AMD’s last major update to its graphics driver package, Catalyst Omega, added more than 20 features and fixed more than 400 bugs for Radeon owners. Catalyst Omega also turned on FreeSync and Virtual Super Resolution, features that are now household names. AMD also promised that Catalyst Omega would be the first in a series of annual major updates that would add new features and refinements to the company’s driver software.
True to its word, AMD’s second major Radeon software release is here—but Catalyst is no more. The company’s driver packages will now be called Radeon Software, and Radeon Software Crimson Edition is the first release under the new name.
Crimson (as I’ll call it from here on out for brevity’s sake) is more than a rebranding exercise, though. This release offers 12 new or improved features, up to 20% higher performance, and tools to eke more efficiency out of AMD graphics cards. Alongside the major driver update itself, AMD is introducing a new management utility called Radeon Settings.
AMD boasts of this software’s all-new user interface, better UI performance, improved in-game performance, and higher power efficiency. Those are some ambitious changes, and we’ll see whether AMD accomplished everything on its to-do list with Radeon Settings in a moment. For now, let’s see what Radeon Software Crimson has in store for those with the red team’s graphics cards in their PCs.
If we were to sum up AMD’s goal for Crimson in one word, it’d probably be stability. The company says it ran twice as many automated test cases and 25% more manual test cases during QA on Crimson. It also claims to have tested Crimson on 15% more system configurations, including “the latest technologies.”
AMD also polled the community of Radeon users for their top 10 most annoying bugs, and it claims to have fixed those issues in the Crimson release. Some of the more galling problems that the community brought to light included GTA V crashes on Radeon R9 390X cards, errors related to driver installation on systems with Radeon R9 380 cards, and a Diablo 3 crash in the Desolate Sands area of the game.
FreeSync has learned some new tricks in Crimson. AMD has enabled support for FreeSync on CrossFire multi-GPU configurations running in DirectX 9 mode for the first time. FreeSync also gets some polish in certain corner cases where the display isn’t receiving frames faster than its minimum refresh rate.
In that situation, and with v-sync on, a feature called low framerate compensation (LFC) will prevent both tearing artifacts and motion judder. With v-sync off, LFC will reduce (but not eliminate) tearing and judder. LFC will only work on FreeSync displays where the maximum refresh rate is greater than or equal to 2.5 times the minimum refresh rate.
Crimson is also the first public driver release with AMD’s LiquidVR developer tools enabled. LiquidVR gives devs access to tools like affinity multi-GPU, direct-to-display, latest data latch, and asynchronous shaders. LiquidVR is ultimately meant to let devs create a smoother, more immersive VR experience.
Performance and efficiency improvements
Shader Cache is a Crimson feature that’s meant to reduce level load times by storing compiled shaders in a cache on the system’s hard drive, a technique that could cut load times up to one-third compared to older driver versions.
Shader Cache could also improve frame time consistency in some cases. We should point out that AMD reached that conclusion by calculating the standard deviation of frame times in its data, a method we don’t recommend.
Frame pacing improves frame-time consistency for graphics cards in CrossFire configurations, and it first made its debut a couple years ago with a driver update for the Radeon HD 7990. That feature gets extended to games running in DirectX 9 mode in Crimson, and to demonstrate its benefits, AMD provided the impressively smooth frame-time graph above. Frame pacing for DX9 could help reduce CrossFire-related microstuttering for popular e-sports titles like League of Legends and Dota 2.
Another change—and potential improvement—for e-sports players is an optimized flip queue size. The Crimson drivers can make use of only a single frame buffer in games where the additional input lag generated by triple-buffering doesn’t make sense, like League of Legends or Dota 2. For an idea of where this optimization takes place, have a look at our handy, if oversimplified, diagram of the frame production process:
Moving to a single buffer, as AMD’s example above shows, can reduce input lag to 16.7 ms on a 60Hz display, versus 50 ms with triple-buffering enabled. AMD says this improvement makes mouse and keyboard input more responsive. We don’t see a per-application setting for the flip queue size in Radeon Settings, so we’re guessing that Crimson manages it automatically.
Radeon owners may also see improved performance in general from Crimson. In a best-case scenario with an AMD Radeon R9 Fury X and Crimson, the company says it achieved a 20% improvement in average FPS with the Fable Legends DirectX 12 benchmark running at 1080p. The company’s base results were collected with Catalyst 15.7.1 drivers. We put these numbers to the test using our own Fury X at the same settings and with the same software. Here are our results:
The numbers above are certainly a big improvement over Catalyst 15.7.1. For our own curiosity, we collected a third set of results with Catalyst 15.11.1 at similar settings, and we saw average FPS and frame-time numbers similar to the ones we collected with Crimson. It seems that whatever magic is present in Crimson is also in the wild already with Catalyst 15.11.1. Still, it’s good to see that AMD can extract additional performance from its graphics cards with software updates, as we’ve suspected in our past reviews.
Efficiency is another major theme of the Crimson release, and the road to AMD’s claimed efficiency increases is Frame Rate Target Control, or FRTC. FRTC is supposed to help reduce power consumption when frame rates would otherwise rocket into the multiple hundreds of FPS, like menus and loading screens.
To curb these apparently wasteful situations, FRTC can be set to cap frame rates at anywhere from 30 FPS to 200 FPS, and it can be configured as a global setting or on a per-application basis. With FRTC on, AMD says Crimson can reduce system power consumption up to 1.8x. FRTC works with DX9, DX10, and DX11 games under Crimson.
A look at Radeon Settings
Radeon owners will already be familiar with AMD’s venerable Catalyst Control Center software. Catalyst Control Center is riding into the sunset alongside the Catalyst driver with the advent of Crimson. The new sheriff in town is called Radeon Settings. AMD says Radeon Settings is a “ground-up rebuild” of its management utility using the Qt framework.
To be honest, my experience with AMD’s older Catalyst releases is limited. My main PC gets its pixel-pushing power from Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 760, and I’ve long used the green team’s GeForce Experience software to manage driver updates and graphics settings. Our Casewarmer test system, on the other hand, is a perfect Radeon Software Crimson Edition testbed. This machine comprises an AMD A10-7850K APU and an AMD A88X motherboard.
For reference, the most recent release of Catalyst Control Center for this system, 2015.0804.21.41908, uses a spare (if serviceable) breadcrumb-based interface with link-style paths to display, power, video, gaming, performance, and audio settings. CCC is pretty sluggish to start even on my SSD-equipped testbed system. The software needed a few seconds to load when I launched it from its tray icon.
Perhaps it was just a quirk of trying to install beta driver software on an already-abused testbed system, but my first attempt at installing Crimson resulted in a hung system and a black screen. My PC came up fine after a reboot, so no harm done. I proceeded to uninstall any vestiges of graphics drivers from both Nvidia and AMD before running AMD’s own driver cleaner tool. After that, Crimson installed just fine.
AMD isn’t kidding about the improved responsiveness of Radeon Settings, the CCC replacement included in Crimson. The software launched instantly when I clicked its tray icon, and I didn’t notice any lag when moving around its transition-heavy interface. Catalyst Control Center didn’t feel slow to me after its long start-up time, but it’s nice that Radeon Settings is snappier overall.
The latest version of GeForce Experience is a slug to start compared to Radeon Settings, even on my wholly modern main machine. It also felt slower to respond under certain demands, like enumerating all of the Steam games I have installed. To be fair, pulling up a list of games and all of their optimal settings might be a tough task on a system with lots of titles installed, but that fact doesn’t fully excuse GFE’s occasional pokiness.
There are five tabs
The main Settings interface groups its wide range of options under five main tabs: Gaming, Video, Display, Eyefinity, and System. Settings’ main screen shows a carousel of ads for games and hardware from AMD’s partners by default, but that behavior can be turned off in a single click under the Preferences tab. These ads are tasteful and don’t appear to be targeted, at least.
The Gaming tab lets users set global graphics settings for parameters like anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering, v-sync, the new Shader Cache feature, and Frame Rate Target Control. Users can also tailor per-game graphics settings here. For demonstrative purposes, we’ve shown the per-game configuration screen for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Video contains a handful of pre-baked “enhancement” profiles for watching, well, videos. These profiles control sharpening, “color vibrance,” AMD Steady Video, and AMD Fluid Motion Video. I was prepared to dismiss these profiles out of hand, but I actually didn’t find them too objectionable in use. AMD also offers a neat “demo mode” that lets you see what each profile will look like in a split-screen view with the source video. It doesn’t hurt to try these profiles out to see whether they help the source material.
The Display tab shows all of the screens connected to the host PC. This tab lets users control features like FreeSync, Virtual Super Resolution, and GPU scaling.
Clicking “Additional Settings” on the Display tab brings up a CCC-like interface for some more esoteric display settings, like color correction, supported HDTV modes, and custom resolutions. It’s all well and good to have control over these settings, but I found it jarring to get kicked out to an older-style interface to change them.
If you’re using AMD’s Eyefinity multiple-monitor tech, the Eyefinity tab will presumably let you tweak those settings. I don’t have enough monitors in my labs to get Eyefinity enabled on my test system, so we’ll have to leave the exploration of this tab for a later date.
Finally, the System tab lets users see key information about their Radeon hardware and software, alongside basic system info like the CPU model, the amount of main memory and graphics memory, the installed graphics card, and more. A Hardware sub-section of this tab displays a GPU-Z-like interface with more in-depth specs of the installed graphics adapter.
Overall, AMD should pride itself on a job well done here. For the most part, Radeon Settings feels as polished as Nvidia’s competing solution.
During the Crimson setup process, users can choose to get AMD’s Gaming Evolved software, too. Gaming Evolved is a reskin of the Raptr client application, and it provides services like Twitch streaming, video capture, game settings optimization, and automatic driver updates. If this all sounds a lot like GeForce Experience, it should, since both applications offer similar feature lists.
High-quality software and regular driver updates are a huge part of the graphics card ownership experience. If our time with Radeon Software Crimson Edition is any indication, AMD has taken this truth to heart for its latest major release. Radeon Settings shows an impressive level of polish already, and AMD’s included Gaming Evolved software offers many of the same features as GeForce Experience does for Nvidia owners, even if Gaming Evolved isn’t as tightly-integrated as GFE. If you own a compatible Radeon, we see no reason to hold off installing Crimson.
AMD says it plans up to six major WHQL Radeon Software releases in 2016, along with additional beta releases. That’s compared to three WHQL releases and nine beta releases for all of 2015. Given that Nvidia will be releasing 12 WHQL driver updates by the end of this year alone, AMD may have to lean on quality over quantity for those releases, but the polish of Radeon Software Crimson Edition suggests the company has the chops necessary to do just that.