Wednesday, November 16, 2005

nVidia's not so "Unified" Driver Support

This news is six months old but for various reasons is still not widely known. nVidia dropped "Unified" driver support in Windows XP/2000 for certain GPUs (Graphics Processing Units), starting with driver v77.72. This is not the first time they have done this with their "Unified" driver architecture but it is significant in its disparity. The irony is the lack of "Unification".

nVidia Unified Driver Architecture

"The NVIDIA Unified Driver Architecture (UDA) is the foundation for the company's award-winning ForceWare drivers and delivers forward-and-backward compatibility across all implementations of NVIDIA desktop, workstation, mobile, platform, and multimedia processors. With a single driver, UDA delivers ongoing performance and feature improvements, reduced maintenance time, increased scalability, and a lower total cost of ownership.

ForceWare software supports the entire line of TNT2 processors, the GeForce consumer line of GPUs, the NVIDIA nForce platform processors, the NVIDIA Quadro line of professional GPUs, as well as the full line of NVIDIA mobile processors."

This is clearly not the case as you will see below.

Support Dropped:

TNT2 Pro
TNT2 Ultra
TNT2 Model 64 (M64)
TNT2 Model 64 (M64) Pro
Vanta LT
GeForce 256
GeForce DDR
GeForce2 GTS
GeForce2 Pro
GeForce2 Ti
GeForce2 Ultra
GeForce2 MX Integrated graphics
Quadro2 Pro
Quadro2 EX

The last driver version to support these is v71.84.

To add to the confusion all the current driver versions including the v8x.xx series still supports the slower GF2 Mx series of GPUs.

Still Supported:

GeForce2 MX
GeForce2 MX 100
GeForce2 MX 200
GeForce2 MX 400

The GeForce3 Series and all newer GPUs continue to be supported in all the latest drivers. The GF2 MX series is likely still supported due to their very large install base and market share. These cards at one time were incredibly popular and widely included in new systems. The rationale behind dropping support for aging GPUs has many theories. The one I support is that less supported GPUs improves driver release times by cutting down on QA testing and certification. This allows newer driver revisions to be released quicker without sacrificing reliability and stability. Either way you can throw "Unification" out the window.

The problem is there are no warning signs this is going to happen, it just does, apparently on nVidia's whim. Granted the GPUs dropped are usually dated but still it would be nice to know when to expect this. As for fairness, why should GF2 Ti owners be left out in the cold but the slower MX line still get support? nVidia needs to set a policy based on performance or drop a whole line based on it's naming, such as all the GF2s. Microsoft at least provides you with a Support Lifecycle service to plan around. nVidia needs to provide a similar service.

It is highly recommended that anyone running a non supported GPU should seriously consider upgrading as current driver support is essential for compatibility with newer games. While the GeForce 2 MX series is still supported, performance in almost all of the latest games is unacceptable.

Note: To make this easier for people to understand and follow only driver versions listed on nVidia's site are referenced. No mention of BETA drivers or any other unofficial driver release is taken into account or will be.

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