Being an early adopter means taking chances. And since the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX GPU at the heart of Asus’ EN8800 GTX hits the market well in advance of DirectX 10, Vista, and DirectX 10 games, early adopters buying this pricey slab of technology will give the wheel of fortune a mighty spin because no one has a clue how it will perform with DirectX 10 software.
We covered the 8800 GTX’s speeds and feeds in some detail in the DirectX 10 feature story also in this issue (page 26), so we won’t spend a lot of time covering the same ground here. But after thoroughly benchmarking this beast with DirectX 9 titles, we can tell you this: The EN8800 GTX is one powerful videocard.
We’re not talking marginally faster than the best cards preceding it. We’re talking 50- to 100-percent faster than the fastest GeForce 7900 GTX card we’ve ever tested. We’re talking as much as 25-percent faster than two of those cards running in SLI. We’re talking fast enough to get impressive frame rates playing FEAR at 2560x1600 on a 30-inch panel—with 4x antialiasing, 16x aniso, and soft shadows enabled.
This card is not only faster, it’s also more capable than Nvidia’s previous best. The high end of Nvidia’s 7-series cards were quick for their day, typically hitting high-water marks ahead of ATI’s best, but they weren’t capable of rendering AA and high dynamic-range lighting at the same time. The 8800 GTX has no such limitation. Nvidia is so proud of this development that it coined a goofy marketing name to describe it: the Lumenex Engine.
Nvidia claims its new processors can deliver 16x full-screen multisampled AA for nearly the same performance hit as older boards took to perform 4x multisampled AA. This advance is the result of a newly developed algorithm called Coverage Sampling Anti-Aliasing (CSAA). The new GPU also supports transparency antialiasing to eliminate jagged edges on alpha (transparent) textures commonly used in the rendering of foliage, chain-link fence, and similar objects. When we put Nvidia’s claims to the test, we found that enabling the feature in the driver while dialing the application’s AA setting to 4x resulted in much-improved image quality with no more than a 5-percent performance hit. Impressive. Nvidia delivers dramatically better anisotropic texture filtering than previous generations, too.
The 8800 GTX (and the 8800 GTS reviewed on page 70) supports high dynamic-range (HDR) lighting with 128-bits of precision (32 bits for each color component: red, green, blue, and alpha). Another significant improvement to the GeForce 8800 is its 10-bit display pipeline, which allows the GPU to display more than a billion colors, compared to the 16.7-million color palette that an 8-bit pipeline can deliver. Nvidia is catching up to ATI on this last score, although the price of 10-bit displays keeps them out of reach for most consumers.
The new GPU scores significantly higher on the punishing HQV video playback test, too. Nvidia finally decided to give its PureVideo software away with the card, unlike with early versions of the product. Enable hardware acceleration in your video-player software and turn on noise reduction in the Nvidia control panel, and you’ll be treated to great video playback. But ATI hasn’t been idle on the video front, either. After a series of driver tweaks in its latest versions of the Avivo software, we now score ATI’s high-end cards just a wee bit higher than the 8800.
Circling back to the opening of this review, perhaps Dirty Harry said it best: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya?” This is the best DX9 part we’ve ever seen; will we be able to say the same about its DX10 capabilities? Right now, we’re feeling pretty lucky.
Month Reviewed: January 2007 + DIRTY HARRY: Compatible with DX10; bitchin’-fast with DX9 software; loads of memory; quiet. - HARRY & THE HENDERSONS: DX10 performance is unknown (and for now, unknowable); pricey. Verdict: 9