Now that Windows Vista is out in the wild, hardware manufacturers like AMD and NVIDIA have been scrambling to provide drivers for the new OS: last week saw a flurry of new driver releases for Windows Vista from NVIDIA, while AMD introduced version 7.1 of their Catalyst graphics driver.
Getting competent drivers out for Vista is critical for both companies as many consumers have been waiting for Vista’s release before upgrading, as well as the OEMs like Dell, HP, and Gateway, who are busy shipping systems with Vista pre-installed to their customers. In fact, in Dell’s case they’ve had to hold shipments of their XPS 710 and XPS 710 H2C PCs with Vista, shipping these systems with Windows XP instead.
Until the driver situation is fully sorted out, things will continue to be in limbo and that’s not a state you want to be in long if you are any of these manufacturers. That’s why we’re taking the time out to evaluate both AMD and NVIDIA’s driver offerings for both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors of Vista in comparison to their counterparts for Windows XP.
In last week’s article we took a look at AMD’s Vista driver, and while we found a lot of good things to like under D3D apps, AMD’s OpenGL driver wasn’t nearly as polished. In fact it was downright ugly -- literally. Because of this, we didn’t even bother running official Quake 4 benchmarks under Vista, although for curiosity’s sake we did jot down a few numbers and saw that performance wasn’t bad. Performance of AMD’s Catalyst Control Center was very good also. User reports from AMD card owners were pretty consistent with this as well.
In comparison, NVIDIA’s Vista transition doesn’t appear to be going quite as smoothly so far. Whereas ATI was able to release WHQL-certified Vista drivers for their entire range of cards with the launch of Catalyst 7.1, NVIDIA introduced two beta drivers for GeForce 8800 card owners under Vista last week. This led to a flurry of complaints from GeForce users that were expecting fully certified, signed drivers in time for Vista’s launch.
To be honest, in the past we’ve viewed the whole WHQL certification process and whether or not a driver is signed or unsigned with a grain of salt. After all, as any Radeon or GeForce card owner can tell you, there are plenty of bugs in fully WHQL-certified Catalyst and ForceWare driver releases. All you have to do is check out the driver release notes from either company to see the long list of issues resolved (and unresolved) with various games: you’ll quickly see that there are quite a few issues out there whether the driver is beta or WHQL-certified. With this in mind, again, we’ve historically never really harped on the certified versus non-certified driver issue, as both have their fair share of problems. There’s no such thing as the perfect driver.
With that being said, we are disappointed that NVIDIA’s latest drivers continue to lack SLI support for GeForce 6/7 card owners. There are an awful lot of GeForce 6 and 7 card owners out there with SLI setups, and it’s a shame that NVIDIA doesn’t have a Vista driver for these users, arguably some of NVIDIA’s most loyal customers if they dished out the bucks for two GeForce cards and an SLI motherboard. It’s these users that should rightfully be the most upset in our opinion.
There’s also been some angst from GeForce 8800 owners over the fact that NVIDIA’s latest Vista drivers for these cards are beta, unsigned drivers, but honestly we don’t feel this is as big an issue, both beta ForceWare 100 drivers NVIDIA released last week install just fine
under both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors of Windows Vista. For this article, we tested all GeForce 7 and GeForce 8800 cards using NVIDIA's beta ForceWare 100.59 Vista driver. During installation a warning message will pop up asking you if you’re sure you want to install unsigned drivers, but that’s it. All you have to do is click yes and the driver installs just as seamlessly as NVIDIA’s WHQL-certified Vista driver released at the beginning of January for GeForce 6/7 cards.
Again, in our experience, we’ve seen beta, non WHQL-certified drivers that are just as good as the WHQLs from both AMD and NVIDIA in the past. Many users download the latest betas off nZone and other websites religiously and haven’t complained up to now, while tons of Radeon users downloaded ATI’s Chuck driver last year to enable HDR+AA in games like Oblivion.
At the same time however we’re not going to let NVIDIA completely off the hook. Their latest beta drivers definitely seem to have a problem successfully coming out of suspend mode under Windows Vista with GeForce 8800 cards. NVIDIA’s beta Vista driver is also missing features that are found in their Windows XP driver.
In this article we’ll also be taking a look at NVIDIA’s Vista performance with a variety of graphics cards, but first lets discuss some of these topics with NVIDIA’s Vice-President of Software Engineering (read: the head honcho of driver development), Dwight Diercks.