Stop the press!
Like the rest of the online press, we received our RADEON 7500 and 8500 review samples at the beginning of last week. At first, things proceeded smoothly; both boards were running great on our testing platform (in this case, a Pentium 4 since we've already examined the performance of Titanium boards on Athlon). Then we received word of HardOCP's results
with a modified Quake 3 executable. It appeared as if the RADEON drivers was looking for Quake and optimizing for performance if it was found. By changing all references from "quake" to "quack" performance of the RADEON 8500 was slower. We were in the middle of testing the validity of the same program with an executable we'd made of our own that performed a similar function. By the time we'd completed testing with all three executables it was obvious that ATI had modified their drivers specifically for Quake 3. Therefore, rather than discussing the features and performance of the RADEON 7500 and 8500, we've decided to devote this entire article to examine exactly what's going on.
"Optimizing" or cheating?
Naturally whenever a company optimizes their product to perform well in one benchmark, suspicions are quickly raised. We've all heard the stories of companies who have cheated in synthetic benchmarks in the past. What makes ATI's latest move slightly different however is that they claim the changes they've made to their driver are "optimizations" for Quake 3.
Usually when a company optimizes the performance of their drivers for popular game engines or one game in particular this effort is applauded by the press and end users. However, driver optimizations have traditionally been accomplished via more efficient code. In the case of ATI's drivers, these optimizations are obtained by modifying the visual quality of textures; we'll discuss this in greater detail on subsequent pages. The question we'd like to address is the ethical implications of these drivers.
As we've discussed above, game-specific optimizations are certainly a good thing -- companies have been doing it for years. Even texture quality optimizations are nothing new. If you recall NVIDIA's 5.x driver release, texture compression was enabled by default. While this resulted in a significant performance gain, image quality was compromised. Unlike NVIDIA's experiement with texture settings in the 5.x Detonators, ATI's driver is different in the sense that its changes are undocumented and can't be toggled on or off by the end user. While this may be excusable to most gamers, it puts the development community in an awkward situation. How would a texture artist using Quake 3 check his work?
For hardware websites such as FS, test results obtained with ATI's drivers arguably shouldn't be compared to other cards. While ATI owners are forced to use the settings the driver imposes (and therefore its indicative of what an end user would experience), the settings used on the other cards aren't the same, giving ATI an unfair advantage. Quite simply it isn't an apples to apples comparison.
Whether or not this is a deceptive practice is for you to decide; right now we're going to explain what we believe ATI is doing in the drivers provided with the newer RADEON boards.