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Comparing Chips And Configurations

Do New Drivers Really Boost Performance?
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Nvidia has revised the name of its graphics driver to reflect another round of confusing marketing (we weren’t particularly impressed with the naming of its newest mobile GPUs in our high-end notebook roundup). ForceWare has become GeForce. Anyone unfamiliar with the naming conventions will have trouble telling the difference between hardware GeForce GTX 280 and software GeForce 177.92.

Nvidia graphics cards
Chip Code name Memory GPU rate Shader Memory rate SPs
GeForce GTX 280 GT2001024 GDDR3 602 MHz 4.0, 1296 MHz 2214 MHz 240
GeForce 9600 GT G94 1024 MB GDDR3 650 MHz 4.0, 1625 MHz 1800 MHz 64

Chip Memory bus Manufacturing process Transistors Interface
GeForce GTX 280 512 bit 65 nm 1400 million PCIe 2.0
GeForce 9600 GT 256 bit 65 nm 505 million PCIe 2.0

ATI graphics cards
Chip Code name Memory GPU rate Shader Memory rate SPs
Radeon HD 4870 CF RV770 512 MB GDDR5 750 MHz 4.1 3600 MHz 800
Radeon HD 4870 RV770 512 MB GDDR5 750 MHz 4.1 3600 MHz 800

Chip Memory bus Manufacturing process Transistors Interface
Radeon HD 4870 CF 256 bit 55 nm 965 million PCIe 2.0
Radeon HD 4870 256 bit 55 nm 965 million PCIe 2.0

Memory rate=DDR clock rate doubled, physical rate is halved
DDR5 clock rate quadrupled, physical rate is a quarter
SPs=stream processors, P and V=Pixelshader and Vertexshader
TC=Turbo Cache
HM=Hyper Memory
OC=overclocked (clock rate higher than default)
SLI=Parallel operation with 2 Nvidia cards
3SLI=Parallel operation with 3 Nvidia graphics chips
4SLI=Parallel operation with 4 Nvidia graphics chips
CF=CrossFire parallel operation with 2 ATI cards
3CF=CrossFire parallel operation with 3 ATI graphics chips
4CF=CrossFire parallel operation with 4 ATI graphics chips
R680=2xRV670
Shader 2.0=DirectX 9.0, 3.0=DirectX 9.0c, 4.0=DirectX 10, Shader 4.1=DirectX 10.1

Nvidia single graphics cards, ATI single and CrossFire graphics cards
CPU Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 @ 2.93 GHz (11x266 MHz),
Socket 775, 1.28 Volt, 65 nm, L2 cache 4096 KB
CPU overclocked Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 @ 3.47 GHz (13x266 MHz)
FSB 1066 MHz (4x266 MHz)
Motherboard Asus P5E3 Deluxe, PCIe 2.0 2x16, ICH9R
Chip set Intel X38
Memory 2x1 GB, Ballistix (Crucial Technology) 1.5 Volt,
DDR3 1066 7-7-7-20 (2x533 MHz)
Audio Intel High Definition Audio
LAN Intel 1000 Pro
Drives Western Digital WD5000AAKS 500 GB, S-ATA, Cache 16 MB,
Hitachi 120 GB, S-ATA, Cache 8 MB
DVD Gigabyte GO-D1600C
Power Supply CoolerMaster RS-850-EMBA 850 Watt

Nvidia SLI graphics cards
Motherboard Asus P5N-T Deluxe, PCIe 2.0 2x16
Chip set Nvidia nForce 780i SLI
Memory 2x1 GB, A-Data Technology 1.8 Volt, DDR2 800 5-5-5-18 (2x400 MHz)
Audio ADI 1988B SoundMax
LAN Marvell 88E1116 Gigabit

Drivers & Configuration
Graphic Radeon HD 4870 and HD 4870 CrossFire ATI Catalyst 8.6 and 8.8
(8.7 for Quake Wars)
GeForce 9600 GT Nvidia ForceWare 175.16 and GeForce 177.92
GeForce GTX 280 ForceWare 177.39 and GeForce 177.92
Operating system Windows Vista Enterprise SP1
DirectX 10 and 10.1
Chip set driver X38 Intel 8.3.1.1009
780i Nvidia nForce 9.64

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Top Comments
  • 18 Hide
    cangelini , October 7, 2008 7:47 AM
    LedrosTo bad you used 8.8 drivers instead of the 8.9 ones. Real smart people.


    This is observed in the piece and should not affect performance.
Other Comments
  • 5 Hide
    pcgamer12 , October 7, 2008 7:33 AM
    Great article.
  • 18 Hide
    cangelini , October 7, 2008 7:47 AM
    LedrosTo bad you used 8.8 drivers instead of the 8.9 ones. Real smart people.


    This is observed in the piece and should not affect performance.
  • 0 Hide
    curnel_D , October 7, 2008 7:49 AM
    Lol.
  • 1 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , October 7, 2008 9:00 AM
    SoulLance"Unfortunately for AMD and its customers, the PowerPlay optimization for energy-efficient 2D operation is not included in the Catalyst 8.8 driver for the Radeon HD 4870. Quake Wars refuses to start using the Catalyst 8.8, but it works fine with the Catalyst 8.6 and 8.7."But neither should comments like this appear when everyone on the planet reads a labels that clearly say "Use latest drivers from manufacturer".


    Can you please translate this into english?
    I have no idea what you mean to say with your comment, other than the obvious (that you disagree on some level with the article)
  • 7 Hide
    randomizer , October 7, 2008 10:05 AM
    He's saying you shouldn't criticise newer drivers because most hardware and software packaging has a label, or a section in the manual, telling you to use the latest drivers. So latest = best as far as he is concerned.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 7, 2008 10:08 AM
    In reference to overclocking graphics cards, I'm pretty sure that XFX card warranties cover overclocking to some degree, though you'd have to double check their warranty fine print.
  • 3 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , October 7, 2008 10:20 AM
    SneppyIn reference to overclocking graphics cards, I'm pretty sure that XFX card warranties cover overclocking to some degree, though you'd have to double check their warranty fine print.

    Having had experience with two failing xfx cards (both 8800gtx's actually), I've got to warn you though, that their warranty is a bit fictional. While they may actually cover broken products, you can easily risk waiting months for a replacement.
    Proof of my claim in case someone unexpectedly doubts it : http://www.opel.cc/xfx8800gtx/xfx.htm
    That was the first failing card. The second I haven't even bothered sending in, and just bought an 4870 instead of waiting months.
  • -2 Hide
    cryogenic , October 7, 2008 11:18 AM
    We all know there were cases in the past when "Newer drivers provided substantial performance improvements" in various applications or games. Analyzing performance with a few select driver sets can can't lead to the conclusion that drivers are irrelevant, or that from a "professional" stand point the latest drivers shouldn't be chosen.
  • 0 Hide
    randomizer , October 7, 2008 11:19 AM
    CryogenicAnalyzing performance with a few select driver sets can can't lead to the conclusion that drivers are irrelevant

    But it can lead to the conclusion that current drivers are irrelevant, or rather less relevant.
  • 1 Hide
    cryogenic , October 7, 2008 11:22 AM
    randomizer


    That's a good,true and useful conclusion, but it's not a general one, only specific to this particular set of drivers.
  • 1 Hide
    warezme , October 7, 2008 12:22 PM
    according to that chart two 8800GTX's is faster than a single 280GTX and Two 4870's in CF.??? 18005 as opposed to 16422 for their fastest run on 3Dmark06 @1280x1024 default settings. I thought their game scores where kind of low to. Must be a dual core CPU making the difference.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 7, 2008 12:34 PM
    When the Q3 08 Vga charts appeared, there where lots of critics to the fact that the ATI drivers used where 8.6. Maybe this article is some kind of response to those critics. Well, the results of the tests here "almost, "kinda", say that Q3 benchmarks are fair enough with new-gen ATI cards. But... profesionally speaking, did Tom's knew THEN -back when the Q3 benchmarks where made- that that will be the case? That drivers released before the new cards did, didn't keep those cards from showing some better numbers? If 8.7 or 8.8 show almost the same numbers 8.6 do, is irrelevant. We can know that only now, that there are avaiable tests that actually show those results. But how can we, nor Tom's, or anybody knew that THEN? So, you must admit at least that if you are benchmarking a card using drivers dated BEFORE the card was launched, that there is a "chance" that results may actually vary with recent drivers. And if its true that performance boost in newest drivers are not "that important" to compare with the gap between diferent card generations, is true also that you can't(and in fact you don't) use 6, 12 or 18 months old drivers on current hardware. So maybe not "that important", but "important" nonetheless.
  • 2 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , October 7, 2008 12:35 PM
    CryogenicWe all know there were cases in the past when "Newer drivers provided substantial performance improvements" in various applications or games. Analyzing performance with a few select driver sets can can't lead to the conclusion that drivers are irrelevant, or that from a "professional" stand point the latest drivers shouldn't be chosen.


    Where's it say drivers are irrelevant?
    What the article states, is that you don't nessecarily gain performance by using current drivers. It doesn't mean the bug fixes and 'futureproofing' with regarding to unreleased games isn't relevant.

    The article merely deals with the urban legend claiming new drivers unconditionally improve hardware performance.
  • 1 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , October 7, 2008 12:38 PM
    @ alfguy - the article does state that drivers released within roughly the first 3 months after the hardware is released is more likely to improve the hardware's peformance, but that it doesn't nessecarily improve older hardware's. That's pretty much the same point you're making I believe?

    ps. catalyst 8.6 is the version shipped with my 4870 - so it's not dated before the cards, it's merely the initial retail version.
  • 0 Hide
    JPForums , October 7, 2008 12:57 PM
    Overall, this was a good article. I've seen driver updates on past hardware that netted more significant FPS improvements than is show here, but the time frame for optimizations is consistent with the article introduction. Also consistent with the article is the fact that the larger improvements don't usually occur on the high end cards.

    Disclaimer: This is not a fault in the article, just speculation on one of the results.

    Referring to the Crysis Very High setting on the Radeon 4870:

    Quote:
    In the Very High setting, fluctuations of the frame rates can also be seen. There does not appear to be any reason for these variations, although a performance increase is almost always seen.


    It appears 1280x1024 is cpu limited, as you see a fair FPS improvement at this resolution (and not others) when overclocking.
    Moving to 1680x1050, you see more significant improvements as the burden has shifted back towards the GPU, allowing the enhancements to be seen.
    At 1920x1200, we are simply reaching the limits of the hardware, so the enhancements are less relevant.

    It seems one of the enhancements affect AA performance in Crysis as it seems to be improved across the board. I'll leave you to figure out the rest, as I'm short on time, but I'd wager the enhancements involve trading more efficient processing of data on the video card for more driver overhead. This would explain why more CPU limit settings are seeing lower rates, while more GPU intense settings are seeing benefits. The only real oddball is 1680x1050 at high, but I'll bet with a little time, it could be explained as well.

    On another note: Did the Catalyst 8.8 improve performance over Catalyst 8.6 in CF mode when both were overclocked. I suspect the answer is no, but it seems there may be more CPU overhead in the newer drivers. Given more CPU cycles, an insignificant, but measurable improvement may be measured. (My interest in this is purely academic as I don't own a newer ATI card at the moment)

    That said, I'd be interested in a similar article with mid/high end video cards and a mid/high end processor. What kind of real performance improvement (or lack there of) can someone with a GeForce 8800GT or Radeon 4850 expect with paired with an Athlon X2 6400+ or a Core 2 Quad Q6600 (without overclocking).
  • 0 Hide
    CanadaKen , October 7, 2008 1:24 PM
    I wish someone could explain why ATI/AMD cards can't run Microsoft FlighSim X as well as Nvidia cards. The specs are there but the performance sucks?!
  • 0 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , October 7, 2008 1:52 PM
    @ CanadaKen : I can only guess, but flightsim is very dependant on the cpu. I'm guessing the ati drivers need more cpu time to do well in comparison to the nvidia one, thus the nvidia card works better with limited cpu ressources. It could also be possible that microsoft has been utilizing some features that run better on nvidia cards as opposed to amd/ati.

    As the monthly graphics roundup has been telling us for the last past months, which highend card you should choose (4870, 260 or the dual gpu nvidia one) depends on the gaming titles you expect to use it on, as they're not delivering the same performance in all games. Some are sponsored by nvidia and more often than not those games run better on nvidia hardware, even if it's slower in a raw shader processing power value. The opposite is probably true with games where ati has had their hands on the graphics engine though I can't at the top of my head remember any.
  • 0 Hide
    zodiacfml , October 7, 2008 2:02 PM
    newer drivers is important to solve issues. but it becomes irrelevant to improve a game performing more than 30 or 60 frames per second.
    of course, exception is crysis wherein additional of, like 5 frames can help in all resolutions and little fps difference there can be worth debating.
    anyways, this an article many of us waiting for. high end crossfire/sli does have the least value. crysis is the only game could benefit from high end hardware video card to processor.
  • 4 Hide
    dagger , October 7, 2008 3:20 PM
    The myth that new drivers drastically improve performance is made up by fanboys to discredit benchmarks that show their favorite cards don't perform as well as competition. It's nothing more than an excuse, against valid benchmark results.

    Some drivers do improve performance, just not nearly enough to make a noticeable difference.
  • 0 Hide
    Aragorn , October 7, 2008 3:48 PM
    Since 8.7 did so well in the few tests it was used in I'd love to see the results of running it through the whole test suite.
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