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Gearing up for WoW with an NVIDIA video card

Whenever you are building or upgrading a gaming computer, one of the first things you think about is the graphics card that is going to be the driving force behind your sweet new rig. As games push the boundaries of graphics, the need for better, bigger, and faster graphics cards has increased. This is based on the idea that the better your graphics are, the better your performance as a gamer will be. Being able to see your opponents before they see you can mark victory over defeat.

Competitive World of Warcraft players are always looking for an edge, whether it is being able to get the drop on your opponents in battleground and arenas, or being able to see that boss ability or spell effect clearly in order to topple that encounter. With each expansion of WoW, the graphics of the game have gotten more robust, more complex and more stunning. Cataclysm brings a brand new graphic engine from the developers at Blizzard that has the ability to produce some truly amazing visuals. The brand new water and light effect that's adding so much depth to the world and all the new models and spell effects being added into the game make for quite the visual feast. Those views come at a cost, though, and many players have started replacing older graphics cards for newer updated models.

Is it really worth it to make sure you have a good graphics card? Does it really make that much of a difference? That's what we're going to talk about today. NVIDIA has been gracious enough to supply us with not one but four graphics cards to compare for you here today, and we would like to take a moment to thank them. We will be looking at the NVIDIA Geforce GTS 450, the Geforce GTX 460, the Geforce GTX 470, and the Geforce GTX 580. These cards were produced by Gigabyte, MSI, Palit, and PNY.

What type of performance can we expect?

As you may have noticed, Blizzard has been hard at work making every spellcast from both players and NPCs look better, as well as creating environments that are highly detailed with gorgeous water and lighting effects. Having these effects turned all the way up can help you get perform just a little bit better, as you can see more accurately the areas affected by a boss' ability or what spell your opponent is queuing up. If your graphics card isn't up to the task, however, it can actually have the opposite effect.

These cards were tested in the latest version of World of Warcraft on a computer with the following stats:

Intel Quad Q8300 2.5ghz
8GB DDR2
Win 7 64 bit OS

This represents a middle ground. Some players have vastly superior rigs pushing all the latest technology, while others have systems with stats well below that. For the sake of variety, each card was tested in a heroic dungeon, a battleground, a 25-man raid and at least one walk-through of a major city at peak hours. All options were tuned to the ultra setting inside of the WoW interface.

GTS 450
1GB GDDR5 Memory
PCI-E 2.0
Direct x 11 capable
Mini HDMI out
Dual DVI out

As soon as the game loaded up, it was easy to see how vibrant all the colors present were. This card made all the hues almost pop out of the screen as I was running around Stormwind City looking at various players. The card handled shading and light very well and really highlighted the details not only of the player models but also of the environments.

Throughout all combat scenarios, the card maintained an average between 45 and 49 frames per second. In a 25-man ICC group, the card handled the massive amounts of AoE on the trash before Lady Deathwhisper, only then dipping below 45 frames per second for a low of 39 FPS. It stuttered momentarily as it adjusted to the massive display of spellpower but recovered in less than a second. Spell effects were vibrant, and ground markers were very easy to see.

Another thing to note is that through all of the combat, the card stayed whisper silent. Some cards will make some noise when the spells start flying, but this one kept to a barely audible hum.

GTX 460
1GB GDDR5 Memory
PCI-E 2.0
Direct x 11 capable
Mini HDMI out
Dual DVI-I out

This card, much like the 450, really made the colors catch your eye. It did seem to have an easier time with lighting effects and really made bright shiny spells sparkle. While in an Alterac Valley, I was able to pinpoint a holy paladin trying to sneak a heal from around the corner of a building, due to the way this card made the light jump out. Throughout raids, battlegrounds, and running around the major cities, this card maintained an average frame rate of between 55 and 59 frames per second.

On all of the AoE trash encountered in Icecrown Citadel, it never once sagged below 55 FPS, no matter how many spells were flying around. The environment really seemed to have a light glow with this card, which was something that I had not previously noticed with my own graphics card.

Although the card performed quite well, it was rather loud. You could clearly hear when it began to process larger, more graphically intense encounters.

GTX 470
1280 MB GDDR5 Memory
PCI-E 2.0
Direct x 11 capable
Mini HDMI out
Dual DVI out

With this card, the water effects in the game became more vibrant than I had seen before. I was able to see the bubbles from the fountains in Stormwind City very clearly, and each wave was crisp and threw light off in sparkling displays. This card really made glassy effects pop. The head of Val'anyr, the Hammer of Ancient Kings is adorned with a glass top, and glass faceted into the sides. The light bounced off every shiny surface with a lot of clarity, and the shadows of reflections could easily be seen in them.

This card also made the black lines really stand out. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but the black lines were so well defined that they added richness to the reds and other deep colors and allowed them to stand out more. It also helped add a little extra detail to the spell effects. I was able to see greater definition in warlock Hellfire and mage Blizzards. Additionally, the card added a lot more detail to the shadows in the game. It handled shadows and fog very well. While flying through the sea north of the Argent Tournament, objects really appeared as though they were obscured by the mist rather than just being blurred out or removed from sight.

The card maintained an average of 56-60 FPS throughout testing.

GTX 580
1536 MB GDDR5 Memory
PCI-E 2.0
HDMI out
Dual DVI-I out

The 580 handled the best out of the lot. It was exceptionally quiet, even through the fight with The Lich King. It produced vibrant colors, rich darkness and highlights as well as shadows. That rich darkness allowed for an easier time avoiding Defile.

This card performed exceptionally well at rendering ambient lighting and glow effects. Weapon enchantments and effects were very crisp, and any piece of environment that glowed seemed that much more alive. This effect helped by making the meteor and fire effects in the Halion encounter easier to spot and avoid, keeping me from taking any unnecessary damage. The card enhanced projected textures on the ground, making them easier to navigate, and the glow from those areas made it very easy to avoid the incoming attack.

Throughout numerous battlegrounds, heroics, and raid groups, the card never dropped below 60 FPS. Even while in the Stormwind trade district with everyone spamming spells and area effects, it just kept going with no slowing down.

The better the card, the easier time I had being able to react to what was going on around me. With all settings turned as high as they could go and with graphics cards that were able to handle those settings, I was able to improve my gameplay in battlegrounds, raids, and even in heroics.

What's the big deal about Direct X11?

All of the cards tested boasted DX 11 capabilities. Direct X 11 allows for the creation of more immersive and detailed worlds and experiences. It helps make gameplay smoother for players as they move through the world. Direct X 11 boasts a number of features.

Tessellation allows for the calculation of smoother curved surfaces, resulting in more graphically detailed images. This gives games a more organic feel and allows for more lifelike characters. This feature, however, is not an active feature in WoW at this time.

Direct X 11 allows for multithreading. This is the ability to scale across multi-core CPUs, which results in faster frame rates for games, while still supporting the increased visual detailing. In a nutshell, it makes everything smoother and better-looking without sacrificing speed.

Were you aware that World of Warcraft can be enabled to work with DX 11? The process is actually fairly straightforward. You can open your Config.wtf file in your World of Warcraft folder with any text editor and add this line in:

SET gxApi "d3d11"

If you are uncomfortable with editing WoW's config folder, you can use another method. Follow these steps: Right-click your WoW.exe shortcut and go to Properties. Under the shortcut tab in the target field, add "-d3d11" with a space between what is already in the target field, without the quotes.

Now, when you launch the game, it will have DX 11 enabled. Turning this on can cause higher frame rates and better processing of visual effects. If you have a graphics card that that can support it, you will be in for a treat. What really sold me on it was how things looked from underwater. Historically, when you were underneath the surface of the water, you could only see shadows and some movement above the surface. With a card that can handle the graphics and DX 11 enabled, I was able to clearly see through the surface of the water from a decent distance below. I could make out details of color, race and class. Imagine how useful that will be in the underwater zone of Vashj'ir where (as you may have guessed) you will spend most of your time completely underwater.

Upgrading you graphics card can give you a large increase in your gaming performance; it will allow you to see things more clearly and react to them accordingly. There's no time like the present to update. With Cataclysm's release, you have the perfect excuse to upgrade your gear and really crank up the graphics to awe-inspiring levels. After all, doesn't your computer deserve some epic loot as well?

To that effect, WoW Insider is going to give some of our readers a head start. Thanks to the generosity of NVIDIA, we will be giving all four of the cards tested here away to four lucky readers. Be sure to check the site on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010, for the contest post.

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