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Computing

Nvidia DLSS Is Building a Walled Garden, and It’s Working

I just reviewed AMD’s new Radeon RX 6600, which is a budget GPU that squarely targets 1080p gamers. It’s a decent option, especially in a time when GPU prices are through the roof, but it exposed a trend that I’ve seen brewing over the past few graphics card launches. Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) tech is too good to ignore, no matter how powerful the competition is from AMD.

In a time when resolutions and refresh rates continue to climb, and demanding features like ray tracing are becoming the norm, upscaling is essential to run the latest games in their full glory. AMD offers an alternative to DLSS in the form of FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR). But FSR isn’t a reason to buy an AMD graphics card, and DLSS is a reason to buy an Nvidia one even if it shouldn’t be.

Nvidia’s walled garden

Nvidia

Nvidia only offers DLSS on its last two generations of graphics cards — in particular, RTX 30-series and 20-series cards. Walling off features like this isn’t something new for Nvidia. For years, it restricted its G-Sync variable refresh rate technology to monitors that included a dedicated (and costly) proprietary module, instead of adopting the open-source FreeSync developed by AMD.

Similarly, many machine learning applications are built to run using Nvidia’s CUDA GPU computing platform, not the OpenCL platform that AMD cards use. Developers have fixed the problem in software libraries like TensorFlow, but there’s still a trend with these libraries: CUDA gets first priority.

That leaves us with DLSS, which is also a technology restricted only to Nvidia hardware. There’s a good reason why — DLSS uses an A.I. model that can only run on the Tensor cores on recent Nvidia graphics cards. Right now, AMD cards don’t have these dedicated A.I. accelerators, but it’s hard to imagine Nvidia taking them into consideration if they existed.

In fairness to Nvidia, the company has taken steps to break down its proverbial walls. For example, G-Sync now works with a range of FreeSync monitors that don’t include a dedicated module. The important thing to know is that Nvidia has traditionally developed new features with only its hardware in mind, while AMD usually takes an open-source approach.

That’s true for DLSS and FSR, too. The difference between DLSS and Nvidia’s other walled-off features is that it’s significantly better than FSR.

Performance parity, and why DLSS is too good to ignore

A demonstration of DLSS in Control.

The AMD RX 6600 is the same price as the Nvidia RTX 3060, and across the wide range of games you could play on them, you can expect similar performance overall. Performance parity with Nvidia has long been the goal for AMD, and its most recent RX 6000 graphics cards mostly hit that mark. That’s good news in a time when GPUs are so hard to find — you have two options instead of one.

The massive asterisk is DLSS. When AMD announced FSR, it looked like an open-source competitor to DLSS that could run on AMD and Nvidia cards alike. In reality, it’s an upscaling tool based on dated tech that manages to increase frame rates, but at a significant cost to image quality.

DLSS doesn’t have that problem. Both DLSS and FSR accomplish the same goal by upscaling a low-resolution image to a high-resolution one by filling in the missing pixels. The difference is that FSR uses a baked-in algorithm with a sharpening filter while DLSS uses an A.I. model that’s been trained on what the final image should look like. Basically, DLSS has a lot more information to work with, and Nvidia graphics cards have the A.I. accelerators to take advantage of it.

Making FSR open source was an inclusive move for AMD, but it was also a compromise. DLSS is a reason to buy an Nvidia graphics card given its image quality, and even if AMD restricted FSR to its own platform, it wouldn’t be enough to compete with the feature set of Team Green. You can see that in the recent Back 4 Blood, where DLSS holds up much better than FSR (even if FSR offers higher frame rates overall).

To be clear, I’m not advocating for another walled garden — I don’t like the fact that Nvidia restricts DLSS to its platform, either, and as Intel’s XeSS supersampling feature shows, it’s possible to develop this tech in an inclusive way. The point is that Nvidia isn’t going to develop DLSS for other hardware, but AMD could have developed FSR to go toe-to-toe with DLSS while sticking with an open-source approach.

A day of reckoning on the horizon

Intel XeSS quality comparison.

With the best graphics cards available today, it’s hard recommending AMD when Nvidia has DLSS on the table. FSR was supposed to change that, but the image quality falls apart too quickly. The RX 6600 shows that DLSS is the determining feature when all else is equal.

But it may not stay that way for long. Intel is set to release its Arc Alchemist cards soon, which include XeSS. It works like DLSS, but Intel is also offering a general-purpose version that can run on a variety of hardware. AMD could have jumped on that opportunity but didn’t. It looks like Intel is filling the gap.

In the future, I hope to see AMD, Nvidia, and Intel reach performance and feature parity. At least then we don’t have one dominant graphics card maker resting on its laurels while the rest of the market tries to catch up. AMD has said it will continue working on FSR, and XeSS will be available early next year, so hopefully that shift is right around the corner.

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Tech News

Lutron Caseta Outdoor Smart Plug Review: Flexibility in the garden

I’m not saying the Lutron Caseta Wireless Outdoor Smart Plug saved me from being viciously attacked by wild birds, but that’s certainly a possibility. Latest addition to the Caseta smart home range, the outdoor plug does exactly what you’d expect: give you weatherproof control over exterior devices, without having to worry about the weather.

In my case, that meant avoiding an Alfred Hitchcock-style attack in the garden. We didn’t buy the heated bird bath out there, the previous resident did, but clearly the feathered visitors had got used to the spa-like facilities even in the dead of winter. Nothing else explains the baleful stare of a furious-looking dove as it eyed me resentfully through the window, its little clawed feet standing on the frozen-solid water.

The bird bath doesn’t cost a lot to run, frankly, but in warmer weather the heating does seem to dry it out more rapidly, and I’m lazy when it comes to refilling it again. Lutron’s Outdoor Smart Plug promised a workaround, giving me remote control over when the heating element switched on. Just how convenient that is, though, depends on what other Lutron Caseta hardware you have.

It’s not a small device. Indoor smart plugs are now little larger than a plug themselves, but the challenges of being weather-resistant mean the $79.95 Caseta outdoor plug is a lot larger. Its IP65-rated polycarbonate body is 6.9-inches long including the mounting lugs and 1.5-inches thick. It weighs a not-inconsiderable 0.9 pounds, too.

On one end there’s a roughly 5-inch cord with a three-prong outlet, and on the other there’s a 7-inch cord with a three-prong plug. Lutron opted for reassuringly thick cables, though that does limit how much you can bend them, which could make mounting a challenge. I ended up leaving the whole thing dangling from my outdoor GFCI-equipped outlet – it wasn’t too heavy to pull the plug loose – though you could add screws for wall-mounting if you preferred, and Lutron has an optional wall-mounting bracket and a pedestal as alternatives.

The upside to the chunkiness is its weather-resistance. Lutron says it’s certified to keep out dirt, dust, moisture, rain, sprinkler and hose spray, and snow. It faced all of the above outside my Midwest home, without issue. As for load, it’ll handle up to 120V 15A lighting, up to 1/2 horsepower motors and pumps, and up to 1,200VA (8A) lighting transformer or magnetic ballast.

The front gets a single button for power: press it once, the connected device turns on, and a green LED lights up to show current status. Of course, the whole point is that you don’t have to go outside. There, depending on what existing Caseta hardware you have, the experience varies.

Simplest is a Lutron Pico remote. They’re palm-sized remote controls, priced at about $15-20 depending on how many buttons they have, and they can connect directly to the Outdoor Smart Plug. With that, you can switch the plug on and off from about 30 feet over Lutron’s proprietary wireless link, depending on what walls are in-between.

With a Lutron Caseta Bridge, however, things get much more flexible. You can add one of those for around $80, though Lutron offers starter kits with both the bridge, a remote, and other accessories for around $100. It plugs into your router, and then you can pair multiple Caseta devices to it: linking the outdoor plug took literally seconds. It also works with the company’s smartphone apps for iOS and Android, and integrates with smart speaker systems like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple HomeKit.

With the bridge and app, you can set up schedules and scenes. You could, for instance, hook your holiday lights to the Outdoor Smart Plug, and have them turn on automatically in the evening and off again in the morning. That can be varied by day of the week, set to happen at specific times, or activate intelligently based on sunrise, sunset, and a preconfigured offset from either of those times. The bridge will automatically adjust according to daylight saving time, too.

What I took advantage of, though, was its IFTTT integration. Having first set up an “Outdoor Plug On” and an “Outdoor Plug Off” scene, I could use If This Then That with a localized weather forecast service to automatically turn the plug on when the temperature dropped below freezing, and then off again when it rose higher.

The result was a birdbath that automatically switched on the heating when the weather got colder, and then switched off again when it warmed up. No more ice, and no more furious doves. If you wanted – and the combined load didn’t exceed what the Outdoor Smart Plug is rated for – you could daisy-chain a few devices from it. Lutron suggests it’s capable of running thousands of feet of LED string lights, or hundreds of feet of incandescent versions. It’s worth noting that it’s on/off only, mind: there’s no dimming support.

Lutron Caseta Wireless Outdoor Smart Plug PD-15OUT-BL Verdict

On the one hand, what value can you place on not being furiously pecked whenever you step outside the house? I suspect Tippi Hedren would agree with me there. All the same, there’s a not-inconsiderable investment to be made for the maximum feature set of Lutron’s Outdoor Smart Plug, if you’re not already in the Caseta ecosystem.

The smart outlet and a Pico remote are about $100; that number rises if you want to use the Caseta Bridge, and honestly you probably do since otherwise you’re missing out on all the scheduling, scenes, and smart home integrations. Lutron’s isn’t the only smart plug on the market, either, and though outdoor ones are a little more rare, it’s on the expensive end of the scale.

In my experience, though, it’s been rock-solid. That’s despite weather I haven’t wanted to be outside in. Being able to set up IFTTT and leave the whole thing to manage itself is convenient, and unlike with WiFi or Bluetooth based smart home devices, I’ve not had any wireless grumbles or hiccups. Lutron’s load capacities are on the high end, too, which is important if you have more in mind than just a string of holiday lights. In short, you pay for the stability and the flexibility, but I don’t think you need to have ornithophobia to think that’s a decent deal.

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