luni, noiembrie 03, 2008

Interview with Theo Valich

DG Botez: Being a cheaper solution, a lot of users are buying motherboards with embedded GPUs. It is known that performance suffers with integrated GPU, as it uses the shared memory. Can you suggest some of the best motherboards of this type?
Theo Valich: There is an old British saying: "I am not rich enough to buy cheap things." Our current experiences with embedded GPUs proved that is the worst choice when it comes to enjoying the computing experience. But also, there are misconceptions: people say "I do not need a strong computer, I'll only use it for surfing the internet and gaming". Yet, gaming is the single most demanding task put in front of home computers.

What you need to do is play it smart. If you are buying a board with integrated graphics, you need to get a motherboard that can be upgraded, so the board has to have PCI Express x16. You would be surprised at the amount of motherboards that are being sold today - and don't offer upgradeable graphics.
Currently, the best motherboard with "mGPU" are ones with AMD's 790GX and Nvidia's GeForce 9300/9400 chipset. Personally, I am using ASUS M3A78-T, board based on 790GX chipset (http://www.asus.com/products.aspx?l1=3&l2=149&l3=731&l4=0&model=2321&modelmenu=1).


DG Botez: If I want a video card today with a best price/performance ratio, what would you suggest?
Theo Valich: Are we talking about computer games or just general usage? There is no single graphics card that I would name "This is it, the world stops here".

It all boils down to what resolution your monitor has. If you have 1680x1050 screen, don't expect that a 100 USD card will run Crysis normally. In short, resolution wise (not looking at a price of the card), I would recommend this:
1280x1024: GeForce 9600GSO 768MB
1680x1050: GeForce GTX260 for 220 USD
1920x1200: Radeon 4870 1GB or GeForce GTX280
2560x1600: Radeon 4870X2 2GB

But since you would probably love to hear the answer when it comes to prices, let's divide the cards in the sub-100USD, sub-200USD, sub-300USD, sub-500USD. I amd warn the readers not to go always for the "latest and greatest" - you need to look at the deals.

For instance, in the low end market, there is no better product than Nvidia GeForce 9600GSO. This is actually an rebranded GeForce 8800GT with 96 Shaders and 192-bit memory interface, and sells for as low as 50 USD (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814130364). It is also a brilliant overclocker. For 50 USD in today's generation, you can get ATI Radeon 4550 and GeForce 9600GT. Frankly, these cards don't hold a candle to the G92 chip on that 9600GSO. I would compare this product with ATI Radeon 9500 Pro, a product that was so good that ATI had to stop making it - it was killing the sales of Radeon 9700.

If you have 100-150USD, you can find Radeon 4850 and GeForce 9800GT, both with 512MB of memory. PNY sells 9800GT 1GB (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814133244) for 150 USD, while 4850 1GB costs 200 USD and I would not recommend it.

The reason why I am not recommending getting a card for 200 USD is really simple: GeForce GTX 260 896MB. This card now sells for 230 dollars and comes with Far Cry 2 (some manufacturers offer it, such as EVGA, XFX, BFG, ASUS). Also, I would not recommend getting Radeon 4870 512MB. ATI Radeon 4870 1GB is a great product, but the card with 512MB is not - since it is running out of memory in games such as Far Cry 2, Crysis Warhead, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky - and don't expect that trend will stop.

In the high end market, I would recommend either ATI Radeon 4870X2 or GeForce GTX280. ATI wins hands-down in games, but if you want to use your graphics card for more than games, for instance Adobe Photoshop, Badaboom, or joining us in the Folding@Home community, Nvidia is just a better part. I hope that ATI will fix the performance of its cards in Folding, and the rest of GPGPU apps.

Also, it is really hard to compare GTX280 and 4870X2 because of huge price difference. You can get a GTX280 and Far Cry 2 for 350 USD (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814143142), while the cheapest 4870X2 goes for over 500 USD. But anyways, what monitor you buy is the decider what GPU you should target.


DG Botez: In a 3D game or video editing applications the GPU is a very important part of the computer. When you personally buy a video card, which criteria you deem most important?
Theo Valich: There is always one rule: "more is better". But don't think that more is always more expensive - as I answered in your previous question. Currently, ATI leads the field in games, while Nvidia leads the way in GPGPU or GPU Computing. This is an odd situation, since it was ATI that pioneered GPGPU usage, but the company didn't invest in optimization of GPGPU applications. As people in ATI say: "We wanted to make a card that runs games great. Did you want a card for gaming or for Folding@Home?"


DG Botez: What are the advantages of DirectX 11 in games?
Theo Valich: As you can see by the presentations that Microsoft is demonstrating, Windows 7 brings a lot of changes to the table. GPU is integrated in the core of Windows, taking the dominant role from the CPU - thus, designing a game for a PC will be easier. But easier in a way that programmers will be able to do much more stuff than they could in the past.

I spoke with a lot of gaming developers, and they were quite angry at the way Microsoft presented DirectX 9 and 10. If you remember, Microsoft showcased Flight Simulator X in DX9 and DX10 modes, and the game looked awesome. When the game came out, DX10 mode looked like DX9 and the game ran disastrously slow, regardless of the DX9/10 mode.

What DX11 means for games? For instance, take a look at Far Cry 2 - this is a 2nd gen DX10 game and it really offers things that we could only dream off in DX9 era. If you remember, when original Far Cry came out, we all saw the difference between DX8 and DX9, especially if you would enable HDR. Expect the same scenario with DX11 - 1st gen DX11 games might not look all that different than DX10, but wait for the second wave - there developers will be comfortable with tools they can use, and will make absolutely mind-blowing games we'll enjoy.


DG Botez: ATI or NVIDIA? Advantages / Disadvantages?
Theo Valich: Huh.... tough one. I think that you're missing out to mention Intel as well, because as you know, Intel has a commanding market share. Truth to be told, with sub-set, sub-par, disastrously bad parts, but that's life. They're not good for GPGPU, they're not good for games, drivers are terrible... all in all, not a lot of good words that I can say about their "GPU". To put it mildely, Intel is a ballanced company: they make currently the best CPUs in the world and the crappiest GPUs. Things will change with LRB or Larrabee, but for now, let's focus only on ATI and Nvidia.
Right now, ATI has the upper hand, but not in all market segments.

Nvidia made a terrible mistake and I personally cannot believe that they've lead themselves into this trap. To be clear, I am talking about GT200 GPU, or so-called GTX260/280 generation. Naming one of their products GTX260-Core 216 instead of GTX270 was a big mistake, but even bigger one was their decision to have low-end and mainstream parts from previous generation. G80 and G92 are both great chips, but G94 cannot go against ATI Radeon 4000 series. Nvidia didn't plan on making the "GT100" and "GT50" GPUs based on the same architecture GT200 has and this is the root of all problems that they have now.

If you decide to go ATI, you can expect stable monthly updates and new features in them. If you go Nvidia, you don't have guaranteed monthly updates, but at the same time, games seem to work more stable with Nvidia, while ATI has to release hotfixes. The reason for that is Nvidia's DevRel and DevTech support program, which is miles above what ATI has. And this was just a wrong call that ATI made. Development is much more than just hardware - gaming developers are pushing the envelope of what is possible with computers and they need all the support in the world. Dissing them for making a great GPU only works for as long as you have the great chip. ATI R600 was an utter disaster, so I am not surprised RV770 did well.


DG Botez: HyperMemory or TurboCache?
Theo Valich: Neither. Both are disastrous solutions - if you need performance, get a better card. Having system memory taken away from memory-hungry applications is never good. If computers had 8GB of memory, then 2GB could be used for graphics. Skip both parts.


DG Botez: Today, Intel offers only integrated solutions and many consumers buy laptops with Intel GPU for gaming - but dozens of games can't play with such a GPU. What is your opinion?
Theo Valich: Well, the answer is simple: people shoudl buy laptops with ATI or Nvidia GPUs and avoid Intel integrated parts at all costs. Intel has a superior mobile CPU and battery optimization, but graphics-wise... people need to get educated about visual computing. The world is visual, and people buy products that enhance their experience.

For instance, take a look at world economy. It is in a meltdown mode, yet 111M GPUs ended up shipped around the world! This means people want to experience that at least something is good in their life, and here comes watching movies at home, and of course, playing games. But what worries me is the fact that Intel has half of that market. If 49.4% was Larrabee, I would say "yeiii", but 49.4% of world GPU market will not be able to experience Windows 7 and barely is able to run Windows Vista.

For example, Apple ditched Intel chipsets for Nvidia ones, HP is now using Nvidia chips inside their latest touchscreen PCs, ATI won insane amount of desktop deals... people want visual computing. I am glad that Intel is investing billions of dollars into making a great chip, but for now, the perfect desktop and the perfect notebook for me both have an Intel CPU, but they will not have Intel GPU. Not in this galaxy.


DG Botez: If the price does not matter, which video card you would buy for gaming?
Theo Valich: I have that luck of owning anything that you can buy, and right now, I am using AMD Phenom 9850 system with ATI Radeon 4870X2, AMD Phenom 9950 with GeForce 9800GTX 1GB and ATI Radeon 4870 1GB (yes, two cards in the same computer), and Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6800 and GeForce GTX280. If you're asking yourself why do I have these configurations, reason is quite simple: Phenom 9850 system is in Croatia, these two are here in California. I kinda live between these countries. In all cases, I am using Dell 2408WFP displays, and I am perfectly happy.


DG Botez: Some of us remember old industry legends such as S3, Matrox... what is going on with them lately?
Theo Valich: Well, they fell off the map with their own will, since they stopped investing in development their 3D products. Matrox had the great idea of surround gaming, but the company did not made correspondingly great GPU - Parhelia was a disappointment and it all went downhill for them. They now have a niche market in GPU space and focus on professional broadcasting solutions. Their video production hardware is nothing short of great.
When it comes to S3, the company made a big comeback in 2005, promising a lot of innovative parts. They decided to skip DirectX9 and focus on DX10. Fast Forward into late 2008, DX10 came and went, and we're still waiting for those parts that were on a roadmap three years ago. They've launched Chrome series with DX10, but these cards are not available in volume, otherwise we would already see them.

In every industry, everything is about execution. AMD was on top of the world in 2006, and then the Core 2 CPU came out. Their answer came more than a year late (Barcelona/Opteron and Agena/Phenom) and those parts didn't fail to beat Core 2 architecture, they also came with a bug that damaged their brand. Nvidia was the king of the hill with G80 GPU (8000 and 9000 series are both based on G80 GPU), which is probably the best GPU of all times, right there with R300 (Radeon 9700), GeForce 256 and the original Voodoo. But, they fell asleep and ATI overtook them with RV770 and R700 GPUs.

Matrox, XGi, S3... all these companies had great people that were putting heart and soul into making great GPUs, but the execution was just not there. And if you don't execute in the GPU world, you're good as dead.

Today we see what competition means: ATI Radeon 4800 forced Nvidia to crash the GTX200 prices down. Can you imagine buying a GeForce 8800GTX/Ultra for anything less than 500 USD? Now, GTX280 is 360 USD. Competition, competition, competition - that's driving the world forward. If you can't stay in the race, find your own thing.


DG Botez: ISA, PCI, AGP, PCI Express! What will come out next?
Theo Valich: PCI Express is the base for the future. PCIe 3.0 has a lot of potential, and it is backwards compatible. What we need is 5-7 years with PCIe 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 and maybe 5.0, and then we will be ready for the next thing - and that has to be optical connection. But it is very expensive, and until the prices come down, we won't see it.

Then again, it is not PCI Express that is the bottleneck of computer performance.


DG Botez: What benchmark software you personally use, and what do you like the best?
Theo Valich: Huh... I use a lot of things. First of all, the most important test for me is theoretical tests in 3DMark, mostly pixel shader and fill-rate tests. Whenever I get the new graphics card, I always test the fill-rate because it will show how the card will perform in the future.
Best proof I ever got was GeForce 8800GT. When the card came out, it had 112 shaders, but it was able to "beat the living daylights" out of 8800GTX and 8800Ultra in Far Cry, UT3 and Crysis. The reason for it was the fact that it had massively higher fill-rate than 128-shader GPUs and it was able to push more pixels onto the screen.

Personally, I don't consider overall 3DMark score to be the important factor when it comes to the graphics cards. When you buy a card, you're paying for your current and more importantly, future experience. Thus, pixel shader and texture fill-rate results can give you results in just how much horsepower a new GPU has.


DG Botez: Tip for gamers: PC or console?
Theo Valich: Depends. I am a big pro-online fan, and consoles never excelled in online games. I prefer games that will challenge me and offer compelling experience. I love racing games, and I loved Gran Turismo on PSX and PS2. Sadly, I drove GT5: Prologue on PS3 and was terribly disappointed. On the otherhand, Race Driver: GRID worked flawlessly on a PC, thus I like the PC platform.


DG Botez: I'm a VR fan so I must touch the subject. Users know little about VR, yet it is such a fascinating experience. Sadly, the price of equipment was an obstacle. Do you think that VR will be more successful in the future, can it become more popular?
Theo Valich: Personally, I think that 2009 will bring a sea of change in a way how we interact with computers. Windows 7 brings multi-touch interface to broadest segment of people, Dolby3D and Nvidia 3D are also coming to the world of PCs... in a way, if we would combine interfaces such as CoolIris (www.cooliris.com) and Perceptive Pixel with 3D glases, we would get a complete new way.

VR as VR, so complex hardware and all of that... is a neat concept, but I don't believe that we need to walk in virtual rooms for now. We need to get our senses adjusted to the real 3D interface, and only then we can move on and start working on augmentive reality, or VR.

In short - there is a bright future for VR, but we're heading there one step at the time. I believe that in less than 5 years, we won't be able to recognize our way of interaction with computers.

Humans are a species that moves very quickly and ditches things that are "inconvenient". QWERTY keyboard of today is a horrible experience for the human/computer interactivity, invented to preserve mechanism on IBM typewriters. Well, time to speed our experience is now. ;-)


DG Botez: For the end, could you tell us what are your favorite games?
Theo Valich: Huh... well, with all the work on various projects, I spend little free time I have to play latest games. But favorite ones are definitely Grand Prix 2 (1996), F1 CS 2000 (2001), Flight Simulator series, Star Wars: KOTOR, Gran Turismo 3 (PS2), StarCraft, World of Warcraft (sadly, don't play it anymore due to the fact that I am split between two continents :-(Command & Conquer, MYST, Doom, Duke Nuk'em 3D... I am a gamer and I admit it. But I played so many games that I just can't pick up the best one. However, I've passed almost every space game I could lay my hands on... from Terminal Velocity, Descent, Freespace, Privateer....Sins of the Solar Empire, Mass Effect...

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