Geforce 257.15 Beta driver tested

Geforce 257.15 review: Better performance and higher quality - plus: Nvidia interview

Nvidia launches a feature offensive: the new Geforce 257.15 Beta doesn't only increase the performance of many games, but also introduces new features. PC Games Hardware tests the driver.

There have already been several rumors about the Geforce 257.15 in different forums all over the web and now the driver has been released. In the Release Notes Nvidia promises not only performance benefits between 4 and 25 percent, but also new features. To check them, PC Games Hardware takes a closer look at the Geforce 257.15 Beta.

Geforce 257.15: 3D Vision, SGSSAA, Fps-Boost and more
3D Vision Surround, which is actually intended to be the figurehead of the new driver family, is slightly delayed due to certain problems. But the Geforce 257.15, which Nvidia has explicitly marked as Beta version, still delivers other features. Especially those users who own a Geforce GTX 480 or GTX 470 get a better gaming performance since the optimized code of the new driver architecture delivers an improvement. The benefit is not always obvious to the eye, but measurable and on average you get about 5 percent. At the same time Nvidia doesn't adjust the image quality - as several reports have claimed - but was able to make the utilization of the GF100's rendering pipeline more efficient. But Nvidia also got something in store for the owners of DirectX 10 graphics cards.

Attention: Due to the internal restructuring of the driver, tweaking tools like the Nhancer don't function with the Geforce 257.15. But Nvidia is cooperating with the authors in order to make sure that updates of the popular tools are provided. In his forum Martin Korndörfer, creator of the Nhancer, already announced the release of the Nhancer 2.6.0 with full Geforce 257 support for June.

Geforce 257.15: Sparse Grid Supersampling (SGSSAA) in DX9, DX10, DX11 and Open GL
Some PCGH readers might remember: A bug in the driver made it possible to use Sparse Grid Supersampling anti-aliasing on a Geforce GTX 480/470 under DirectX 10 and 11. This fact, which had once been discovered in the 3DCenter Forum, caught international attention due to our article. The positive feedback motivated Nvidia's software engineers to turn the bug into a feature. But they did even more: SGSSAA, with its superior quality, is now available in DirectX 9 and runs on older Geforce graphics cards, too. This development is a prime example for how much influence the community can have with a little support from the press.

Nvidia SSAA-Tool
Nvidia SSAA-Tool [Source: view picture gallery]
Currently Sparse Grid Supersampling is the best anti-aliasing mode possible on modern graphics cards. SGSSAA is, in contrast to Multisampling Anti-Aliasing (MSAA), applied to the whole image and because of that textures or shaders do not flicker anymore. The drawback is the extreme workload: With 4x SSAA the graphics chip has to sample each pixel not only once but four times. Thus the framerate drops noticeably.

The bug, which caused full screen Supersampling when Transparency anti-aliasing was activated, has been fixed in the Geforce 257.15. But in order to make SGSSAA available to those users who are interested, Nvidia has created the Geforce SSAA Tool. The program is easy to use: First you select one of the anti-aliasing modes in the driver panel and then you activate a SSAA option in the tool. After that you launch the game you want to play. It is also possible to activate the tool and adjust all the other settings in the game itself. Note: whenever you change something in the driver panel, the SSAA is deactivated again. So it should always be your last step to use the SSAA Tool.

Let's take a look at the image quality:

More examples can be found in our SGSSAA check. Due to the full screen Supersampling high frequent and flickering content is settled down. Some people recognize the result as less sharp than before. Due to the enormous impact on the performance we recommend to activate 4x SSAA at max. In our tests even 2x SSAA was enough to improve textures and shaders in a pleasant way. Since the driver doesn't adjust the Texture LOD automatically, the anisotropic degree of the Supersampling is not increased:

During our tests with a Geforce GTX 480 SGSSAA was working in every game that also supported MSAA - GTA 4 is once again the most prominent exception. Owners of a Geforce card from between the 8800 GTX and the GTX 295 can also use the new SGSSAA, too, but only under DX 9 or older versions of DirectX. Our test revealed that neither Crysis Warhead (DX10) nor Just Cause 2 (DX10) are smoothed with SSAA.

Interview with Nvidia
The release of the new driver had been an opportunity for PC Games Hardware to send some questions to Nvidia's driver department. In this interview Supersampling for everyone is the most important topic.

PCGH:The "trilinear optimization" in the CP is gone. It's still on, I guess. Does "High Quality" in the driver disable it? Are there any other "tweaks" concerning the IQ?
Nvidia: There are no IQ changes. Missing Trilinear is a bug in the NVCPL. The feature is ON but the option to turn it off is missing. "HQ” mode has always fully disabled trislope and all other tweakable aniso optimizations. This hasn't changed.

PCGH: Compatibility: The new SSAA Tool seems to enable SGSSAA even in Direct3D9 - is that correct? What about general compatibility?
Nvidia: Correct. In fact, on DX9, all GPUs will get SSAA, although some may be very slow. Thanks to the great feedback from end users and press, especially PCGH, we're happy to offer this feature now this way.

PCGH: Using SGSSAA, the driver still uses a texture LOD equal to 0.0, which results in overfiltering. Are there plans to set negative LODs in future drivers (to get more AF)? Ati has implemented this feature after some versions with the same LOD.
Nvidia: Currently we do not have plans to do LOD adjustments. If an app was trying to do some kind of clever math operation with a texture, a different LOD could be disastrous. Our SW team believes that the adjustment should probably be kept separate so as to exclude apps which have poor behavior. Feedback is welcome though.

PCGH: The sampling pattern seems to be static. If you enable 8x MSAA and 8x SSAA, the driver applies Supersampling at the same positions where the Multisamples are set to work (nice IQ!). Using 4x SSAA with 8x MSAA enabled causes an unwanted effect: The driver uses the 8x grid for 4x SSAA (the inner 4 subpixels). 4x MSAA plus 4x SSAA looks much better since the sampling pattern is perfect. This is a hardware limitation, isn't it?
Nvidia: Yes. The reason for this is that "8x” in the control panel is really 4+4 VCAA (also called CSAA). The 4 "real” samples need to be placed close to the perimeter for VCAA to be maximally effective, but it has the side effect of reducing supersampling quality. The image quality should be slightly better if the user selects the 8xQ mode instead, even with 4x SSAA.

SGSSAA: Geforce GTX 285 versus GTX 470
Nvidia indicated that older Geforce cards are handling SGSSAA slightly slower than the up-to-date models (GTX 480/470). A test with Call f Duty: Modern Warfare 2 confirms this:

Click to select graphics card
SSAA Scaling

In comparison to the GTX 470 the GTX 285/1G suffers from a bigger loss of performance when 4X SGSSAA is activated. For owners of a GTX 200 graphics card using SSAA makes sense in older games only.

Picture gallery  (enlarge to view source)

Author: Raffael Vötter (May 26, 2010)

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