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3DMark06 Arrives

The world of 3D graphics is a very complicated one and many potential graphics card customers don’t want to spend their free time learning about the intricacies of the technology, they just want to know which card to buy. This is where technology journalists like myself come in – we grab the latest hardware as soon as we can get our paws on it and run a series of tests in order to determine how it performs in relation to what else is out there. There are generally two established methods for testing graphics hardware – you can run retail games on it and compare the performance, or you can use what’s sometimes known as a “synthetic benchmark”.

In the world of graphics card testing there have been few things more contentious over the past few years than synthetic benchmarks like 3DMark. Some journalists have refused to use 3DMark because “it’s not a real game”, citing that graphics manufacturers can tailor, adapt or optimise their hardware and drivers in order to produce good results. However, there’s nothing to stop a graphics manufacturer taking exactly the same approach to the most popular games – it’s not like it hasn’t happened before!

Another advantage to a benchmark like 3DMark is that it’s consistent, repeatable and comparable. That means that anyone who’s using a version of 3DMark can compare that score to any other, whereas using timed demos in a real game would require a copy of that demo, most of which are recorded by each individual.

But if I have had one criticism of 3DMark in the past, it’s that it isn’t always at the cutting edge of technology. Back in 2003 when DirectX 9 was new, 3DMark03 didn’t really make too much use of the new features. This meant that 3DMark03 wasn’t the best performance indicator for new hardware, although if you were still running older DirectX 7 or 8 games you’d get a good idea of hardware capability.

By coincidence I bumped into Tero Sarkkinen (Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing – Futuremark) at IDF last March and I asked him when I’d see a benchmark that supported Shader Model 3.0 effects and was multi-threaded to take advantage of the new breed of dual-core chips. Tero told me that everything I had asked for was being worked on and as if by magic, today the fruits of that labour have broken cover in the shape of 3DMark06.

I got my hands on the final code for 3DMark06 a little while ago and I’ve been playing with it a lot, running it on different hardware setups with different settings and comparing results. My initial reactions to the benchmark were “This looks amazing” followed by “this is really hammering the hardware”. One thing’s for sure, I can’t criticise 3DMark06 for not using cutting edge features – Tero has been as good as his word, and then some.

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