The showdown: DX9 vs DX10

3rd Dec 2007 | 00:00

The showdown: DX9 vs DX10

Why Vista isn't the ultimate gaming platform

We'll hold our hands up on this one - we got overly excited about the potential of DirectX 10 (DX10).

We saw what it could do, what it would enable programmers to do, and did a convincing impression of a coachload of school kids on far too much fizzy pop. We not only believed the hype, we wanted everyone else to believe it too.

There is some good in DX10

We had seen, and in fact still see, enough gawp-inducing goodness behind closed doors to convince us that with DX10 we were on the cusp of one of the most important advances in PC gaming. An advance that would render worlds where water looks and acts like the wet stuff, where plants sway and are ripped apart by bullet fire, and mists would swirl as you walked through them.

The promise of DX10 is still there, and to be fair we still think that at some point we will see some amazing DX10-only games. It still promises to lift the bar on our gaming, and if you look in all the right places, there are demos of such effects. The problem is, as far as actual gaming is concerned, we're a long way off.

At the time of writing there are simply no DX10-only titles, and definitely no killer game to show it off. In fact, have a guess at how many DX10 supporting games there are available. 100 maybe? How about a more realistic 50? Try again... try... eight.

Is DX10 worth the upgrade?

The list of DX10-only titles is made up of Crysis, Bioshock, Company of Heroes, Lost Planet, World in Conflict, Call of Juarez, and the latest arrival Hellgate: London.

Not too impressive for a year that has seen some of the biggest games in the PC's history released. World in Conflict and Bioshock are both important games, but they're also available in DX9 guises (as in fact are all these titles), which begs the question, what difference does DX10 actually make? And at what cost?

The question aimed at any new release of DirectX is whether it's worth the upgrade. Generally the answer is yes; at least it is once the developers and hardware vendors have been given enough time to iron out the bugs. This is helped along by the fact that the software side of things (the actual DirectX API) is but a short download away, so it tends to get upgraded with the minimum of fuss.

This means that the vast majority of PC owners have access to the API even if they don't quite have the requisite hardware to make use of it.

Windows Vista or nothing

This accessibility goes out of the window for this newest release though. DirectX 10 won't sit atop any old OS - you'll need to be running Vista. And, as those that have used Vista for any length of time will testify, it's a stunning resource junkie in a way that continues to surprise.

While we appreciate some of its graphical thrills and a few of its nicer tools, as far as a launch pad for gaming, there's no reason that, we can think of that, would make the leap worthwhile. Unless, of course, you think Halo 2 and Shadowrun are worth migrating for - in which case you need professional help.

This means that as far as gaming is concerned, there are two distinct camps - in the shiny new corner we have the latest DX10 hardware married to Vista, while the other is home to DX9 and Windows XP.

And it's that clear cut; it's almost as though the two machines are incompatible - which in gaming terms isn't too far from the truth, with quite a few of the more recent games we've seen refusing to play ball with Vista - full stop.

DX10 vs. DX9

So we put two machines together and organised a pitched battle to see how they handle the newest DX10 supporting games.

Some games saw the DX10 rig outclass the DX9 system entirely (such as Lost Planet), while others muddied the waters for Microsoft's claims of a prettier tomorrow. The big shock was Company of Heroes, which looked pretty much the same in both DX9 and DX10, but represented a far more staccato experience under DX10, juddering in places where the DX9 version just sailed on through.

Who then needs an upgrade? Admittedly there are subtle graphical touches offered by the DX10 code paths that can make it look slightly better, particularly volumetric effects (like fog and light beams). But none are enough to warrant the premium being charged for the hardware needed to run them.

We don't have a problem with the fact that DirectX 10 is merely an incremental upgrade - the differences between some of the previous iterations have often been very subtle. But with some of the games here actually looking less impressive that their DX9 equivalents ( Bioshock, for instance, doesn't support anti-aliasing in DX10), you can't help thinking that things are not at all well in the world.

An unappetising upgrade

Returning to our original question: is it really worth upgrading to get DirectX 10? In light of our experiences in this report, we'd have to say a sad, but fat 'No', at least not just yet. The cost of upgrading to Windows Vista, and the performance hit you get from running Microsoft's new OS, makes the whole thing entirely unappetising.

More importantly, DX10 hardware just offers a smoother experience in DX9 - and that's ultimately worth far more than a few graphical tweaks. In other words DX9 is still where it's at for the foreseeable future.

One conclusion from all this is that if you do want to stick your neck out and future proof your system, then going down the DirectX 10 route limits your graphics card purchase to a single family of cards - i.e. the 8800 series (ranging from the GTS to the Ultra).

The more mainstream offerings from both AMD and Nvidia are simply too slow at DX10, plus they're largely unremarkable at the DX9 rendering as well. In fact, if nothing else, this group of tests has confirmed our belief that the likes of the X1950 Pro and XT are where the sensible money is at.

What do developers make of all of this? The current lack of DX10 titles (and a distinct lack of announced games in the works) speaks volumes, and we've talked to plenty of developers that simply dismiss the idea of a DX10-only title for financial reasons - the market is simply too small.

The main reason for this is cost. We refuse to cough up three times as much dough for a DX10 rig in order to get effectively the same gaming experience. Sure, the splodes are a little prettier but are they £700 prettier? Not on your nelly. Without a doubt, the winner of our showdown is the mighty DX9.

This article first appeared inPC Formatmagazine (issue 208)

Company of Heroes

As the first commercially available DX10 full game - demos for Lost Planet and Call of Juarez came out a month earlier - Company of Heroes has something to live up to. Unfortunately for all those out there hoping to be blown away by the next-gen visuals, the performance just isn't there.

The DX9 machine outperformed our PCF uber-rig hands down in the DX9 vs DX10 test, and there's still precious little to choose between them visually.The main visual difference is in the lighting; shadows and light sources are now far more realistically employed.

The effects on the more detailed textures are fairly impressive up close. The smoke effects are far more diffuse, putting a stop to harsh edges and banding when looking at objects through the haze.

The subtle DX10 additions aren't apparent when zoomed out. In fact all you're really going to experience is a massive slow down from your high-priced, high-spec system.

World in Conflict

Unlike CoH, World in Conflict was designed to incorporate DX10 features from release, rather than in patch form. And the benchmark figures we've recorded show this; with both machines running the game on their highest respective settings the DX10 rig was performing at more than twice the framerates. It was still running below the magic 30fps mark on the uber-rig though, and that was after installing the latest DX10 performance patch.

Dropping the resolution down one notch and switching to medium settings on the DX9 machine, however, produced near as damn it identical performance results, with little perceptible difference in visual quality.

Look closely and the volumetric lighting, breaking through the clouds from heaven and the enhanced smoke diffusion become apparent. But again, it's a question of looking very closely.

Up close though you can tell the difference, especially with the DX9 rig on medium settings, but the addition of a little bit of grass can't justify the outlay and performance hit of DX10.

Lost Planet

Lost Planet is finally a game where we see the biggest difference in all the games we've tested. The DX10 performance of Lost Planet came in at a thoroughly respectable 40fps out in the snow fields and 54fps inside, compared with the horrific performance of our budget rig on the highest settings, the DX10 system obviously wins hands down.

The only way that we managed to get even vaguely equivalent performance specs was by dropping the resolution a notch and the settings down to medium/high, and even then the score of 32fps was way off.

The visual difference too was very clear, with the snow storm creating lines across a screen filled with the jagged edges of non-anti-aliased objects.

In stark comparison with the performance of Bioshock on our DX9 system, it's strange that Lost Planet fails to run at a decent speed. With everything cranked up to the maximum settings, and at 1680x1050, Bioshock ran at the same speed as the DX10 uber-rig.

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