Summary: ATI is back with another CATALYST driver, and they've claimed some performance increases for a segment that's often been forgotten: the DX8 card owners! In our CATALYST 4.2 report we go over all the features and compatibility issues, as well as put ATI's performance claims to the test. See how CAT 4.2 fares in today's driver report!
ATI’s CATALYST driver team continues to crank out new drivers on a monthly basis! Last week’s 4.2 release followed closely on the heels of CATALYST 4.1, which was released to the public less than a month ago.
ATI has been focusing on stability first and foremost lately, with performance taking a bit of a backseat. ATI has also introduced new features such as EAZYSHARE and OpenGL Shading Language (GLSL) support in CATALYST 3.10, and enhanced OVERDRIVE for RADEON 9800 XT and RADEON 9600 XT in CATALYST 4.1 by incorporating hardware monitoring of the core temperature and the current clock speed of the graphics core.
For CATALYST 4.2, ATI has enhanced its Multimedia Center software (now up to version 8.9) and, what’s arguably the most talked about and praised feature: the Direct3D setting enhancement. For RADEON 9500 cards and up, the screen no longer goes blank during re-initialization, which would occur when changing settings such as anisotropic filtering or anti-aliasing! ATI has even mentioned performance improvements for DX8 class cards like the RADEON 8500 family.
Unfortunately, all isn’t perfect with CATALYST 4.2. There have been complaints of anti-aliasing not working in a few applications. We’ve been mentioning the AA issues with EA Sports Madden 2004 for the past two driver releases, and unfortunately they’re still present in CATALYST 4.2. Fortunately, a few users have discovered that you can get around this problem by pressing Alt-Enter, which returns you to the desktop, and then pressing the Alt-Enter combination again to return you back to the game. Hopefully ATI can come up with a fix of their own, as AA is pretty important in all sports titles, and the frame rate is pretty fluid with this setting enabled on lower end cards.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
We had to swap out our RADEON 8500 for a Powercolor RADEON 9000 PRO 64MB. Unfortunately, our RADEON 8500 card is on the verge of dying, we could only take Quake 3 numbers with it, all other applications refused to run without restarting (or crashing) the system.
Nascar 2003 – Direct3D
While in the real world, the NASCAR season has kicked into high gear, things aren’t quite so merry in the PC world. EA has the sole rights to the PC brand, and their latest title, NASCAR Thunder 2004, was released last year. Because of this, for the time being we’re going to continue to use NASCAR Racing 2003 Season to represent racing (as Need for Speed: Underground doesn’t offer demo playback functionality for testing with FRAPS). We’ve found that NASCAR performs best on nForce2 systems with ATI graphics cards, for some reason our 3.2GHz/875P rig lags significantly behind Athlon XP 3200+/nForce2. Perhaps we’ll move the testbed up to an Athlon 64 3400+/K8T800 in the near future and see what happens.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
We’ve found that flight simulators, like high-end racing sims like NASCAR 2003 tend to stress overall system performance rather than graphics, this means it’s a less than ideal graphics benchmark. Remember, these titles must perform lots of physics calculations to bring you those realistic flight models simmers crave. As such, we only see slight variations from card to card, the high-end DX9 cards are within a few frames of each other, the same applies to most of the mainstream cards. So we see little change from CAT 4.1.
Quake III - OpenGL
In Quake 3 we see slight performance declines at 800x600 on the 9800 PRO and 9800 XT. Fortunately, if you own one of these cards you’re most likely gaming at 1280x1024 or 1600x1200, where we see no performance changes. Other than that slight hiccup, the other cards fall within a hair of ATI’s previous driver release.
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
ATI promised performance gains of 15% in UT 2003 for DX8 users, but we actually see them exceed that with the RADEON 9000 PRO card we tested at 1280x1024. Performance jumps from 24 fps to 31.7 fps, an increase of 24%. We also see a respectable gain of 11% at 1600x1200, although we are dealing with a frame rate most would consider unacceptable at that screen resolution. Nice job ATI!
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
While Splinter Cell is based on the UT2003 engine, we don’t see any gains for ATI’s DX8 cards here unfortunately.
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
ATI mentioned more performance gains for DX8 users in Tomb Raider, but since we use 2.0 shaders in our testing with this title those cards aren’t compatible. We haven’t seen any performance gains in TR since we’ve added it to the benchmark stable, so we weren’t surprised to see no changes with CATALYST 4.2.
Call of Duty
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
Lock On: Modern Air Combat is the latest military flight simulator on the market, and boy does it look good. Initially the game was riddled with bugs, but things have gotten a little better now. Once again we’re dealing with a title with a complicated physics model, which will stress the CPU in your system. LOMAC also sports high polygon counts, pixel shaded water (DX8 generation) and snazzy eye candy effects like the heat blur from your afterburners, which only works well on ATI cards.
Unreal Tournament 2003
Our RADEON 9000 PRO card was pretty uncooperative with AA enabled in UT with CAT 4.2. One second AA would be running, we’d grab a few numbers for a solid average, change the screen resolution, and AA would be disabled! Therefore we decided to play it safe and omit AA scores, we saw solid gains without it turned on and slightly lesser increases once it was enabled, but we’d rather withhold numbers than post something “official”.
For those of you with DX9 era cards, there’s little to see with CATALYST 4.2. The primary highlight is the D3D setting enhancement, which really comes in handy if you find yourself changing D3D settings frequently in the control panel, but we’re not certain this feature alone is worth the upgrade. Considering the unresolved AA issues that have been mentioned in forums, chances are you’ll probably want to stick with the driver you’re currently using. ALL-IN-WONDER 9800/9700/9600 owners however may enjoy the subtle enhancements to Multimedia Center 8.9.
For DX8 card owners, CATALYST 4.2 is the first driver we’ve seen in several months that actually brings some performance enhancements, so you may want to consider an upgrade. Keep in mind that we only saw increases at high resolutions, if you find yourself gaming at 800x600 or 1024x768 it looks like performance is roughly unchanged (if not a little slower) than the previous graphics driver.
In any case, we’re really digging ATI’s commitment to its graphics driver. ATI’s driver team is listening to customer feedback, and is truly interested in making an already great product even better. And as their latest driver release shows, they still haven’t forgotten their users with older graphics cards. It’s this type of support that’s being noticed by so many gamers and hardware enthusiasts, and thus earning ATI more sales success.
SIDEBAR: Is CATALYST 4.2 a boom or a bust? Share your experience with this driver in the news comments!
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