Think of any major graphics hardware advances of the past eight years, and the chances are that nVidia was right there, exploring the potential from the first minute. So it isn't really surprising that the newly launched GeForce 8800 GTX is the first chip to support version 10.0 of Microsoft's DirectX gaming interface.
Neither should it be too much of a shock to find that this is the most sophisticated card we've seen yet. With 681 million transistors (the 7900 GTX has just 278 million), this is one complex card.
Simply in terms of hardware specifications, the 8800 marks a significant step forwards. We drooled over the Radeon X1950 XTX's huge memory core speed of 1GHz, and the 8800 GTX's figure of 900MHz (1.8GHz DDR) isn't quite as stunning.
But factor in the 384bit memory interface, and the 8800's memory bandwidth soars to an eye-watering 86.4GBps (gigabytes per second) – easily eclipsing the X1950 XTX's figure of 64GBps. And this is with standard GDDR3 memory. The 8800 could actually support the advanced GDDR4 memory that made the X1950 such a stunner, which gives a glimpse of its future potential.
You get a hefty 768MB of DDR3 RAM, and, while today's games don't really warrant such a huge amount of memory, tomorrow's titles will certainly benefit.
But it's the DirectX 10.0 features that really enthral. The move from fixed pixel- and vertex-shaders to multifunctional stream processors is useful. But so is the birth of a new feature, the geometry shader. This sits between the vertex shaders and the pixel shaders and works on large chunks of vertices at once, giving games programmers the potential for far more complex graphics.
DirectX 10.0 implements Shader Model 4.0, which offers far more of everything, such as the ability to juggle huge numbers of textures. The versatility of the graphics pipeline and a string of enhancements mean DirectX 10.0 cards are much more efficient.
We instantly noticed the improvement in graphics quality. The 8800 comes with nVidia's new Lumenex engine, which offers significant boosts to both image quality and antialiasing. For those who adore their visuals, the 8800 has a brand-new feature called CSAA (Coverage Sampled Anti-Aliasing). While it does reduce performance, some users will find the ravishing image quality worth the cost. Chuck in 128bit HDR (higher dynamic range) rendering, and this is easily the most attractive card available.
The problem with testing this card is that most of its best features are specific to DirectX 10.0. With no such games available yet, it's impossible to see the 8800 at its best. However, even on existing DirectX 9.0 titles (Prey, Half-Life 2, Oblivion, Fear), the results are very strong, with this card easily demolishing everything else we've tested.
You'll have to run at greater resolutions than 1,600x1,200 to get any real benefit from this card, but at 1,600x1,200 we were finding it regularly outperforming the X1950 XTX by between 25 and 34 percent.
Stream if you want to go faster
One of the great things about this card is that it allows us to wave goodbye to the old debate about pixel and vertex shaders.
The building blocks of today's in-game graphics are pixels and vertices. DirectX 8.0 and 9.0 cards can make a fairly good job of pumping out lots of these, thanks to their dedicated pixel- and vertex-shader processors. Unfortunately, DirectX 8.0 and 9.0 also force chip manufacturers to decide exactly how many of each type of shader they want to implement.
In recent cards, nVidia and (in particular) ATI have been putting far more emphasis on pixel-shader processors, with the result that vertex shaders have been rather neglected. Today's games undoubtedly lean towards pixel-intensive scenes, but there are plenty of situations where vertices are very important.
It's therefore great to see that dedicated pixel and vertex shaders have been abandoned in the 8800's new Unified Architecture. Instead, we now have stream processors, which can work as either pixel or as vertex shaders depending on what's needed at that particular moment. The 8800 GTX has 128 of them, so it should be better than any other card at creating complex but fast-moving in-game graphics. Hurrah!