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NVIDIA GeForce 256 Review

GPU Overview

An Eye Towards The Future

What makes NVIDIA's GeForce 256 so revolutionary? For starters, it's the first consumer based graphics controller chip that contains a Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU. A GPU can be thought of like a special processor, similar to a computers central processing unit (CPU), which perform specific types of calculations necessary for three dimensional graphics and animation.

While today's traditional 3D processors already handle the setup and rendering chores of the 3D graphics pipeline, the GPU on the GeForce 256 adds hardware acceleration for transform and lighting calculations. The combination of these four steps is necessary to present a three dimensional world that can be viewed in two dimensions on a monitor.

The 3D Graphics Pipeline

Click to enlarge - 26K

Because the GPU is processing transform and lighting, those calculations are offloaded from the CPU and result in decreased CPU load. For example, games developed in OpenGL such as Quake, Half-Life, Kingpin, and Soldier or Fortune, geometry transformations are accomplished via hardware acceleration and is mathematically intensive work.

The GeForce 256's GPU contains over 22 million transistors and is capable of processing billions of calculations per second. By freeing up CPU cycles, developers now have an opportunity to enhance their games by adding additional capabilities such as enhanced character animation (physics) and advanced artifical intelligence (logic).

GeForce GPU Frees CPU Cycles

In the following pages of this review, you (as most developers already have) will begin to understand how the GeForce 256 can handle transformations and complex lighting, which will ultimately provide greater levels of realism in the 3D games we enjoy playing.

Changing The World

NVIDIA has been working closely with game developers during the past year to garner support for using the advanced features the GeForce 256 offers. Many developers agree that in order to enhance our gaming experience, increasingly complex character and object models are necessary to provide life-like images.

By increasing the amount of polygons used to render objects, the transformation capabilities of the GeForce will allow models to be created with a more accurate representation of the game world. Add in additional features such as vertex blending and cube environment mapping, and it becomes clear as to why NVIDIA coined the phrase Changing the World.

For example, take a look at the following images. The image on the left is comprised of 998 polygons, while the one on the right contains around 100,000 polygons. It's obvious that the high polygon count image is what gamers prefer in the next generation of games. Notice the differences in the details of the wheels, windows, and surfaces between the two planes.

Low Polygon vs High Polygon Count

The Developers Speak

Games being developed with the GeForce 256's capabilities in mind include Evolva by Computer Artworks, The Whole Experience, and Halo by Bungie Software. Evolva was selected by NVIDIA as the ultimate PC game to showcase the capabilities of the GeForce 256. Here are a couple of recently released screenshots of the game taken on the GeForce 256:

Evolva: Click to enlarge - 80K Evolva: Click to enlarge - 168K

Additional information on Evolva can be found in our preview at nV News and the hands-on preview at GA-Source.

Dagoth Moor Zoological Gardens is a demo that was developed exclusively by The Whole Experience, for testing NVIDIA's GeForce 256. Patrick Moynihan, who is the companies founder, said the following in regards to the GeForce 256:

Our typical polygon budget for any given frame is around 20,000 polygons. When we did the DMZG demo for GeForce 256, we had scenes with upwards of 88,000 polygons on screen.

It really is a beast of a polygon pusher. The fill rate on the GeForce is enough to give us a depth complexity of 5 at 1024x768 @ 60fps, which is more than enough for Experience. We're used to working with a depth complexity of about 2.5, so there's a lot a breathing room on this card.

The Whole Experience: Click to enlarge - 458K The Whole Experience: Click to enlarge - 367K

More information about the Whole Experience and the GeForce 256 can be read over at 3D GPU's interview with Sky Kensok.

Another game currently under development is Halo, by Bungie Software. Halo will feature an Inverse Kinematics system, which is used for the main character animation. From designer Jason Jones:

Far more so than in Myth, the Halo world is governed by a detailed physics model, which allows objects to behave as realistically as possible.

An article posted at The Firing Squad, which is based on an NVIDIA GeForce 256 press conference, offers the following comment in regards to Halo:

Halo was the one game out of the three shown that left the room breathless. It showed off some impressive lighting effects, including soft looking shadows, and an astonishing amount of detail in all of the models.

Halo: Click to enlarge - 55K Halo: Click to enlarge - 62K

Dave Perry of Shiny Entertainment, who is developing Messiah, offers his thoughts on bringing 3D into the future:

There is a unique image quality to "REAL" and when I say real I mean "REAL" life. That quality is a look, a feeling. It's not just a red pixel in the correct place or a new smoothing system. Sit in a large room and look around... Ask yourself how good 3D games really look on a screen when compared to what you are seeing.

I feel that 3D companies need to calm down now on the mine is bigger than yours and focus on quality, or actually spend the cask to research into what is it that we are not allowing for. What is it that we are all missing.

Personally, I believe that we need to emulate spatial light distortion/absorption and the effect that your physical eyeball and it's abborations has on the final image. That is where I would start.

I guess when we talk fill rate vs. T&L I am picking between two kinda crap obvious choices vs. a 3D card company that is trying to move things REALLY forward.

Messiah: Click to enlarge - 142K Messiah: Click to enlarge - 127K

Tim Sweeney of Epic, who was the lead developer for Unreal and Unreal Tournement made the follwing comments in an interview at Voodoo Extreme:

For our next engine, there will be a major emphasis on Hardware T&L, hardware per-pixel lighting, and procedural vertex shading -- basically, the key advancements of DirectX8 and DirectX9.

We're going to be totally focused on standard 3D API's, Direct3D and OpenGL, so the 3D card makers who work closest with Microsoft are going to be supported the best.

Now that consumer 3D hardware has surpassed what high-end SGI machines were once capable of, there's no longer a clear roadmap for future features, so the future is being plotted out by Microsoft, key game developers, and key hardware makers, with Microsoft's DirectX team being the de facto rallying point.

An additional source of information on game developers comments can be found at Sharky Exteme.

Additional Benefits

There are existing game engines which will immediately realize certain benefits of the GeForce 256's GPU. In particular are those based on the OpenGL API such as Quake and derivatives of the Quake engine such as Half-Life and Kingpin.

The release of DirectX 7, which is Mircosoft's game development applications programming interface (API), added support for transformation and lighting and environment mapping among other features. Games written under DirectX 7 that use transformation and lighting will offer dramatic improvements over the TNT and TNT2.

It's important to realize that the benefits of the GeForce 256 are not only limited to games. Computer Aided Design (CAD) applications such as Maya will benefit from a transform and lighting processor. I've included benchmarks in this review that illustrate that the GeForce 256 can be used as part of a CAD workstation.

Also, please refer to Riva 3D's GeForce 256 review page titled "Can the GeForce Be Used as a Workstation?" for additional details. NVIDIA is committed to providing first-class drivers for Linux and their partnership with SGI is expected to expand into current and future products.

Update: November 1, 1999:

NVIDIA announced their NVIDIA Quadro Workstation GPU which offers exceptional performance at a low-cost price for design and authoring professionals. Preliminay benchmarks for the Quadro have been posted at 3D GPU and previews of the Quadro appear at Fast Graphics and The Firing Squad.

Update: December 19, 1999:

Many of the demos that were made available by NVIDIA for this review can be downloaded from their Technical Demos page. They have also published white papers on the following subjects:

  • Technical Brief: AGP 4X with Fast Writes
  • Technical Brief: Transform and Lighting
  • Technical Brief: What's New With Microsoft DirectX 7
  • Technical Brief: 3D Graphics Demystified

Next: Transformation

Last Updated on Octobet 21, 1999

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