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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  • n7 - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    Yeah the mouseover is borked.

    Interesting review.
  • JayHu - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    In the article you refer to driver revisions 3.4 and 3.6, but the labelling on your axis reads 3.04, 3.06. Took me a couple glances to figure out what you meant.
  • Ryan Smith - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    Fixed, we had to improvise on the graphing engine(which has to sort by something) so the 0's were thrown in without thinking to change the article. Thanks.
  • microAmp - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    Mouseover ain't workin' with IE & FF.
  • Howard - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    Doesn't work with Opera, either.
  • BigLan - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    Broken here as well w/ IE
  • Ryan Smith - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    It should be working now guys, our managing editor was puting it up earlier and it somehow went live a bit early.
  • reactor - Sunday, December 11, 2005 - link

    same thing going on here, picture disappears when i try to mouseover. interesting article though, good stuff :)

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