Nvidia Takes on Mantle with Enhanced DX11 Driver

Josh Norem

Nvidia releases enhanced DX11 drivers

Today Nvidia is releasing an all-new driver for customers of its Fermi, Kepler, and Maxwell GPUs that it claims offers significant performance gains in DirectX11 titles. It told us this driver is reminiscent of its "Detonator" drivers from back in the day, and it's claiming the driver can provide " up to 64 percent faster single GPU performance " as well as "up to 71 percent faster SLI performance."

The Driver

The driver is labeled 337.50 Beta and it's an "optimized DX driver." Interestingly, no details were given by Nvidia on what specifically was optimized or different from previous drivers, which is a departure for Team Green. Usually big updates like this include a white paper of some sorts, but for this particular update it just provided general terms like "Dramatic Improvements." This is clearly a driver aimed at AMD's Mantle though, as the majority of the presentation we received from Nvidia pointed out how a DX11 GeForce card and this new driver is faster than AMD cards running Mantle. It then provided these specific numbers comparing a GeForce 780 Ti vs. an R9 290X on Mantle:

StarSwarm - 16% faster

Battlefield 4 - 12% faster

Thief - 7% faster

In other words, Nvidia is saying, "We don't need a custom Nvidia-specific API, we can optimize DX11, which a lot of games already support," unlike Mantle which is only supported in StarSwarm, Thief, and Battlefield 4 currently. Here's one of the slides Nvidia offered to us:

In addition to being faster than AMD's Mantle API, Nvidia is also claiming that its driver improves SLI performance. Since a CPU can easily bottleneck a multi-GPU setup this makes sense, but let's look at the numbers Nvidia has provided.

As you recall, earlier Nvidia claimed "up to 71 percent faster SLI performance." In the accompanying chart, it showed one game receiving that level of improvement, and that game is Total War: Rome 2. On the other end of the spectrum is Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which received around 15-20 percent improvement. Here is that slide:

Unfortunately, none of those games are in our testing suite. In anticipation of this, and taking pains to hit AMD where it hurts, it also presented a slide showing multi-GPU scaling in Thief, which is now AMD's poster child for Mantle and TrueAudio support. Here is that slide:

But that's not all. Nvidia also pointed out that this driver is just plain faster in many titles, including the same ones it pointed to before, such as CoD: BLOPS2, Sleeping Dogs, Alien vs. Predator, Total War: Rome 2, and finally Sniper Elite v2.

None of these games are in our testing suite, so hit the next page to see how the new driver fared on two different test systems, and on dual GTX 780 cards in SLI.

Benchmarks

To begin, we tested an Nvidia GTX 780 reference card on our standard video card test bench, which consists of an Asus Rampage IV Extreme motherboard, Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition 3.3GHz CPU , 16GB of DDR3/1600 memory, and Windows 8 Enterprise. We tested using the current 335.23 driver as well as the 337.50 beta driver. Here are the results:

Tests done with a single GTX 780 reference board at 2560x1600. Best scores are bolded.

As you can see, not much difference at all between drivers in this config and on these games. Since we weren't sure we'd ever see a difference, we moved to a different setup that consisted of the following: A  Gigabyte Z77X-UP4 motherboard, a slower and easier to bottleneck Intel Core i5-3470 3.2GHz CPU , GeForce GTX 780 Ti, and 8GB of RAM. Here are those results:

Tests done with a single GTX 780 Ti reference board at 1920x1080. Best scores are bolded.

Once again, we didn't see much of a difference between the old driver and the new one, except for on two games -- Battlefield 4, and Thief. That is odd, because what is special about these two titles, aside from being AMD's flagship titles for Mantle support? Obviously Nvidia is very interested in hitting AMD where it hurts, and whatever they have done has worked, at least in this particular configuration.

Finishing up, we also tested a two-card SLI configuration at 4K resolution using dual GTX 780 cards on the Intel Core i7-3960X machine. Here are those results:

Test done with two GTX 780 cards in SLI at 3840x2160. Best scores are bolded.

And once again, we didn't see much of a difference using two GPUs at 4K res, but this was also with a hefty CPU. We did see a massive boost in Hitman: Absolution though, which is also an AMD-sponsored title.

Final Thoughts

In the wake of Mantle's release nobody was really clamoring for Nvidia to respond since people consider its drivers to be generally very good, but we're glad to see that it has. Unfortunately, in our tests the result is very similar to what we've seen with Mantle in that it can offer a boost but only on very specific configurations and in certain games. In other words, anyone hoping these drivers would instantly give them a 20 to 50 percent boost in every game they play is in for a rude awakening, because that's not what we saw. Admittedly our testing didn't run a gamut of 20+ games, but all this dropped when we were in the final push for our June issue, so our time with the new driver was very limited. That said, based on what we did see we expected more, especially with lofty claims of "up to 64% faster single GPU performance." We didn't see anything close to that, and as always your mileage with this new driver will vary depending on the game you play and the specs of your PC. It is heartening to see Nvidia achieving somewhat dramatic improvements in certain games with no changes to hardware though.

The driver is supposed to be out by the time you read this, and here is the 64-bit Win7/Win8 driver. You can download other flavors here and here . Please let us know in the comments if you're seeing what we're seeing, or if you're gaming experience has been transformed by the 337.50 beta driver.

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