DLSS is Useless: New Nvidia Freestyle Sharpening Examined

Nvidia recently released a comprehensive GeForce driver update, which was presented at Gamescom, version 436.02. Driver updates are usually not very exciting. They usually include updates for new games on day one, some bug fixes, and performance updates. You know the drill. However, this particular driver update is one of the bigger ones from Nvidia in the past few months, as it has actually introduced some new and interesting features that we will be looking at today.

There are performance improvements for games like Apex Legends and Forza Horizon 4 that promise up to 23% faster performance compared to driver 431.60 with some RTX GPUs. We already checked this when testing the RTX 2070 Super against the Radeon RX 5700 XT. These two games in particular achieved significant increases in performance.

Other new features include GPU integer scaling, which is great for retro games and pixel art games. We offer 30-bit color support, which was also introduced for a newer Nvidia Studio driver. We have more G-Sync compatible monitors. And what's important is that we have two new features that can keep up with some of AMD's latest features for your graphics cards.

The first is a new option with extremely low latency. This is Nvidia's answer to the previously discussed Radeon anti-lag technology. Nvidia summarizes how this technology works. We therefore quote them here:

"With the release of our Gamescom Game Ready driver, we are introducing a new ultra-low latency mode that enables frame planning" just in time "and enables frames to be rendered shortly before the GPU needs it. This further reduces latency by up to 33%. Low latency modes have the greatest impact when your game is tied to a GPU. The frame rates are between 60 and 100 FPS. This enables you to achieve the responsiveness of games with high frame rates without having to reduce the graphic fidelity. "

Basically the same as anti-lag. Both technologies delay the CPU from collecting inputs and processing frames until just before the GPU is ready, reducing the entry delay in GPU-bound scenarios. At best, this can reduce the input delay by almost one frame. This also brings the fact into bed that anti-lag and this new & # 39; Ultra Low Latency Mode & # 39; are not the same as setting Max Prerendered Frames to 1. The Nvidia Control Panel distinguishes the two modes by a new option with low latency with "On" means the previous setting, where Max Prerendered Frames = 1, and "Ultra" means the new mode with low latency, which corresponds to anti-lag .

We did some quick tests with the Nvidia mode with extremely low latency and came to the conclusion that it basically works the same as Radeon Anti-Lag. If you are interested in learning the pros and cons, read our previous coverage, which goes into detail on the inside. In general, it's a nice feature, but in situations that are already optimized for low-latency games, like playing at a very high frame rate, it has limited effects.

The bigger addition to this new driver is a new freestyle sharpening filter. We recently looked at AMD's Radeon Image Sharpening (RIS) and came to the conclusion that Nvidia's (now dated) freestyle sharpening was neither up to date in terms of visual quality nor performance. But Nvidia has revised its sharpening option available through Freestyle. This new filter is a standalone option that is separate from the detail filter and is simply referred to as "sharpening". It can be used in all ways Freestyle has had access for years, i.e. on any Nvidia GPU via GeForce Experience, provided the game is whitelisted by Nvidia with over 600 titles, all DX9, DX11, Cover DX12 and Vulkan APIs.

In this article, we'll look at the new sharpening filter to see how it works with some of the methods we've already tested. We'd like to answer a few simple questions: Is Nvidia's new technology as good or even better than Radeon sharpening? How does performance affect? And does this make DLSS completely unnecessary? The latter will be very, very interesting if we go through some tests.

Our standard GPU test setup includes a Core i9-9900K with 16 GB DDR4-3000 memory. We also use a GeForce RTX 2070 Founders Edition, the same GPU that we used for the previous article RIS vs. Used freestyle. This (not super) RTX GPU belongs to the same performance class as the AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT and of course we use the latest 436.02 drivers that are publicly available.

How to use freestyle sharpening

Using the new sharpening filter is very easy. In a supported game, press Alt + F3 to open the freestyle overlay. From there you can select the "Sharpen" filter. You will find that there are two controls: one for adjusting the sharpness and one for rejecting the grain. These settings are saved individually.

This is immediately an area where Nvidia has a huge advantage over AMD's Radeon Image Sharpening. RIS is a single global switch that applies to all games of the same strength. There is no slider to optimize the filter and it cannot be activated per game. This can be one of the main mistakes of RIS, as some games need to be sharpened more than others, and in some games you may not want to sharpen at all.

Image quality comparison

Let's start here for comparisons of image quality with the Metro Exodus menu, which is a great test case for this type of filter. Here we look at native 4K compared to the new freestyle filter, which is set to the default settings, which corresponds to a sharpness of 50%. This is a significant improvement in sharpness, especially when we zoom in on some areas that may be difficult to see on a still image / screenshot or YouTube video at full resolution (click on screenshots for 4K versions, video will also be 4K recorded). .

Metro, which we believe uses TAA for anti-aliasing and doesn't have precise control over the setting, is slightly blurry by default. The new freestyle sharpening filter cleans all of this, especially in the map area with its fine lines, without introducing noticeable halos around text elements. It also treats the deliberately blurry text on the CRT screen well.

You can see how this new filter corresponds to the old freestyle sharpening filter, which is available via the detailed settings and is also set to 50%. Both filters are still available in the latest driver, but it's clear that the old method isn't that good. In some areas, the textures are a bit sharper in the old mode. However, this is at the expense of a poorer halo and poorer handling of fine details, e.g. B. on the map in the upper left corner. Both modes have strength sliders, but these errors appear to be consistent across the strength ranges.

Here we use the new freestyle filter against Radeon Image Sharpening. We looked at these filters not only in this game, but also in several other games. In my opinion they are practically indistinguishable when the freestyle filter is set to the default settings.

In the Metro Exodus menu here, the handling of the menu text, the map, other textures, the CRT screen, etc. are almost identical, if not identical. This makes me think that Nvidia uses a very similar contrast-adaptive shading technique, or could even be the same technique, since AMD's CAS filter is open source.

Switch to The Division 2 and continue to compare the new freestyle filter to Radeon Image Sharpening. With the default settings, both achieve a similar result. This is ideal for those who want to use resolution downsampling. Here, the game runs with a 75% resolution scale with sharpness and looks decent in a way, similar to a native 4K presentation.

However, in my opinion, the default settings in this game are a bit too sharp. Nvidia Freestyle has the great advantage that we can reduce the sharpness to about 20%, which looks much better in this title and does not have as many artifacts. There is no such option for the AMD equivalent.

We just looked at resolution downsampling, which is a great way for those who play at 4K or other high resolutions to get better performance with minimal degradation in visual quality. Set the game to a resolution scale of 75% or around 1800p and use a high-quality sharpening filter like this new freestyle filter or RIS. It's almost like playing with the native resolution, but with a significant increase in performance.

Of course, Nvidia has another way to get similar results, through DLSS. Deep learning super-sampling is a technique that attempts to reconstruct a higher resolution image from a lower base using the tensor cores on Nvidia's RTX GPUs. We previously found that the performance and image quality that DLSS achieved roughly corresponded to the downsampling of the resolution in the range of 60 to 75 percent resolution (approx. 1800p).

Here we have Battlefield V and we did a side-by-side comparison with the game running at 4K native resolution, 4K DLSS and a 78% 4K resolution scale – about the same performance as DLSS – and then sharpened both the new freestyle Filters as well as Radeon Image Sharpening.

For me there is no doubt that the resolution-scaled + sharpened image – either with Freestyle or RIS, which are practically identical – delivers a much better presentation than DLSS.

In this game, DLSS is very blurry and miles behind the native 4K image, whereas the resolution-scaled and then sharpened image comes pretty close to the native image, albeit a bit back in very fine details. In this game, we just don't see why you're using DLSS.

There are better DLSS implementations, for example Metro Exodus. However, the 0.7 times reduced image, which is then sharpened, retains more details and avoids the oil painting effect that we do not like in the DLSS image. Here the sharpened version of the native 4K presentation comes very close, while DLSS looks a bit strange, which is an artifact of its deep learning reconstruction technique.

If you zoom in on some areas such as rocks or grass with lots of fine details, the differences are highlighted. While DLSS does a good job with larger elements such as tight textures, we find in these fine elements that the sharpened image preserves a more realistic detail.

But what about performance?

The next step is to look at performance. We previously noticed during the Radeon Image Sharpening test The Division 2 that the activation of this function had a negligible impact on the performance of Navi-GPUs. The same does not apply to the implementation of Nvidia on the RTX 2070. The new freestyle filter, however, is a noticeable improvement over the old mode.

While the older freestyle filter outperforms and lowers the average frame rate in this game by 12 percent, the new filter is easier to use. A six percent drop, which is exactly half of the effects that Nvidia reported, is much better and turns out to be just a few FPS in most cases. The impact is also very similar to the AMD-CAS algorithm's reshade port, which, as we saw earlier, resulted in a four percent drop in frame rates in this title.

The performance comparison when downsampling the resolution is also very interesting. Here is Metro Exodus with a 0.7-fold shader scale as well as the results for 4K DLSS. In this game, the new FreeStyle filter had a small 4% performance impact and matched DLSS. Conversely, the old filter had a more severe drop in performance of 13%, which is the kind of impact you will feel in gameplay.

In our opinion, these results show that DLSS is dead in the water. With Nvidia's previous freestyle filter, there was a reason to use DLSS in a game like Metro Exodus. The visual quality was decent enough and had no effect on the performance of older freestyle sharpenings. Since the new freestyle filter corresponds to what we believe to be a significantly better visual quality of DLSS performance, we see no reason to choose DLSS as a performance-enhancing option. Also keep in mind that DLSS must be supported by every game, while freestyle is supported in hundreds of titles.

This is further illustrated in our Battlefield V results. With the new freestyle filter with a resolution scale of 78%, we see a drop in performance of ~ 2.5%. DLSS offers slightly better performance and even surpasses the unsharpened, 78% scaled image. As you have already seen, the difference in image quality between the two is huge. The sharpened presentation blows it out of the water. We would like to sacrifice a few frames to get the much sharper picture of the non-DLSS method.

Bottom line

Overall, we think this situation is very interesting. AMD introducing RIS may have forced Nvidia to update the sharpening filter available through freestyle. In doing so, they created a better solution than DLSS, which was advertised as the main selling point for RTX graphics cards. Big win for gamers.

Competition in these areas means more innovation and better solutions for PC gamers everywhere. The new Nvidia Freestyle feature is much better than before. In addition, Nvidia owners are now getting their own mode with extremely low latency and other improvements such as 30-bit color support, all determined by the competition. Then Nvidia shot back its own shot with integer scaling – although Intel first supported this for the integrated graphics – it's now up to AMD to respond.

We believe that Nvidia offers the better solution overall compared to RIS. Freestyle can achieve equivalent image quality, but it also offers an adjustable strength slider that is great for games like The Division 2 that are a little overworked with standard settings. You can also configure it by game.

Nvidia's solution is also much more compatible. It works with all Nvidia GPUs and supports all modern APIs including DX11. Currently Radeon Image Sharpening is only available for Navi GPUs and does not support DX11. While RIS has the benefit of less impact on Navi's performance, it doesn't make much sense to limit it to newer GPUs and not support DX11.

However, there is still room for improvement. Nvidia's whitelist of freestyle games is large but not comprehensive. Games we've tested before, like Hitman 2 and Resident Evil 2, aren't on the list, and they're pretty important titles that were released last year. We really want support to open for all games, even if it's a "beta" or "unsupported" switch.

Does this mean that Nvidia should completely kill DLSS? It's hard to suggest that they would, but we're sure that for enthusiasts reading this type of reporting, using resolution downsampling and Nvidia's freestyle sharpening filter is the best option to effectively end DLSS when You know what you are doing.

DLSS has the advantage of being a simple one-click button that can be a great solution for mainstream gamers. If the DLSS were replaced with a one-click option for sub-native rendering and sharpening, it might deliver better results and be open to more GPUs, not just RTX. Although one of the reasons why you want to downsample is to get an extra boost in performance for ultra high resolution games or to enable other control functions like ray tracing. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing how gamers will use these features in the coming months and what methods of performance optimization are preferred.

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