eVGA GeForce 8800 Ultra

Overall Score

Another game that is frequently used in the evaluation of graphics cards is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion from Bethesda Softworks. Although this game is now slightly over a year old, it retains the ability to tax cutting edge hardware and also delivers absolutely beautiful graphics when powered by an adequate GPU. Oblivion is a DX9 based game, that supports many advanced features such as HDR lighting and Shader Model 3. While the GF 7xxx series left some to be desired in image quality compared to its ATI competitors, the GF 8800 series is dramatically improved in image quality features as well as its raw power. To put this to the test, I set up a series of four saved games in Oblivion that taxed the system in different ways.

The first save point, looking at Castle Skingrad across the bridge, features many torches to animate which puts significant stress on the CPU. The second save is looking across the water at the Imperial City, and is a demonstration of the artistic beauty of the game. In addition, the 3rd person view of the main character with their sword drawn provides an excellent point to observe the effects of antialiasing, as the diagonal line of the sword’s edge is very prone to "jaggies" when AA is disabled. The third save was taken at night in the game looking up into the canopy of several trees. This scene was chosen for its ability to put a tremendous rendering load on the GPU. The final save point was taken just outside of an Oblivion gate. This save puts an overall load on the system, as the CPU is taxed by performing AI on the patrolling guards, and the CPU and GPU are both taxed by the elaborate lighting effects associated with the Oblivion gate.

 

All runs of Oblivion were performed with 16x Anisotropic Filtering (AF) forced on through the nVidia control panel, High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting enabled, and all in-game sliders maximized except the shadows were left at default. The level of antialiasing and the type of sampling (MultiSampling (MS) or SuperSampling (SS)) was also forced through the nVidia control panel, as Oblivion disables in-game control of antialiasing when HDR lighting is enabled. Framerates were obtained from the built in debugging text feature, and collected into a spreadsheet. For comparing the overall performance in Windows XP and Vista, the framerate was averaged from the 4 save points, and plotted with no AA and also with 8x AA of both MS and SS varieties.

In Oblivion, we find that Windows Vista pays approximately a 10% framerate penalty to XP across the board. A very interesting observation is that with the 8800 Ultra, there is almost no penalty whatsoever for going from no antialiasing to 8x MS AA, where there is a huge penalty in switching to SS AA of 8x. Although SS AA offers higher image quality than the MS variety, the difference is insignificant, where the framerate penalty paid by SS is very much noticeable. To the abilty of my monitor and eyes, there is no percieved image quality improvement from increasing the AA settings past 8x MSAA, so the fact that 8x MSAA also incurs no framerate penalty, these settings are almost a "no brainer" selection for me.

For the interest of studying the performance of the card, the AA settings were run with none, 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x, and the performance-murdering 16xQ setting. The performance at each of the save points was collected as a function of the antialiasing setting, and is presented in the following graphs. (I’ll fix the X-axis tomorrow, 0 = no AA, 1 = 2x, 2 = 4x, 3 = 8x, 4 = 16x, and 5 = 16xQ)

From these plots we can see that the performance in save 1 is almost independent of the AA level, as this one is primarily CPU-bound, although 16xQ does finally pull the framerate down even in this CPU-bound section. Under both XP and Vista, we see that the framerate is hardly impacted by the MSAA level up to 8x, and even 16x is a minimal performance hit, but 16xQ pulls it down significantly for no visible improvement in image quality. With SSAA, 2x provides a minimal performance hit with a repectable improvement in image quality, but increasing the AA level beyond 2x with SSAA brings substantial framerate penalties. I consider 30 FPS the lower limit for Oblivion to feel smooth, so 4x SSAA could probably be lived with under XP with only the Oblivion gates falling below this threshold, where 2x SSAA seems to be the limit under Vista with the system at stock speed. As mentioned earlier, I highly recommend the use of 8x MSAA rather than any SSAA in Oblivion on the 8800 Ultra, regardless of Operating system.

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