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Graphics Evolution Urge New Benchmarking Paradigms to Emerge

As hardware becomes more feature-rich, software makers have to take advantage of that additional functionality in terms of image quality and performance.

Microsoft Corp., the developer of DirectX application programming interface, has demonstrated a great deal of liberalism by allowing two leading developers of graphics chips to offer a bunch of DirectX 9 incarnations (Pixel/Vertex Shaders 2.0, Pixel/Vertex Shaders 2.0a, Pixel/Vertex Shaders 2.0b, Pixel/Vertex Shaders 3.0)  that were still considered as standards and eventually treated as such by developers who use DirectX 9 API.

Since the next-generation of pixel and vertex shaders set, Shader Model 4.0, is years ahead, game developers have to cope with existing Shader Models to create new effects. However, already today Shader Model 2.0 graphics pipeline may not be enough to rapidly execute complex shaders that consist of tens of instructions. Therefore, the industry needed a standard approach to extend the SM2.0 capabilities while not changing the overall architecture of the API as well as hardware. As a result of this Shader Model 2.0a, Shader Model 2.0b and Shader Model 3.0 were born. While the new Shader Models emerged quite some time before the software is likely to be able to exhaust all SM2.0 caps, it is pretty clear that the time when the industry is going to need something more advanced than the SM2.0 is around the corner.

Typically more flexible and feature reach hardware imply higher amount of data that can be processed by the chip. As a result, even not really complex graphics effects can be executed faster on comprehensive hardware. For example FarCry game processes up to 4 lights per pass on Shader Model 3.0 hardware and up to 3 lights per pass on Shader Model 2.0b hardware versus one light per pass on traditional Shader Model 2.0 visual processing units.

While four different Shader Models disintegrate the idea of one universal DirectX 9 API and approach to graphics programming, they do drive the computer graphics forward in terms of new effects and allow certain hardware to show additional performance boosts, therefore, game developers will have to switch from fixed Shader Model 2.0 programming approach to more IHV-specific Shader Models. While this does not lead to straight and rapid development process, game developers are unlikely to have much choice here: Shader Model 2.0 invented in 2002 is likely to  become obsolete for next-generation titles a couple of years after its [SM2.0’s] introduction, that’s in 2004. Furthermore, with HLSL, a C-like language that allows to compile the code for certain hardware and software configurations, e.g., Shader Models.

With games shifting to a different programming approach we have a new paradigm for graphics cards’ benchmarking: test the fastest standard approach of rendering for particular hardware. This is what X-bit labs has been used for FarCry game for a couple of months and this is how the new 3DMark05 will rely on the hardware.

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