Summary: Merely hours after Microsoft released DirectX 9.0 to the public, ATI launched its CATALYST 3.0 drivers that are designed to take advantage of the API's new features. We already know about the new pixel and vertex shaders, but do these new drivers offer any performance improvements with today's games? In our latest article, we roundup cards ranging from the RADEON 8500 all the way up to the RADEON 9700 PRO to resolve the performance question as well as stability. Check out the results, you may be pleasantly surprised by some of the free performance improvements!
On Friday, Microsoft released the long awaited follow-up to it DirectX 8.1 API, DirectX 9.0. Long awaited from ATIís point of view at least, as their DirectX 9-based RADEON 9700 and RADEON 9500 family of video cards have beat Microsoftís release by months (in the case of the RADEON 9700). In comparison, NVIDIAís DirectX 9 part, GeForce FX, is still roughly a month away from public release, giving ATI a considerable time-to-market advantage over its competitor that it has certainly taken advantage of: the RADEON 9700 series has received numerous OEM design wins and reports persist that OEMs are gobbling up RADEON 9500 parts, resulting in limited supply at the retail level.
To coincide with Microsoftís DirectX 9 release, ATI released its CATALYST 3.0 drivers, offering native support of the new API. The new drivers donít introduce any new features over ATIís CATALYST 2.5 driver, which brought with it the ability to enable or disable vertical sync (vsync) in Direct3D applications, a feature that has been requested for quite some time. However, to sweeten the package a bit, ATI has provided their RADEON 9700 launch demos from earlier this summer for direct download off their website. If the Natural Light 128-bit color demo drew your attention back in July, youíll really be picking your jaw up off the floor after seeing it with your own eyes on your PC. You could possibly make a few bucks showing it off to your friends in the process.
In addition to the cool tech demos, ATI has also included a few screensavers on the same webpage. These arenít your standard 2D screensavers though; these take advantage of the hardware pixel and vertex shaders present in your RADEON 9500/RADEON 9700 video card. In a somewhat surprising move, ATI has also included DirectX 9 drivers for all other owners of RADEON-based graphics cards. Unlike the RADEON 9500/9700 Series driver, this second driver is not WHQL certified, so consider it a beta release. This CATALYST 3.0 driver release is the second driver update this month, and the third release in the past 45 days. If there was ever any doubt in ATIís commitment to driver support as of late, ATI has certainly been doing its best to squash those beliefs.
However, with any major driver release that is based on a brand new API, there are going to be problems. The Rage3D forums are already filled with users that have run into performance issues with the CATALYST 3.0 driver, we ran into stability issues with the uncertified driver and the RADEON 8500 and RADEON 9000 with Jedi Knight II.
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
Based on our Serious Sam results, the RADEON 9700 family doesnít show any performance benefits with the new driver. The RADEON 9500 and RADEON 9500 PRO cards on the other hand, show some nice performance improvements. At 1600x1200, the RADEON 9500ís performance increased by 14%, while the RADEON 9500 PRO performed 5% faster.
Quake III - High Quality
Once again we see little improvement in the RADEON 9700 PROís performance, in fact at lower resolutions itís slightly slower with the 3.0 drivers. But just like Serious Sam, we see a performance improvement for the entire RADEON 9500 family. The RADEON 9500 PRO performs nearly 2% faster, which isnít a whole lot but itís still a slight improvement. The RADEON 9500 shows a 9% performance gain.
Comanche 4 demo
Comanche 4 tends to focus more on CPU performance rather than graphics, so it was no surprise to us to see no improvement with the 3.0 drivers. Lets move on the Unreal Tournament 2003!
Unreal Tournament 2003 - flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
Of all the cards listed here, we see a slight improvement in Unreal Tournament 2003 performance with the RADEON 9500 PRO, the increase is just above two percentage points. The rest of the cards offer similar performance regardless of the driver used. We really donít pay much attention to the botmatch scores, as like Comanche 4, theyíre highly CPU dependant.
Jedi Knight II Ė High Quality
Like the previous OpenGL games, we see a slight increase in performance with the RADEON 9500 line and Jedi Knight II, although the increase for the RADEON 9500 is a little tamer, 5% at 1600x1200. The RADEON 9500 PROís performance increases by roughly 2% at the same resolution.
Quake III Ė High Quality
Like us, you probably think the RADEON 9500 score in Quake 3 with 4x anti-aliasing enabled is a misprint or some type of mistake. So we formatted and reinstalled the test system with both the CATALYST 2.5 and CATALYST 3.0 drivers. Guess what folks, the numbers didnít change Ė what youíre seeing is one massive performance improvement for RADEON 9500 owners. At 1600x1200 the CATALYST 3.0 drivers offer twice the performance of CATALYST 2.5!
Quake III Ė High Quality
Once again we see a nice performance increase with the CATALYST 3.0/RADEON 9500 combination, at 1600x1200 performance is enhanced by 10%. At first glance it appears that the RADEON 9500 PRO also enjoys a performance improvement, but even in the best case scenario (1600x1200) the margin is barely over 1%, not really enough to write home about and pretty much hitting the margin of error.
Quake III Ė High Quality
Based on the 4x AA results, itís no surprise to see the RADEON 9500 really taking advantage of the 3.0 CATALYST drivers with 4xAA and 8x anistropic filtering enabled. Weíre once again seeing roughly a 2X performance improvement over the previous driver release. We also witnessed a nice 4-5% performance improvement for the RADEON 9500 PRO at the higher resolutions.
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch
Unfortunately, thereís nothing to see here, performance from driver-to-driver is roughly the same across all the ATI cards we tested.
For those of you with RADEON 9700 cards, based on our results it looks like you may want to hold off on upgrading to the CATALYST 3.0 drivers. We didnít encounter any stability issues or the stuttering problems that have been reported by so many RADEON 9700 owners in forums, but we definitely didnít see any performance improvements either. So you must ask yourself, are the fancy tech demos and screensavers worth the risk of comprising my systemís stability and/or performance by upgrading to DirectX 9 and ATIís CATALYST 3.0 drivers. For some, the combination of two brand new untested variables will be too many, but weíre sure that there will be others who wonít hesitate to upgrade to the newer drivers (especially once you throw in those cool demos).
For RADEON 9500 PRO owners, the decision is a bit more complicated. We saw some slim performance improvements in the CATALYST 3.0 drivers, and again, no stability issues, but that doesnít mean they donít exist. Keep in mind that we run all our tests on a system with a fresh operating system and driver install; in a matter of hours our hard drive will be formatted and wiped clean in preparation for the next article. We have no programs running in the background (a problem that appears to be afflicting some CATALYST 3.0 users), no sound card installed, and all of the animated windows and other flashy effects in Windows XP are disabled, all in an effort to isolate the particular component that weíre testing at that time (these are all variables that can skew test results, we try to minimize them as much as possible). How many of you can say that for your system? Once again youíll have to weigh the pros and cons, the only difference between you and the RADEON 9700 owners is that you have slightly more pros than they do.
Based on the performance improvements we witnessed in OpenGL titles with the RADEON 9500 (non-PRO), weíd definitely recommend you pick up the CATALYST 3.0 drivers along with DirectX 9, especially if you enjoy turning on eye candy features such as anti-aliasing and anistropic filtering. Itís pretty hard to deny a double increase in performance thatís 100% free. If problems do crop up, consult the Rage3D forums for possible fixes and if nothing works, revert back to the CATALYST 2.5 drivers.
For all pre-DirectX 9 card owners, the CATALYST 3.0 drivers offer nothing for you. You donít get to experience the DirectX 9 tech demos nor do you get the performance improvements of RADEON 9500 owners. ATI claims to see performance improvements in a few titles that we havenít tested today, but based on the stability issues we encountered with Jedi Knight II (and a few isolated incidents of frame rate stuttering in the same game) we canít recommend them. Lets face it, the big hoopla on Friday was all about DirectX 9 and your card just isnít designed to take advantage of any of its features. Thereís a reason why RADEON 9500/9700 owners get WHQL-certified 3.0 drivers and you donít after all. Take that as a sign and wait until a game requires that you upgrade to DirectX 9 and/or DirectX 9.1 is released before you consider upgrading. Perhaps ATI has one more big performance jump for you up its sleeves but in all likelihood all future updates will probably be focused on squashing bugs.
Now that DirectX 9 is out and hardware that takes advantage of it is available, weíre eagerly awaiting the first generation of DX9 games. ATI and NVIDIA have both been working hard with game developers on their respective DX9 development tools (Rendermonkey and Cg) so weíre hoping the wait wonít be as long as it has been in the past, but that doesnít make it any easier. Bring on the DX9 games!
SIDEBAR: Have you tried the CATALYST 3.0 drivers or do you plan on waiting for the guinea pigs to find all the problems? Voice your feelings in the news comments!
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