A year goes by pretty quickly for me these days. I can vividly remember the last few days before NVIDIA's NV40 launch some 14 months ago, and the last few days before this article have brought some serious deja vu. Much the same tests have been run, much the same analysis has been performed and much the same pixels are being painted. The last part of that statement is the telling one, today's hardware more evolution than revolution compared to what was delivered by NVIDIA last time around.
Their move to a DirectX Shader Model 3.0-compliant part with NV40 signalled their renaissance in 3D graphics, after a lacklustre part in NV30 (although guys like me have a certain fondness for the way it did things) and a mediocre followup in NV35. While they're competent parts in their own right (NV35's fragment hardware is really nice, mostly let down by supporting register logic and wonky support for multiple render targets), ATI hit the ground running with R300 and the ensuing battle was well documented here and elsewhere on the web.
The consumer won all round (bar those saddled with expensive and noisy 5800 Ultras!), with some excellent DX9.0 hardware from ATI that forced NVIDIA to go back to the GPU drawing board and come up with a new design that kicked some ass. And kick some ass it did, more than standing toe to toe with ATI's derivative R4xx parts, something which rings true to this very day.
Today's brand new release sees NVIDIA play the evolution card, rather than revolution. Their G70 graphics processor builds upon NV40's Shader Model 3.0 + SLI foundation with some (admittedly significant) nips and tucks here and there, a wider architecture (without actually going that wide in silicon) and more speed for the fps freaks to dine on.
Going by what I know of ATI's upcoming new hardware, it's quite clear that NVIDIA's transitor budget this time around has been spent on the fragment hardware more than elsewhere, while ATI seem to be spending theirs on pixel output and Shader Model 3.0. It'll be interesting to pair the two in coming months, especially since they're both playing release games with each other, since ATI will be on a feature-set par with SM3.0 and CrossFire, both IHV's offering support for the last DirectX Shader Model before Windows Longhorn brings the first version of Windows Graphics Foundation and both offering a multi-participant 3D rendering solution that utilises more than one discrete graphics board to give more performance.
The SKU NVIDIA have chosen to debut G70 is the GeForce 7800 GTX. The GTX isn't the flagship hardware, NVIDIA bringing the next one down the ladder to market first to force ATI's hand with R520 and Radeon X900 (if indeed it's called that when it shows up). Why release the big daddy product if you don't need to, giving you some time to play with clocks and (hopefully) stay on top of the performance league table. Those few percent when you're massively CPU limited really matter! The trouble is, ATI might well do the same.
Regardless, there's a shiny new GPU for sites like ours to talk about. NVIDIA's G70 represents their take on 3D hardware for at least the next 9 months or so. It'll power, either directly or indirectly, a range of top-to-bottom products with the GeForce 7-series moniker and its core performance and feature set will define those products until the next, massively-faster-than-the-rest-of-your-system GPU comes along. There's no new base features compared to NV40 with G70 still a Shader Model 3.0 part, so where exactly are the differences? Time for a closer look.