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Radeon Software Crimson; The Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Montreal
A few weeks ago AMD announced a new ground-up project to improve every element of their drivers and control panel, from performance, to user interaction, to stability and everything in between. Dubbed Radeon Software, this grand plan has been years in the making and its first iteration is called Crimson. Essentially, Crimson will be the first of AMD’s once-a-year major driver updates with several minor updates interposed throughout the intervening months in an effort to keep up with new game launches, bug fixes and other optimizations.

We’ve already covered Crimson’s goals and new features in some detail but at that time we didn’t have any access to the drivers themselves or the sleek new interface that was promised. Now we are able to take a deep-dive into what is being offered since AMD is officially launching Radeon Software for public consumption. That’s pretty exciting since the Crimson Edition is supposed to not only enhance the overall user experience but also unlock a number of features that were previously inaccessible in some operating environments and with certain legacy products.

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AMD’s approach to designing Crimson focused on four primary pillars of improvement: the user experience, features, performance and overall efficiency. Each and every one of these has been addressed in some way. As we discussed in the announcement article, these all address that first “user experience” tenet in some way or another but the way each goes about things is quite a bit different.

The primary point for user experience really boils down to functionality and responsiveness. To those ends, AMD has reduced the boot times for their software by an order of magnitude, improved transition times when moving between sections in their control panel and generally moved their entire interface towards something that is cleaner and excessively user-friendly.

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That positive slant on user experience trickles down into bug reporting and the eventual fixes for those bugs as well. Many of the items that AMD’s community have been reporting as of late have been addressed but some of them have been around for what feels like forever. With that in mind, AMD is promising to roll out solutions much quicker from here on out as they begin to put additional emphasis upon their software ecosystem.

Another feature they are now talking more about is the AMD Clean Uninstall Utility. It is supposed to completely remove any last vestiges of previous Catalyst software and drivers from your system in preparation for an upgrade, general troubleshooting or a clean install. Personally, I find this somewhat ironic since the CUU has been around for quite some time now and, in my experience at least, it tends to leave around little gremlins that can seriously mess with new Radeon hardware if not addressed. Until AMD can finally prove this utility works as advertised, I’ll continue to recommend the excellent and completely free DDU.

One question many will have is about performance improvements. At this time, AMD says there are no major framerate improvements over their latest beta driver (15.7.1.1) in most games but there are some minor boosts in DX12 benchmarks. Crimson is mainly focused on rolling out the new software interface rather than addressing any perceived performance shortfalls. With that being said, some additional optimizations have been rolled out for Rainbow 6: Siege, Star Wars Battlefront and Call of Duty Black Ops 3, all of which have seen 5% and lower boosts. I’ll go over all of that a bit later in this review.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
FreeSync Improvements / Frame Pacing Goes DX9

FreeSync Improvements


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As the FreeSync ecosystem continues to evolve, monitor manufacturers are launching some truly enticing products, many of which are less expensive yet still as capable as their G-SYNC counterparts. AMD has also been moving to upgrade FreeSync’s feature set in some pretty substantial ways.

Within Crimson here will be support for FreeSync in a DX9 environment when Crossfire is used. This was an item mysteriously missing from previous iterations and an area where G-SYNC excelled. In addition, AMD has announced they will be working with monitor manufacturers to enable FreeSync through HDMI as well but that isn’t anything new since laptops with this feature were first demoed at Computex 2015.

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Perhaps the biggest addition this time is what AMD calls Low Framerate Compensation or LFC. If you remember our original FreeSync review, I commented about how the gameplay experience got all bent out of sorts when the framerate dropped under the display’s minimal FreeSync-supported refresh rate. Essentially, stuttering became commonplace as the framerates synced with the display’s lower refresh ratios in an effort to eliminate flickering.

Given that many first-generation FreeSync displays has a lower “zone” of 40Hz, this caused no small number of issues when FreeSync was enabled alongside V-Sync. Framerates that should have been still completely playable suffered in a massive way, eliminating the benefits of AMD’s technology for a large number of users who may not have been able to push higher framerates to their monitor.

This situation is about to change in a big way with LFC. With it, AMD is able to adaptively adjust their GPU output as well as the monitor’s refresh rate to prevent those jarring step-downs when the framerate falls under a display’s minimum supported FreeSync zone.

We’ll test this out in the coming weeks but for the time being it is important to know that not all FreeSync displays will be compatible. Essentially, any display with a maximum refresh rate that’s 2.5 times higher or more than the minimum refresh rate will be compatible. Unfortunately, that means monitors with a 40Hz to 75Hz zone will be left on the table but most newer FreeSync panels feature 30-75 or 30-100 or higher rates so there’s very little reason to be concerned.


Frame Pacing Goes DX9


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AMD’s Crossfire solutions used to be known for their myriad issues with high frame times and microstutter. For the most part those problems have been stamped out but there were still some lingering hitches in popular DX9 titles. Simply put, AMD’s frame pacing fixes were rolled out into DX11 and DX10 environments but remained elusive for DX9 games. With Crimson that will be changing and most DX9-based games should now have excellent motion fluidity.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Understanding Shader Cache

Understanding Shader Cache


The Radeon Software Crimson Edition also brings with it something AMD calls Shader Cache which is a novel feature that could help drastically reduce game load time and in-game stuttering.

To understand what Shader Cache does, you first have to understand one of the culprits behind some of the major hiccups in today’s open world games. In order to offer a seamless transition from one zone to another in titles like Dragon Age, Fallout 4, Far Cry 4 and others, a game engine will temporarily store complied shaders within the graphics driver before they are discarded. This is an inherently inefficient system since those same elements will need to be re-complied, re-stored and eventually reloaded whenever that section of the game is visited again.

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AMD’s Shader Cache essentially adds another layer to that cyclical compile / load / discard routine by redirecting the compiled shaders to a user’s storage subsystem, be it a hard drive or SSD. This means shaders will be ready to be called upon in their pre-compiled forms within a segmented cache file. As a result, level load times can be drastically reduced in DX10 and DX11 games (no mention was made about DX12 and DX9), especially on systems with slower storage components.

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There are many other potential areas that can greatly benefit from Shader Cache. Since pre-complied shaders are stored locally in an area that generally allows for quick access, CPU overhead can be reduced and there may be substantially less in-game stutters as the system doesn’t have to fight to compile / load resources. The potential here is almost limitless, especially when it comes to eliminating those nasty stutters in certain open world games when they try to process shader elements in real-time. You can see what happens in the graph (provided by AMD) above.

Within the new Radeon Software you enable Shader Cache under the Gaming tab or it can be turned on within each game’s individual profile. Its pretty straightforward but there are a few things to remember: in order to actually cache any compiled shaders, at least one run-through of a given level is required so the effects won’t be immediate. In addition, complied shaders will take up a not-so-insignificant amount of your storage capacity (especially if a sub-1TB SSD is being used).

AMD also gives users the option to clear out their Shader Cache file by navigating to AppData\Local\AMD\DXCache. Hopefully at some point in time this function will be integrated directly into the Radeon Software suite.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Optimized Flip Queues / Even More GPU Efficiency

Optimized Flip Queues


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Outside of competitive FPS and MOBA gamers, there may not be all that many who know about flip queuing sizes or their effect upon input lag. Essentially, the flip queue size determines the number of frames the driver will render ahead of time, before they are displayed on the screen. Provided your CPU is fast enough, setting this to an extremely low number like “1” or even “0” means less processing time between inputs and onscreen action. So the lower the better, though there is a possibility of inducing lower framerates or higher lag if your system can’t keep up.

NVIDIA uses an option called Max Prerendered Frames to modify this value but gamers using AMD hardware had to look towards software like RadeonPro for this option. Now optimizations for it will be integrated directly into AMD’s driver stack but unfortunately not accessible as a user-controlled option.


Even More GPU Efficiency


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AMD’s Frame Rate Target Control certainly isn’t anything new but it can have a drastic impact upon both performance and power consumption when enabled. Essentially, it allows users to set a target framerate that remains playable yet doesn’t require the full amount of GPU resources to achieve. For example, you may have a Fury X and want to play Rocket League (see chart above) knowing full well your ultra powerful card only needs a fraction of its true potential to deliver playable framerates in such a lightweight game. Enabling FRTC allows the GPU to carefully modulate its output to achieve a user-defined framerate while saving potentially huge amounts of power, lowering temperatures and reducing fan noise.

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With Crimson, the FRTC algorithm has undergone a number of improvements which allow it to deliver enhanced efficiency. Most of this has been achieved by carefully enhancing the baseline algorithm but support has also been broadened to include DX9, DX10 and DX11 games. In addition, the framerate target range has been augmented to support outputs between 30 and 200 frames per second.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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A Deep Dive into Radeon Software’s User Interface

A Deep Dive into Radeon Software’s User Interface


I’ve been using Radeon Software for the better part of a week now with an R9 380X and I’m beyond impressed. While there are certainly some areas that need some additional polish, it is leaps and bounds better than anything AMD used to offer and, dare I say, it is infinitely more functional than NVIDIA’s current control panel. Obviously the goal here was to bring the much-maligned Catalyst software up to current expectations and I’d say that’s exactly what was achieved.

In this section, I’ll walk you through the interface from installation all the way into the various features. It’s impossible to get into every minute detail but here goes nothing….;

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After a relatively long extraction process, you’ll be greeted by AMD’s new installer which is not only sleek but it allows for selection of various components rather than jumping through the Custom option. I can actually see this being a hindrance to newcomers who may not know what some items do and choose to uncheck them. Ironically, there’s an option to install the old AMD Control Center or the new AMD Settings.

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The actually installation process is filled with self-serving promotions for AMD-sponsored games and content but I can’t find reason to complain about it since both AMD and NVIDIA have these ads running during their install process.

At this point, you’d normally have time to go make yourself a sandwich and pour a good beer since the old Install Manager took so bloody long to run its course, even with a relatively speedy SSD installed. Not with the new software. The entire process took less than a minute on an Intel 730 SSD and ran to 1:25 on an older HDD. Brilliant!

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Other than an extremely quick installation routine, users who have become accustomed to the sluggish boot times of CCC will be astounded with how quickly Radeon Settings initiates. It is slap-in-the-face fast.

At the main Home screen you are greeted with a very clean navigation bar at the top followed by a large advertising screen and additional selection icons below that which control functionality of the software itself. There are also direct links to AMD’s social media feeds. Let’s move onto those three lower tabs before getting into the real “meat” of this new interface.

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The updates section is pretty straightforward with an indication of the currently installed software version as well as a link to fetch any updates. I can’t comment about how well the auto-update feature works since this is the absolute latest build bit I’m hoping it is as seamless as Radeon Software’s other features.

Preferences simply allows for more control over the Radeon Settings interface and how it goes about its job. The ability to turn off banner ads has been added while there is also a handy Report Issue link that will bring you to AMD’s standard online problem report form.

Notifications are seamlessly handled via a subtle glowing red number without any annoying pop-ups and can be instantly deleted in their own section.

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The Gaming tab is likely where you will spend most of your time. The software does an outstanding job of detecting installed games and if a title isn’t found, AMD has a simple “Add” button that can be used to manually add titles. I’ve noticed that Radeon Settings has the ability to scan UPlay, Origin and Steam but it doesn’t automatically include GoG Galaxy games like The Witcher 3.

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The Global Settings in an all-encompassing group of settings that will be universally applied to any game that doesn’t have a customized profile (more on those profiles a bit later). It is broken down into basic image quality enhancements and AMD’s ubiquitous Overdrive.

For image quality improvements you will find the usual controls for AA and AF modes, GPU buffering, texture filtering and tessellation optimizations. Among the newer features are the aforementioned Shader Cache (default set to AMD Optimized) and FRTC. The Framerate Target Control setting includes a secondary slider which allows you to indicate the framerate target for all games.

The Global Overdrive is essentially AMD’s overclocking tool which, unlike the other features, hasn’t been improved one iota. There’s no voltage control and temperature logging is nowhere to be seen. Luckily there are third party tools that accomplish these same goals much better.

All in all, this section is very well presented and every single one of the settings was applied with a minimum of fuss during my testing. The only hiccup I experienced was a dialog box that allowed for clearing of that Shader Cache without jumping through Windows folders. It would be nice to have the ability to selectively delete the cache files of games that are no longer played while leaving other, more-accessed files alone.

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Without a doubt, the most impressive additions to Radeon Settings are the game-specific profiles which can be accessed by simply clicking on the three small dots next to a game’s name within the main Gaming section. Whereas the Global Settings applies generalized settings for every game that doesn’t have its own profile, these areas allow you to customize the behavior of each game agnostically, thus overriding the Global Settings for just that one title.

This section mirrors the Global Settings perfectly, giving gamers the ability to set overclocking, FRTC, Shader Caching and other items individually for a particular title. The only difference here is the Profile Properties which gives a quick overview of game properties such as location and your unique gamer ID. Again, this is extremely well implemented and every game I played had the settings applied without any problems.

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Next up on this whirlwind tour is the Video section which is basically a rehash of AMD’s similarly-named settings within the Catalyst Control Center. Here you will be able to modify basic color and display output options by selecting one of the presets or going through the Custom dialog box. AMD’s GPU-compute based Steady Video and Fluid Motion Video are present and accounted for as well.

Oddly enough, AMD indicates there should be a Demo Mode which shows any modifications in real-time before applying them. You’ll see that option in the upper right hand corner. I’m assuming this is supposed to open a secondary window which shows any settings but I couldn’t get it to actually show up. This is a minor bug but one that needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

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The Display area is pretty basic but there’s a lot of somewhat hidden functionality here as well. There are toggles for features like FreeSync and Virtual Super Resolution (provided your monitor and GPU supports them) along with some essential options like GPU upscaling. Meanwhile, hitting that Additional Settings button in the upper right hand corner brings up a blast from the past….

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Recognize this? Yup, that’s the old clunky CCC menu that allows for changes to your desktop color scheme and additional control over your monitor. I’m guessing AMD hasn’t quite got around to lopping this area into their new wrapper yet.

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I’ve skipped over the Eyefinity area for the time being since I don’t have a trio of monitors hooked up to this system. However, you’ll be using it to add, modify and delete Eyefinity display groups. Supposedly, this is done in a much more seamless way than before.

The System section is an information overview of nearly everything you are running from the graphics card to processors to the memory. There’s also an option to copy all of the information onto the Windows clipboard.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
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Montreal
Benchmarks & Closing Thoughts

Benchmarks & Closing Thoughts


While this overview only scratches the surface of what AMD is offering with Radeon Software Crimson, I have to say that “impressed” barely scratches the surface of my feelings towards it. Over the last few years I have been extremely critical of AMD’s approach to software since it felt like their great hardware was always hobbled by a poorly implemented and slowly updated driver stack. Without a good software support structure, a company can have the absolute best hardware around but it will ultimately fall flat. Crimson changes that tune in a big way and, provided AMD can keep it updated, relevant and bug-free, I think it could start swaying users who may have gone over to *ahem* greener pastures.

AMD’s approach to Crimson and Radeon Settings in general needs complimenting. They approached the user experience in a wholly holistic manner rather than focusing their resources on a few key elements. The end result is a well-implemented, extremely user-friendly piece of software that seems to be backed up with a broad feature set and a relatively stable ecosystem.

Improving performance wasn’t an area of concern this time around since AMD’s driver team has been quite quick to add optimizations as of late. Titles like Star Wars Battlefront and Fallout 4 were supported from almost day one, which points towards a much more proactive approach than in the past where weeks or months would go by after a key launch without any optimizations to speak of. Hopefully this will be the rule rather than the exception as AMD and the Radeon Technology Group move forward. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that overall framerate metrics weren’t touched….

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Putting nearly 20 games through the wringer yielded some interesting results for Crimson, some of which were expected while others weren’t. First and foremost, it needs to be mentioned that the driver didn’t exhibit any problems, hiccups or crashes while in-game. This is a good sign since we experienced a good number of incompatibilities with some versions of 15.7 including app crashes in Far Cry 4, Fallout 4 and Star Wars: Battlefront.

On the performance end of the spectrum, the average framerate on an R9 390 certainly seems to be trending upwards with very good improvements in Fallout 4 and Star Wars: Battlefront. That was somewhat tempered by minor downgrades in Shadow of Mordor and Hitman, neither of which went beyond a few percentage points and didn’t negatively impact gameplay. All the other games exhibited performance deltas that were well within the margin of error.

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Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be a beta software overview if everything went smoothly…..and it didn’t. Even on a fresh install of Windows 8.1 and Windows 10, I experienced a dozen or so Radeon Settings app crashes. Every one of these occurred during shut down or when the system entered Sleep Mode at seemingly random intervals. Thus, they didn’t negatively impact gameplay or day-to-day system stability but it is nonetheless worth mentioning.

So this leaves me with trying to find a way to wrap all this up. From a personal perspective, I have to respect what AMD has done here. In order to build a strong hardware lineup in the future, they are attempting to first rebuild a strong software foundation. That has lead to a laudable emphasis on improving the user experience by designing a functional, quick, and feature-packed piece of software that perfectly complements every card (and APU!) in their lineup. Current and future Radeon buyers really couldn’t have asked for more.
 
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