When you think of it, our everyday computing depends on benchmarks that measure the performance of not just the graphics processors, but the system as a whole. Enter 3DMark, the definite benchmark by Futuremark that has garnered quite a bit of controversy over the years. It wasn’t before they developed Shattered Horizon using the engine that powers 3DMark Vantage that the loudest critics were left dumbfounded.

With the release of 3DMark 11, the bar has been raised yet again. According to Futuremark’s president Oliver Baltuch, they went back to the drawing board and wrote a native DirectX 11-only engine. As such, system requirements for 3DMark are quite simple: Windows Vista or Windows 7 operating system and DirectX 11-compliant hardware.

In fact, Futuremark went on the record to state the following:

3DMark 11 has been developed with input from the designers, engineers and product managers at AMD, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Imagination Technology and many other well known companies.

Given the reservations of our sources inside Nvidia and AMD expressed both on and off the record, Futuremark has hit the nerve. Whether this is due to the delay from November 30 until Dec 7 neither company would say.

3DMark 11

Futuremark offers 3DMark 11 in three separate versions: Basic, Advanced and Professional Edition. Basic version is completely free and features an unlimited number of runs.

Advanced version will set you back $19.99 and this is the version that many board vendors will offer with their graphics cards – we’ve already received press releases from EVGA and inno3D, and there is no doubt in our mind that others will follow.

The first thing you’ll notice is the size of the download. Unlike previous 3DMark downloads, for 3DMark 11 Futuremark developed new compression techniques that reduce the size of the download to just 282MB.

The main screen sports five tabs: Basic, Advanced, Professional, Results, and Help. Depending on the key you’ve entered, you’ll have access to the tabs in place. We used Professional Edition key that unlocks all of the features of the software.

Testing out

The result of a streamlined development, 3DMark offers two graphics tests: Deep Sea and Lost Temple. The third benchmark called Moon Race has been ditched at some point in development, which is a shame. One thing you’ll immediately notice – these two tests will suck the life out of your system, regardless of your graphics hardware.


The Deep Sea test brings homage to Abyss, a brilliant Hollywood masterpiece by James Cameron.

The folks inclined to measure raw horsepower of their GPU will be dissapointed by Futuremark’s decision to remove a series of synthetic tests from the benchmark. We hope PCMark 11 will retain detailed tests that reveal just how many triangles and pixels your GPU can pump out. In 3DMark 11 those figures have been replaced with GPU-Z and similar utilities that only calculate a theoretical output, not the real one.


Lost Temple is admittedly one of the most impressive tech demos of our time.

Each test is ran twice: Deep Sea features two scenes, the one without Tessellation and another with Tessellation enabled. Lost Temple, on the other hand, uses Tessellation in both tests and the second pass will "draw tessellated geometry to shadow maps and G-buffer."

Lastly, the third benchmarks puts physics through its paces. Unlike 3DMark Vantage that relies on AGEIA PhysX (later re-branded as the NVIDIA PhysX following the acquisition of AGEIA) which caused controversy over GPU acceleration of the physics tests, Futuremark opted for Bullet physics with 3DMark 11.

The physics test is based on the Bullet Open Source Physics Library which in itself is completely written in C++. The simulation basically splits a large scene into multiple segments that are fed to you CPU. The more available threads your CPU has, the better. Got twelve threads on your CPU? The physics test will use them all. Got "only" four threads? The test will put all four to good use.

Screen resolutions

Starting with 3DMark Vantage, Futuremark introduced resolution presets that cover common display resolutions in use today. Mobile warriors will also like the "E" setting that runs in 1024×600 pixel resolution and is suitable for light load scenarios typical for notebooks and netbooks.

Relying on 1280×720 resolution, the Performance ("P) index uses "moderate load suitable for most gaming PCs". One setting to rule them all is the Extreme setting ("X") that cranks the details to the maximum – only ninja PCs should be able to run this one properly. But is it really so? Let’s find out.

Benchmarking

In order to evaluate 3DMark 11, we used the following system:

  • Intel Core i7 970 Sexa-Core 3.2GHz, Hyper-Threading Enabled
  • EVGA X58 Classified3
  • EVGA GeForce GTX 480 in 1GPU and 2GPU
  • PoV GeForce GTX 460 Beast
  • 6GB G.Skill DDR3-1600
  • 120GB OCZ Agility 2 SSD
  • Antec TruePower Quattro 1.2 kW
  • SilverStone "Fortress" FT02 Red Edition
  • Dell 2408WFP display

Our machine had Microsoft Windows 7 installed with the appropriate display drivers (we tried both 260.99 and 263.09). For the sake of maximum performance, we installed 3DMark 11 on our test partition. As you can see for yourself, the system equipped with three graphics cards should see insane framerates in every game you throw at it.


How 3DMark 11 score is calculated

The results for our system with a single GTX 480 graphics card were less than flattering – it scored only E7921 i.e. in netbook resolution, P5126 in standard 1280×720, and abysmal X1654 using Extreme setting (1920×1080). Although we knew our machine eats babies in the monitor’s native resolutions, seeing an Extreme score of just X1654 left us scratching our head.

Given the way how Nvidia improved SLI scaling with the GTX 400 series and AMD made great progress with the 6000 series, we had high hopes that our multi-GPU setup would zip through 3DMark 11 and at least score 2000 points.

What we were greeted with was an E8115, P5289 and X1720 – a mere hundred point difference between single- and multi-GPU configurations. We promptly fired emails to Futuremark and Nvidia, but the replies were less than encouraging.

See, even though Futuremark is clearly using Bullet physics library, they forgot to mention they’re not using a GPU-accelerated version of it. Therefore, having a third graphics card dedicated for physics only has no impact on the overal score.

For example, in a triple GPU configuration (GTX 480 SLI plus GTX 460) the only change in score was a five point gain in Entry mode. Do note, if you will, that we ran each test three times. In fact, it’s the first time that I can remember that the scores remained mostly the same during the runs – only a single digit changed (i.e. E7919, E7924, and E7921).

Value

The $19.99 version seems like a fair deal to us. It’s interesting to note that over the course of years Futuremark has been driving the original $49.95 price point of Advanced Edition down while upping the quality of graphics and expanding on the list of features. Professional Edition may cost $995, but bear in mind that this is for commercial use and that it’s primarily intended for numerous computing vendors worldwide.

Final thoughts

New 3DMark 11 brings breathtaking graphics and ditches the synthetic part of the benchmark, meaning there is little or no room for controversy. This is a benchmark millions of people will use to test their graphics cards against. Furthermore, expect graphics and system vendors to print 3DMark 11 scores everywhere they can.

When you learn to appreciate the complexity of the scenes, you begin to realize that Futuremark took a step in the right direction with this release. If we can now get a game that looks that great, please? Paging Futuremark Gaming Studios.