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AMD Catalyst Omega; Details & Performance

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
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12,841
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Montreal
NOTE: The driver is now live on AMD's download site. However, there have been widespread reports of problems. If you are experiencing any, please post HERE in our forums.

Edit #2: Supposedly Windows Update KB3004394 for Windows 7 which was rolled out not too long ago is at the heart of many of Catalyst Omega's installation issues. This update affects driver installation in general (be it NVIDIA, Intel or other drivers) so the issues aren't AMD-specific. Microsoft has pulled the update and recommends that users uninstall it.


When there’s talk about AMD’s graphics cards in our forums, the subject of lackluster driver stability and game support always comes up. The reports of crashes, installation problems, sub-par Crossfire scaling, stuttering and various other issues litter online forums like confetti at a wedding party. But now AMD is addressing their previous software shortcomings with a new driver dubbed simply “Omega”.

Omega is, in part, an admittance by AMD that previous driver iterations could have been much better. While NVIDIA isn’t immune to latent driver problems, the negativity surrounding the Catalyst package directly impacted AMD’s ability to sell graphics cards and APUs. As they say, when something could drastically affect a company’s bottom line, it gets taken care of right away.

The history behind the Omega driver is actually an interesting one considering many of AMD’s previous staffing cuts bit deeply into their driver development and quality assurance teams. Things started to change when Ari Rauch took over as Corporate Vice President of Software Development and instilled a refreshed focus towards application quality and stability. Coming from Texas Instruments, a company that requires a spotless record in this field due to their presence in healthcare and high end industrial markets, he identified areas for immediate improvement and the Omega driver is the first step towards making the software and hardware marriage work better than it did. Make no mistake about it though: AMD’s various pieces of software functioned perfectly well but there was plenty of room for improvement.

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Now Omega isn’t the end-all of drivers either, nor is it meant to address every single one of AMD’s identified laundry list of bugs or provide incredible performance uplifts on their Radeon GPUs. Rather the focus here was to add new features, refine existing technologies, improve the overall user experience, enhance stability and fix some nagging issues. In addition, APUs will be receiving the vast majority of attention this time around but desktop GPU users won’t be left entirely high and dry.

Another thing to take into account is that Omega represents the beginning of AMD’s adherence to a once-yearly major driver update policy. While there will be standard performance updates, bug fixes and patches throughout the year like we’ve always seen in the past, they’re now aiming for broader feature level changes on a more regular basis.

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One of the lynchpins to AMD’s new strategy is better community engagement. While there has always been a way to report driver problems in past versions of Catalyst, they’re now pushing the so-called “AMD Issue Reporting Form” as well. This is a quick, easy and intuitive online survey that passes your answers directly to AMD’s internal teams who then compile a list of the most-reported issues and work to prioritize their fixes accordingly. Simply put: don’t complain unless you’ve done your part to help correct the bug.

Above and beyond the go-forward initiatives, in preparation for the Omega drivers AMD’s community managers put together a list of the community’s most-reported issues. This “greatest hits” of game-stoppers were red flagged in AMD’s driver team and every one of them fixed within these new drivers. There are still some noteworthy omissions from this list: the lack of a properly implemented uninstaller to prepare your system for a driver update and the Catalyst installation package is still based around the sometimes-buggy Microsoft C++ runtime. However, for the most part, many concerns have been addressed in one swoop.

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From a features perspective, there’s an absolutely epic list of items; one that’s impossible to completely cover in this article. Some of them like Compression Artifact Removal are simply the newest iteration of an existing technology while others like OpenCL 2.0, FreeSync support and Crossfire frame pacing improvements have already been rolled out in AMD’s latest drivers but are nonetheless being called out here again. With that being said, there’s plenty of brand new stuff here as well so keep reading since we’ll go through some of it over the next few pages.


Before we go on though, there’s a bit of editorializing that needs to happen. While I’ve been using these drivers for the last two weeks or so without any major hiccups, the experience hasn’t been without some minor challenges that weren’t present in previous releases. For example, there were random crashes in some games like Shadow of Mordor and Aliens: Isolation, Windows 7 boot times were roughly doubled and sometimes the Catalyst Control Center refused to open despite its process running in the background. These may be system-specific but until the gaming community gets their hands in Omega, there’s no way to know for certain.

While alone none of those problems prevented me from using the system or playing games, they point towards a trend we’ve been seeing a lot: items being fixed but others getting broken somewhere along the way. The last thing AMD wants to get into is trying to fix a boat that’s constantly springing new holes, especially when drivers are such an integral part of the GPU landscape.

Given what I’ve seen so far, it sounds like AMD is making all the right noises when it comes to talking about driver development. There’s a huge amount of hope on my part that a corner has been turned and a promising new path travelled. However, marketing bullet points and a single driver don’t amount to an effective long-term commitment so while there’s reason to be excited about what you will see on the next few pages, only time will tell how well these plans move into fruition.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
More Performance? We Take a Look

More Performance? We Take a Look


The first thing everyone will be thinking when faced with a new driver is “what kind of performance uplift are we looking at for discrete GPUs?” Given that AMD’s Omega driver represents a significant shift in priorities away from a one-time framerate boost and towards a more holistic user experience, the answer to that should be self-evident: not much.

Past the laudable focus on stability and the delivery of an expanded feature set over favoring raw performance some context needs to be given before you all start leveling any critique at AMD for this approach. The graphics card market is a highly competitive segment where quick performance delivery for the latest titles is a key element in the success or failure of a given architecture. Therefore, game-specific updates need to be rolled out in a timely fashion rather than waiting around for a major diver launch like Omega.

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These incremental updates do add up over time and many of them will actually spill over into benefits for other titles as well. For example, a shader optimization for Battlefield 4 could translate into better performance in Dragon Age: Inquisition or Need for Speed: Rivals since they all use the same game engine. This means an architecture’s overall performance will gradually improve even if there isn’t a marketing push to highlight the changes.

In the case of AMD’s R9 290X, we see this progression when comparing its launch driver to Catalyst Omega in the chart above. But how does Omega stack up to AMD’s Catalyst 14.11.2 Beta rather than year-old drivers? We tested a single R9 290X on Uber Mode to find out….

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So there we have it; when compared against the latest beta drivers from AMD, Catalyst Omega’s performance benefits are pretty much a wash. In some areas there’s a small amount of improvement while in others it loses to the existing betas. Most of these differences likely come down to slight variations in the run-throughs rather than any positive or negative effects of the drivers themselves. At least nothing was irreparably broken…..

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Other than feeding unrealistic framerate expectations, there are some additional benefits built into Catalyst Omega’s driver structure. Motion fluidity has been augmented in memory-heavy titles through the lowering of frametimes which reduces the perception of stuttering, particularly in multi GPU scenarios. Considering AMD has already put a whole lot of focus on this key metric, we were actually surprised to see some improvement here but it is nonetheless welcome.

While actually testing this claim is outside this article’s scope, I personally didn’t see much difference when using a single R9 290X. Other than Ubisoft “horrible duo” of Far Cry 4 which is a stuttering mess regardless of your GPU choice and Assassin’s Creed Unity which is simply an ongoing nightmare for PC gamers, in single card layout everything was quite smooth. We’ll look into this a bit further within an upcoming follow-up article.

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AMD has also made some claims in respect to their APU’s graphics performance but once again we are looking at drivers from months ago so we’d hope there was some movement since then. Nonetheless, it is good to see some progress being made in what is supposed to be AMD’s core market.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
FreeSync, VSR, 4K and Beyond

Freesync, Coming To a Monitor Near You…Finally


After NVIDIA announced their innovative G-SYNC technology more than a year ago, industry observers l knew that AMD would answer in kind and that’s exactly what happened. The resulting “FreeSync” technology uses DisplayPort’s Active-Sync protocols to offer tear-free gaming for adaptive refresh rates without the associated latency issues normally associated with V-Sync. In short, it improves the gaming experience while also improving image quality. The real difference between it and NVIDIA’s solution is that it can be implemented without additional hardware or, supposedly, the premiums associated with adding the G-SYNC module to a given monitor.

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When taken at face value, AMD’s claim of providing a relatively inexpensive premium gaming experience has its appeal but actually following through with their promises has led to a lengthy development process. It’s been nearly a year since the first FreeSync announcement and NVIDIA’s competing solution has already been selling like hotcakes for months. Things are supposedly about to change since Samsung has announced it will support FreeSync on select monitors and at this year’s CES, AMD will be showing off more displays based around IPS and TN panels.

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The next logical step after actually getting FreeSync-compatible displays into the hands of waiting gamers is to move the technology towards the next boundary: 4K resolutions. Samsung has already announced five displays with these capabilities across two model ranges: the UE590-series which will be available in 24” and 28” flavors while the UE850-series is considered their flagship model with sizes in the 24”, 27” and 32” ranges. Costing hasn’t been announced yet but from what we’ve heard through the grape vine, expect prices to be virtually identical to their G-SYNC enabled counterparts from ASUS, BenQ and Acer.


AMD’s Virtual Super Resolution


Much like FreeSync, Virtual Super Resolution or VSR is another technology which AMD is following NVIDIA’s lead on, though it’s called Dynamic Super Resolution on their side. Both VSR and DSR are simplified terms for Ordered Grid Super Sampling Anti Aliasing, an anti aliasing method that has been around for quite a long time. Also called down-sampling, OGSSAA calls for the graphics card to render at a higher resolution than the screen is capable of displaying and then rescale the image to the display’s native resolution.

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Not only is down-sampling complicated but as you can imagine it requires a ton of resources to accomplish successfully. The benefit is enhanced image quality since this is an AA method that is applied to all aliased surfaces and it can be forcefully enabled through an external source even if a game doesn’t natively support anti aliasing.

While down-sampling isn’t anything new for Radeon users (it could be enabled via external tools not officially supported within Catalyst and with varying degrees of success) this is the first time AMD is implementing it at driver level and within the Catalyst Control Center via the Virtual Super Resolution GUI.

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There are some limitations regarding compatibility though; only the R9 290 series and R9 285 will be compatible with this technology. AMD’s Hawaii GPUs have the necessary scaling hardware to upscale up to two “levels” from 1080P up to 1800P or a single level from 1440P to 1800P. However, the GCN 1.2 architecture behind the Tonga core which powers the R9 285 has a more advanced hardware scaler setup which can attain “true” 4K down-sampling. Thankfully, the visible differences between 1800P and so-called 4K when displayed on a 1440P or 1080P monitor will be virtually nonexistent due to the monitor’s dot-pitch ratio.


Above and Beyond 4K


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With the launch of their Catalyst Omega driver, AMD is also announcing official support for 5K monitors like Dell’s new UltraSharp UP2715K via a pair of DisplayPort connectors. 5K displays aren’t really ready for gaming quite yet due to their relatively slow response times but content creators will find the higher resolutions to quickly become a force multiplier for productivity.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
A Multitude of Video Enhancements

A Multitude of Video Enhancements


AMD’s Catalyst Omega drivers’ ability extends quite far past adding VSR and looping in a few performance improvements. Remember, these drivers are all about enhancing user experience and in order to do that, a number of new image quality features have been implemented, all of which focus on video playback and can be enabled in the Catalyst Control Center.

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Fluid Motion technology acts much like a modern HDTV’s onboard motion smoother and utilizes the graphics compute modules within 7x00-series APUs and R7 / R9 series discrete cards. This allows for quick analysis of a given output stream followed by accurate frame interpolation which should eliminate perceptible video judder. For the time being this feature is being rolled out within Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 14 but other programs may follow in the future.

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The Contour Removal feature has a slightly larger compatibility list which includes AMD’s Athlon and 7x00-series APUs alongside all R-series graphics cards. While previous driver iteration already included some form of algorithm for removing compression artifacts, Contour Removal goes about its business without sacrificing any other image quality elements. This means the scene can remain sharp and details remain intact.

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Another driver-level video enhancement technique that’s already present in on Radeon graphics cards is 1080P Detail Enhancement. It includes items like edge-enhancement, de-noise, mosquito noise reduction and de-blocking, all of which can have a drastic affect upon the sharpness and clarity of compressed and low resolution content when it’s played on a 1080P display.

Since Detail Enhancement is accomplished within the driver itself and performed through the graphics card’s compute modules, there’s complete compatibility with applications like XBMC / Kodi which don’t have such advanced hardware-level capabilities. With the Omega drivers, these key elements are making their way into AMD’s APUs.

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The last but certainly not least piece of change is the new FullHD to UltraHD upscaler which automatically runs the background and is supposed to provide enhanced upscaling for 1080P video when it’s displayed on a 4K screen. This “feature” is actually performed through a number of technologies like Fluid Motion Video, Detail Enhancement and an advanced form of adaptive GPGPU upscaling.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Gaming Evolved Client Mantle Support & TressFX 3.0

AMD’s Gaming Evolved Client Gets Mantle


There has been a lot of press covering NVIDIA’s GeForce Experience but after its initial announcement, AMD’s Gaming Evolved Client hasn’t really been making many headlines. Powered by Raptr it initially aimed to streamline performance optimizations through the application of game-specific setting profiles. Since then it has quietly evolved into something more feature-rich and abundantly more capable.

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The GEC now has the capability to check for driver updates, record and replay gaming sessions, broadcast over Twitch and yes, optimize game settings for the best possible balance of framerates and image quality. With Catalyst Omega, the client’s 15 million users will be able to harness the processing power of AMD’s Mantle to accelerate video capture and Twitch streaming. This should lead to decreased overhead since less processing cycles will be dedicated to cross-conversion. There’s also a dedicated video editor which will also include support for Mantle.


TressFX Gets Updated to 3.0


TressFX. Anyone remember it? In short it a proprietary GPU accelerated physics system that’s meant to capitalize on the parallel processing capabilities of AMD’s GCN architecture to effectively simulate hair. The first game to use it was Tomb Raider and its skewed “hairbench” benchmark sequence. Since then it hasn’t been heard from….but now it is getting a significant update.

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Now in its version 3.0 form, TressFX can now be added to skinned geometrics so it can simulate fur. There are other updates as well which include a Maya plugin for simplified authoring on the developer side and programmer access to the full source code. Finally, there are new rendering options available for better scalability.

Will these new additions help TressFX gain popularity? It’s a bit too early to determine that but with Gaming Evolved making its way into an increasingly long list of games, we’ll surely see more spectacular hair effects soon.
 

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