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NVIDIA Seeks to Invalidate Mantle - Driver & DX Updates, Aggression

Posted on April 7, 2014

In my many years working on the journalism side of this industry, I've never seen nVidia put forth such an aggressive stance as exhibited during last week's press conference. We'll start this post with some rapid-fire catching up from the last few months.

nv-dx1Not so subtle.

The past months have been very AMD-intensive. AMD's Mantle API fronted momentous marketing outreach, touting a bypass to DirectX's performance overhead that has historically been a drain on CPU and GPU output. The hardware has been held back by the API, we were (somewhat accurately) told by AMD, and Mantle was the proposed solution to put developers "closer to the metal" -- or closer to the hardware-level -- similar to console development. This news came to be during a period of silence for Microsoft's DirectX API, which hadn't seen noteworthy development since 2012 with Dx11.1 (at that point). It was the ideal opportunity for an emergent API to make a big splash without significant, refreshed competition.

Then GDC's schedule was posted, prominently listing several Microsoft DirectX panels in league with nVidia, who've partnered with Microsoft to develop the API for more efficient API-hardware communication. Along with many other websites, we posted that "Microsoft Fires Back at Mantle," calling into question Mantle's ability to gain traction in a market that already heavily favors DirectX. AMD spotted our posting and emailed us this official damage control statement:

“Yesterday several articles were published that reported that DirectX® and OpenGL are being extended to include closer-to-metal functionality and reduced CPU overhead. AMD supports and celebrates a direction for game development that is aligned with AMD’s vision of lower-level, ‘closer to the metal’ graphics APIs for PC gaming. While industry experts expect this to take some time, developers can immediately leverage efficient API design using Mantle, and AMD is very excited to share the future of our own API with developers at this year’s Game Developers Conference.”

DirectX 12 is still approximately 21 months away for full support, so AMD's assertion was that Mantle has the chance to grow in that period and see immediate usage. Mantle has already been included with Battlefield 4 and Thief, but you'll see below that nVidia claims to have surpassed Mantle performance in both these games with their new driver update.

NVidia fired their next shots at GTC 2014, where it was heavily emphasized that DirectX 12 is "a real thing" (referencing earlier questions as to whether Dx12 would ever ship) and would compete. This continued into last week -- the press conference we're discussing today -- where nVidia boasted tremendous Dx11 performance gains with new driver updates and the future DirectX 12 API. We rarely see more than a direct GPU-to-GPU internal benchmark during these press conferences, so it caught me a bit by surprise to hear discussion in direct opposition to AMD's Mantle advancements. NVidia very clearly called the validity of AMD's Mantle into question and showed no fear in its endeavor to do so.

Let's talk about the recent press conference. There were a few main topics that we'll go over -- none of them including new GTX cards, so don't hold out for that: DirectX 11 performance updates, up to 71% SLI performance gains with 337.50 beta drivers, heavy aggression on Dx12 support vs. AMD, Shield global streaming (WAN), ShadowPlay updates, and GFE updates. This was a big conference for nVidia.

You may want to catch yourself up on nVidia's present trajectory over here, where we discuss TEGRA's future, over here, where we discuss TITAN Z and Pascal, and over here, where we talk about graphics SDKs.

Take it from the Top: GeForce Experience 2.0 & ShadowPlay

In list form, the newest version of GFE introduces the following features:

  • ShadowPlay on Kepler-powered notebooks.
  • GameStream on notebooks.
  • "Battery boost" on notebooks.
  • Desktop video capture.
  • Support for 20 new games.

nv-dx2We first wrote about ShadowPlay around this time last year. To briefly bring everyone up to speed, ShadowPlay is screen capture software that is best-known for its "retroactive recording." It basically streams your gameplay footage into a buffer, then if you want to keep it, you hit the 'record' button (retroactively if you missed a good kill, for instance); if you never hit that record button, it dumps the footage after a user-defined amount of time (2 to 20 minutes). ShadowPlay uses a special encoder built into Kepler architecture, so all of the encoding is handled live on the GPU with minimal performance impact to your overall FPS. The software is somewhat similar to FRAPS in its capture functionality and quality, but has the already-described differentiating retroactive feature and proprietary hardware acceleration. Recorded files are also far smaller.

GFE 2.0 brings ShadowPlay to Kepler-equipped gaming notebooks, simply enough, but it does a bit more than that. Perhaps more interestingly, full desktop capture is now enabled through ShadowPlay. This can be thought of as similar to HyperCam (what we use for tutorials) or Camtasia, though a bit less advanced. NVidia's software can capture the full desktop at a maximum resolution of 1900x1200 (1080 supported); when I asked whether the viewport could be restricted, we were told that this is something "they're looking at for the future." For now, it just captures the full desktop - so there's no way to restrict or zoom the view to a single application or quadrant. ShadowPlay still only functions on the primary monitor, but it was emphasized that multi-display support is a thought going forward. NVidia noted that multi-display support is "tricky because you enlarge the frame buffer significantly."

Also in this update is the option to record games in windowed mode and with borderless windows, an appeal to streamers hoping to use the software.

ShadowPlay supports Dx and OpenGL titles in its present state. New custom encoding improvements introduce these features to ShadowPlay:


GFE - Battery Boost

We didn't get many details on how Battery Boost specifically works, but the concept was introduced as a means to make gaming laptops more viable for actual gaming. NVidia accurately pointed-out that most gaming laptops won't last more than an hour when pumping out game-worthy visuals, so battery boost allegedly boosts battery life "up to 2x" over native duration. This is likely done by disabling unnecessary processes and tweaking the way the GPU behaves, though to what extent I am unsure. Battery Boost will be available on 800M series notebooks.

NVidia GameStream - SHIELD with Remote Computing 

I briefly gave some of my initial thoughts on nVidia's SHIELD over here last week, which should do a decent job at catching you up on the technology. The short of it is that SHIELD, the handheld device announced at CES 2013, is capable of using a nearby Kepler gaming rig to render all graphics. The output is then displayed on the Shield's screen or on a nearby TV that you've exported to. Until today, this has restricted Shield users to the home hosting the rig doing all the remote rendering (outside of Android titles), so the next obvious step was to try and get Shield working over WAN.

With the new update to Shield and GFE, the Shield will be able to wake the PC from S3 (we're not sure about S4 yet), log into the desktop, and then launch supported games. NVidia recommends a connection with a 5Mbps up/down minimum datarate for this to work without significant latency. You probably wouldn't be very competitive with those playing locally on a PC, obviously, but if the internet connection is stable enough to eliminate latency, it'll work well for singleplayer or cooperative games.

This will be entering beta with the GFE 2.0 update released today. NVidia's been pushing their Shield hard since its launch; it seems like initial consumption has been slow on the uptake, judging from the constant $100 off coupons and free-Shield-for-everyone keynote, but the platform is legitimately interesting and perhaps deserves some attention.

Moving On: 337.50 Beta GTX Driver Update - DirectX vs. Mantle Benchmark 


As of this posting, nVidia's new drivers should be available on their official site. The point of bragging here primarily stems from large SLI performance gains and similarly-large single-GPU performance gains. NVidia was quick to note that "this is more than the normal driver update" before directly attacking AMD's initial Mantle demonstration:

nv-dx5 nv-dx8

"As many of you know, you were looking at Battlefield 4 and StarSwarm [for Mantle]. In practice, the games you saw in BF are much smaller than the games you see in StarSwarm. StarSwarm was essentially created with the sole purpose of showcasing the intention of Mantle and putting it in the best light possible. Out of the gate we were largely competitive with Mantle; however, with the advancements the driver team has made, 337.50 beta shows that we can pull ahead with DirectX 11 in StarSwarm [on a 780 Ti] against Mantle on a 290X."

nv-subtleI also found nVidia's subtle AMD slams that were littered throughout the slides to be somewhat humorous. Phrases like "works within the industry standard: DirectX 11" and then calling StarSwarm a "synthetic game benchmark." Like I said -- feisty.

Here are a few more slides from the real-world tests that nVidia conducted in-house:


nv-dx6 nv-dx7

It wasn't until the multi-GPU scaling slide that nVidia really tried to drive its DirectX stake into the heart of AMD. In a directly-competitive move using AMD's closely-partnered Thief, nVidia showed a sizable performance hit when using multiple R9 290x video cards with Mantle before then demonstrating its own 30% leap between 335.23 and 337.50. NVidia's primary focus with the new driver update is to increase efficiency by decreasing CPU overhead, similar to Mantle's primary objective.


Getting Aggressive: DirectX 12 Support Going Forward 

First off, I'll re-state that we've got some AMD coverage coming tomorrow (April 8) that was hastily prepared in response to the nVidia conference. You've likely already seen some leaked slides around the web by outlets that have broken embargo, but our full analysis is pending publication.

NVidia's next slide -- after going through all the driver improvements -- listed several major up-and-coming titles built on DirectX. Daylight (which we've previewed), Watch_Dogs, Titanfall (benchmarked), and several other big-namers. It was then reiterated that everything from Fermi (GTX 400/500) onward will support DirectX 12. NVidia called upon Steam's hardware survey for the next slide:

nv-dx10 nv-dx11

The total install base for DirectX 11-compatible GPUs hovers around 78% with DirectX 10 at 21% and DirectX 9 at 1%. Of these GPUs, we were told that only 11% support AMD's Mantle. In further direct action, it was then pointed-out that DirectX 12 will be natively supported by 79% of all GPUs compatible with DirectX 11, whereas Mantle is only compatible with 14% of those. That includes AMD devices.

Finally, nVidia used future DirectX 12 support as a closing point. The company affirmed that 100% of all GeForce GPUs that natively support Dx11 will support Dx12, whereas 40% of AMD's Dx11 GPUs will support Dx12 and Mantle (pointing at GCN architecture requirements as the catalyst).

NVidia highlighted that they've been working with Microsoft for over four years on DirectX 12, which almost came across as a bit sore -- as in, "we were doing this before Mantle was a thought."


My Thoughts

I normally don't really provide much of an opinion on these sorts of reports. They just don't require it. But this time felt different: NVidia's getting feisty, and it's not an empty threat, either; they've got a good product and they know it, it just so happens that the companies normally let the products speak for themselves. This time, press was emphatically told -- no between-the-lines reading required -- why nVidia and Microsoft are the future. At least, in their vision.

AMD hosted a press conference a few days later to discuss the R9 295X2 dual-GPU (embargo lifts tomorrow). I'll spoil ahead of time that, big surprise, Mantle was very heavily pushed and there was almost zero mention of DirectX 12. When asked about Dx12 by the press, one of the engineers on-call very firmly stated: "Guys. DirectX 12 is 21 months out." It was then made clear that they wouldn't entertain discussion of an "API that isn't there yet."

As for what I make of all this, well, it seems like nVidia is making a very serious push with this next generation. I've already explained that TEGRA has potential to start challenging x86 in some spaces, we have direct attacks on Mantle's viability, heavy marketing pushes on the Shield/GFE, and proliferation of SDKs in engines that all further reinforce an assertive position.

It'll be fun to watch them slug it out. This is part of a healthy, ongoing battle in the industry, it's just been quite a while since we've seen so much action in such a short period of time. At the end of the day, as gamers, we're finally seeing APIs levied for the betterment of hardware. It's good news for us all around.

The new drivers are available now via nVidia's website; GFE 2.0 & ShadowPlay updates will go live shortly:

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.