Summary: Later today AMD plans on releasing their first official driver for Windows Vista and in today's article we take a look at it. Read about all the new features, and most importantly, how Vista 32-bit and 64-bit compare in performance to similar flavors of Windows XP. We've got numbers from 3 AMD graphics cards representing different price points inside!
For the past few days we’ve been pounding away at Windows Vista with new drivers from both AMD and NVIDIA we just received last week. The driver teams at both companies have been working around the clock to get their final Vista drivers completed in time for Vista’s public debut on Tuesday. Up to this point, both AMD and NVIDIA have erred on the side of caution with their Vista drivers, focusing on stability first and performance second, but now that they’ve had more time to tune their driver with the OS, performance is beginning to catch up and now the stated goal for both companies is for their Vista driver to perform as well as their equivalent Windows XP driver.
This is a pretty tall task to pull off considering the changes Microsoft has incorporated in Vista and the added overhead the new OS brings, but thankfully, it appears like this goal may ultimately be within reach.
To test this, we’ve decided to drop four different operating systems onto our testbed platforms: one platform representing AMD, and one for NVIDIA. We’re starting with AMD first as we’ve had their driver the longest, in addition we also know that NVIDIA’s going to be releasing another Vista driver sometime on Monday that adds more features (including GeForce 8 SLI support) so we want to check that driver out before commenting on the state of NVIDIA’s Vista drivers…
What’s new in AMD’s Catalyst 7.1 Vista driver
It’s important to note that while AMD’s Windows Vista and Windows XP driver releases share the same name and numbering scheme, they’re two totally different drivers (in case you don’t recall the first number denotes the year the driver was released, with the second number indicating the month, so Catalyst 7.1 indicates that the driver was released in the first month of 2007). Some features that are present in AMD’s Catalyst 7.1 WinXP release aren’t available in AMD’s 7.1 Vista driver, and vice versa.
For instance, AMD’s Catalyst 7.1 Vista driver includes a new driver install manager that makes it easier to update and remove your graphics driver. AMD claims that the new Catalyst Control Center (CCC) has been completely re-architected to deliver substantially improved performance, AMD claims that by merging 3 CLI.exe files into one executable, as well as tweaking the initialization process so that less work is done when CCC starts up, bootup times go from around 8.7 seconds with ATI’s 8.31 Vista driver to 1.5 seconds with today’s 7.1 Vista driver. In comparison, AMD noted a CCC bootup time of 3.4 seconds for the same system under Windows XP.
To be honest, we never witnessed a 1.5 second bootup time for Catalyst Control Center, and this is coming on a Core 2 Extreme X6800 rig with an X1950 XTX graphics card, 2GB of DDR2-667 RAM, and a 300GB WD3200 Caviar SE hard drive, much lower specs than AMD’s X2 3800+ rig, which was equipped with slower graphics and less RAM.
On average, we’d say CCC bootup times were about three seconds during our use, which is about on par with what we’ve seen under Windows XP.
AMD also claims memory usage has been improved by 38% over the previous 6.11 driver. We didn’t load up the older Vista driver to confirm this, but we believe it. Take a look at this screenshot of the task manager during idle usage:
Besides improved performance, another feature AMD has added to their Catalyst 7.1 Vista driver that’s actually exclusive at the moment to Vista is a new 3D Preview.
If you recall, back when ATI introduced CCC, they incorporated a preview feature that allowed end users to see the affect of graphics settings changes before they were applied. For instance, under the 3D tab you could see a preview of the benefits of going from anti-aliasing disabled to 4x anti-aliasing.
Under the old preview function, a static image was displayed in the preview window. Under Vista’s new 7.1 driver however, the image isn’t static, instead it runs in motion. It’s a short clip, only a few seconds long, but it should definitely help those who are new to the concept of anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering figure out what the fuss is all about. In case you don’t like the motion clips, AMD also continues to include static examples as well, including the ability to zoom in so you can see the benefits of anti-aliasing and AF up close.
New OpenGL driver
ATI’s Catalyst 7.1 Vista driver does support ATI’s CrossFire technology, including the latest Radeon X1950 Pro and X1650 XT cards, which incorporate built-in CrossFire support. The new driver does not support P965 CrossFire however, nor does it support alternate frame rendering (AFR) mode by default for all applications. This feature was just added this month to AMD’s Windows XP driver. Since the driver relies on AMD’s new OpenGL engine, AMD’s driver team hasn’t had enough time to add OpenGL CrossFire support – D3D apps are all that’s supported under CrossFire.
AMD’s got a trio of new goodies in store for Catalyst that are on the way. To improve adaptive anti-aliasing performance, AMD will be adding the option to use multisampling. Right now adaptive AA is limited to just super-sampled AA.
Company of Heroes 1.3
3DMark 06 – Direct3D
With the exception of the Radeon X1650 XT WinXP score, we noted a slight decline in 3DMark performance when going from 32-bit Windows XP up to 32-bit Vista. The same applied during the 64-bit transition. Keep in mind that these are very slight differences though of no more than 1% in some cases, which is well within the margin of error for 3DMark. Basically it’s a dead heat here.
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
No matter what we tried, we couldn’t get the Radeon X1650 XT card to run with stability in BF2142 under Windows XP x64, in fact all three cards crashed to the desktop during our manual walkthrough tests we conduct with this game. Only the X1650 XT crashed much quicker than the other cards did. Surprisingly enough though we didn’t run into any stability issues inside Vista, although the game did load a little slower.
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Both the Radeon X1950 Pro and X1950 XTX saw their performance decline under Vista when testing with F.E.A.R. Only the X1650 XT managed to come out with similar performance regardless of OS.
Oblivion – Direct3D
The X1950 XTX saw performance increases under Vista in our outdoors testing with Oblivion, albeit the increase between 32-bit OS’s at 1280x1024 is just 3%. Considering these are manual walkthroughs, that’s probably only a percentage point or so greater than the margin of error. At 1600x1200 that margin opens up to 6% in favor of Windows Vista x86. Curiously enough, the Radeon X1950 Pro didn’t see these increases though, but the Radeon X1650 XT’s performance did improve under 32-bit Vista (64-bit performance was unchanged).
Oblivion – Direct3D
Under our more demanding foliage test, the performance improvements we saw previously for the X1950 XTX are gone. But performance of the X1650 XT was still improved.
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
Half-Life 2 Lost Coast – Direct3D
Company of Heroes – Direct3D
Fortunately it looks like AMD is well on their way to making Vista a seamless upgrade from the driver perspective. While we did note a few titles with sluggish performance (F.E.A.R. and to a lesser extent Half-Life 2 Lost Coast being the most notable), we were honestly surprised to register as many performance improvements as we saw, particularly with the Radeon X1950 XTX and surprisingly enough, with the Radeon X1650 XT as well. AMD’s early transition to the .NET framework many moons ago may have helped make the transition a little smoother, although we, like many other sites, were a bit turned off by Catalyst Control Center’s initial performance a few years ago.
CCC’s performance has definitely improved. While it’s still not as fast as the traditional control panel, it’s light years ahead of where it was a year or so ago thanks in part to the changes AMD has implemented, as well as improvements made in newer revisions of the .NET framework. Windows XP users will see these same CCC performance improvements in Catalyst 7.2 debuting next month.
All is not perfect with AMD’s Vista 7.1 release however. While D3D performance is very good, OpenGL on the other hand isn’t. AMD has totally rewritten the OpenGL portion of their graphics driver, a promise that’s finally been fulfilled, but definitely underwhelming. In all honesty, AMD’s OpenGL portion of the graphics driver is not ready for primetime in our opinion, and probably should have been shelved until they’d had more time to work on it. Fortunately, at least it’s stable.
If you play predominantly D3D games, this probably isn’t a big issue to you, but keep in mind that Enemy Territory: Quake Wars should hopefully be shipping later this year and it is based on Quake 4’s Doom 3 engine, so AMD will need to get their OpenGL issues resolved before then.
And for what it’s worth, NVIDIA’s OpenGL drivers under Vista aren’t perfect either.
We’ll definitely be keeping an eye out on AMD’s Catalyst drivers for Vista, but so far, things are looking better than we expected. Stay tuned for part 2, where we’ll take a look at NVIDIA’s performance in Windows Vista under similar conditions.
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