AMD has introduced what may be its biggest graphics driver release ever, with more than 20 new features, 400 bug fixes, and some miscellaneous performance improvements.
The release, dubbed Catalyst Omega, marks a departure from AMD's policy of posting new drivers on an as-needed basis. Catalyst Omega drivers will be special, yearly releases into which the company will bundle major new features. These releases will complement the more frequent maintenance updates, which will continue to be posted as needed.
Here are the highlights of the first Catalyst Omega release, which is out today:
Virtual Super Resolution. This feature is AMD's answer to Dynamic Super Resolution, which Nvidia introduced with the GeForce GTX 970 and 980 earlier this fall. Like DSR, VSR renders games above the display's native resolution and then downscales them to fit. The effect is something akin to full-scene antialiasing, and at least in the case of DSR, it can pay real dividends in terms of image quality. The downside is, obviously, a high performance cost.
VSR currently works only on Radeon R9 285 and R9 290 series graphics cards, and it supports the modes outlined in the matrix below. The feature can be enabled by ticking a checkbox in the Catalyst Control Center (under the My Digital Flat Panels section). Users can then select higher resolutions via in-game menus. Unlike with DSR, there's no way to dictate which scaling modes are exposed to games, and there's no slider to change the smoothness of the downscaling filter.
AMD is cooking up a "phase 2" driver that will add VSR capabilities (with 4K downscaling) to additional cards, including everything from the Radeon R7 260 up. That driver is expected in the January-February time frame.
Support for new hardware. This driver is the first one with support for FreeSync, AMD's alternative to G-Sync. Both G-Sync and FreeSync are designed to smooth game animation by making the display's refresh rate match the in-game frame rate. AMD tells us FreeSync monitors are currently in mass production, and the displays are being validated with the Catalyst Omega driver. Expect FreeSync monitors to show up in stores in January or February.
The Catalyst Omega driver is also compatible with 5K monitors like Dell's UltraSharp UP2715K, which has a 5120x2880 resolution and a 60Hz refresh rate. Users can now put together 24-display EyeFinity setups, as well. (AMD promises "smooth, tear free video" across such setups.) Finally, Alienware's Graphics Amplifier is supported. The Graphics Amplifier allows the Alienware 13 notebook to tap into the power of a full-fledged desktop GPU.
Performance optimizations. AMD says performance wasn't a "huge focus" for the Catalyst Omega driver, because the company prefers to roll out optimizations as soon as possible through its mainline driver updates. Nevertheless, this driver does include some efficiency improvements. Those improvements can purportedly boost performance by as much as 15% on some configurations, particularly systems with many CPU cores.
Users with multi-GPU setups can also look forward to frame-pacing enhancements in more than 20 games, including titles like Batman: Arkham Origins, the Metro series, Tomb Raider, and Sniper Elite 3. In some cases, AMD has tweaked existing frame-pacing algorithms; in others, it's created new ones. Better frame pacing should mean smoother, less jittery animation, as the frame-time graphs below demonstrate.
Bug fixes and QA improvements. AMD has bolstered its quality-assurance efforts—not just for this release, but for all Catalyst drivers going forward.
Automated testing (which seeks out bluescreens, crashes, and the like) has gone up by 65%. The company has also expanded the number of "human-run test cases" by 12%, and it's now testing on "10% more systems with 10% more display options."
Additionally, AMD has worked with community managers on social media to identify the 10 most pressing issues affecting users—and it's fixed all of them. (You can see a list below.) AMD plans to continue tracking down and squashing top-10 issues like these in "every release" going forward.
Capture and streaming support in Mantle games. A growing number of games use AMD's Mantle graphics API. Now, with the Catalyst Omegas, those games can be captured and streamed to Twitch.tv via the AMD Gaming Evolved client. As with Direct3D capture and streaming, AMD says users won't see a performance hit—and overlays are supported.
The company is also working on benchmark tools to record frame rates (and frame times) in Mantle titles, but it's "not quite there yet." Fraps is a Direct3D-only affair right now, so measuring performance in Mantle games requires either a built-in benchmark mode or something like the Nvidia FCAT tools we use for GPU testing.
New video processing mojo. The Catalyst Omega release adds a trifecta of video processing features:
- AMD Fluid Motion Video, which uses the GPU's compute capabilities to generate extra frames and interpolate them between existing ones. AMD says Fluid Motion can help smooth out Blu-ray playback on lower-power APUs.
- Contour removal, which uses localized blurring to buff out macro blocks in compressed video. Users can adjust the filter to maximize either sharpness or block removal.
- 1080p detail enhancement, a full-scene edge enhancement filter that's intended to give low-resolution video the "look-and-feel" of 1080p content.
All three features should work on AMD 7000-series APUs and R-series Radeon GPUs. Contour removal also works on Athlon APUs.
Developer-centric additions. Programmers can look forward to support for TressFX Hair 3.0, OpenCL 2.0, and new versions of AMD CodeXL and PerfStudio performance analysis and debugging tools.
The Catalyst Omega driver can be downloaded here on AMD's website.
It's good to see AMD pay more attention to its drivers, particularly on the QA front. The only downside is that, in the future, major features may be delayed slightly to fit the yearly Catalyst Omega release schedule. AMD conceded that some of today's additions "could have been deployed a month or two ago." The firm believes it's "more exciting" for users to get many new features at once, however. Big releases like these are also advantageous from a marketing standpoint, since AMD can maximize press coverage and user awareness.
Incidentally, the timing of this release is no coincidence. We're told the policy behind the Catalyst Omega initiative is tied to AMD's recent CEO switch. Apparently, a "lot of changes" have been made from high up. Many existing staffers have gotten new roles, and a "lot of new people" have been brought in. AMD now views Catalyst drivers as a "standalone product," and today's launch is clear evidence of that strategy.