Several days ago, we introduced our pay-what-you-want subscription system. We asked for you all to support us, and we offered a handful of extra perks on the site in return. So far, your response has been overwhelmingly positive and gratifying.
In a short span, we've already received enough subscription funds to improve our bottom line by $1,100 per month for the next year. Even more remarkably, the current average payment stands at over $50 per user.
I don't think any of us here on staff would have predicted an average that high. This is, after all, a pay-what-you-want system where the majority of the benefits are available for as little as one dollar.
So, to everyone who has signed up to support us, thank you very much, from all of us. We appreciate the support and the kind words that have come with it. We built a system that essentially relies on your goodwill, and you have confirmed our faith in you by responding with uncommon generosity.
Of course, the amount we've taken in so far isn't nearly enough to sustain us outside of our usual advertising sales—but this has been an incredibly encouraging start. Not only are we better funded during a difficult time, but we've also demonstrated that a creative crowd-funding system can be an effective supplement to ad sales. Simply knowing that fact makes us stronger, better able to pursue our work with independence and confidence. That's one of the reasons that we took this route. TR has always been about serving a community of readers.
At the risk of lowering the average, I should probably mention something. I've noticed a certain reluctance among folks to make a smaller contribution in order to get a Silver subscription. There's a bit of a "Gold or nothing" mentality, seems like. Let me do my best to discourage that kind of thinking. There is no shame to paying well below the average in order to pick up a Silver subscription. Every bit of support we get helps. Heck, we built most of the good perks into the Silver tier and set the price to "whatever you want" in order to encourage broad participation.
For the perplexed, Cyril made a swanky infographic that maps out the various features of the two tiers in a nice visual format. I have to say, I'm really digging the e-mail notifications when folks reply to my comments.
If you can't afford to beat the current ~$50 average for an annual subscription, one of the best things you can do to support TR is choose one of the pre-set payment amounts and allow your subscription to auto-renew next year. Having that consistent support over time is what will allow us to plan, build, and grow—even if it's a small amount per person each year.
I should also point out something else about how the payment system works. The amount you give is cumulative for your subscription term. If you start with a $25 payment to get Silver, wait a month, and then pay another $26 after your next paycheck, your total amount contributed will be $51. At that point, assuming the average is still $50, you'll have beaten the average, so you'd be automatically upgraded to Gold for the remaining 11 months. I hope that's clear enough. There's more info about how this whole thing works in the FAQ. Also, the slick little predictor Bruno cooked up for the payment page will tell you exactly what you need to pay to get Gold or earn a spot in the top-10 list.
Speaking of the top-10 list, here's how it stands right now. These are some incredibly generous folks. Remember, the top 10 contributors as of noon Central time on March 21, 2014 will get to choose from one of these three things:
If you'd like to bump one of these guys off the list and grab a spot, you can add to your subscription total at any time. The predictor will tell you exactly what it'll take to get there.Introducing TR subscriptions
We've been independently publishing The Tech Report for nearly 15 years, and today, we've come to a crossroads. You see, TR has been supported primarily by advertising sales since its beginning, but that business has been difficult for a while, for a number of reasons.
Although PC gaming and enthusiast systems are a growing segment, the overall market for PCs has been in a prolonged slump. Advertising dollars have moved elsewhere. We have been attempting to hold steady and keep our current, long-tenured staff intact for the past few years, but the reality is that we've been slowly bleeding money.
That reality is a strange one for us to face, since your interest hasn't waned as the ad market has weakened. TR as a publication is more vibrant than ever. We know from our daily experience that you all, our readers, crave the sort of in-depth reviews, articles, and podcasts we produce. Our web traffic is strong. We've had huge appreciation for things like our Inside the Second gaming benchmarks and our SSD endurance experiment. And the TR Podcast has become so popular, we had to find a higher-bandwidth hosting arrangement.
Our challenge, then, has been finding a way to enable the community to support us. Heck, we want to depend on you. We've always tried to run the site with our readers' best interests in mind, and we've given up countless business opportunities as a result. Might as well make our relationship official.
We've been pondering adding a subscription option to the site literally for years, but we couldn't find a satisfactory way to make it work. Lots of independent web publications face a similar struggle to fund the production of high-quality journalism. We searched far and wide to see how others were handling it. Sadly, virtually all of the existing crowd-funding approaches have obvious drawbacks. Too often, they involve gating off public access to core content, hours of tedious rewards fulfillment work that distracts from content creation, or setting an arbitrary subscription price that doesn't work for everyone.
We didn't think any of the existing models were right for TR and its community, so we did what we've done in the past in tough situations: we innovated. We conceived of a better model, and we quietly spent the last of our cash reserves building it. What we've come up with is somewhat unique, and we think it's the best attempt of its type so far.
We've created a "subscriptions" system, but we're not gating off our articles from the public. Virtually everything we publish will remain freely available to all. Instead, we've built a number of new features into the site, many of them often requested. If you subscribe, then you'll get access to them.
Best of all, you can name your own price for a subscription, so folks are free to support TR as much or as little as they think is appropriate. If you like what we're doing and want to support us further, you can add to your contribution total at any time.
If you contribute any amount, you'll get access to a full year of our Silver subscriber features:
Those who contribute enough to beat the current average payment will get a Gold subscription, which gets them:
Additionally, the usernames of our very best supporters will be shown on our list of the top 10 contributors, visible in various places across the site.
|2. Anonymous Gerbil||$286|
|7. Mr. Took||$50|
|8. Anonymous Gerbil||$50|
Of course, the biggest benefit of subscribing is TR's continued health and ability to publish the sort of high-quality content we always have. In fact, if this crazy scheme works out well, we'll put any extra funds we receive back into producing articles for the site and building additional features for subscribers. We have a whole bucket-load of cool ideas for subscriber perks that we'd love to implement.
Speaking of added perks, we've decided to kick off our subscriptions push with a little something extra. The top 10 subscribers as of noon Central time on March 21, 2014 will get to choose from one of these three items:
Don't worry if your initial contribution gets bumped out of the top 10 by a small amount. You can add more to your total at will.
I'm hoping I can treat somebody to some genuine Kansas City barbecue.
Right now, though, we need your help. You can go right here to sign up for an annual subscription. If you still have questions about how this whole deal works, you can check out our FAQ for more info. And I'll be answering questions not covered by the FAQ in the comments below. Thanks in advance for your support.You can snag a 39'' 4K display for $404
The other day, my friend and fellow PC enthusiast Andy Brown pinged me and told me I needed to come over to his house to see his new toy: a 39" 4K display that he ordered from Amazon for 500 bucks. Coming from anybody else, I'd have been deeply skeptical of this purchase, but Andy is actually the co-founder of TR and has impeccable taste in such matters.
The product he purchased is this Seiki Digital 39" 4K 120Hz LED television. I started asking him more questions and looking into it. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became. Soon, I was at Andy's place peering into this large and glorious panel. He had the thing placed directly in front of his old 2560x1600 30" HP monitor, and I can't say I blame him. After all, you can almost get four copies of TR, or any other standard web-width site, side by side on the thing.
Yeah, this beast has more real estate than Ted Turner. And it has dropped in price to $404 at Amazon as I write. With free Prime shipping. And it's still in stock.
Sounds too good to be true, right?
Not really. This thing is just a killer deal, available to anyone. But there are a few caveats.
First, there's the matter of refresh rates. This display has a single HDMI input that can support the panel's native resolution of 3840x2160 at a refresh rate of 30Hz. That's a fast enough update rate for desktop and productivity work, but 30Hz is not good for gaming, even with vsync disabled.
Your fall-back option is to drop down to 1920x1080 while gaming, where this thing supports a nice, fast 120Hz refresh rate. That's a compromise on resolution, yes, but this puppy is probably faster than your current display, since 60Hz is the usual standard. Also, 1080p is a nice resolution for gaming because it doesn't require heaps and heaps of GPU horsepower in order to maintain acceptable performance.
And did I mention the price?
The other matter of some importance is the image quality of the display. I believe it's an S-MVA-type panel, which should make it superior to a TN panel and faster than an IPS one. Standing in front of it, that seems about right. There's less color shift than on most TN panels, and there's a heckuva lot of pop to the deep reds and oranges that often seem muted on TN panels.
This is a TV, though, so color correctness is an issue. You may want to buy or borrow a calibrator for it. Andy didn't yet have his display calibrated properly in Windows. The blues in the TR header were alarmingly neon and bright, to the point of being annoying. He'd had more luck with calibration on his Hackintosh, though. When he switched over there, the blues were somewhat tamed, though still brighter and more saturated than I would have liked. He'd put some work in dialing down the backlight intensity in one of the config menus on the TV in order to reach non-retina-searing brightness levels appropriate for a computer monitor.
But did I mention the price?
The simple fact is that you can have a massive array of pixels a couple of feet from your face for about $400. Stretched across a 39" panel, the pixel density is obviously higher than on my own 30" 2560x1600 monitor, but it's not so incredibly high that text becomes completely unreadable. If you do need to bump up the font size, the PPI shouldn't be so out-of-bounds high that the default Windows scaling options are overwhelmed. (I'd still recommend Windows 8.1 for a better experience. Or Mac OS X for the best.)
And there are so, so many pixels.
I know there are a lot of display innovations on tap for this year, including dynamic refresh schemes like G-Sync and 4K TN panels for around $700. This one comes at you from a different angle, and it's not something I expected, to say the least. But if you're willing to front a fraction of the cost of most 4K monitors, you can have the same pixel count today at a crazy discount.Oculus Rift's 'Crystal Cove' prototype tickles our rods and cones
The absolute highlight of last year's CES was getting a first look at an Oculus Rift prototype. Strapping on a Rift for the first time is a mind-blowing experience. It will change your view of what's possible in gaming in the next 5-10 years. Naturally, then, when it came time to plan for CES 2014, I made sure to schedule some time with the folks at Oculus to see what they—and especially new Oculus CTO John Carmack—have been doing.
As you may have heard, the new "Crystal Cove" prototype that Oculus brought to the show this year captured a major award: Best in Show for CES 2014. The news came to the folks in the Oculus meeting room late on Thursday last week, as we were getting a demo of the headset. Given what I saw through those goggles, the recognition seems well deserved.
Crystal Cove is the third generation of hardware Oculus has put on public display. The first generation, with a 720p LCD screen inside, was the one they showed at CES 2013. Later last year, Oculus upgraded to a higher-resolution 1080p LCD. Crystal Cove takes several important steps beyond that.
Much of the new tech in Crystal Cove is intended to overcome one of Oculus' biggest challenges: VR headsets don't work well for everyone. A lot of people develop a sense of vertigo, nausea, or fatigue after using a Rift prototype for a while, sometimes in only minutes. The problem is apparently caused by the disconnect between what your senses expect to see in response to head motions and what's actually displayed. If the system doesn't respond quickly or accurately enough, you may find yourself unexpectedly executing a technicolor yawn.
Even several tens of milliseconds worth of delay can be enough to trigger a problem, so Oculus has been pushing to squeeze any latency it can out of the sensor-to-display feedback loop. That's why the Crystal Cove prototype contains a 1080p AMOLED display. The AMOLED delivers markedly better color saturation and deeper blacks than the earlier LCDs. More importantly, though, the AMOLED has a much faster pixel-switching time: less than a millisecond, versus about 15 ms for the LCDs in prior Rift prototypes.
Interestingly enough, switching to an AMOLED alone doesn't fix the ghosting that's often evident when making sweeping movements with a Rift attached to your noggin. Oculus claims this ghosting effect isn't inherent to the display itself and isn't visible on a high-speed camera; instead, it's caused by an interaction with the human visual system. They have been able to mitigate the problem, however, by implementing a low-persistence display mode. The AMOLED is quick enough to flash on and off again very quickly, at a high enough rate that no flicker is perceptible to the human eye. What you'll notice, instead, is that the ghosting effect is essentially eliminated.
I got to see low-persistence mode in action, and it works. In the demo, I had the Rift attached to my face while I was looking at some big, red text in the virtual world ahead of me. The Oculus rep had me waggle my head back and forth, and I saw obvious ghosting. He then flipped on the low-persistence mode. The entire display became somewhat dimmer, though without any obvious flicker. I again waggled around my enormous noggin, and the text no longer left a blurry trail of red behind it as I moved.
Given the latency sensitivity of the application and the fact that a low-persistence display mode appears to be in the works for monitors based on Nvidia's G-Sync technology, I had to wonder if Oculus has been experimenting with G-Sync-like dynamic refresh rates, as well. (They totally are.) Sadly, the Oculus rep handling our demo wasn't willing to discuss that subject.
The other big enhancement in Crystal Cove is a major upgrade to the head tracking hardware. The sensors in previous Rift prototypes could detect orientation—roll, pitch, and yaw—but that was it. This revision incorporates infrared LEDs placed all around the front and sides of the headset, and their movement is tracked by a camera placed in front of the user. The camera and LEDs give the Rift true positional tracking of the wearer's head in 3D space.
As with the display changes, the positional tracking appears to work well. In our demo, we were encouraged to crane our necks around 180 degrees in an attempt to throw off the tracking. The display was set to revert to a grayscale mode with the loss of tracking, and invoking it was tough to do while sitting in a chair facing the camera, which is how the Rift is intended to be used. Even when one demo subject managed to contort himself well enough to hide the LEDs from the camera and cause a tracking failure, the system recovered quickly. The display shifted back to full color within two or three seconds after the headset came back into plain view.
The combination of positional tracking, a faster display, and low-persistence mode is meant to provide a better, more comfortable VR experience than past Rift prototypes. I wasn't able to use the Crystal Cove headset long enough to judge for myself, and I haven't felt many ill effects during brief stints with the earlier prototypes. However, the Oculus folks seem to think they've pretty much conquered the sickness problem. Even late in the week at CES, after presumably hundreds of demos to the press and industry, they claimed not to have found anyone yet who was sickened by using a Crystal Cove prototype. If true, that's very good news.
I can tell you that the Crystal Cove hardware provides an even more immersive and borderline magical experience than earlier revisions of the Rift. The AMOLED is a big upgrade just for the color quality and sense of depth. Also, the software being demoed makes much better use of the VR headset.
We first got a look at an Unreal Engine 4 demo created by the guys at Epic called Strategy VR. The visuals in it are rich and detailed. I found myself hunching over and looking down, with my head nearly between my legs, peering over the edge of a virtual cliff in wonder.
The real star of the show, though, was the demo of Eve Valkyrie, the in-development game that's slated to be a Rift launch title. The Rift and this game breathe incredible new life into a genre that's been on the brink of death for some time now. When you slide on the headset, you find yourself sitting in the virtual cockpit of a space fighter. Some of the gauges are hard to make out at first, but if you lean forward, the text becomes clearer and easier to read. Above the gauges is a canopy, with a reeling space battle taking place in the sky beyond. The illusion of being there is strong, more so when you find yourself craning your neck to peer out of the canopy above and to your left, attempting to track an enemy fighter positioning itself on your six.
Having never played before, I scored -30, and my demo was over quickly due to an early death. The realism was impeccable.
Given the progress Oculus has made in the past year, we were left wondering how long it will be until the consumer version of the Rift hits store shelves. Right now, Oculus is being very cautious; it hasn't stated any timelines for the release of a final product. The firm says its goal is to be sure "VR is the right experience" for everyone who buys a headset.
Several components of that experience still need to come together before the Rift is ready for prime time. Oculus admits it's still working to improve the Rift's display resolution between now and the consumer product launch. That seems wise to me. When it's that close to your face and divided between two eyes, a 1080p display feels pretty low-res. If you stop and look, you can see the individual subpixels in the Crystal Cove's AMOLED array.
Also, the Rift currently lacks an audio component, which is a major omission. Oculus admits as much, calling positional audio "super-critical" to a VR experience, but it says it won't reveal any info yet about partnerships on the audio front. I assume that means there will be some.
For what it's worth, AMD had a gen-two Rift prototype on display in its CES booth along with a pair of headphones featuring positional audio generated by GenAudio's AstoundSound middleware and accelerated by a TrueAudio DSP block. I gave this setup a brief spin, and I'd say that's a pretty good start.
Oculus also has to make sure the Rift's game support is broad and deep enough to make the VR headset a compelling purchase. Eve Valkyrie looks amazing, but it won't suffice on its own. Fortunately, the company claims to have shipped about 50,000 Rift developer kits already, which should mean plenty of developers have Rifts strapped to their faces. In fact, one of the strange problems Oculus has now is not being able to track what everyone is doing with its development hardware. If the final headset is anywhere near as compelling as the prototypes, we've got to think there will be a steady stream of Rift-enabled applications released in the next couple of years.
That said, we could easily be waiting until CES 2015 or beyond until the Rift makes its way into its final, near-$300 form and ships to consumers everywhere. Given everything, it's easy to understand why that's the case. Still, having seen the goodness of Crystal Cove in action, a big part of me would like very much to hurry up and get on with the future, because it's really gonna be good.An update on Radeon R9 290X variance
We're still tracking the issue of Radeon R9 290X performance variance after our investigation into the matter last week and AMD's subsequent statement. As noted in that statement, AMD acknowledges that the apparent performance gap between the initial press samples and retail cards is wider than expected. Essentially, the variance from one 290X card to another ought not to be as broad as the 5-10% we're seeing. The firm is still investigating the reasons for this disparity, and an AMD rep paid a visit to Damage Labs yesterday in order to discuss the matter.
One thing the folks at AMD asked me to do is test the press and retail R9 290X cards against one another in the "uber" fan mode. Flipping the switch to enter "uber" mode raises the card's blower speed from 40% to 55% of its potential maximum. (Don't be fooled by the percentages there. The default 40% cap is loud, and the 55% cap is pretty brutal. At a full-on 100%, which you'd never experience during normal operation, the 290X blower sounds like a power tool. A noisy one.) You may recall from our original review that the 290X is quite a bit faster in "uber" mode. That's because in the default "quiet" mode, 290X cards constantly bump up against their thermal limits. "Uber" mode is intended to raise those limits by providing more cooling capacity.
At AMD's request, I ran our HIS retail 290X card and our original review sample through our 30-minute Skyrim test three times each and then through our MSI Kombustor worst-case torture test. The results are straightforward enough that I don't need to plot them for you. Cranking up the blower speed limit allows both the 290X press sample and the HIS retail card to run at a constant 1GHz in Skryim. There are virtually no clock speed reductions via PowerTune. Consequently, both cards perform the same in "uber" mode, averaging about 83 FPS during the duration of the test.
The results from Kombustor are similar. The press sample stays pretty much glued to 1GHz. The HIS retail card's GPU clock dips intermittently to as low as 978MHz in this peak thermal workload, but it spends the majority of its time at 1GHz, as well.
This is an important point to the folks at AMD, because it means the card-to-card performance variance we've cataloged can be eliminated quite literally at the flip of a switch. Owners of retail R9 290X cards will have to be willing to put up a non-default configuration that produces substantially more noise, but their cards should should be able to obtain the same performance that the 290X review sample achieved in "uber" mode in our review.
Obviously, the "uber" mode switch isn't a fix for everything that ails retail R9 290X cards. Many folks will prefer to have the combination of noise levels and performance offer by the stock configuration, and the card-to-card variance there remains an issue.
The next step from here is interesting, because AMD expects its partners to produce cards, like the DirectCU II 290X that Asus teased recently, with custom cooling that surpasses the stock cooler by a fair amount. With more effective cooling, these third-party cards could offer "uber" mode-type performance—and, potentially, less card-to-card variance—even at lower noise levels.
We'll have to see how that shakes out once we get our grubby little hands one of those custom 290X cards. I'm hoping that will happen soon. I also expect AMD to have something more detailed to say about the reasons for the unexpectedly broad card-to-card variance on current retail 290X cards before too long, so stay tuned.A few thoughts on Nvidia's G-Sync
On the plane home, I started to write up a few impressions of the new G-Sync display technology that Nvidia introduced on Friday. However, that attempt pretty quickly turned into a detailed explanation of refresh rates and display technology. Realistically, I'll have to finish that at a later date, because I have another big graphics-related project hogging my time this week.
For now, I'll just say that whatever its drawbacks—which are mainly related to its proprietary nature—the core G-Sync technology itself is simply The Right Thing to Do. That's why Nvidia was able to coax several big names into appearing to endorse it. Because G-Sync alters conventional display tech by introducing a variable refresh rate, there's no easy way to demonstrate the impact in a web-based video. This is one of those things you'll have to see in person in order to appreciate fully.
I've seen it, and it's excellent.
You may remember that I touched on the possibility of a smarter vsync on this page of my original Inside the Second article. In fact, AMD's David Nalasco was the one who floated the idea. We've known that such a thing was possible for quite some time. Still, seeing Nvidia's G-Sync implementation in action is a revelatory experience. The tangible reality is way better than the theoretical prospect. The effect may seem subtle for some folks in some cases, depending on what's happening onscreen, but I'll bet that most experienced PC gamers who have been haunted by tearing and vsync quantization for years will appreciate the improvement pretty readily. Not long after that, you'll be hooked.
In order to make G-Sync happen, Nvidia had to build a new chip to replace the one that goes inside of most monitors to do image scaling and such. You may have noticed that the first version of Nvidia's solution uses a pretty big chip. That's because it employs an FPGA that's been programmed to do this job. The pictures show that the FPGA is paired with a trio of 2Gb DDR3 DRAMs, giving it 768MB of memory for image processing and buffering. The solution looks to add about $100 to price of a display. You can imagine Nvidia could cut costs pretty dramatically, though, by moving the G-Sync control logic into a dedicated chip.
The first monitors with G-Sync are gaming-oriented, and most are capable of fairly high refresh rates. That generally means we're talking about TN panels, with the compromises that come along with them in terms of color fidelity and viewing angles. However, the G-Sync module should be compatible with IPS panels, as well. As the folks who are overclocking their 27" Korean IPS monitors have found, even nice IPS panels sold with 60Hz limits are actually capable of much higher update rates.
G-Sync varies the screen update speed between the upper bound of the display's peak refresh rate and the lower bound of 30Hz—or every 33 ms. Beyond 33 ms, the prior frame is painted again. Understand that we're really talking about frame-to-frame updates that happen between 8.3 ms and 33 ms, not traditional refresh rates between 120Hz and 30Hz. G-Sync varies the timing on a per-frame basis. I'd expect many of today's IPS panels could range down to 8.3 ms, but even ranging between, say 11 ms (equivalent to 90Hz) and 33 ms could be sufficient to make a nice impact on fluidity.
G-Sync means Nvidia has entered into the display ASIC business, and I expect them to remain in that business as long as they have some measure of success. Although they could choose to license this technology to other firms, G-Sync is just a first step in a long line of possible improvements in GPU-display interactions. Having a graphics company in this space driving the technology makes a lot of sense. Going forward, we could see deeper color formats, true high-dynamic range displays enabled by better and smarter LED backlights, new compression schemes to deliver more and deeper pixels, and the elimination of CRT-oriented artifacts like painting the screen from left to right and top to bottom. Nvidia's Tom Petersen, who was instrumental in making G-Sync happen, mentioned a number of these possibilities when we chatted on Friday. He even floated the truly interesting idea of doing pixel updates across the panel in random fashion, altering the pattern from one frame to the next. Such stochastic updates could work around the human eye's very strong pattern recognition capability, improving the sense of solidity and fluid motion in on-screen animations. When pressed, Petersen admitted that idea came from one Mr. Carmack.
AMD will need to counter with its own version of this tech, of course. The obvious path would be to work with partners who make display ASICs and perhaps to drive the creation of an open VESA standard to compete with G-Sync. That would be a typical AMD move—and a good one. There's something to be said for AMD entering the display ASIC business itself, though, given where things may be headed. I'm curious to see what path they take.
Upon learning about G-Sync, some folks have wondered about whether GPU performance will continue to matter now that we have some flexibility in display update times. The answer is yes; the GPU must still render frames in a timely fashion in order create smooth animations. G-Sync simply cleans up the mess at the very end of the process, when frames are output to the display. Since the G-Sync minimum update rate is 30Hz, we'll probably be paying a lot of attention to frames that take longer than 33.3 ms to produce going forward. You'll find "time beyond 33 ms" graphs in our graphics reviews for the past year or so, so yeah. We're ready.
G-Sync panels will not work with FCAT, of course, since FCAT relies on a standards-based video capture card. We can use FCAT-derived performance data to predict whether one would have a good experience with G-Sync, but ultimately, we need better benchmarking tools that are robust enough to make the transition to new tech like 4K and G-Sync displays without breaking. I've been pushing both Nvidia and AMD to expose the exact time when the GPU flips to a new frame via an API. With that tool, we could capture FCAT-style end-of-pipeline frame times without the aid of video captures. We'd want to verify the numbers with video capture tools whenever possible, but having a display-independent way to do this work would be helpful. I think game engine developers want the same sort of thing in order to make sure their in-game timing can match the display times, too. Here's hoping we can persuade AMD, Nvidia, and Intel to do the right thing here sooner rather than later.Here's why the CrossFire Eyefinity/4K story matters
Earlier this week, we posted a news item about an article written by Ryan Shrout over at PC Perspective. In the article, Ryan revealed some problems with using a Radeon CrossFire multi-GPU setups and multiple displays.
Those problems look superficially similar to the ones we explored in our Radeon HD 7990 review. They were partially resolved—for single displays with resolutions of 2560x1600 and below, and for DirectX 10/11 games—by AMD's frame pacing beta driver. AMD has been forthright that it has more work to do in order to make CrossFire work properly with multiple displays, higher resolutions, and DirectX 9 games.
I noticed that many folks reacted to our news item by asking why this story matters, given the known issues with CrossFire that have persisted literally for years. I have been talking with Ryan and looking into these things for myself, and I think I can explain.
Let's start with the obvious: this story is news because nobody has ever looked at frame delivery with multi-display configs using these tools before. We first published results using Nvidia's FCAT tools back in March, and we've used them quite a bit since. However, getting meaningful results from multi-display setups is tricky when you can only capture one video output at a time, and, rah rah other excuses—the bottom line is, I never took the time to try capturing, say, the left-most display with the colored FCAT overlay and analyzing the output. Ryan did so and published the first public results.
That's interesting because, technically speaking, multi-display CrossFire setups work differently than single-monitor ones. We noted this fact way back in our six-way Eyefinity write-up: the card-to-card link over a CrossFire bridge can only transfer images up to to four megapixels in size. Thus, a CrossFire team connected to multiple displays must pass data from the secondary card to the primary card over PCI Express. The method of compositing frames for Eyefinity is simply different. That's presumably why AMD's current frame-pacing driver can't work its magic on anything beyond a single, four-megapixel monitor.
We already know that non-frame-paced CrossFire solutions on a single display are kind of a mess. Turns out that the problems are a bit different, and even worse, with multiple monitors.
I've been doing some frame captures myself this week, and I can tell you what I've seen. The vast majority of the time, CrossFire with Eyefinity drops every other frame with alarming consistency. About half of the frames just don't make it to the display at all, even though they're counted in software benchmarking tools like Fraps. I've seen dropped frames with single-display CrossFire, but nothing nearly this extreme.
Also, Ryan found a problem in some games where scan lines from two different frames become intermixed, causing multiple horizontal tearing artifacts on screen at once. (That's his screenshot above.) I've not seen this problem in my testing yet, but it looks to be a little worse and different from the slight "leakage" of an old frame into a newer one that we observed with CrossFire and one monitor. I need to do more testing in order to get a sense of how frequently this issue pops up.
The bottom line is that Eyefinity and CrossFire together appear to be a uniquely bad combination. Worse, these problems could be tough to overcome with a driver update because of the hardware bandwidth limitations involved.
This story is a bit of a powder keg for several reasons.
For one, the new marketing frontier for high-end PC graphics is 4K displays. As you may know, current 4K monitors are essentially the same as multi-monitor setups in their operation. Since today's display ASICs can't support 4K resolutions natively, monitors like the Asus PQ321Q use tiling. One input drives the left "tile" of the monitor, and a second feeds the right tile. AMD's drivers handle the PQ321Q just like a dual-monitor Eyefinity setup. That means the compositing problems we've explored happen to CrossFire configs connected to 4K displays—not the regular microstuttering troubles, but the amped-up versions.
Ryan tells me he was working on this story behind the scenes for a while, talking to both AMD and Nvidia about problems they each had with 4K monitors. You can imagine what happened when these two fierce competitors caught wind of the CrossFire problems.
For its part, Nvidia called together several of us in the press last week, got us set up to use FCAT with 4K monitors, and pointed us toward some specific issues with their competition. One the big issues Nvidia emphasized in this context is how Radeons using dual HDMI outputs to drive a 4K display can exhibit vertical tearing right smack in the middle of the screen, where the two tiles meet, because they're not being refreshed in sync. This problem is easy to spot in operation.
GeForces don't do this. Fortunately, you can avoid this problem on Radeons simply by using a single DisplayPort cable and putting the monitor into DisplayPort MST mode. The display is still treated as two tiles, but the two DP streams use the same timing source, and this vertical tearing effect is eliminated.
I figure if you drop thousands of dollars on a 4K gaming setup, you can spring for the best cable config. So one of Nvidia's main points just doesn't resonate with me.
And you've gotta say, it's quite the aggressive move, working to highlight problems with 4K displays just days ahead of your rival's big launch event for a next-gen GPU. I had to take some time to confirm that the Eyefinity/4K issues were truly different from the known issues with CrossFire on a single monitor before deciding to post anything.
That said, Nvidia deserves some credit for making sure its products work properly. My experience with dual GeForce GTX 770s and a 4K display has been nearly seamless. Plug in two HDMI inputs or a single DisplayPort connection with MST, and the GeForce drivers identify the display and configure it silently without resorting to the Surround setup UI. There's no vertical tearing if you choose to use dual HDMI inputs. You're going to want to use multiple graphics cards in order to get fluid gameplay at 4K resolutions, and Nvidia's frame metering tech allows our dual-GTX 770 SLI setup to deliver. It's noticeably better than dual Radeon HD 7970s, and not in a subtle way. Nvidia has engineered a solution that overcomes a lot of obstacles in order to make that happen. Give them props for that.
As for AMD, well, one can imagine the collective groan that went up in their halls when word of these problems surfaced on the eve of their big announcement. The timing isn't great for them. I received some appeals to my better nature, asking me not to write about these things yet, telling me I'd hear all about AMD's 4K plans next week. I expect AMD to commit to fixing the problems with its existing products, as well as unveiling a newer and more capable high-end GPU. I'm looking forward to it.
But I'm less sympathetic when I think about how AMD has marketed multi-GPU solutions like the Radeon HD 7990 as the best solution for 4K graphics. We're talking about very expensive products that simply don't work like they should. I figure folks should know about these issues today, not later.
My hope is that we'll be adding another chapter to this story soon, one that tells the tale of AMD correcting these problems in both current and upcoming Radeons.
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