'Vista Capable' Suit Sheds Harsh Light On Nvidia

Nvidia has to be happy that it hasn't been implicated in the driver issues surrounding Windows Vista service pack 1 -- in the seven days since its release, Intel, Symantec and of course Microsoft itself have had to deal with the lion's share of blowback from SP1 users.

It was a different story a year ago. Back then, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia was the one on the hot seat for buggy device drivers ... and recently unsealed evidence in a class-action suit against Microsoft offers solid statistical backing for why users were so upset.

According to a list of driver crashes in Vista compiled by Microsoft that was unsealed by U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman in late February, Nvidia was responsible for nearly 29 percent of all such crashes. The timeframe for the list is hard to pin down. It's given as simply "Period: 2007" on page 47 of the unsealed discovery. Whether that represents all or just part of 2007 is unclear. Also somewhat ambiguous is how the crash list was generated. Sources told ChannelWeb it was a safe bet that the numbers were gathered from users sending prompted reports to Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft following driver-caused application or system crashes in Vista.

Vista's retail release was Jan. 30, 2007. In the first half of that year, Nvidia enjoyed a roughly three-to-two market share advantage in PC graphics over main discrete graphics rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), listed as ATI Technologies on the crash list. But Nvidia driver crashes in "Period: 2007" were double what simple market share might predict, dwarfing Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD's by about three-to-one, according to Microsoft's list.

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The list documents "Crashes by Organization" for all file type drivers. At the top of the list is Nvidia with roughly 480,000 crashes, or 28.81 percent of the total, followed by Microsoft (17.97 percent), Unknown (17.07 percent), AMD-ATI (9.30 percent) and Intel (8.83 percent). Webroot Software (3.99 percent), Realtek Semiconductor (3.34) and Creative Labs (1.09) are the only other organizations with more than 1 percent of driver crashes on the list.

It came as little surprise to sources that drivers associated with discrete graphics from Nvidia and AMD-ATI topped the list when you eliminate the ambiguous "Microsoft" and "Unknown" categories.

"Graphics drivers in particular are the most complex in the whole stack. The complexity in those drivers is in 3D animation effects," said an AMD spokesperson.

The Vista launch had a "rocky beginning" for Nvidia but the company "fixed the bugs in the order that they came in and the ones with the most complaints got fixed first," said Nvidia spokesman Derek Perez.

"When any OS is launched, there's a number of bugs coming out of the gate. That's pretty typical. We had driver bugs and the community let us know. One thing I was proud about was, given the response from the community, we took an outside-in approach to fixing bugs," Perez said.

Indeed, in the weeks following Vista's release, userland complaints about Nvidia driver-caused crashes in the operating system grew from a murmur to a roar. Nvidia's own forums were hit with a barrage of complaints and in late April, one Nvidia customer had even set up a Web site seeking support for a class-action suit against the Santa Clara, Calif.-based graphics chip maker.

To some extent, this should all be academic. Nvidia has largely fixed its Vista driver problems and according to Perez, the man attempting to build up the class-action suit has dropped the matter. (Dan Goldman, founder of Nvidiaclassaction.info, was contacted via e-mail for this story but didn't respond. Meanwhile, the Web site is still up.)

Still, the crash list sheds light on both the importance of good drivers and Nvidia's early troubles with Vista, said author and The PC Doctor blogger Adrian Kingsley-Hughes.

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"Nvidia appeared to be having shocking problems with Vista crashes as soon as the OS was released. Nvidia's own support forums were full of frantic users whose systems had turned from being rock solid on XP to flaky as soon as Vista was installed. There were months of nothing but silence from Nvidia," Kingsley-Hughes told ChannelWeb in an e-mail exchange.

Kingsley-Hughes did say that a year later, Nvidia has "pulled their act together" and now has stable drivers for Vista. Nor did he let AMD-ATI completely off the hook.

"What's interesting is that at around June or July, something happened to ATI's drivers and they started acting up more than usual," he said, adding that currently the No. 2 discrete graphics vendor also had "quite stable" drivers for Vista.

Jalil Mahini, president of Niles, Ill.-based system builder and managed service provider Micronet Systems, said there were problems with Nvidia drivers in the early days of Vista, but the company has fixed them to his satisfaction.

"Going back about a year ago or 14 months, yes, there were some problems, absolutely. But in the last six months or so, we haven't had any problems," said Mahini, who added that in the three months after Vista's release, Nvidia "came out really fast with drivers to fix problems."

"We expected to have some problems because Vista was so new. There was no way for these manufacturers to come out with drivers that worked with Vista flawlessly," he said.

For its part, Nvidia takes issue with the theory that it had more than its reasonable share of driver issues with Vista, as compared to AMD.

"I think we had a bit more of a challenge because we support more products [than AMD]. We support about 250 products, they support about 125," said Andrew Fear, SLI product manager at Nvidia.

That argument has a supporter in Joe Toste, VP of marketing at Equus Computer Systems in Minneapolis, Minn. Toste's take on Microsoft's crash numbers was that enthusiast systems with top-of-the-line GPUs were likely causing a disproportionate amount of driver crashes.

"If you look at Nvidia's dominance of the high-end, well that's where these bugs occur. The instability of those drivers is in the high-end dual SLI. And Nvidia has 90 percent of that market," Toste said.

Nvidia's Perez stressed that the past is done and besides, shouldn't we all be focusing on the real villain to emerge from the Microsoft Vista Capable lawsuit -- Intel chipsets?

"For us, we think the old driver stuff is meaningless. If you look at reviews now of our hardware on Vista, we're past that. Was it a difficult transition? Yeah. But look at Intel, 945G still barely works. At least I can plug in my iPod and it works on Vista, and they're bitter enemies," he said.