Summary: Last week NVIDIA quietly released its ForceWare 56.56 graphics driver to its board partners. This new driver brings with it a number of new features for all NVIDIA users as well as auto-overclocking for GeForce FX, PCI Express support, and to top it all off, some performance enhancements. In today's article we take a look at this graphics driver on a brand new Athlon 64 test bed. Read about all the new features and see how it performs in this article!
While it has been nearly two months since our last ForceWare driver report, NVIDIA’s driver team has certainly been busy. Last week NVIDIA’s PCI Express-based GeForce PCX family was introduced, which includes the GeForce PCX 5950, GeForce PCX 5750, GeForce PCX 5300, and GeForce PCX 4300. But these cards weren’t the only news item of the week for NVIDIA. The company also quietly unleashed its ForceWare 56 driver.
Before you hit up the driver download page on NVIDIA’s website however, you should know that NVIDIA isn’t providing this driver directly to the public just yet. Instead, ForceWare 56.56 is only available from NVIDIA’s board partners, or at least that’s what we’ve been told. We looked on the websites for board partners ASUS, BFG, eVGA, MSI, PNY, and XFX but couldn’t find them. Therefore, think of this driver as a preview of things to come from NVIDIA rather than an official driver release.
We’ve been told that this driver wasn’t released on NVIDIA’s website in order to resolve performance issues with Epic’s UT 2004 demo (This is the first time that we can recall a driver was held back due to performance in a demo that’s based on an unreleased game), and haven’t been given a firm ETA for a follow-up driver release, other than before the final game (UT 2004) is released to the public. This suggests that NVIDIA should have a final driver ready in the next three or four weeks, but we wanted to go ahead and take a look at this driver anyway, as it boasts many new features.
The first aspect you will notice is the new user interface. NVIDIA has freshened things up a bit and for the first time in a graphics driver, you can navigate straight to the driver’s control panel directly from your desktop! Simply right click on the desktop and select “NVDisplay”. From there you’ll see the properties for your graphics adapter, where you can manipulate settings for your primary and secondary displays. As a result, you no longer have to open Windows display properties, select settings, then the advanced tab to get to the control panel.
Once you’re there, you’ll notice a few changes. The most obvious to gamers is that OpenGL and Direct3D settings have been merged together. Under the Performance and Quality menu, you now must adjust settings for anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering, image settings, etc. individually, rather than doing it all in one swoop. This means making settings changes can take a little bit longer, which may come as a disappointment to many of you. If you click under the advanced settings option, you can also adjust additional settings, including texture filtering (unfortunately, UT 2003 still uses pseudo-trilinear filtering with this driver, even when trilinear is forced in the control panel).
In this same area, you will also find 20 game profiles; in this area you can predefine settings for your favorite games. A few of them even have separate game profiles for single-player use versus multiplayer. This is perfect for those of you who play a mix of sinple-player and multi, when playing in single player mode frame rate often takes a backseat to image quality whereas in multiplayer (especially competitive multiplayer), maintaining a high frame rate is crucial.
When the game is launched, the driver automatically detects the .exe and executes the settings you define.
If a game you play isn’t listed, adding new ones is quite easy. For instance, NVIDIA doesn’t include a game profile for Quake 3, so we made one in a few clicks. We decided to setup Quake 3 to run with 8xAA and 8xAF, the driver automatically knew to look for quake3.exe and when we clicked the Q3 icon, the driver executed our predefined settings perfectly!
SIDEBAR: ForceWare 56.56 is 10.6MB.
Mouse over pop-ups/TV
If you’re new to driver tweaking, or just don’t understand what a particular setting does, NVIDIA now provides mouse over pop-up descriptions. Simply scroll over the setting you’d like more information on and a description of that setting will popup. Don’t expect a thesis on any of the settings however (and descriptions aren’t available on all of them), the pop-ups are mainly focused on telling you what will happen as a result, so you will want to refer to the documentation NVIDIA provides with each driver release for detailed descriptions.
For those of you who have televisions hooked up to your computer, the new driver also offers a Play on my TV setting to quickly launch videos on your television. Simply right click on the file you’d like to watch and select “Play on my TV”.
Two new features first introduced in nView 3.0 have now been enhanced in nView 3.5: blocking of internet pop-up ads and gridlines.
If you recall, nView was the first graphics driver to automatically disable pop-up internet advertisements. In nView 3.5 you can preview the pop-up before it opens, or if you’d like, you can set it up to play a sound or change the mouse cursor when a pop-up is blocked. Under the Popup Prevention Settings Menu you can also add exceptions to the pop-up list, say for instance you don’t want to block the pop-ups at espn.com, just add that address under the “allow” menu, while inside the history menu you can see all the pop-ups the driver has blocked.
Setup was a snap, everything you need is found under the “Applications” tab in the nView desktop manager. Then select enhancements to see the application enhancements NVIDIA has provided for Internet Explorer (which is the only browser currently supported) and Microsoft Office.
First featured in our ForceWare 52.16 driver report, NVIDIA’s grid lines are once again back in ForceWare 56.56. Grid lines works by separating your desktop’s real estate into grid regions that you define, which is helpful when multitasking. If you have four applications running on your desktop right now, grid lines can be used to organize them to run in certain areas of your desktop.
For our example, we setup a grid line with four regions. One thin, long region for instant messaging clients like ICQ or AIM (on the left side of the screen, region 1 in our screenshot), a much broader area at the top of the screen (region 2), and then divided the lower portion of the desktop into two smaller regions (regions 3 and 4).
Now, with grid lines enabled, we can run these applications within the regions we’ve predefined. When you want to focus on one application, you can maximize it to take up the entire desktop, then if you’d like to multitask you can maximize it to the grid region you’ve predefined.
If the application is automatically sent to the wrong grid region, simply grab it and drag it to the region you’d like it to be in. It will drop right in that area without the need for any resizing! This is definitely one of nView’s handiest features.
Unfortunately, ForceWare 56.56 does little to resolve the most popular outstanding issues in its predecessor. For instance, shadow buffer lighting mode still doesn’t work properly with DX8 and up cards in Splinter Cell. This is supposed to be one of the key advantages to owning an NVIDIA card, as the shadow buffer mode looks better than projector. This feature hasn’t worked since Detonator 45.23.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
Call of Duty – OpenGL
Performance is essentially unchanged in Call of Duty across all cards. The previous driver release brought some nice improvements in Quake 3 and CoD but we didn’t see this today.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
For the most part performance is unchanged in IL-2, performance improvements in this title have been few and far between since we added it to our benchmark suite, largely because its so platform dependant. 5950 Ultra performance is slightly down, but not significant enough to severely impact gameplay.
Quake III - OpenGL
Unlike CoD we see slight declines in Quake 3 for the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, but the margin is less than 2%, certainly not enough to notice. The rest of the cards perform similarly regardless of the graphics driver.
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
With 4x anti-aliasing enabled all of the GeForce FX cards see performance gains, but the biggest boost came to the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra. Performance was up 11% at 1600x1200. At 1280x1024, performance increases by 4% for the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra and 11% on the 5600 Ultra (although we’re only dealing with a small boost in frame rate) and 8% for the 5600.
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
The 5950 Ultra takes a step back in performance with Tomb Raider, at 1280x1024 we saw a performance decline of 4%. The rest of the cards remain basically unchanged though. The other cards aren’t capable of running all the 2.0 shader effects, so they’re excluded from testing.
Halo – Direct3D
First of all, keep in mind that our Halo testing is based on the stock demos that come with the game, which are based entirely on cutscenes rather than real gameplay. Under these conditions, the 5950 Ultra offered a little more performance with the ForceWare 56.56 driver. Performance is up by 7% at 1024x768 and 5% at 1280x1024.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
Unreal Tournament 2003
Based on the UT results we saw with 4xAA enabled, it’s no surprise to see them continue once 8xAF is added to the mix. Again, the 5950 Ultra sees the biggest improvements, the most notable at 1024x768 (8%) and 1280x1024 (9%).
NVIDIA’s latest driver set certainly brings with it a number of nice improvements that all NVIDIA owners will enjoy. Gamers will likely put the game profiles to good use, with this feature you can custom tailor your graphics settings to individual applications and you won’t have to remember to execute it before you load a given title, the settings are automatically enabled when the application launches.
We like some of the interface changes, but others are a little questionable. For instance, separating the vsync, anisotropic filtering, and anti-aliasing options seems a bit backwards. This is one aspect that’s definitely subjective though, so we won’t complain too loudly over this one. We would however like to see UT 2003 get true trilinear filtering as an option.
NVIDIA’s enhanced grid lines and pop-up blocking are easier to use and one of nView 3.5’s best improvements. Grid lines are so effective at organizing your applications we really see no reason why you shouldn’t use them, especially if space is at a premium on your desktop.
NVIDIA has even added its own form of ATI OVERDRIVE with its new auto-overclocking feature, which dynamically adjusts the clock speed of your graphics core based on temperature, but you won’t see them bragging about it. In order to enable it you will have to own a GeForce FX card (due to its built-in hardware monitoring functionality) and enable it via the Coolbits registry tweak.
When you add all this up with the performance improvements we saw in Unreal Tournament 2003, we definitely like NVIDIA’s latest graphics driver. Unfortunately it doesn’t resolve any of the popular complaints that have been mentioned online, but it doesn’t break anything either. It brings with it new features, PCI Express support, and a slightly revamped interface.
Of course, the most obvious complaint is the driver is nearly impossible to find. Hopefully a few of NVIDIA’s board partners will rectify this soon or NVIDIA will provide a follow-up driver that resolves the performance issues with UT 2004.
In any case, it certainly looks like all NVIDIA users will soon be in for some nice additions in the coming month thanks to NVIDIA’s latest ForceWare family, regardless of the graphics card you own. This must be pretty refreshing for those of you with older cards, it turns out NVIDIA hasn’t abandoned you after all. We can’t wait to see what features NVIDIA incorporates into its graphics driver next.
SIDEBAR: What do you think of NVIDIA’s latest ForceWare release? Do you have a link for people to download it? Share the love in the news comments!
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