Summary: ATI offers a wealth of new features and bug fixes with its latest CATALYST 3.1 drivers. Of course, they're also boasting some pretty significant performance improvements for RADEON 9700 users in particular. But do these claims hold true, and how reliable are the new drivers? Find out in today's article!
We can debate the merits of 500MHz graphics cores or 256-bit memory interfaces and various memory types all day long, but having the most impressive hardware architecture means nothing if the underlying hardware is held back by inefficient or buggy video drivers. Just as the fastest sports car can be constrained by its tires, a poor set of drivers can make or break a graphics core release.
ATIís very own RADEON 8500 is a perfect example. Early on, the card was inhibited by its drivers. NVIDIAís GeForce3 and GeForce3 Ti 500 were outperforming it in benchmark after benchmark. When coupled with other driver quirks, the RADEON 8500 was initially, quite a disappointment. Today however, the situation is quite different, the RADEON 8500 outperforms both cards in practically all situations; anti-aliasing performance is the only area where RADEON 8500 falls short of the GeForce3 family.
Because of this, weíve been covering driver releases for the past few years. Weíll admit that we were a bit slow at keeping up with ATIís latest and greatest software releases, but weíve really liked what weíve been seeing from the company lately. ATI has made a real commitment to their driver development team, driver releases are frequent and are focused on squashing bugs while at the same time improving performance. Gone are the days when Microsoftís latest desktop OS was the only operating system with adequate support, and ATIís unified driver architecture supports the entire RADEON family of products. In short, ATIís CATALYST driver team has done a wonderful job of ensuring that ATIís latest hardware lives up to its full potential. The criticisms of the past no longer apply.
In our last CATALYST article, we examined the performance of ATIís 3.0 drivers and while we found great performance gains for RADEON 9500 (non-PRO) owners, results were pretty limited for everyone else. Today weíre taking a look at the CATALYST 3.1 drivers that were released last week, ATI has claimed improved performance for the RADEON 9700 family, so weíre taking a look at the RADEON 9700 PRO as well as a handful of other RADEON products to see if the claims hold true.
Besides performance and stability, another important factor in any new driver release is visual quality. Graphics card manufacturers have slipped in driver performance improvements at the cost visual quality in the past, so this is one facet that canít be overlooked. Fortunately ATI hasnít done anything like this with their latest driver release; image quality was consistent with what weíve seen in the past from ATI hardware -- excellent. One little quirk that we did notice however was with the RADEON 9500/9500 PRO, Comanche 4, DirectX 9, and the CATALYST 3.1 drivers. Textures on certain aircraft hangers in the benchmark test were absent entirely. The end result was a bare white hanger reminiscent of a circa 1980ís flight sim! It goes without saying that this wasnít pleasing to the eye at all. Once we ran the same configuration without DirectX 9 installed the problems went away, so hopefully this issue is isolated to DX9 and can be resolved quickly.
Lets get on to the performance improvements these new drivers bring!
SIDEBAR: CATALYST 3.1 release notes
Unreal Tournament 2003
While ATIís CATALYST 3.1 instructions call for the installation of DirectX9, these drivers (and the CATALYST 3.0 drivers) work just fine under DirectX 8.1. As you can see in our test results, it appears that the new drivers initially perform better under DX8.1 in the flyby test, but as the resolution increases we see no performance difference (including botmatch). Therefore, if everything is running just fine for you under DX8, we see no real reason to upgrade to DX9 unless you really want to check out the technology demos and screensavers ATI has provided on its website.
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
At lower resolutions, we see a slight performance decrease universally among most of the RADEON cards with the CATALYST 3.1 drivers. For the most part the margin is slim and isnít very significant since you wonít be playing Serious Sam at 800x600 on any of these cards, youíll crank up the screen resolution on all of them to at least 1280x1024 for the increased visual quality. By the time you crank up the screen res, the performance margin between the CATALYST 3.0 and CATALYST 3.1 drivers is marginal.
Quake III - High Quality
Once again we see a performance decline with the CATALYST 3.1 drivers, although this time itís a bit more significant than what we saw with Serious Sam 2. Under the high resolutions weíre going to be gaming in, we see a performance decline that was a little significant in the case of the RADEON 8500, 9700 PRO, and 9500 PRO. When youíre already at 200 frames per second plus (in the case of the 9700 PRO) obviously you have some power to spare, but itís obviously no fun to lose a few frames if youíre the RADEON 8500 user.
Comanche 4 demo
Not only are we getting visual anomalies out of the 9500 cards in Comanche 4, weíre also getting reduced performance at lower resolutions. Weíre still not seeing any major improvements with the 3.1 drivers, and to be honest we didnít expect to see any gains out of Comanche 4. With their advanced flight models, flight simulations like Comanche 4 tend to hit the CPU much more than the first-person shooters we typically test with.
Unreal Tournament 2003 - flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
The same trends pretty much continue in UT2003 with the CATALYST 3.1 drivers, we see a slight performance drain at lower resolutions, while at 1280x1024 and up the performance difference between the CATALYST 3.x drivers is marginal.
Jedi Knight II Ė High Quality
The stability problems we noticed with the CATALYST 3.0 drivers and the RADEON 8500/9000 have only gotten worse with CATALYST 3.1. We couldnít complete a single run with these cards at 1280x1024 and up without Jedi Knight II crashing at some point during the demo, hence the blank scores at those resolutions. We noticed the same thing also occurred under DirectX 8, so this problem is by no means caused by the presence of DX9.
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch
ATIís claims of performance improvements with UT2003 definitely hold true with the CATALYST 3.1 drivers once anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are enabled. In all screen resolutions and among all graphics cards performance is improved in the flyby test, in some cases by nearly 20%! Even the botmatch results are higher with the CATALYST 3.1 drivers, although the gain isnít nearly as dramatic.
Quake III Ė High Quality
Unfortunately, the same trends we noticed earlier with Quake 3 continue to hold true once anti-aliasing is enabled. Performance is actually slower, even at 1600x1200.
Quake III Ė High Quality
It really looks like the new CATALYST drivers donít like the Quake 3 engine in particular, as performance is worse across the board. Normally youíd expect the limitations of the memory subsystem to hold the graphics card back at a high resolution like 1600x1200, but as you can see in todayís numbers, the 3.1 drivers are also playing a role here.
Quake III Ė High Quality
DirectX 8 card owners
For those of you with RADEON 8500 or RADEON 9000 cards, our comments from the CATALYST 3.0 driver report still stand: thereís nothing new here. Sure, we did see some performance improvements in UT2003 with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled, but the improvements really werenít enough to justify risking a driver upgrade.
DirectX 9 card owners
After seeing our performance results with Unreal Tournament 2003 under AA, you guys that are heavy UT2003 players are probably in the process of downloading these drivers right now. Frankly, we canít blame you; the results speak for themselves. Unlike the CATALYST 3.0 drivers, which mainly benefited the RADEON 9500 owners, the entire family of DirectX 9 cards sees a performance boost from CATALYST 3.1. Hopefully the same holds true for other games based on derivatives of this game engine.
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|