Computer games are not difficult for most modern video cards to handle, but that hasn’t stopped the performance war between AMD and NVIDIA. It’s only raised the bar. 1080p is now a mundane resolution. To really push the hardware you need a 2560×1440 display – or more.
The red and green teams are also firing at each other with new features designed to give each an edge. I’m not talking about CUDA, Supersampling or multi-GPU configurations. No, that’s old news. I’m talking about GPU Boost, Eyefinity, TXAA and more. You should know about these features before buying your next video card.
V-Sync has been the gamer’s solution to screen tearing for years. It ensures that the frames being displayed on your monitor or synced to your monitor’s refresh rate (typically 60Hz, or 60 frames per second) and provides a smooth visual experience.
But there’s a problem. V-Sync can operating in multiples of 60, so if your framerate starts to drop much below 60 the V-Sync cap is diminished to 30 frames per second. And if the game dips even lower, you end up at 20 FPS, or 15 FPS. That’s not good.
Adaptive V-Sync is a new feature from NVIDIA that is deployed in its latest drivers. It improves the gameplay experience by removing the multiplication handicap of V-Sync. If your framerate drops to 50, for example, it’s just 50. It doesn’t step down to 30, as it would with normal V-Sync. This creates an even smoother experience and is particularly helpful in games that waver around the 60 FPS mark but aren’t consistently above it.
This is a driver update, so you can enjoy it without buying a new card, but only if you have an NVIDIA 8-Series GPU or newer. AMD does not yet offer a similar feature.
GPU Boost / PowerTune With Boost
Earlier this year NVIDIA announced a video card feature called GPU Boost. It’s basically Intel Turbo Boost for your video card. If your card has heat and voltage to spare it can temporarily overclock itself to provide better performance. AMD has recently answered this feature by unveiling what it calls “PowerTune with Boost”.
This might sound very exciting. After all, Intel Turbo Boost can overclock a processor significantly – sometimes by 1 GHz. Curb your enthusiasms. You won’t see such dramatic gains here. Instead we’re looking at gains around 100 MHz. Still, that’s better than nothing, and it does increase framerates.
You can’t just update your drivers for this one. A few Radeon HD 7000 series cards can update their BIOS to obtain PowerTune with Boost. NVIDIA’s GPU Boost is restricted to certain new GTX 600 series cards. It’s not a feature that gives you a reason to buy a new card, but it does provide incentive to buy a new Radeon HD 7000 or GTX 600 series part instead of a part from the previous generation.
Engineers and developers have spent years fighting against one of gaming’s toughest foes – jaggies. Load up any 3D game and you’re likely to notice them, even with anti-aliasing on. Sharp edges that should be smooth instead appear rough and jagged, which is more than a little annoying.
The latest attempt to combat this is NVIDIA’s TXAA. It uses a wide tent filter and temporal filtering to smooth out an image without destroying performance. Benchmarks indicate that 4x TXAA is playable at 1080p with maximum detail if you have one of NVIDIA’s new GTX 600 series video cards. Older NVIDIA card and AMD cards can’t use this feature.
TXAA’s algorithm is applied to the entire frame, however, which reduces overall sharpness. This is a trade-off some users may not be willing to accept. Another downside is the need for application level support. The Secret World is the only game that currently supports TXAA, though more will be coming soon.
Eyefinity / NVIDIA Surround
AMD released Eyefinity to enable multi-monitor gaming on its video cards. An AMD card with Eyefinity support can display a game on up to six monitors – if there are enough video connections available. Most gamers are going for three-monitors horizontal arrays because of video output limitations on many card and also because even today’s fastest GPUs struggle to drive six 1080p displays.
NVIDIA Surround is the green team’s response. It allows for the use of three displays in horizontal orientation. It also supports NVIDIA 3D Vision, which means you can play a game in surround and 3D if all of your monitors support 3D content.
This feature costs a lot to use because you need to buy three monitors instead of one, but the experience can be worthwhile if you have the cash. It’s particularly useful in FPS games, as having a large field of view can help you notice movement that would normally be off-screen. Most recent cards support these features – you can check the AMD and NVIDIA support pages for more information.
This is not a new technology, exactly, but it’s a new trend that you should be aware of. Both AMD and NVIDIA have for years focused on reference designs – a complete video card design, including the cooling solution, which was re-sold by manufacturers. Manufacturers could add features if they wanted but most cards followed the reference.
That’s starting to change. Both AMD and NVIDIA video cards, particularly high-end ones, are now commonly sold with designs that don’t follow the reference. It’s also common to see numerous overclock options available – each a little quicker and sold for a little more.
Many of these custom cards work incredibly well, but they force consumers to pay more attention to reviews. It’s no longer enough to just read the reference card review and be done. You need to read reviews of the specific card you’re considering.
Most of these features are not a reason to buy a video card if your current one still runs a game well, but you should give them some thought when buying any new card. The custom cooling solutions, multi-monitor support and special V-Sync / anti-aliasing modes provide some value. Today’s video card market offers a lot of options, most of which are separated by just twenty or thirty bucks, so these extras do make a difference.