Today's Hard|Forum Post
Today's Hard|Forum Post

Editorial: How Far We Have Come

The world surrounding the PC video card industry has changed greatly in the last decade. Most of it for the better...

Looking Back

A forum discussion got me thinking this morning about days gone by in the world of 3D gaming. Over the years, I have been called an "NVIDIOT" and a "fanATIc" among other things. We have written articles and reviews that have been scathing to both the Green team as well as the Red team. It seems that someone thinks we are always biased towards one team or the other. Usually the fan boys that are "losing" think we are bias for the team that is "winning" (go figure), but I digress. The topic this morning was Hexus posting that an ATI آ“toolآ” they possessed was responsible for a 35% increase in DOOM 3 benchmark scores. Apparently, ATI has manipulated their new X1x00 memory controller, and we should see the performance results in their next driver update. I started thinking back over the years. I remember a time when driver optimization increases were considered taboo. Thankfully, this particular "optimization" seems to be of a hardware efficiency nature rather than one of image quality. Not by mistake though, both the links above refer to articles discussing "cheating" video drivers, or driver "optimizations." Has it really been four years since we first attacked this subject? Moreover, looking back at this subject, we have to ask ourselves, "How far have we come?"

Changing Times

A short two years ago I wrote an editorial about cheating drivers and synthetic benchmarks. I followed that up with another editorial a few months later entitled Cheating the Cheaters. At that time, we did away with using synthetic benchmarks and "unreleased drivers" to review video cards. In fact, we did away with "benchmarks" altogether and started using actual gameplay to evaluate video cards. Yes, imagine that, playing games with video cards in order to report to you how well they would perform for you! While making that change was not easy to do, in terms of both resources and public acceptance, HardOCP still made it happen. Frankly, it was probably the best decision we ever made. Not only did it facilitate what we think is the best source of true video card information on the Internet, but it also got me thinking about the ways we look at computer technology in general. It made me look at what we are doing at HardOCP and what we should be doing in the future.

I made the statement back in mid-2003 that, "If you canآ’t see it, itآ’s not cheating." This of course referred to video card driver optimizations. At that time, not everyone shared that sentiment. In fact, this poll of about 100 astute Beyond3D forum-goers, seemed to show that my brief statement -- taken fully out of context -- did not ring true (by 95.5%) with most of their members. This is understandable as this thinking was being applied to a synthetic video card benchmark, and it showed just how flawed the synthetic system was. The synthetic benchmark could be so grossly manipulated that the score given at the end could be greatly impacted. Moreover, at that time, the video card fan base did not like having their synthetic benchmarks toyed with because they relied on these benchmarks to tell them what was "good" and what was "bad."

The Promised Land

Over the last couple of years, the video card landscape has greatly changed in terms of hardware and software. First off, the power that we have access to is simply incredible. That goes for both the Red and the Green teamآ’s products. Recently, we have entered what I consider the "Promised Land," which is playing our video games at 1600x1200 resolution. With the tremendous power we are seeing today, gaming at 2048x1536 resolution is a reality for the folks that can afford the required hardware. Keeping things in perspective, I remember exactly where I was standing in the map the first time I saw a Quake 2 game environment at 1024x768 on my monitor, and I thought that was incredible. Obviously, increasing the resolution allows you to draw crisper images with much more detailed texturing applied with todayآ’s shaders. There are more video card models at more price points today that will allow you to play higher resolutions in games than ever before.

On the software side of things, we now have solid and dependable driver updates that deliver what is likely the most stable driver sets from both Red and Green. Naturally, there are still glitches and bugs from time to time, but compare the state of video card drivers today with that seen in the year 2000 and there are hardly any comparable characteristics, at least from a consumerآ’s point of view.

Optimized for Your Pleasure

With all of this advancement has come a lot of learning. Red and Green learned to deal with the Web press better. Certainly, the power of the Web is now fully respected by both companies. Along with that, it finally became understood that a little bit of trickery would land you in a lot of hot water. Now with that said, there is no telling how much they actually get away with. Getting back on topic, driver optimizations truly are all about what Red and Green can "get away with." Push the envelope too much and you end up with a "Quake/Quack" situation that just leaves you with egg on your face. Tweak to the point of turning off trilinear filtering in your drivers, and the world will notice. Red and Green have found that throwing image quality out the window is not an acceptable solution to frame rate issues. They have learned that they have to build better hardware and software that is capable of delivering image quality at playable frame rates at higher resolutions. For the most part, this has been happening for the last year and a half.

When it comes to quality, many folks will tell you that the image quality (IQ) exhibited that is closest to a software-rasterized image is "best." Well, for the hardware purist, that might actually be the truth, but many of us just like playing games instead of subjecting every frame to a visual inspection. Red and Green have a tight wire to walk in terms of image quality and performance optimizations. Fall one way and the Web press eats you alive; fall the other way and get beat up because your card lacks performance. Overall, I think that Red and Green have done a great job in the balancing act that they must perform. Will there always be some drama somewhere about something? I sure hope so. We need the drama to spice up what is sometimes an otherwise dull industry.