The State of DirectX 10 - Image Quality & Performance

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Performance Analysis & The State of DX10

Performance Analysis

Our tests generated a mountain of data and we've sorted through it, one game at a time. While each game tells its own story, ultimately they end up being slight variations of the same tale. The current generation of games doesn't perform very well in DirectX 10 mode. In almost every game, the story was the same. The games were playable in DX9 but take huge performance hits when switched to DX10, with DX10 exclusive image quality options enabled.

Out of the five games we tested, only one displayed a definite performance improvement while using a DX10 path, Lost Planet, and that was only when the DX10 exclusive graphics options were disabled. This shows that DX10 does have the potential to be more efficient than DX9. Unfortunately, none of the other games demonstrated this efficiency.

Our performance results also tell us two important things. First, the current generation of graphics hardware and software doesn't offer a large enough image quality improvement using a DX10 path to justify the associated framerate performance penalty. While most of the games and video cards in our testing performed quite well in DX9, they also took a huge hit after switching to DX10. Even the higher end cards were slowed considerably and had difficulty maintaining playable frame rates at higher resolutions in DX10. The second thing our results tell us is that the current generation of graphics hardware could have questionable longevity when it comes to DX10 gaming performance.

With DX10 performance in currently available games being what it is, we have to question whether or not the current batch of hardware will be able to handle upcoming games at playable frame rates in DX10-mode with reasonably high graphics settings. With over a dozen DX10 titles slated to arrive in the next six months, that could be bad news for early adopters who have already plunked down for an upgrade to DX10 in anticipation. However, it is still very likely that drivers will improve considerably and developers will get better at implementing DX10 features more efficiently into their game engines.  Finally, there may even be hope that Microsoft will further improve Vista's performance as it relates to graphics and gaming, but the current situation isn't great.

The introduction of DirectX 10 will, without a doubt, have a huge impact on PC gaming. DX10 is in many ways a rebirth of DirectX rather than just an evolution of DX9. DirectX 10, as a completely new API, will free developers from the limitations that have been carried forward from one version of DirectX to another over the last decade. Since it's been rebuilt from the ground up, DX10 offers revolutionary features, like geometry shaders, and shows a lot of promise. However, retro-fitting DirectX 10 support into an existing game engine doesn't result in an instant image quality increase and better efficiency. The new API means that PC game developers, who have been accustomed to using the old DirectX for years, will now need to adjust to DX10's new API and the transition to the new API hasn't been without its growing pains of course.

Another issue is the need for backwards compatibility with DX9, for both hardware and software. It will take some time for DX10 hardware to become the norm and until then developers will be unwilling to alienate the section of the market that still uses DX9 hardware by releasing a DX10 exclusive game. This forces a compromise between DX9 and DX10 when it comes to image quality and performance optimizations. Currently the logical choice is to lean towards DX9 since much of the hardware out there today is still DX9 from the previous generation and current generation hardware is backwards compatible in DX9 mode. It's for these reasons that it will be unlikely for us to see a game that lists DirectX 10 as a minimum requirement, at least on the near-term horizon.

Are We There Yet?

The DX10 exclusive effects available in the five games we looked at were usually too subtle to be noticed in the middle of heated gameplay. The only exception is Call of Juarez, which boasts greatly improved graphics in DX10. Unfortunately these image quality improvements can't entirely be attributed to DX10 since the North American version of the game -- the only version that supports DX10 -- had the benefit of a full nine months of extra development time. And much of the image quality improvements in Call of Juarez when using DX10 rendering were due to significantly improved textures rather than better rendering effects.

Our test results also suggest that currently available DX10 hardware struggles with today's DX10 enhanced gaming titles. While high-end hardware has enough power to grind out enough frames in DX10 to keep them playable, mid-range hardware simply can't afford the performance hit of DX10. With currently available DX10 hardware and games, you have two choices if you want to play games at a decent frame rate; play the game in DX9 and miss out on a handful of DX10 exclusive image quality enhancements, or play the game in DX10 but be forced to lower image quality settings to offset the performance hit. In the end, it's practically the same result either way.

While the new DX10 image quality enhancements are nice, when we finally pulled our noses off the monitor, sat back and considered the overall gameplay experience, DirectX 10 enhancements just didn't amount to enough of an image quality improvement to justify the associated performance hit. However, we aren't saying you should avoid DX10 hardware or wait to upgrade. On the contrary, the current generation of graphics cards from both ATI and NVIDIA offer many tangible improvements over the previous generation, especially in the high-end of the product lines. With the possible exception of some mid-range offerings, which actually perform below last generation’s similarly priced cards, the current generation of graphics hardware has a nice leg-up in performance and features that is worth the upgrade. But if your only reason for upgrading is to get hardware support for DX10, then you might want to hold out for as long as possible to see how things play out.

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