Frames Per Second: Why The World Was Wrong
"You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
- Morpheus, The Matrix
Over the years, we've accumulated mountains of data from benchmarking tools like Fraps and metrics built-in to top titles to help us evaluate performance. Historically, that information gave us our impression of how much faster one graphics card is than another, or what speed-up could be expected from a second GPU in CrossFire or SLI.
As a rule, human beings don't respond well when their beliefs are challenged. But how would you feel if I told you that the frames-per-second method for conveying performance, as it's often presented, is fundamentally flawed? It's tough to accept, right? And, to be honest, that was my first reaction the first time I heard that Scott Wasson at The Tech Report was checking into frame times using Fraps. His initial look and continued persistence was largely responsible for drawing attention to performance "inside the second," which is often discussed in terms of uneven or stuttery playback, even in the face of high average frame rates.
I still remember talking about this with Scott roughly two years ago, and we're still left with more questions than answers, despite his impressive volume of work over that time. There are a couple of reasons the escalation of this issue has taken so long.
First, as mentioned, even open-minded enthusiasts are uncomfortable with fundamental changes to what they took for granted previously (after all, that means we, you, and much of the industry was often wrong with our analysis). Nobody wants to believe that the information we were gleaning previously wasn't necessarily precise. So, many folks shied away from it for as long as possible.
Second, and perhaps even more technically-correct, there is no complete replacement for reporting average frame rate. Frame times and latency are not perfect answers to the problem; there are other variables in play, including where Fraps pulls its information from the graphics pipeline. At the end of the day, there is no metric we can use to definitively compare the smoothness of video performance based exclusively on objective observation.
That's what we're looking for; that's the Holy Grail. We'd need something to replace FPS. The bad news is that we're not there yet.
But frames per second is far from a useless yardstick. It reliably tells us when a piece of hardware delivers poor performance. When you see a card averaging less than 15 FPS, for instance, you know that combination of settings isn't running fluidly enough for a perceived sense of realism. There is no ambiguity in that. Unfortunately, averaging frames per second does not help distinguish between the consistency of rendered frames, particularly when two solutions serve up high frame rates and would appear to perform comparably.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. This is an exciting time to be involved in PC hardware, and graphics performance gives us a new frontier to explore. There are a lot of smart people working on this problem, and it's something that'll invariably be conquered. For our part, we've put our own research into the question of smoothness, which you've recently seen reflected as charts that include average frame rates, minimum frame rates, frame rates over time, and frame time variance. None of those address the challenge completely, but they help paint a more complete picture when it comes to choosing the right graphics card for your games.
Today, we're exploring another tool that's going to help us dig into the performance of graphics cards (particularly multi-GPU configurations): Nvidia's Frame Capture Analysis Tool, or FCAT.