The supposedly bumpy quality of Radeon graphics drivers has been conventional wisdom among PC enthusiasts for years. Discussions of graphics-card performance often include at least one vague remark like "yeah, but AMD drivers." It's a sore spot for fanboys, and it's an easy way to start a flamewar. Whether it's justified or not, that perception may have harmed the reputation of Radeons in recent memory for some.
AMD has done a lot of work recently to combat this perception. Two years ago, the company released its Catalyst Omega driver. This major update brought a raft of bug fixes and performance optimizations with it, as well as new features like Virtual Super Resolution and official FreeSync support. It was the first time AMD had openly acknowledged that it had an image problem surrounding its driver software, and it promised a concerted effort to turn things around.
AMD said that Catalyst Omega was the first of many annual major updates, and 2015 didn't disappoint. Radeon Software Crimson Edition debuted last year, bringing along another big bundle of enhancements and embellishments. Crimson didn't offer the performance uplift that Catalyst Omega did. Instead, the company focused on stability and bugfixes. It also (mostly) put the venerable Catalyst Control Center out to pasture in favor of a slick new app called Radeon Settings. Now that we've been using Radeon Settings for over a year now, we can say that was the right choice.
With a solid software foundation underneath its Radeons, AMD is setting its sights on feature parity with Nvidia's GeForce Experience suite. One of the coolest features of modern GeForce graphics cards is the ShadowPlay video capture system. Built into GeForce Experience, ShadowPlay uses the graphics card's onboard video-processing hardware to encode high-quality compressed video streams on the fly with low overhead. This means even folks with relatively modest hardware can stream HD gameplay to their friends.
Until now, Radeon owners have had to rely on extra software with support for their cards' built-in video-encoding hardware, like the Gaming Evolved app or this Open Broadcaster Software plugin, to enjoy hardware-accelerated on-the-fly encoding.
Today, that all changes. We're taking the wraps off another major Radeon update this morning: Radeon Software Crimson ReLive Edition. The name's a bit of a mouthful, and it's not clear whether ReLive is meant to be spoken as "relive" or "Re-Live" (as in, live-streaming.) Either way, ReLive is the name of AMD's first-party answer to ShadowPlay. The new video-capture-and-encoding technology works on all GCN Radeons—everything from the HD 7000 series and after.
ReLive isn't the only big feature debuting in the new driver. AMD purchased a little software company called HiAlgo earlier in the year, and that company's Chill product is being integrated right into the driver. Chill has the potential to reduce energy usage and GPU temperatures in games that can produce exceptionally high framerates, like CS:GO and World of Warcraft, without harming fluidity and responsiveness when it's needed.
AMD's driver isn't the only focus of today's software release, either. To make benchmarking easier, the company is taking the wraps off an open-source frame capture and analysis app called Open Capture and Analysis Tool (or OCAT), as well as some other goodies that we'll talk about later. OCAT builds on the widely-used PresentMon utility to make frame-time benchmarking easier for hardcore reviewers and casual gamers alike.
A good first impression
AMD's latest drivers are a little different right from the get-go. AMD has used its own installer for a while now, but along with the ReLive update comes a revised setup process with a smoother look and a slick new interface. AMD has finally included a "clean install" option in the setup process that nukes existing settings to make way for the new driver's defaults. The new installer superficially resembles the Radeon Settings app, which gives it a more coherent look and feel.
Once the drivers are installed, you'll find the Radeon Settings app right where it usually is: at the top of every context menu. Nvidia actually does this too, and I've complained about it before with them as well. I'd like to see an option to disable the context menu entry during setup. Anyway, load up Radeon Settings and notice an extra tab at the top for Radeon ReLive. Let's check it out.
The video kids
I probably don't have to tell you that game streaming is a big deal. Viewers watched a total of 459,366 years of streamed gameplay in 2015 on Twitch.tv alone, and the phenomenon has only grown since. More and more, young folks are tuning in to watch other people play games instead of TV or movies. A lot of people are eager to get into the scene, but until relatively recently streaming your own videogame footage required fairly beefy hardware and a significant amount of setup. Nvidia's ShadowPlay is just one solution that has gone a long way toward lowering the bar to entry, and now ReLive brings that same ease of use to AMD hardware.
ReLive supports streaming high-quality video straight to disk, or a lower-bitrate stream to an online service. The actual recording options available will depend on what graphics card you're using. My wizened R9 290X only supports AVC (H.264), but folks with Polaris Radeons will have the option of using the newer HEVC (H.265) codec. ReLive lets me choose resolutions up to 4K UHD and either 30 or 60 FPS, although selecting an excessively high option (like 4K60) pops up a warning that "more optimal settings will be used automatically while recording." Actually trying to record with those settings produced a 60 FPS 1080p video. Your mileage may vary depending on your hardware and display.
I really appreciate the fact that ReLive is off by default. Too often, companies shove these new products and features on the unwitting or unwilling consumer. Unlike GeForce Experience, Radeon Settings also doesn't require a user to create a whole new account or link a Google or Facebook account to a third-party service in order to work. We appreciate that openness.
Enabling the feature is a simple matter of clicking the toggle switch on the ReLive tab in Radeon Settings, and that creates four new tabs in the window: Global, Recording, Streaming, and Overlay. You'll start on the Global page, and on this page you can customize the save location for local recordings as well as the hotkeys used to control the various ReLive functions.
Over on the Recording and Streaming pages you can set up unique settings for the two different modes. AMD includes drop-down selectors for resolution, framerate, codec, and audio bitrate, plus a slider for the video bitrate. There are automatic settings for streaming to Twitch or YouTube (simply requiring a sign-in for either service), or a custom Real-Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) server. Users have the option to archive livestreams, saving them in the recordings folder defined on the General page. One niggle I had is that there's no option to configure the filename used. Recordings get saved with the starting date and time, and livestreams have "Stream" prepended.
On the Recordings page, users can enable the Instant Replay function. This feature works like similar features from Nvidia, Sony, and Microsoft—when the appropriate key combination is entered, the app saves the last x seconds or minutes of gameplay to the pre-configured recordings folder. The Instant Replay period is configurable up to 20 minutes, and the ReLive configuration window provides a handy estimate of the approximate size of the saved replay file.
Hotkey bindings are required to include a modifier key (Ctrl, Shift, or Alt) and use a letter or number. Trying to bind, say, Ctrl+Shift+Page Down won't work. I found this a little frustrating because I'm used to using that very key combination to start recording video using my usual streaming app, Open Broadcaster Software. Still, the default streaming key (Ctrl+Shift+G) is easy enough to remember. ReLive's hotkeys are captured globally, though, and that means these key combinations can't be used in other applications.
That global hook is annoying. Using Paint.net to create this very article, Ctrl+Shift+S (for "Save As...") is bound to "Save Instant Replay" by default for ReLive. AMD's software wasn't doing anything because I had the "Record Desktop" function disabled, but I still couldn't use it in Paint.net. This is sort of a more general complaint about global hotkeys, but ReLive doesn't have the ability to disable individual functions or hotkeys, so if you don't think you'll be using Instant Replay or a camera (as examples) you'll want to re-bind those functions to something ridiculous like Ctrl+Alt+Shift+P.