft Meltdown presentations – they list the specification requirements for Pixel Shader 3.0 compliant which is already spec’ed within DX9 and the FX series falls short of this requirement.

    “Part of the reason ATI is able to lead so well in performance is that they don't support many of these features.”

    And NVIDIA don’t support some features that are also within DX9 – I’m not sure you can claim that ATI has better DX9 performance as they both have elements that each other support and don’t support.
  • BlackShrike - Friday, December 12, 2003 - link

    I don't get it. You guys are content for sub perfect products? When I buy something, I want it to be the best for my money. But you guys don't seem to care for the best image quality possible while getting high frame rates. Isn't that why you buy these high end cards?

    Another thing, how come anandtech doesn't do an article by finding the minimum frame rates. Remember how we found out ATI and Nvidia sometimes have high average frame rates, but very low minimum frame rates? Now this would be the deciding factor for me. Image quality plus consistent frame rates.

    Really guys, I expected more from Anandtech readers.
  • valnar - Friday, December 12, 2003 - link

    I read the headline of this article and actually thought it was going to be about image quality. No shocker that it wasn't.

    This article talked about rendering quality, not image quality. I'd really like somebody to bring up a color spectrum analyzer. I'd like to hear about text crispness and/or fuzzyness of displaying text at 6 point. I'd like to hear about color accuracy and brightness/contrast/hue/sat/gamma capabilities.

    Oh well.

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