If you were around last August, you might've seen the rumor mill break the news about Nvidia's ForceWare 180 drivers. Nvidia has now given us the official skinny on what the upcoming graphics drivers have in store. Code-named "Big Bang II," the release will bring four major changes: performance increases in games, support for multiple displays in SLI multi-GPU mode, the ability to dedicate a GPU to PhysX computations, and SLI support for upcoming X58 Intel motherboards.
Nvidia pretty much glossed over the performance aspect in its presentation, but it did show a chart where the new drivers improved frame rates by 5% to 35% on a GeForce 9800 GTX+ system. The biggest gains supposedly occurred in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Far Cry 2, and GRID at resolutions between 1680x1050 and 2560x1600 with antialiasing cranked up. We might have to run our own tests to get a better feel for the new optimizations, though.
The biggest change in the Big Bang II release comes on the multi-monitor front, where Nvidia has finally enabled dual-head support for SLI rigs. Users should no longer have to go into the control panel and manually disable SLI to stretch their desktop across two monitors. Nvidia will offer three distinct modes: in full-screen 3D mode, only the "SLI focus display" will render the game, and the secondary display will go dark. In windowed mode, you'll be able to play a game in a window with both monitors up and running, although Nvidia says you can expect "slightly less SLI acceleration" in that case.
In the third mode, Nvidia will support full-screen SLI gaming across two monitors in a handful of titles—World in Conflict, Supreme Commander Forged Alliance, and Flight Simulator X. The company says you won't be able to span most other games across two displays, but it thinks that's not a big downside. After all, nobody wants to be staring at the space between their monitors when playing a first-person shooter.
Nvidia mentioned that the ForceWare 180 drivers can now handle up to six monitors on an SLI system, as well, but you'll need a third GPU that's not hooked up via SLI to drive more than two displays. Either way, these improvements should finally bring Nvidia somewhat up to speed with AMD, which has had seamless multi-display support in CrossFire configs for a long time.
Moving on, the ForceWare 180 release will also tread new ground on the PhysX front. Current drivers already support using a single GPU for both physics and graphics computations, and Nvidia can similarly spread calculations across an SLI setup. With the new drivers, the company will let users dedicate a graphics card to PhysX processing. You won't have to buy a second GeForce GTX 260, either—a low-end card (like an $85 GeForce 9600 GT) will reportedly make a fine sidekick to a faster GeForce for that purpose. That's a neat option, although considering the current dearth of high-profile PhysX-enabled titles, we probably wouldn't recommend buying a GPU for that purpose yet.
Wait a minute, though—didn't Nvidia release ForceWare 180 beta drivers for Far Cry 2 yesterday? Indeed, and although you may see the "skeleton" of some of these features in the beta driver, Nvidia hasn't finished implementing everything just yet. You'll have to wait until next month for the feature-complete release.