Summary: ATI owners (and prospective owners) must have been good this year because Santa has brought the thirteenth Catalyst driver release of 2005. With this new version, ATI claims that they've raised the bar in video performance and set the stage for worldwide "video dominATIon." Our tests show that Catalyst 5.13 is the greatest leap in video quality technology for ATI since the original Mach64-VT.
Nonetheless, FiringSquad's sources brought information of a new driver that would change things for ATI. Not simply a driver that would bring ATI ahead of XGI and NVIDIA and back to the top of the PC video processing world, but a driver that would bring ATI ahead of consumer electronics companies such as Sony, Samsung, Pixelworks, and Faroudja and put ATI hot on the tail of Gennum and Silicon Optix. Seeing that twelve drivers had already been released by ATI in 2005, most readers assumed that the new driver would have to come in January 2006 as Catalyst 6.1. ATI's Secret Santa decided to release this gift earlier to PC enthusiasts with a 13th driver release in 2005 and Oh, how things have changed!
Yes that’s really an ATI-developed logo for Cat 5.13.
Modern Day GPU Design
There's no secret that today's GPUs are becoming increasingly complex devices to manufacture and build. When it comes to the video processing portion of the GPU, it's probably one of the most challenging elements of design. Not only does video processing require a substantial amount of computational horsepower, but the algorithms are unclear. Knowing what to do and how to do it is much more difficult than building silicon that is fast enough for the task.
- 2x AMD Opteron 252
ATI had a perfect score in the last test, and with Catalyst 5.13 there's no difference. The ATI card flickers for a second or so, but then realizes that the image is not-moving. Both NVIDIA and XGI drop resolution but do not flicker meaning that NVIDIA and XGI have a harder time detecting when things are moving or not.
1st place: ATI (10 points)
Tied for 3rd place: NVIDIA and XGI (5 points)
The ATI is the best solution for picture slideshows where there's no animation.
The three Jaggies test evaluate how well a video processor is at determining whether objects are moving or not. The first "jaggies pattern" is a simple spinning bar, the second "jaggies pattern" is a set of three bars with a waving motion (like waving your hand), and the third test is a real-world picture of the American flag in the wind. These all represent scenes that a deinterlacer will easily be able recognize as having motion.
Catalyst 5.13 improves ATI's performance on theses tests substantially. Whereas NVIDIA develops jaggies in the yellow zone, both ATI and XGI are perfect with their diagonal interpolation.
Under Jaggies 2, all three properly smooth the first two bars, but none are able to keep the third line smooth.
Although all three earn the same numerical score, ATI and XGI do better than NVIDIA in preventing the aliasing in the third bar.
In the real world flag test, ATI does an excellent job. It appears to detect edges a little bit better than the XGI's approach, resulting in fewer jaggies. Both XGI and ATI are substantially better than NVIDIA. Although ATI's Catalyst 5.13 still shows some very minor aliasing, it takes careful A/B scrutiny between ATI's Catalyst 5.13 versus DCDi or HQV to see the difference. ATI seems to fall behind just a hair compared to the HQV processing, but since our testing is done at 1280x1024, it's possible that the differences are due to the video scaling portion. For the flag test, ATI receives the full 10 points.
1st place: ATI (18 points)
2nd place: XGI (13 points)
3rd place: NVIDIA (11 points)
When it comes to de-interlacing 30 fps content such as TV shows, the ATI Radeon X1800XT and XGI Volari 8300 are superior to the GeForce 6600.
When it comes to detail enhancement, NVIDIA does not implement overlay-specific sharpening tools. XGI does. In the X800 comparison, the screenshots suggested that ATI was applying some level of sharpening to the image as a result of the way the MPEG-2 decoder was written. For the X1800XL I used the Multimedia Center that shipped with the All-in-Wonder X1800 XL card and it looks like ATI is now faithfully reproducing the original image without additional sharpening. This is definitely a good move by ATI because I have always said that forced sharpening is worse than no sharpening..
1st place – XGI (5 points)
3rd place: ATI and NVIDIA (0 points)
By the testing standards, NVIDIA and ATI get 0 and XGI gets 5. However, as I have said before, the numbers can be misinterpreted. A score of zero means that ATI and NVIDIA are faithfully reproducing the material on the DVD. While sharpening is a necessity, the problem occurs when you have sharpening applied at multiple stages. Some DVDs are already sharpened, meaning that you won't want any additional processing. Some televisions sharpen and so you won't want the video card to do any additional processing.
When outputting to a television, you will want to have the TV control the level of sharpening whenever possible because it takes into account your viewing distance and the screen size. All three cards should be great for use with a television.
Noise reduction is one of the most important elements of a video processor and even in the high-definition world, noise reduction is very important as can be seen from these real-world examples showing the possibilities of a sophisticated wavelet-based noise reduction algorithm.
Nevertheless, like sharpening, noise filtering can be performed prior to DVD mastering. Although ATI preserves the detail in these images from the HQV Benchmark, it's possible that the noise reduction causes loss of detail in a video clip where the noise is absent. More testing will be required to evaluate this possibility. Of course, it's equally possible that a user might want to be more aggressive with the noise reduction. The differences are more prominent in motion.
1st place: ATI (10 points)
Tied for 3rd place: NVIDIA and XGI (0 points)
ATI is the first of the big GPU manufacturers to implement noise reduction into their DVD playback. This is an important step for PC video enthusiasts. Nonetheless, ATI should provide users with the ability to disable any noise reduction should a user want to reproduce a "faithful" image from the DVD.
The Radeon X800 XL with Catalyst 5.12 failed miserably on both of these tests. The Radeon X1800 XL with Catalyst 5.13 flies through these tests with flying colors. Both XGI and ATI require a little bit of extra time to detect the 3:2 cadence in comparison to NVIDIA, but it's still fast enough to score a perfect score.
Tied 3rd place: ATI, NVIDIA, XGI (10 points)
Catalyst 5.13 makes the ATI Radeon X1800 XL a great choice for watching movies. NVIDIA and XGI are equally good for playback of DVDs films as well. NVIDIA does seem to lock on a fraction of a second earlier (we were unable to capture the video output from the ATI to make a true frame by frame comparison).
Of all the cadences, 3:2 is the most critical. That's your Hollywood blockbuster film. That's the bulk of what you'll end up watching. If your system doesn’t reliably detect the 3:2 cadence, your video processor may be discarding half of the resolution available in Hollywood movies.
2:2 cadence can refer to putting 24fps film onto 50 fps PAL. However, it also refers to 30 frames/sec progressive content on DVD or 1080i. This is the second most important cadence because you'll find it being used in the documentaries and many TV shows that are put on DVD. If you watch TV shows on DVD or have a Media Center PC, you'll want good 2:2 detection.
The 5:5, 6:4 and 8:7 cadence refer to cadences used in both western and eastern animation (8 fps, 12 fps). Vari-Speed Broadcast (3:2:3:2:2) is important if you enjoy watching movies on broadcast TV. Lastly, the 2:2:2:4 and 2:3:3:2 cadences are the least popular formats used. If you're involved with indie-films, make your own videos with software like Final Cut Pro, or need to review digital dailies, it’s important. Otherwise, it's a nice to have on a checklist but is the least essential for typical viewers
ATI detects all of these cadences perfectly. This is a substantial feat from ATI because if you encounter a video with an unusual cadence, ATI is able to preserve all of the detail in the original images. While NVIDIA detects Vari-Speed Broadcasts, it cannot detect any of the other cadences. Thus, if you are watching 8 fps anime, you may be throwing away half of the resolution available in the image.
With Catalyst 5.13, ATI seems to detect all of the known cadences tested by the HQV Benchmark. Amazing!
1st place:ATI (35 points)
2nd place: NVIDIA (5 points)
3rd place: XGI (0 points)
If you watch a lot of documentaries that were shot on 30 fps film, or a lot of animation, the ATI Radeon X1800 XL with Catalyst 5.13 is the unanimous choice. When it comes to unusual cadences, ATI AVIVO completely outclasses PureVideo and TrueVideo.
Mixed 3:2 content is the least important feature to test for unless you're watching movies shown on MSNBC or when you have 24 fps film content mixed with 30 fps special effects. Here, ATI and NVIDIA do similarly well. They appropriately de-interlace but fail to apply 3:2 pulldown to the film portions of the screen. XGI doesn't handle mixed content very well at all.
Tied 2nd: ATI and NVIDIA (15 points)
3rd place: XGI (0 points)
You may see artifacts when watching movies on TV on CNN or MSNBC or during the credits sequence with the XGI. You don't see artifacts with the ATI or NVIDIA cards under such conditions, but you still lose half your resolution.
Total HQV Benchmark Scores
ATI Radeon X1800 XL with Catalyst 5.13: 103
Real-World Cadence Challenge #1: MegaZone 23 Trailer
First up was the trailer for Megazone 23. For the non-anime fan out there, Megazone 23 is one of the classics of 1980's anime and was the basis for Robotech: The Movie. Although this is actually a 3:2 sequence, and the X1800 was unable to detect the appropriate cadence in our real-world test. We saw plenty of jaggies and feathering artifacts and our findings were confirmed by ATI. What's interesting is that NVIDIA's PureVideo, which only scored 51 points on the HQV Benchmark actually does well here (although it occasionally drops the resolution). NVIDIA GPUs are able to detect this cadence appropriately and for this clip, NVIDIA actually locks onto the cadence faster than even HQV solutions. The XGI Volari 8300 was not tested.
Real-World Cadence Challenge #2 and 3: More Anime
With the experience of the Megazone 23 trailer, I decided to challenge the video processors with newer anime. In retrospect, using anime as an "unusual cadence" test makes a lot of sense because there are a lot of fast cuts and edits which makes it very challenging for video processors to lock onto the right cadence. On that same DVD were trailers for Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (trailer) and RahXephon (trailer). In these tests, I found that the HQV processor handled the cadence detection well whereas the ATI X1800 had substantially more difficulty resulting in feathering artifacts. NVIDIA had no feathering artifacts, but frequently dropped to half-resolution when it was unable to appropriately detect the cadence. The bug fix ATI mentioned for a future driver release would take care of the feathering artifacts although it's unclear if tweaks to their cadence detection mechanism can be done.
HD Challenge: Deinterlacing
For the deinterlacing challenge, I used a test clip where a spinning bar is superimposed over a SMPTE resolution pattern. A good deinterlacer should be able to detect that the bar is spinning (and apply appropriate processing to those regions only). NVIDIA has always done well with this test, generating artifacts in the squares near motion only. ATI's Catalyst 5.13 brings their HD deinterlacing capabilities to a similar level. (Both ATI and NVIDIA still produce artifacts due to the size of the processing region).
HD Challenge: 3:2 Cadence
As the 3:2 cadence used for 24 fps represents the most important cadence, we wanted to evaluate how well the graphics cards did with HD cadence detection. This is important for watching movies that are broadcast in HDTV or those on D-Theatre. Likewise, it's not entirely clear if Blu-Ray and HD-DVD will be recorded as 1080i or 1080p (remember, the supported output doesn't tell us what's actually recorded).
The Catalyst 5.13 drivers also bring H.264 acceleration as well as the AVIVO Video Converter. This means that you'll be able to watch those high-definition 1080p trailers from Quicktime with an X1800XL with ease. At the moment, we've only had time to do some limited tests with the X1800XL, but it seems like H.264 acceleration works very well. We'll have to spend some more time in January looking at H.264 decode performance with a wider range of CPUs – the dual Opterons I've been using obviously is an atypically powerful configuration.
Catalyst 5.13 represents the greatest leap in video quality technology for ATI since the original Mach64-VT. It brings sophisticated diagonal filtering, basic noise reduction, and the ability to detect unusual cadences. ATI marketing told us about "video dominATIon" and we have to agree that Catalyst 5.13 brings ATI to the top of the PC video world.
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