The Fairy Tale
Once upon a time, evaluating graphics hardware was a simple, straightforward process. You could get away with a couple of benchmarks, a bit about the card itself and a conclusion that compared the product in question to its competitors.
Or maybe it just seemed that way, since there were far fewer features on which to focus. Nowadays, you have to consider 2D quality, video capabilities, and 3D performance. And of course, within each category there is a subset of brand new enhancements to be covered. Then, there’s the need to filter marketing terminology, much of which is useless blather anyway. In fact, next to sound cards, graphics products are perhaps the most difficult to judge. There are a number of variables to consider and admittedly, many of them are difficult to critique without intimate architectural knowledge. For example, who’s to say that a given card’s effective bandwidth specifications are accurate? How efficient is HyperZ? What about NVIDIA’s Lightspeed Memory Architecture? You get the idea…
There are, however, two fundamental criteria that can be used for measuring the value of a graphics card. It doesn’t matter how advanced they get; it doesn’t matter how expensive they become; it doesn’t matter if the next generation of graphics processors is comprised of 300 million transistors, 16 pixel pipelines, and DirectX 10 compliance. At the end of the day, performance and image quality are the two most important factors. Further, each and every hardware enthusiast is capable of passing their own judgment over those two categories. So our job here at FiringSquad, at least as it relates to reviewing a card’s 3D capabilities, is leveraging the experience that comes from testing hardware on a daily basis and playing the latest games to give you an extra bit of ammunition for making an informed hardware purchase.
Why Image Quality? Why Now?
Because performance can be measured quantitatively, it isn’t a secret that benchmark results generally predominate in a review. Hardware vendors consequently optimize their drivers for higher frame rates, knowing that their products will be evaluated on those premises. Unfortunately, abuses occasionally occur on both sides of the fence. Back in 1998, ATI released its Turbo driver to augment performance of the Rage Pro. The only application to benefit, though, was Winbench 98, a synthetic measure of ability. Most recently, NVIDIA added extra clip planes to avoid drawing certain parts of the sky in 3D Mark03’s Test 4. Other questionable optimizations also emerged, some in 3D Mark03 and others in real games.
The end result is that, even while both NVIDIA and ATI have purportedly made policy changes regarding the nature of optimizations, it is important (now more than ever) to take a step further and analyze the quality implications of each company’s respective driver controls.