Summary: ATI's CATALYST driver team is back again with yet another CATALYST driver, honoring their pledge to release drivers on a monthly basis. Today's CATALYST 3.8 driver is a lot more than a mere update though, ATI has introduced several improvements for all ATI owners! Check out all the new features in our CATALYST 3.8 driver report!
It’s time for another CATALYST driver report folks! In our last driver saga, which was published precisely one month ago today, we mentioned that the CATALYST team had said that its upcoming CATALYST 3.8 release would be the “most innovative and significant CATALYST release ever”. That’s a pretty bold statement to make, as you obviously set the bar pretty high, and we all know what can happen when the high expectations of enthusiasts aren’t met. Internet newsgroups and message boards are filled with examples.
Of course, if you read our RADEON 9800 XT preview, you know of one new feature that’s present in today’s CATALYST driver: OVERDRIVE. This is ATI’s new dynamic overclocking utility. In its current form, it adjusts the core clock speed of the RADEON 9800 XT VPU only depending on temperature. The cooler the core operates, the higher OVERDRIVE will overclock the graphics core, but only up to a point: 432MHz, 20MHz over default. We’ll get into more detail on OVERDRIVE a little bit later, as it’s not the only new feature that CATALYST 3.8 brings to the table.
The most obvious difference is in the control panel. There’s a new “3D” tab as well as “VPU Recover” in addition to the aforementioned OVERDRIVE. We’ll start with VPU Recover first.
VPU Recover is exactly as its name suggests -- automatic recovery in the event of a system crash, without having to manually reboot the computer. In fact, you may not have to leave your desktop at all to recover from a crash!
If the graphics processor hangs (in the middle of a game for example), VPU Recover acts by resetting the VPU, enabling the end user to continue right where he left off. Depending on the state of the system when VPU Recover was activated, you may be able to recover with all of your open applications intact. In other cases, these applications may have to be closed and you’re kicked back to the Windows desktop, but at least you don’t have to go through the slow process of a complete system reboot.
If VPU Recover is unable to recover from the crash, the system is switched to software rendering mode, allowing the end user to save his work before restarting the system. In the most extreme cases, the crash may be unrecoverable, requiring a complete reboot.
According to ATI, this feature is a requirement in Microsoft’s next-generation Windows operating system, codenamed “Longhorn”. So essentially, ATI is ahead of the curve, to the advantage of anyone who owns an ATI-based video card.
SIDEBAR: Check out the CATALYST 3.7 Release Notes
The next new tab you’ll see is the “3D” tab. In previous CATALYST driver releases, there was an “OpenGL” tab and a “Direct 3D” tab. The functionality of these has essentially been placed under the “3D” tab, with a few added extras.
For starters, ATI has added the ability to apply pixel shader effects to OpenGL and Direct3D games, this is found under the SMARTSHADER Effects tab for the respective API. For instance, the black and white setting applies just that, black and white game play! There’s also an inverse color setting.
This is one of those cool toys to play with once and never touch again, although ATI is working on a way to expand it so that end users can add their own custom-made effects through this interface.
The most interesting part of the new 3D tab are the predefined settings ATI has implemented. When you initially click on the 3D tab, you’ll see that ATI has predefined settings for functions such as texture quality, mipmap detail level, and eye candy features such as anti-aliasing (AA) and anisotropic filtering (AF). The default setting is “balanced”. This sets the texture quality and mipmap detail level to “high quality” (the same setting in previous CATALYST drivers) while AA and AF are determined by the application. You can then bump the main slider up to “high quality”, which will enable 2X AA and 8X AF, or for even better image quality, the “optimal quality” setting can be selected, which brings 4X AA and 16X AF.
These kinds of default settings are nothing new for enthusiasts, who have been manually specifying these functions in the control panel of the display driver for years, but it’s a step in the right direction for bringing eye candy features like AA and AF to the masses. The easier graphics manufacturers like ATI and NVIDIA make these functions available to consumers, the more rapid their adoption will be. After all, how many people that walk into their local Babbage’s or Electronics Boutique know anything about anti-aliasing, vsync, or anisotropic filtering?
And in case you were worried that ATI had dumbed-down these features for everything, don’t be. By clicking the “custom settings” button, you can go into more specific detail and manually set your AA and AF levels to your hearts content, as well as adjusting other features like you could in previous driver releases.
SIDEBAR: How many of you actually use AA?
The final function you can perform in the new 3D tab is user profiles. This allows you to save image quality settings for your favorite games. Say for instance, you like to play an older shooter such as Quake 3. Well, your RADEON 9800 PRO/Pentium 4 3.2GHz system overclocked to 3.6GHz has more enough horsepower to play Q3 at 1280x1024 with 6X AA and 16X AF with acceptable frame rates, but obviously those settings are too high for a DX9 title such as Half-Life 2 or Halo, not to mention your favorite flight sim.
With the user profiles feature, you can save the settings you’ve selected for particular games. Just dial in the AA, AF, texture quality, and other parameters you’ve adjusted and save them to whatever name you wish. Then when you’re ready to play that game, select the settings you’ve saved and voila, you’re good to go! No more manually having to set these functions for each specific game you’re about to play. This is a great convenience feature. There’s also a “compatibility settings” tab built-in for each API. Basically, if you find a particular feature doesn’t work in a specific API, say for instance triple buffering in OpenGL, you can disable it.
Arguably the most requested CATALYST feature is some form of an uninstaller, a utility that will wipe all traces of previous ATI drivers from the operating system so the end user can start fresh with a newer driver. Well, guess what folks, CATALYST 3.8 provides this! Simply click the executable, and all ATI-related software is removed from the system, including the driver and control panel.
Besides the aforementioned changes, ATI has also freshened up the look of its HYDRAVISION dual display software. There’s nothing particular earth-shaking here, it has mainly been redesigned to be easier to use. ATI placed an emphasis on the features end user’s use the most. CATALYST 3.8 also adds overscan control to the driver’s control panel. This allows end user’s to remove that black border around the edge of their TV screen when outputting to the television. For some NTSC LCD TV sets, ATI says this border area is fairly large.
ATI is also committing to the Linux community with 6 new driver postings a year. CATALYST 3.8 is the first. Linux support is one trump card NVIDIA has had over ATI in the past. If they could provide good drivers that offer solid stability, they could make some nice inroads here.
SIDEBAR: Typing in all caps really gets annoying.
The final, and most talked about feature in CATALYST 3.8 is OVERDRIVE, ATI’s built-in overclocking utility for the RADEON 9800 XT and in CATALYST 3.9, the RADEON 9600 XT. These users have an “OVERDRIVE” tab that, when enabled, will dynamically adjust the clock speed of the graphics core depending on the core’s temperature:
0°C - 51°C ................ 432 MHz
48°C - 59°C .............. 419 MHz
56°C - 127°C ............ 412 MHz - Normal clock
This is a feature that’s only present in the RADEON 9600 XT and RADEON 9800 XT, as these are the only cards in ATI’s lineup to feature an onboard thermal diode. In our open-air testing environment we found that the keeping the RADEON 9800 XT at 432MHz wasn’t difficult, although after extended testing sessions it would drop down to the 419MHz setting. The fan would crank up to its “3D” level (please refer to our RADEON 9800 XT preview for a more in-depth explanation) which, by the way, still wasn’t hard on the ears, but that was about it. Of course, we’re only dealing with a 20MHz overclock on the graphics core, so OVERDRIVE is only 5% over spec.
OVERDRIVE is fully supported by ATI, so this is as close to “safe overclocking” as you’re going to get. As of right now, OVERDRIVE only dynamically adjusts the clock frequency of the graphics core, future versions will also adjust the speed of the card’s memory, which operates at 730MHz in the case of the RADEON 9800 XT. A future OVERDRIVE variant will also report the temperature and clock speed of the graphics processor in the control panel, for now you’ll have to rely on a third-party application for this functionality.
OVERDRIVE can be used in conjunction with third-party overclocking applications such as Rage3D Tweak and Powerstrip. In this case, if the graphics core begins to exceed OVERDRIVE’s temperature parameters, it will kick in and automatically reduce the clock speed of the graphics processor. If OVERDRIVE is disabled you can overclock your card to whatever frequencies you wish, but you won’t have the protection of OVERDRIVE.
Visual quality inspection and bug report
While 3D graphics quality remains unchanged, we could swear ATI has enhanced its 2D image quality in CATALYST 3.8. The Windows desktop has a warmer, softer look to it that is very pleasing on the eyes. The adjustments are subtle, but we could still see the difference at resolutions as low as 1024x768 on a 21” Sony G500 monitor. When we quizzed Terry Makedon at ATI about this however he said that he wasn’t aware of any changes. Have a look for yourself, and post your thoughts in the news comments.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo)
Regardless of the graphics card used, NASCAR 2003 performance remains relatively unchanged. Of course, flight and racing sims tend to be more CPU-bound than games such as Quake 3, so perhaps we'll see performance improvements a little further in this article.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
Like NASCAR 2003, performance remains unaffected with the new CATALYST driver. Quake 3 has alway been a title that is very sensitive to graphics cards, lets see if there are any improvements there.
Quake III - OpenGL
With our custom Q3 demo, performance remains unaffected by the update to CATALYST 3.8.
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
CATALYST 3.7 brought with it some fairly significant performance gains in Unreal Tournament 2003 for DX9 users, but we're just not seeing it with CATALYST 3.8, regardless of the graphics card used. It's beginning to look like ATI focused more on features and stability than performance with this release, which isn't a bad thing to do at all.
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
Unreal Tournament 2003
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness
Normally we go into all sorts of detail on who should and who should not download this CATALYST driver. We lump the RADEON 8500 and RADEON 9000/9100/9200 owners together under “DirectX 8 owners” and the RADEON 9500/9600/9700/9800 owners under “DirectX 9 owners”. Today however, we’re not going to do that, as everyone benefits from today’s CATALYST 3.8 driver release. That’s right, every ATI owner, from the guy who went out and bought his RADEON 7500 two years ago, to the hardcore gamer who just pre-ordered his RADEON 9800 XT last week. You’re all in this together.
Sure, you won’t see the performance increases you’ve received in the past from previous CATALYST updates, but this driver just adds too many features to pass up. VPU Recover kicks in if the graphics card fails to respond to display driver commands, potentially saving your data and/or preventing you from those annoying system reboots -- those of you with bootup times of 60 seconds or more will really appreciate this feature.
The new 3D tab is also a very welcome addition. It integrates the functionality of the OpenGL and Direct3D tabs under one location, making control panel navigation easier, seamless would actually be a better way to describe it. The new user profiles feature is long overdue and will definitely be appreciated by the gamer who plays a wide variety of games, while the SMARTSHADER Effects addition is a nice toy to play with.
The uninstaller is something end user’s who upgrade their display driver often have really been asking for, while OVERDRIVE is nice for the person who’s always wanted to dabble in overclocking, but was just too afraid to try. Even IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles owners may want to give this driver a test run, if only to see where ATI is heading.
ATI definitely lived up to its promise with CATALYST 3.8. In fact, we’re surprised ATI didn’t just skip a few steps and call this driver CATALYST 4.0! Kinda makes you wonder what they have in store for that release huh? We’re going to borrow a line from the movie biz and say this: if you only have one CATALYST driver to download this year, make sure CATALYST 3.8 is the one! This is certainly our favorite CATALYST release we’ve seen this year.
SIDEBAR: Have you had a chance to try out the new CATALYST driver yet? What did you think? Post your own experiences in the news comments!
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