Without question, one of the hottest topics throughout the industry this year has been the advent of the discrete physics processor or "PPU" (Physics Processing Unit). Developed by a new startup company called Ageia, this new physics processor gives game developers the opportunity to create entirely new game-play characteristics that were not considered possible using standard hardware. Since its original inception, both CPU and GPU vendors have come to the spotlight to showcase the ability to process physics on their respective hardware. However, the Ageia PhysX PPU is the only viable solution which is readily available to consumers.
For the foreseeable future, the only vendors which will be manufacturing and selling physics processors based on the Ageia PhysX PPU are ASUS and BFG. With ASUS primarily focusing on the OEM market, BFG will enjoy a monopoly of sorts within the retail channel, as they will comprise the vast majority of all available cards on store shelves. Today, we will be running a retail sample of BFG's first ever Physics processor through its paces. Judging from the packaging alone, you can tell that this box contains something out of the ordinary. Housed in an unusual triangular box with a flip-down front panel, consumers can glimpse the card's heatsink assembly through a clear plastic window.
Flipping the box, consumers are presented with a quick listing of features complete with summaries and a small screen-shot. Most importantly, the package also lists the small handful of games which actually support the PPU hardware. This short list consists of City of Villains, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, and Bet on Soldier: Blood Sport.
Upon opening the packaging, we are presented with a standard fare of accessories. Beyond the actual card itself, we find a power cable splitter, a driver CD, a demo CD, and a quick install guide. Somewhat surprisingly, we also find a neon flyer warning of a driver issue with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter that instructs users to download the latest driver from Ageia to avoid the problem. This is a bit disheartening as there are only three games which currently support this hardware. With this in mind, it is hard to not feel as though the hardware is being rushed to market a bit sooner than it probably should have.
Directing our attention to the card itself, we find a rather unassuming blue PCB with a somewhat standard aluminum active heatsink assembly. Amidst the collection of power circuitry, we also find a 4-pin molex power connector to feed the card as a standard PCI slot does not provide adequate power source for the processor. At first glance, the card looks remarkably similar to a mainstream graphics card. It's not until you see the bare back-plate with no connectivity options that you realize this is not a GeForce 6600 or similar product.
Thankfully, the BFG PhysX card does not incorporate yet another massive dual-slot heatsink assembly as so many new pieces of high-end hardware do these days. Rather, we find a small single-slot active heatsink that manages to effectively cool the PPU while keeping noise at a minimum. Removing the heatsink, we were pleased to find that BFG has done an excellent job of applying the proper amount of thermal paste and that the base of the heatsink was flat with no dead spots. After powering the system, we see that BFG has dressed the card up with three blue LED's to appease those with case windows.
With the heatsink removed, we have our first opportunity to glimpse the Ageia PhysX PPU in all its glory. Manufactured on a 0.13u process at TSMC, the die is comprised of 125 million transistors. Overall, the size of the die is slightly larger than the memory modules which surround it. Looking closely at the board, we see that the 128MB of memory consists of Samsung K4J55323QF-GC20 GDDR3 SDRAM which are rated for a maximum frequency of 500MHz. Unfortunately, neither BFG nor Ageia have disclosed what frequency the PPU memory and core operate at, so we are unsure how close to the theoretical limit these components are running. We have been hearing rumors of PhysX card running memory at speeds over 700MHz, though these are obviously different cards than the BFG model seen here as the chips would be running in excess of 200MHz over their maximum rated operating frequency.
After more than a year of first hearing of Ageia's plan to bring a discrete physics processor to market, we have a retail PPU from BFG in our labs and are testing the world's first physics processor in actual games. The company's preparation of the industry through the implementation of Ageia's Novodex Physics API will likely pay off in spades as developers are becoming very familiar with working with their format. With such high profile engines such as the Unreal Engine 3 already committed to using Ageia's API and having full support for the PhysX hardware, it appears as though the concept of the discrete physics process has finally received vindication.
In the interest of time, we will avoid going through a detailed analysis of the PhysX architecture again and will instead direct your attention to our GDC article which we previously posted as it contains any backup data you'll need. Since our debriefing at GDC, a few additional aspects of the PhysX hardware have come to light though there is now even more mystery surrounding the product as Ageia has been less than forthcoming with the full spectrum of details for their new hardware. Looking at the information posted on the packaging for our retail 128MB BFG PhysX PPU, we find the following table of information:
Going through the list above, a few key items capture our attention. Perhaps the most interesting and controversial statement made is the mention of "multiple cores" in the first description. At this time, the only details of the PPU die is the fact that it is made on a 0.13 process at TSMC and it is roughly 190mm^2 in size. Beyond that, Ageia has been intentionally quiet regarding the finer details of the core and its architecture. Ironically enough, one of the few details Ageia has chosen to share sheds light on our other key item of interest. In the last statement in the list above, we see mention of "feature and performance enhancements via software". As new features are added and optimizations made, the PPU can be paired with new software to fully implement these changes. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to confirm whether these "upgrades" will be downloadable for free by current PhysX owners or whether there will be an associated charge. Let's hope Ageia is kind to the early adopters and makes these upgrades a free and simple download.
After viewing the diagram above, the mystery behind the unusual triangle packaging is solved as BFG is clearly drawing a parallel to Ageia's "processor triangle" marketing pitch. The irony here is that the CPU and GPU are the only two threats to the overall success and potential of the PPU. Regardless, Ageia has a vision in which these three components compliment each other. Make no mistake, Ageia's plan is to have the physics processor be the third and final portion of the foundation for game development.
Viewing the list of current and upcoming games which will officially support the PhysX hardware we see that in addition to a field of smaller titles, there are still some major keystone titles. Sure, blockbuster titles such as Unreal Tournament 2007 and Warhammer MMORPG goes a long way in validating Ageia's claim for the need of a discrete physics processor. One aspect to note however is that we have no quantitive measure of how deeply the support for the PhysX hardware will be for these titles. As you will see with the analysis of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and CellFactor, there can be an enormous difference in implementation between two games which both support this hardware.
|AGEIA Driver Panel and Demo|
Once the BFG PhysX card is installed and the drivers are loaded, an Ageia tray icon is loaded. Those who are installing Ghost Recon ADvanced Warfighter will be forced to install the Ageia drivers and this panel regardless of whether a PhysX card is present or not. Clicking this icon on the sytem tray reveals a driver menu with a series of four general tabs.
Although many would assume that the PhysX driver panel is strictly for the PhysX card itself, the image above illustrates that is not the case. Even with the discrete physics card removed from the system entirely, the same menus can be accessed and all appropriate PhysX engines are available.
With the card installed, the user can move to the next tab and run a series of diagnostics to troubleshoot any current issues they might be having. In total, there are 120 unique tests the card must run to complete these diagnostics. Unfortunately, no detailed information regarding the specifics of each test has been made available by Ageia.
Somewhat surprisingly, the large amount of real estate dedicated to PhysX demonstrations is nearly empty with only a single demo occupying space. This "Box" demo is a very basic demo where the user can shoot a ball at a series of colored boxes which each have their own physics applied to them. This test can be run using the PhysX hardware or in software mode should a PhysX card not be present.
For those who paid upwards of $250, seeing a series of bland boxes being hit by a ball is disappointing to say the least. In all fairness, the demo is small in size and very unassuming so expectations must be realistic. Regardless, people should be given a more dramatic demo to help justify the cost of their new hardware as there are only a handful of games which can even use the PhysX processor at this time.
With the upgradable nature of the PhysX PPU in mind, we are a bit surprised to not see any driver tab listing functionality history. As new optimizations are made and new functionality released, it would be convenient to have a list of what changes have been implemented. In future cases where a user might have issues with a particular game, they can verify that they are using the appropriate drivers/software and that the proper solution is installed.
|Test System & Ageia Box Demo|
Looking at the minimum system requirements for the BFG PhysX processor, we see a few small surprises. The first surprise is with regards to the Operating System, which limited to Windows XP Pro, Home, or Media Center. Those who are using another variant of Windows or are a fan of Linux do not have any options for a discrete physics processor as there is no driver support for these operating systems at this time. The same is true for early adopters of 64-bit Windows or Mac users who have a newfound interest in PC hardware thanks to their new Intel platforms. Hopefully, Ageia will be able to quickly expand their development team so they can get the appropriate drivers out to address these various operating systems.
The second requirement which may surprise some is the need for a discrete graphics card that support DX9 and Shader Model 2.0 or higher. Although this might seem like common sense to most, there are surely a handful of consumers that will try to pair a $250 PhysX PPU with a budget graphics card. Obviously, the additional overhead of the advanced physics and associated extra graphics detail will need to be managed by the CPU and GPU. Should you be gaming with a graphics card that does not meet the minimum requirements, you would be far better off spending $250 on a high quality graphics card and you should direct your attention to Hot Hardware's graphics card reviews for more information.
Considering the fact that this benchmark was created by Ageia as a technology demo to showcase the performance of their PhysX hardware, it is no surprise to see that the discrete PPU is able to best the software-driven efforts of the CPU. Although each configuration shares the same maximum framerate, there is a considerable gap in performance for both the average and minimum framerates. Without any detailed knowledge into the structure of this demo, we must be somewhat cautious in drawing any conclusions regarding the performance advantage the PPU might have over a CPU.
|Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter|
Click Thumbnail for Animated Comparison
Looking at the animated comparison illustrated in the image above, we can quickly see the results of using the BFG PhysX card in this title. Unfortunately, the differences are less than earth shattering as there is nothing more than some added debris. This additional debris looks exactly the same regardless of the material being destroyed and appears to be using the same model just at different angles and viewpoints. Granted, it does increase the level of realism in the game as objects are destroyed in a much more convincing manner. However, we are certainly not seeing justification of a $250 or more purchase.
Click Thumbnail for Animated Comparison
We witness the same scenario when we shoot a few grenades at the upper floors of a building. This view gives us an excellent perspective on the differences in debris between the scene rendered with and without the BFG PhysX card. Again, we do prefer the increase in realism when using the PhysX processor versus the lack of debris when the card is not present. However, we are firmly convinced that this higher level of physics would be entirely possible on either a dual-core or fast single-core processor. For one reason or another, the higher physics setting can only be activated when the PhysX PPU is installed and detected.
Certainly those who just spent upwards of $250 on a brand new discrete physics processor will be a bit surprised to see that their maximum, average, and minimum framerates all dropped compared to the results they saw with no PhysX hardware. Granted, the scenes using the BFG PhysX card were full of more debris and detail which further burdened the system. However, given the relative simplicity of that debris, we would be very curious to see how the CPU would perform using the same physics settings. Despite our best efforts and attempts to modify XML files, we could not enable this higher quality physics setting when the Ageia PhysX hardware was not installed and enabled.
Prior to testing, we set the resolution to 1280x1024 and maximized both texture and shadow detail to 100%. High Dynamic Range was enabled by default and was chosen to remain enabled along with all other default settings. Armed with an Athlon 64 FX-53, a 512MB Radeon X1900 XTX, and 2GB of memory we were confident that the game would be running as smooth as butter. Unfortunately, that was anything but the case in this game, though it is still in development so we'll reserve final judgment until the game is shipping.
Compared to the slight increase in debris seen in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, we find the effects in CellFactor are in an entirely different league. Debris of various shapes, sizes, and materials are thrown in every direction and each react with a whole new level of realism. For the first time, it feels as though we are reaping the benefits of the PhysX PPU.
Shooting some radioactive barrels illustrates the PhysX PPU's ability to manage fluids for the first time. Here, we see a Terminator 2 style effect with a mirrored liquid as items get dragged into a gravity field and then explode into the air. In an age full of games featuring the same set of weapons and effects, new effects and features such as this are a breath of fresh air for the hardcore gamer.
One refreshing aspect of playing the CellFactor demo is the lack of any blatant scripted scenes. As depicted in the image of the mangled vehicle above illustrates, various aspects of objoects can be broken off and sent flying through the air towards an opponent. Rather than the usual scripted explosion with a few random bits of debris and an otherwise intact vehicle left behind, CellFactor offers a unique result each time you send a grenade towards a vehicle. In this specific case, we managed to blow off a wheel and even a suspension spring after a thoughtfully placed grenade toss.
As is the case with any game that is still being developed, you cannot draw any concrete conclusions regarding the performance numbers we see in CellFactor. Regardless, there is an immense amount of objects in the scene at any one time and the spectacular explosions and ensuing wall of debris which follows is bound to be stressful on the system. Without question, the engine is able to tax our hardware though it is surely the massive amount of physics calculations on the countless objects being tossed around the map which has such a profound and adverse effect on performance. Despite a grayed-out checkbox in the settings menu for selecting Ageia PhysX support, we were not able to get the game to run when the BFG PPU was not installed and enabled. Given the taxing nature of this demo, we would love to see how a dual core CPU would handle the physics workload in comparison with the results we witnessed with the discrete PPU.
|Industry Outlook And Commentary|
If nothing else, Ageia has successfully directed the attention of developers towards the potential high quality physics has, in terms of significantly improving the realism and gameplay of the latest and greatest new titles. As is the case with consumers buying the latest flagship GPU's and CPU's, they are preparing themselves for the future and ensuring they will have the fastest and richest overall performance when playing the hottest titles on the horizon.
The most difficult aspect of judging the merits of the BFG PhysX processor is the fact that there are so many unknown variables. At this time, we do not know how the PPU will scale with frequency or even what the stock frequency of the card is. We're unsure what performance differential there will be (if any) between the 128MB cards like the one we reviewed here and the 256MB we have been seeing in the OEM channel. Lastly, we are unsure to what degree game developers will support Ageia's discrete physics hardware. As we witnessed during this review, there can be substantial differences in implementation between two titles that "support" the PhysX PPU. Our hope is that developers lean towards the same result as we saw in CellFactor where the benefits of a PPU were clearly evident. Justifying this resource commitment will be extremely tough for developers as we cannot imagine discrete physics processors becoming a widespread mainstream piece of hardware in the short term.
Throughout the industry, there seems to be a great deal of debate over how quickly the PPU will be adopted. We stumbled across an interview with one of the Duke Nukem franchise co-creators and thought this excerpt illustrated the issue extremely well:
George Broussard - Duke Nukem Co-Creator
One of the largest barriers to the adoption of the PhysX PPU is the lack of operating support for the hardware. Aside from the various flavors of Windows XP and Media Center, no other operating system has any official support at this time. Whether you are using Linux, Windows 2000, OSX X, Solaris, or even a 64-bit version of Windows XP you cannot find a single functional driver which will work with the PhysX hardware. Fortunately, there is a bit of hope for the more popular OS choices as seen in Ageia's statement to developers listed below:
From Ageia's Developer Website
Pushing the industry to make a sudden and dramatic shift to using a discrete physics processor is an unbelievable task for even the largest and most pronounced hardware vendors. We certainly respect and commend Ageia for taking on a challenge of this magnitude, especially considering the size of the company. This just goes to show you how impressive the results can be when you have a team of motivated enthusiasts with a common goal. Regardless, we would not be surprised to see a major vendor come to Ageia's aid to give the hardware the necessary push to achieve mainstream adoption. Given Microsoft's interest as of late in developing a Physics API, could we see a day where Microsoft is driving the adoption of PPU's? Or perhaps Physics processing in the GPU stack? Although seemingly far-fetched at first, the company's development and grip on the popular DirectX API could force developers' hands in terms of having to support a discrete physics processor should Microsoft create such requirements.
The other likely vendors with a vested interest in Ageia would be the graphics card vendors. Both GPU's and now the PPU are largely limited to gaming and have no performance benefit to other applications. When a consumer wants to improve their gaming experience, they end up purchasing a new discrete graphics card. With the PPU offering its own benefits to the overall gaming experience, it seems natural to see some close relationship and possible merger between the graphics card the the physics processor. Per usual with the rumor mill, time will tell how this situation will resolve itself, if at all.
In terms of ranking this product, we feel the need to make separate judgments on the chipset vendor and retail card vendor. BFG has done themselves proud by offering hardcore gaming enthusiasts the bleeding-edge hardware they demand. In terms of who BFG aims to address with the launch of their PhysX-based card, they have certainly hit the mark as their target demographic is being offered the absolute latest and greatest hardware. Unfortunately for those early adopters however, the game industry is nowhere near up to speed in terms of fully utilizing a discrete PPU. Make no mistake, we are avid fans of the idea of a dedicated physics processor and the potential it has to revolutionize gameplay. However, every aspect of this product seems a bit premature as there are no real titles which can utilize the hardware today beyond a few subtle changes here and there in a handful of games.
In an ideal scenario where investors didn't demand results as soon as possible, we would have seen Ageia work with developers to get a compelling list of games that fully utilized the PhysX card before they began selling the card in the retail channel. For this reason, we both criticize and commend Ageia. On one hand, quite frankly, they are selling a product that is largely useless in the short term. However, you have to respect the small company for having the guts and the vision to make such a dramatic effort towards improving the quality and realism of today's games. Were we rating Ageia as a company, we would be compelled to give them at least a 9 out of 10 if for no other reason than respect of their immense innovation in technology. Unfortunately, our job is to rate this actual product and help you determine whether it is worth your hard earned cash. Given the lack of fully supporting titles, high price, somewhat limited OS support, and the questions surrounding adoption rate in the industry, we are forced to give the BFG PhysX physics card a rating of 7 on the Hot Hardware Heat Meter.