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.
ATI’s very own RADEON 8500 is a perfect example. Early on, the card was inhibited by its drivers. NVIDIA’s 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, we’ve been covering driver releases for the past few years. We’ll admit that we were a bit slow at keeping up with ATI’s latest and greatest software releases, but we’ve really liked what we’ve 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 Microsoft’s latest desktop OS was the only operating system with adequate support, and ATI’s unified driver architecture supports the entire RADEON family of products. In short, ATI’s CATALYST driver team has done a wonderful job of ensuring that ATI’s 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 ATI’s 3.0 drivers and while we found great performance gains for RADEON 9500 (non-PRO) owners, results were pretty limited for everyone else. Today we’re 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 we’re 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 can’t be overlooked. Fortunately ATI hasn’t done anything like this with their latest driver release; image quality was consistent with what we’ve 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 1980’s flight sim! It goes without saying that this wasn’t 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!