Summary: NVIDIA took a lot of flack for their Vista drivers back in Feb, but a lot has changed in the past 7 months. Are NVIDIA's Vista drivers any better? What about AMD's Radeon HD 2900 XT? In this article we take a look at single card and multi-GPU performance in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors of Vista to see how it compares to Windows XP. Has the driver situation improved? Find out in this article!
Already we’ve seen DirectX 10 games like Lost Planet, Company of Heroes, and BioShock debut this summer, but it’s the next crop of games that has everyone really excited. Titles like Crysis, Hellgate: London, Unreal Tournament 3 and Gears of War PC all look stunning and have many gamers pondering whether it’s finally worth taking the plunge on Vista and DirectX 10. But before these games can be enjoyed in their full DX10 glory, it’s going to be critical that all gamers who want to enjoy the full experience from these games not only has the proper hardware in place, but software (i.e. drivers and hotfixes/patches) is going to be critical as well. If the graphics driver and surrounding software isn’t up to date, all the graphical eye candy present in these upcoming games will basically be useless.
Now more than ever, it’s critical that the graphics driver is up to snuff, particularly if you own one of the newer, next-generation DX10 graphics cards.
With that being said, it has been over seven months since we last took a look at Windows Vista performance versus Windows XP. In that series of articles we found that both AMD and NVIDIA’s Vista performance was lacking in comparison to Windows XP, although NVIDIA’s showing in Vista was much worse: Vista performance was in some cases substantially slower than Windows XP, features were missing, and SLI was unsupported entirely. Meanwhile, AMD’s biggest problem was the OpenGL portion of their Vista driver, OpenGL-based games like Quake 4 scaled poorly in performance in comparison to WinXP and we encountered numerous visual artifacts. CrossFire support was also limited.
As you can imagine, in the span of the past seven months quite a bit has changed on the Vista driver front and we’ve received quite a few emails asking us to revisit the topic. In fact, right after posting our first BioShock article, the Windows XP versus Vista requests streamed in; we received a few more requests after publishing our Quake Wars story as well.
Then, just last Friday, NVIDIA briefed us on a new driver they were putting the finishing touches on that was meant to improve their Vista performance in single-card and SLI. This driver was ultimately released just a few days ago in the form of ForceWare 163.69. Are immature Vista drivers still an issue for AMD and NVIDIA? That’s what we’re here today to examine!
Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800
EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard
ASUS P5W DH Deluxe (for Radeon cards)
2GB Corsair TWIN2X2048-6400C4
ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT 512MB
ATI Radeon X1950 Pro
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX
NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GT 256MB
300GB Western Digital Caviar SE
Windows XP Professional w/Service Pack 2
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit
Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars demo High Settings
In our last Vista performance comparison article, we included Windows XP 32-bit and 64-bit results. To save time though we’re excluding Windows XP x64 Edition: in the previous article we found performance was similar between both versions of WinXP, and besides, the 64-bit OS never really took off for a variety of reasons.
In ET:QW, the GeForce 8800 GTX performs similarly regardless of the OS used in single card configuration. Once a second card is dropped in for SLI however, you can see that Vista performance takes a backseat to WinXP: the GeForce 8800 GTX SLI cards ran 8% faster in Windows XP versus Windows Vista 32-bit at 1600x1200. The performance trends for the GeForce 7900 GT are similar – single-card performance is the same regardless of OS used, but SLI scales a little better under WinXP.
F.E.A.R. ran very well with both AMD and NVIDIA hardware, in both single card and multi GPU configurations. As you can see, all of the cards performed similarly in both flavors of Windows Vista, as well as Windows XP. Only the GeForce 7900 GT SLI saw a decline in performance when moving from WinXP to Vista, and the drop was only 7%.
The GeForce 8800 GTX ran 4% faster in Windows XP than in Vista at 1600x1200. The margin decreases to just 2% at 1920x1200. We saw similar results when two cards were combined running SLI.
In general performance, STALKER is one of those games AMD’s Radeon HD 2900 XT has never performed well in. It looks like this problem still hasn’t been resolved with newer Catalyst drivers. Of course, this game never truly took off so optimizing for it may be low on the priority scale at AMD.
Since the GeForce 7900 GT lacks support for HDR+AA, we’re running that card with 0xAA/16xAF. To keep frame rates high, we also decided to disable AA for the Radeon X1950 Pro. The GeForce 8800 GTX and Radeon HD 2900 XT are both running with 4xAA/16xAF.
It’s important to note that the Radeon cards in BioShock are running with 0xAA/16xAF, all the other cards (including the GeForce 7900 GT) are running with 4xAA/16xAF. AMD Radeon cards do not support AA by default in BioShock. AA must be forced by renaming the executable from “bioshock.exe” to “Oblivion.exe”. Doing this however disables all performance optimizations.
Looking over the performance results, it’s clear to see that both AMD and NVIDIA’s Windows Vista drivers have come a long way in the past seven months. NVIDIA in particular has made tremendous strides with their latest Vista driver, SLI support is fully functional for all GeForce card owners and it scales well in most cases. Unfortunately, CrossFire compatibility is still an issue for AMD. New games like BioShock and World in Conflict don't support CrossFire at this time, and Lost Planet and Quake Wars have graphical glitches. Let’s go over the results shall we?
F.E.A.R. and Oblivion were easily the best case examples for both AMD and NVIDIA. Performance with both of these games was largely similar regardless of the OS tested, whether we were running a single card or with two GPUs. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. didn’t scale quite as perfectly as F.E.A.R. and Oblivion under Windows Vista with the Radeon HD 2900 XT and GeForce 8800 GTX, but it was pretty close.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars ran similarly on all the AMD configs we tested with regardless of OS used, although as we noted last week we witnessed numerous graphical glitches when running this game with CrossFire enabled: basically it runs, but it doesn’t always look pretty. NVIDIA’s single card performance was excellent in Quake Wars, but under SLI we did notice a performance hit under Vista for the GeForce 8800 GTX and 7900 GT SLI configs. In the case of the GeForce 8800 GTX SLI, performance was off by 8% for 32-bit Vista compared to WinXP at 1600x1200. That margin shrinks to 4% at 1920x1200.
Company of Heroes took a hit of 4% at 1600x1200 with the GeForce 8800 GTX and 5% with SLI but this figure is reduced down to 2-3% at 1920x1200. Honestly though this is such an imperceptible difference that you’ll likely never feel it in game.
BioShock is the one title that AMD really needs to work on. As we noted in our BioShock performance articles, DX10 performance is significantly slower than DX9, and the game doesn’t scale at the moment with CrossFire. The Radeon HD cards also lack support for AA in BioShock. You have to rename the game’s executable in order to force AA, and as we discussed in our BioShock AA article, this disables all of AMD’s driver optimizations for BioShock. While we didn’t run specific performance comparisons, it seems like NVIDIA’s performance in BioShock has improved tremendously with this latest ForceWare driver. We’d guess performance has improved by over 10%. SLI also scales much better than it did previously. We’re seeing nearly 2X performance scaling with BioShock and ForceWare 163.69, whereas previously that number was a little under 1.5X. With all that being said though, Windows XP did run up to 8% faster than Vista in our testing. Still, we were very encouraged by these results.
If you were debating between the 32-bit and 64-bit flavors of Windows Vista, fortunately it looks like performance is similar with either version. Both AMD and NVIDIA’s drivers for both versions of Vista perform practically identical to one another. And if you were concerned about game compatibility with 64-bit Vista, one of the guidelines Microsoft has required for Games For Windows certification is that games must be compatible with Windows Vista x64. This means if the game has a Games For Windows logo on the box, it’s been tested to run with 64-bit Windows Vista. Upcoming games like Alan Wake, Crysis, Fallout 3, Gears of War PC, and Hellgate: London are all Games For Windows compliant.
Considering all this, we’d recommend our readers opt for the 64-bit version of Vista if you’ve got a 64-bit CPU. It runs just as fast in games with the added advantage that it’s more secure and can address considerably more memory (4GB max in 32-bit Vista versus 128GB in 64-bit Vista Ultimate).
If you were holding off on Windows Vista due to the driver situation, it looks like the situation has largely been resolved for both AMD and NVIDIA. nTune functionality under Vista is still limited, and we’d like to see NVIDIA provide the option to adjust key settings like AA/AF via an icon in the system tray, but other than that, we really can’t complain. NVIDIA took a little longer to get everything resolved, but it appears they’ve delivered the goods just in time, as a slew of new DX10 games will be debuting in the next few months.
We wouldn’t be surprised if a few of these games ran faster under Windows XP at first, as Dwight Diercks reminded us in our last Vista vs XP performance article, NVIDIA’s WinXP drivers have benefited from years of optimizations. Game developers are also far more familiar with DX9 and WinXP and will obviously be testing their upcoming titles with this combination extensively, as DX10 and Vista are nowhere close to reaching the installed base of the WinXP platform.
In our opinion, AMD’s greatest issue isn’t their Vista driver performance, instead it’s optimizing for today’s upcoming (and present) DX10 games. Games like World in Conflict and BioShock have performance issues with Radeon HD 2000 series cards under DX10, and CrossFire support is nonexistent. AMD really needs to kick it into high gear just to get caught up in these newer games, which makes us worry about performance in games like Hellgate: London, Unreal Tournament 3, and Crysis, which haven’t been released yet. Hopefully AMD is already working with these developers on optimizations. As we mentioned in our BioShock Mainstream Performance article, the Radeon HD 2000 delay really hurt AMD. Not just from a financial standpoint, but also developer relations. Game developers just haven’t had access to AMD’s DX10 hardware for very long, and as a result, they haven’t had time to optimize for features in AMD’s architecture. Likewise, AMD’s driver team is still tuning the Radeon HD 2000 series graphics driver. It’s a situation that needs to get resolved ASAP for AMD.
After getting off to a less than ideal start, it looks like the graphics drivers from AMD and NVIDIA are finally shaping up well. A lot of people are probably still going to wait for the first service pack, but if you were holding off on upgrading to Vista due to the driver situation, the problem has mostly been resolved: AMD still has lingering scaling issues with CrossFire, particularly under newer DX10 games.
Now we just can’t wait to check out the latest DX10 games!
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