The FX5950 and FX5700 Emerge

NVIDIA Editor’s Day

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As the industry awaited the arrival of NVIDIA’s new product refreshes, editors from around the world were arriving in San Francisco to attend the company’s media day. Here, NVIDIA would be showcasing its latest technology and giving the audience the opportunity to ask whatever questions might be on their mind. In addition to the new hardware and driver release, NVIDIA invited software giants such as Activision, Id Software, and Microsoft to share their thoughts on NVIDIA’s products and methodology.

The first session of the event featured presentations from the elite members of NVIDIA’s engineering team. The initial portion of this session was comprised of an API tutorial of sorts by Chief Technical Officer Kurt Akeley. Here, Kurt outlined the constraints behind descriptive and procedural abstraction levels and how they related to today’s graphics architectures. With the relationship between the GPU, driver, and application identified, the audience had a solid foundation for an in-depth analysis of the graphics architecture.

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Looking at NVIDIA’s products over the last few months, one cannot help but find one glaring fault inherent within each product. Thus far, every GeForce FX graphics card has failed to provide competitive Pixel Shader 2.0 performance. Given how prevalent this feature is within DX9 titles, it became a major performance bottleneck when running the latest games. Fortunately, the presence of DX9 titles which were available was negligible at best so this was largely a null issue for the time being. However, with highly anticipated games such as Half Life 2 on the horizon, this performance issue became an absolute priority for NVIDIA. After receiving a considerable amount of heat from the industry for this lackluster performance, NVIDIA has come back with a solution in the way of a new ForceWare driver series which addresses this issue directly. NVIDIA’s Chief Scientist David Kirk was on hand to illustrate all of the design considerations engineers are faced with when making architectural decisions. Specifically, David outlined the issues regarding NVIDIA’s shader architecture as that has been a focal point of debate over the course of the last few months. In addition to discerning the basis behind the company’s position on precision requirements, he illustrated the key criteria behind NVIDIA’s shader performance. Because of the GeForce FX architecture’s design, the order and type of the instruction being handled can have a profound impact on overall performance. An example was provided where merely switching from a Taylor Series expansion to a SinCos instruction reduced the number of necessary cycles from eleven down to two. Credit must be paid to NVIDIA’s driver development team as they have managed to coax a surprising amount of performance through a series of these compiler optimizations without any degradation in image quality. Since this is merely a driver optimization and not a change made within the hardware, all owners of GeForce FX graphics cards will be able to benefit from the higher performing drivers. Overall, this is excellent news for all those who are currently gaming on NVIDIA cards.

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NVIDIA’s Director of Software Engineering Nick Triantos was the next to speak, with the focus of his presentation being the company’s new driver development process. Within the presentation, Nick outlined the new optimization guidelines and even applied them to one of the most controversial “optimizations” NVIDIA has developed. Here, the clip planes optimization from 3DMark03 was outlined in detail and was shown to fail the criteria for a “legal” optimization. From what we have seen of this new development process, it appears as though it will be keeping NVIDIA honest. In an effort to further extinguish the torches in the room, a few examples were shown which illustrated some image quality issues using ATI cards when running some popular applications as well. Although this was highlighted by NVIDIA, we all know that neither vendor is entirely innocent of these questionable optimizations. Regardless, it is comforting to see that NVIDIA has finally realized that they cannot go down this road anymore and are willing to take appropriate measures to avoid this scenario in the future.

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As the group prepared to break for lunch, NVIDIA’s CEO Jen-Hsun Huang joined CEO of id Software Todd Hollenshead at the front of the room for an informal discussion. Over lunch, Jen-Hsun and Todd discussed the current state of the graphics card industry and where things were heading as we looked towards the future. Here, each identified the trend that both R&D budgets and lead times would be increasing dramatically as the technology and games become more and more complex. Todd then went on to discuss some of the most interesting aspects of Doom3. Although no release date was provided (albeit he did hint that it was at least four months away), he confirmed that Doom3’s installation size would likely exceed 3GB. In addition, the game would be locked with a hard-coded 60fps ceiling. Given how taxing this engine has proven to be in the early glimpses we have seen, that limit will still be difficult to reach by most hardware. Speaking of hardware, Todd informed the audience that the development platforms for Doom3 were all using GeForce FX graphics cards. This should erase any doubts of NVIDIA cards and their ability to run Doom3.

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The presentations following the lunchtime conversation were made by several software developers. The software vendors included Electronic Arts, Dice Canada, GSC Games, Gearbox Software, UbiSoft, Ion Storm, and Epic Games. In each case, the developer spoke at length about NVIDIA’s relationship with their company. Here, each company had nothing but positive words about their dealings with NVIDIA. For those who assume this is merely a marketing stunt for an NVIDIA event, vendors such as Gearbox went on to mention that NVIDIA is the development platform of choice. If that is not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.

The first title shown to the audience was XIII by UbiSoft France. This title takes a somewhat unique approach to graphics in that the visuals are representative of a comic book. The limited color pallete ensures the same high-contrast scenes one would expect from a title of this genre. Furthermore, the use of pop-up screens and onomonpeia provide further effect. Overall, this looked to be a very promising title in a day when every new game seems to be a WWII FPS.

Following UbiSoft’s presentation, Ion Storm displayed the gameplay of their upcoming title DeusEx 2. Capturing the same dark imagery of the first DeusEx, the second installment should please fans of the original. In addition to the usual look and feel of the original, DeusEx 2 adds several new features. Although the napalm effect was especially fun to watch in action, the new spider bombs were exceptionally amusing. These bombs could be dropped in a room and then controlled by the user to a particular destination and detonated. We were told that a popular use for these weapons was to navigate them through a level collecting items. The bomb could then be positioned at a specific point and detonated.

Gearbox Software was the next presentation, showing off the recent PC port of HALO. Although the overall look and feel of the game closely resembles its Xbox counterpart, the audience was given the opportunity to ask the developer about a few issues specific to the PC version. Here, the group was informed that FSAA will never be implemented as the original Xbox version was never destined to use this feature. In addition, the topic of overall performance was discussed. Evidently, the target frame-rate for the PC version was surprisingly low as it was only 30fps. This is particularly strange considering the fact that nearly every user considers 60fps the minimum acceptable frame-rate for smooth gameplay.

EPIC Games was also on hand to showcase the upcoming title Unreal Tournament 2004. Although the appearance of this early build looks nearly identical to its predecessor, there are several key new enhancements which differentiate it from UT2003. The most dramatic new feature is the ability to take control of vehicles. Whether you wish to fire from land or mount an aerial attack, there is a vehicle at your disposal. Furthermore, there are a few new gameplay modes which should ensure that everyone gets some life out of this title. Although the game itself was impressive, it was a random note on a slide during Mark Rein’s presentation which really captured our attention. Here, the note mentioned that NVIDIA’s future NV50 GPU will have specific optimizations for the UnrealEngine 3. Without question, the two companies have a very close relationship which should translate into some excellent performance for gamers running NVIDIA graphics cards.

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Aside from Doom3, the most impressive title we were shown would have to be Battlefield: Vietnam. Representatives from Dice Canada and EA Games were on hand to give everyone a dose of the gameplay for this new title. Whether you be dropping napalm or getting your groove on to some great 70’s tunes while you mow people down from a helicopter, the immersion and realism of the game are incredible. Take the incredible versatility of BF1942 which we all love and give it a whole new graphics and physics engine. In the end, you have one of the most promising new titles we have seen in a very long time.

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The final presentation was made by CSG Games and outlined the title S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Oblivion Lost. NVIDIA stumbled across this title awhile back and has since worked with this developer to ensure that the end result is nothing short of stunning. Although we were not allowed to capture any footage of the scenes we were shown, rest assured this title will not disappoint. You have all the criteria for a solid game. From the ruins of Chernobyl to mutants running rampant in front of your arsenal of weapons, this is definitely a game that will capture your attention.

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Editor’s Note:

I was here for this event as well and I would like to just sum up a few points I have been hearing about over the past week or so.

First, the gathering of this many of NVIDIA’s scientists in one room to discuss these issues with the press is a great out reach from NVIDIA. They were more than open with most questions and were willing to explain what they were thinking when they made certain decisions as well as admit when they had made bad ones. There were several times, however, when they were side stepping some very direct questions from the crowd, but these mainly related to a direct comparison between the NVIDIA and ATI competing products.

Besides the NVIDIA employees, gathering this many game and software developers into one room should also be commended. But anyone and their mother would tell you NVIDIA will always choose those companies that are going to shine a positive light on their organization and products — it simply makes no sense to do otherwise. So, while I can’t fault NVIDIA for not bringing Valve to the event (if they would have even shown) I can say that I would like to see this trend continued. Edit: NVIDIA is telling me Valve WAS invited, but declined.

One change I would like to see, though this may not pertain directly to NVIDIA or ATI, is to have the press get in direct contact with software companies that develop the games we are all using for benchmarking and for playing. The ability to have a private one-on-one discussion with these guys without NV or ATI in the immediate area will help us as hardware reviewers get a better grasp on what we can do when trying to gauge and judge the graphics card market.

Ryan Shrout