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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  • Ryan Smith - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    With this article series, we're especially looking for feedback guys. We can't test every last game under the sun because of how long it would take, but if there's something you guys would like to see and a good reason for it, we'd like to hear about it for possible inclusion in a future regression.
  • Questar - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link


    Learn to proofread.
  • Cygni - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link


    Dont be an asshole.
  • Scrogneugneu - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    I would like to see that kind of test on another, more recent card.

    Why? Simply to test what the first driver revisions do in term of performance. The article already shows that later in the driver's life, there is little improvement made on performance... but that on early drivers, there is usually a good jump. Could it be possible to test with a newer card, with the drivers available at launch and up from there?

    That way we could have a better idea of what to expect when we hear ATI or NVidia saying "we will optimise the drivers after the launch". Does every optimisation happens in the first release, the second, the five first... what release usually brings the best improvements, both on IQ and FPS?

    Could be nice to see such an article :)
  • timmiser - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link

    I don't think that would work because the older drivers (ie-Cat 3.0, Cat 4.0) won't support the newer card.
  • Scrogneugneu - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link

    Well, if you use the drivers available at the launch of the card up to the current release, I'm pretty sure they will all be compatible with the card, won't they? ;)

    The goal is not to see what improvements were made with Catalyst 3.0 to 5.12, but to see what improvements were made from the first driver available for the card to the latest. More importantly, to see WHEN were they made.
  • timmiser - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link

    Well yes, you could do that, but then you have just a typical article about driver improvements over the last 5 or 6 months which every hardware site has done over and over again. What makes this article unique is they take an older video card and review older drivers so that we can see the driver improvement effect over the span of years instead of months.
  • Scrogneugneu - Wednesday, December 14, 2005 - link

    By more recent card, I didn't mean a ATI X1x00 card or a NVidia 7x00.

    I was more talking about something like the Xx00 series. These cards have seen a great number of driver release, and are still pretty recent.

    Besides, this article showed us that the only improvements seen were generally at the early stage of the development of the drivers, or at that least later in the works, there's not much difference. So, we can assume that a year of different driver revisions would be enough to show us what kind of improvements are made.
  • timmiser - Wednesday, December 14, 2005 - link

    Exactly, which is all information we didn't know until this article showed that.
  • oopyseohs - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    The Athlon64 you used was socket 754, not 757. =]

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