NVIDIA 337.50 Driver Performance Review
At the Game Developers conference a few weeks ago, Microsoft started outlining DirectX 12. With partial feature-based backwards compatibility with many current DX11 GPUs, cross-platform implementation, performance optimizations aplenty and a focus on minimizing API overhead, it could bring PC gaming to the next level. We’ve already covered DX12 and what it means to developers and GPU manufacturers alike. Both AMD and NVIDIA are striving towards building optimizations for today’s workloads alongside preparations for Microsoft’s new API rollout in 2015. AMD’s foray into API tuning, called Mantle, has already made waves in the developer and gaming communities but now NVIDIA is trying their hand at low level, high gain performance optimizations through the new 337-series drivers.
The timing behind the 337-series driver was highly strategic, coinciding perfectly with AMD’s R9 295X2 launch. While the new drivers were used in our R9 295X2 review, I decided against refocusing my writing attention at a critical time within the AMD review so this article is only going live now. NVIDIA’s new drivers are well tailored as a weapon of mass distraction for reviewers because, well, they’re very good.
While the R9 295X2 certainly deserved undivided attention, NVIDIA’s new driver package can’t be ognored since its feature set affects dozens of different cards across two GPU architectural generations. They also have some serious cross-market ramifications with claims of Mantle-like optimizations for GPU / CPU interactions. If true, that’s a huge step forward for NVIDIA since it was accomplished while remaining within today’s DX11 framework and without introducing a vendor-specific API. It also means that at the eleventh hour, NVIDIA extended an olive branch to their GeForce lineup, allowing their high end cards to better compete against the R9 295X2. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that without the 337-series the GTX 780 Ti SLI and GTX 780 SLI solutions wouldn’t have fared as well as they did in that review.
For the time being, NVIDIA isn’t talking about how this driver goes about improving performance other than to say it improves the communication efficiency between the central processor and the GPU. That sounds a lot like what Mantle offers and what DX12 hopes to accomplish but NVIDIA’s accomplishments are on the driver level rather than targeted towards the base API. There’s a lot of “secret sauce” as well which is code for “we’ve got some really cool proprietary stuff going on behind the scenes but we can’t tell you what it is”. With that being said, it could be that due to their close working relationship with Microsoft on the DX12 infrastructure, NVIDIA is bringing some next-generation improvements to today’s drivers.
Since much of the focus here has been put upon the reduction of processing overhead, the charts you’ve been seeing above make sense. As the GPU power increases the CPU starts becoming more of a bottleneck as it struggles to cope with a torrent of data; hence SLI results get a significant boost as the processor’s cycles are cleared up for graphics-centric workloads. At its most basic level Mantle works very much the same way which is why lower end systems have more to gain from its extensive features.
In order to put NVIDIA’s claims to the test, we tested the new drivers against the month-old 325.32 WHQL package with a GTX 780 Ti in SLI and single card configurations.
With a single GTX 780 Ti, there were some gains at 2560x1440 but everyone should see a trend here. At high framerates (BF4, Thief), the new drivers can make a significant difference as CPU resources are freed up but when the GPU becomes more of a bottleneck (Metro, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry 3), the benefits are slim to nonexistent.
As a caveat to these results it should be mentioned that we are using an extremely fast Ivy Bridge-E processor operating at 4.7GHz. We’ll look at the effect of clock speeds on NVIDIA’s new drivers and AMD’s Mantle in an upcoming article but it’s obvious that lower end processors will likely have the most to benefit.
This many not have much place in a desktop-centric article but the 337-series drivers are available for notebooks as well. Based on these results the potential for that product space is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
With an insane amount of graphical horsepower backstopping the system, processor cycles become ever more critical. This means the newest drivers can NVIDIA can stretch their legs to an impressive degree in certain CPU-bound applications. However, once again, there are some titles like Assassin’s Creed, Metro: Last Light and Hitman Absolution which are still quite reliant upon the GPU due to either high levels of anti aliasing or demanding game engines. Also remember that Mantle has presented issues for AMD’s Crossfire scaling, something NVIDIA’s new driver doesn’t seem to exhibit.
All in all NVIDIA’s 337.50 beta driver is an extremely impressive step forward in terms of performance. While it won’t noticeably benefit every game at every detail setting, the framerate increases have been accomplished without moving to a vendor-specific API. By simply reducing latent driver overhead NVIDIA has empowered developers by deftly avoiding the complications associated with programming Mantle into a game engine. That makes PC game development much simpler and substantially more cost effective. While DX12 will likely boast similar improvements (and then some), it is still more than a year away. Having access to these benefits right now through a simple driver rollout is invaluable for gamers and the gaming industry as a whole.
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