Looking Back: ATI’s Catalyst Drivers Exposed

It’s no secret in the hardware world that good software is often just as important as good hardware. The best processor, the best TV tuner, and even the best sound card can only be as good as the software and drivers backing it up. Even a small change in one critical piece of code can result in a massive difference that represents a significant change in performance and sales of a piece of hardware.

Above all, however, this concept is embodied in the realm of video cards, where over the years, we have been spoiled by promises of “A performance improvement between 17 and 24% is noticed in Jedi Knight II” and “up to 25% performance improvement in popular consumer and professional applications”. These days, it’s not just common to see GPU makers find ways to squeeze out more performance out of their parts - it’s expected. Finishing the design of and launching a GPU is just the first steps of a much longer process of maximizing performance out of a part, a process that can quite literally take years.

With the flexible nature of software, however, it has caused a significant shift in the marketing strategies of GPU makers, where the war is not over at launch time, but continues throughout the entire product cycle and in to the next one as new optimizations and bug fixes are worked in to their drivers, keeping the performance landscape in constant motion. Just because a side did not win the battle at launch doesn’t mean that they can’t still take it later, and just because a side won now doesn’t mean that they’ll keep their win.

We have seen on more than one occasion that our benchmarks have been turned upside down and inside out, with cases such as ATI’s Catalyst 5.11 drivers suddenly giving ATI a decisive win in OpenGL games, when they were being soundly defeated just a driver version before. However, we have also seen this pressure to win drive all sides to various levels of dishonesty, hoping to capture the lead with driver optimizations that make a product look faster on a benchmark table, but literally look worse on a monitor. Quake3, 3DMark 2003, and similar incidents have shown that there is a fine line between optimizing and cheating, and that as a cost for the flexibility of software, we may sometimes see that line crossed.

That said, when the optimizations, the tweaks, the bug fixes, and the cheats are all said and done, just how much faster has all of this work made a product? Are these driver improvements really all that substantial all the time, or is much of this over-exuberance and distraction over only minor issues? Do we have any way of predicting what future drivers for new products will do?

Today, we set out to answer these questions by taking a look back at a piece of hardware whose time has come and is nearly gone: ATI’s R300 GPU and the Radeon 9700 Pro.

R300 & The Test
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  • WileCoyote - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    Easy, ATI was a Halo for PC launch partner. This was before the "Best Played with ATI" or "Insist on NVidia" days but ATI was the graphics card sponsor for the game. So they had a committment to Bungie/Microsoft.... not really to the customer. I'm not complaining because they're businesses and they want to make money. I just consider it cheating. Halo benchmark explained. Next?
  • GameManK - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    well done, but it did feel like a bit of a waste of time reading

    something like farcry or half life 2 i think would be a more useful test
  • Googer - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    Nice article, it must have taken a lot of time and effort to do this. Ryan how long did it take you to do all of these driver installs (then reboot) and benchmark them 72 Time?

    Thanks for the effort!
  • Googer - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    Could you also test 3rd party drivers like Omega and others I have forgotten about? Then could you compaire them to Stock ATI drivers?
  • nullpointerus - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    Aren't the Omega drivers just a mix of different official ATI driver files?
  • Humble Magii - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    Seriously another craptastic article on drivers? Guys please sit down and think before you post an article and give it actual thought maybe ask some people around you god forbid.

    This site is sucking huge.

    If you are going to do an article such as this use both competitors and go through each revision or at least a major revision to the drivers on each core and card.

    Again stop posting worthless articles someone at Anandtech please take control and scrutinize what your people write and do before posting. Don't they have a set process there?

  • Cygni - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link

    "If you're disappointed with the free entertainment on this site, fine, write about it on your shitty Angelfire Dragonball Z site or send AIM messages to the other Korn fanclub members."
  • Cygni - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link

    Ok, so what ive learned is you are reading a site that you think is "sucking huge", pretty making you a retard.

    Please sit down and think before you write such a fucking pointless post. God forbid there are people out there who are actually interested in video card driver performance.

    Do you have any idea how long it takes to run through these tests? "Oh, just do both companys! And do all their cards! And do every CPU/motherboard/memory/timings setting too!... oh, and give it to me for free!"

    What a joke dude. Go find your cave asshole, or go to some other hardware website.
  • VIAN - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    Is this article that important? I didn't think there was enough content in the article to make it worth reading. Plus, the way you built it up in the introduction seemed to give less meaning to the article when we found that there wasn't that much of an increase in half the games you tested. It also seemed like most of the big performance boosting optimizations took place within the first few drivers for the R300. To prove your point, it might have been better to make a shorter article covering various games, but use only 2 drivers, the current and the earliest.

    And where's that long lost image quality article we were promised about a year ago?
  • Jedi2155 - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    But then, it wouldn't show the slight improvements of the driversets like the 3.00 tothe 3.04.

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