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.
Wading into the stream
Actually using ReLive is as simple as opening the app you want to capture and pressing the appropriate key combination. A little notification will pop up in the top-right corner, and away you go. Alternatively, if you can’t remember your key combo, you can press Alt+Z to bring up the in-game toolbar. From there, you can start recording, streaming, or save a screenshot. There’s a settings option on the toolbar too, but aside from letting you choose which corner the recording indicator occupies (including none), it simply duplicates a few of the options from the ReLive window in Radeon Settings. The Alt+Z hotkey is configurable along with the rest of the hotkeys, thankfully.
As someone accustomed to streaming using Open Broadcaster Software, ReLive is incredibly easy to use. There’s not much of the way in configuration, and while that does mean it’s a good bit less powerful than OBS, it also “just works.” So far, I’ve been able to load up any game (Dark Souls III, Doom, Warframe, Phantasy Star Online 2, Overwatch, and Tomb Raider among them) and start recording or streaming with a few keypresses. That kind of convenience is worth a few sacrifices. ReLive supports a simple camera overlay and a custom image overlay, too, letting streamers personalize their broadcasts.
Surprisingly, one place ReLive doesn’t require trade-offs is in regards to the video quality. Historically speaking, streamers have avoided using hardware video encoders because the quality compromises they make often result in a nigh-unwatchable video stream. I tested ReLive with my standard streaming settings against the gold standard: Open Broadcaster Software and its x264 encoder. Unfortunately, I don’t have a machine handy to test ReLive’s direct competitor in Nvidia ShadowPlay, but I did test my Core i7-4790K’s Intel QuickSync Video encoder. I recorded several runs in Dark Souls III between two bonfires while streaming at a 4.5-Mbps bitrate. Flip through the images below to see a capture from each encoder.
The differences between these encoders are pretty minute, but we’ve pored over them and all agree that while the x264 software-encode looks the best, the ReLive capture isn’t far behind. Intel’s QuickSync is the clear loser here. It arguably has the sharpest images in scenes without a lot of motion, but it really falls flat in scenes with a lot going on.
Here’s a short video sample from ReLive:
And here’s a sample from QuickSync:
Finally, here’s a look at a sample from the x264 encoder:
The relatively high quality of the video capture is all the more impressive in light of the fact that ReLive has almost no impact on the game’s performance. Even on my beefy Core i7-4790K with 32GB of RAM, and even in a not-particularly-CPU-heavy game like Dark Souls III, the weight of encoding an HD video stream in real time with OBS has a significant and immediately noticeable impact on the smoothness of gameplay. Switching to the QuickSync hardware encoder helps somewhat, but by comparison, ReLive is barely noticeable. Of course, we wouldn’t be The Tech Report if we didn’t back up these numbers with some hard data. Check this out:
Dark Souls III is a little weird in that it has a 60-FPS cap, but our results still show us what we need to know about the effects that video capture has on performance. Encoding using QuickSync causes the game to spend 17% more time under 60 FPS. By contrast, ReLive is barely any slower or rougher than playing without streaming, at least on our test system. (AMD reported larger performance drops with its own test system and 8GB of RAM).
The red team says ReLive is so efficient because it sends the game’s framebuffer to the encoder in hardware. By comparison, according to AMD, OBS does the same thing by hooking into the game software and setting up its own 3D context. That means OBS and the game are competing for the driver’s attention, which causes the larger performance hit.
Ultimately, I’ve been very impressed with ReLive in the short time that I’ve used it. In fact, it’s very likely I’ll be sticking to ReLive as my encoder of choice when livestreaming in the future. x264 is undeniably higher-quality, but the drop in smoothness can be a real problem. Remember, for these test cases I was merely dashing past enemies in mostly-idle environments. In a real gameplay situation with multiple actors in combat, the impact from video encoding can be all the greater. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Dark Souls III is not especially taxing for the CPU. Other games that hit the CPU harder (like Grand Theft Auto V) will benefit that much more from ReLive.
Even the most hard-core Radeon fanboys will admit that the red team’s older high-end GPUs consume a lot of power. AMD knows this too, of course. With the Crimson update last year, the company supplied a band-aid for the issue with its Frame Rate Target Control feature. This tool lets users set a target framerate on a global or per-game basis, and the driver will intelligently throttle the GPU to try and keep the game at that framerate.
Radeon Chill, then, is an expansion of that concept. With Chill enabled, the driver monitors user inputs to determine whether quick motion is happening in-game. If not much is going on, the GPU will move to a lower power state, reducing the game’s framerate. Once the user is active again, the framerate will increase as the GPU ramps its clock rate back up. All of these transitions happen nearly instantaneously, and with no specific action required of the user. AMD says this dynamic frame-rate control “has the potential to reduce the GPU’s power consumption, heat production, temperatures, and cooling noise without perceptibly altering the gaming experience.”
Chill requires AMD to implement support for the feature on a per-game basis, and the company has already done so for 18 games. Currently, all of the supported games use the DirectX 9 and 11 APIs. AMD says it intends to support more games and APIs soon, though. Users can enable or disable Chill globally, and define a hotkey (default F11) to enable or disable the feature manually.
With Chill enabled, minimum and maximum framerates can be set on a per-game basis in Radeon Settings. The default range for all of the supported games that I own seems to be 40-144 FPS, although the upper bound can go as high as 300 FPS.
In our initial look at Chill using AMD’s pre-release software, we couldn’t get the feature to work quite right. We tested Chill with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and found that the feature wanted to hold frame rates steady at around 62-64 FPS, on average. You can see that behavior in the graph above—there’s little variation in frame times. That’s not how Chill was supposed to work.
After my initial look at Chill, TR Editor-in-Chief Jeff Kampman gave the utility a shot with AMD’s release version of ReLive and found it worked as expected, so he graphed the frame times from a 40-second run through CS:GO‘s weapons course with Chill on and Chill off. You can see how Chill rapidly varies frame times in response to intermittent user input when Jeff was standing still while shooting wooden targets with a lot of mouse clicks. You can also see how it holds frame times at about 16.7 ms (or 60 FPS) during periods of constant input, like running between segments in the weapons course. At the end of the run, where Jeff is looking at the course timer while standing still, you can see how frame times climb as Chill limits CS:GO to running at 40 FPS—our configured Chill minimum.
With Chill off, the game ran around 100 FPS on average. As you might expect, Jeff says the game felt more fluid overall with Chill off, but critically, it didn’t feel any more responsive. In fact, you can see some spots in the frame-time graph above where our Chilled RX 480 actually seems to put out frames faster in response to user input (especially during frames 700 to 1000 or so) when compared to the run with Chill off. That result does seem to mesh with AMD’s claim that Chill can improve responsiveness by keeping more of the GPU available for times when fast rendering in response to user input is needed. Fascinating.
Typically, we’d knock a card for delivering frame times as varied as these, but aside from the expected drop in animation fluidity that comes with a move to 60 FPS from 100 FPS on average, Jeff says the Chilled RX 480 felt perfectly smooth and snappy in use. If you can tolerate a slightly less fluid experience, it might be worth turning on Chill in a game that can typically churn out multiple hundreds of frames per second and seeing how it feels. Heck, your K:D ratio might even improve.
Although he unfortunately didn’t have time for formal measurements, Jeff also notes that his RX 480’s noise levels dropped from “noticeable” to “inaudible” while he had Chill on. For gamers who are in shared spaces like dorm rooms or offices, Chill could let them game without disturbing others. It could also limit heat output in spaces where air conditioning isn’t available. Jeff says his Kill-a-Watt showed about 160W of system power consumption with Chill on, compared to 250-260W with it off. That’s significantly less waste heat being dumped into the room, and beefier Radeons might see even larger drops.
Although Chill’s dynamic frame-rate control didn’t work for me in our first round of testing, I definitely saw similar benefits for heat and noise. My Sapphire Tri-X R9 290X normally sits at a toasty 82° C while gaming, and its triple fans do their best to imitate a leaf blower. After an hour of playing Warframe with Chill enabled, however, the GPU core never went above 72° C, which means the fans on my graphics card never went above 39% of their duty cycle (a speed of around 1800 RPM). At that speed, they’re barely audible. It certainly was an unusual change in character for the old Hawaii card, and the 15% reduction in GPU core temperatures I saw even beats AMD’s claim of 13% lower GPU temperatures on an RX 480.
Our tests aside, AMD showcased Chill with some results from World of Warcraft in its reviewer’s guide, and that game seems quite amenable to Chill’s magic. The graph above shows a closer look at how Chill produces “slower” frames at idle and dynamically responds to user input by increasing performance when needed. AMD warns that “the benefits of Radeon Chill will vary depending on the game and on the performance of the system in question, and your experience with Radeon Chill may differ across game titles,” though, so your mileage may vary.
Overall, Chill is one of the most handy and fascinating utilities we’ve used with a graphics card in some time. If you have a Radeon, it’s well worth giving Chill a shot and seeing whether you can notice a difference in perceived performance. We hope AMD broadly expands Chill compatibility soon.
Gotta capture ’em all
Besides ReLive and Chill, AMD is showing off some other fancy software that’s not integral to its latest drivers. Here at TR, we’ve been using a handy app called PresentMon to capture frame-time data ever since the advent of DirectX 12. PresentMon works well when it works, but it’s hard to use and prone to instability at times. Along with the ReLive Edition drivers, AMD sent over a beta version of a new app it’s working on called OCAT, which stands for Open Capture and Analysis Tool.
OCAT is essentially an open-source, GUI-equipped version of PresentMon. After you launch OCAT, you can configure a capture hotkey and a capture time period. Click “Start”, and then tap your hotkey to begin capturing frametimes for every app that creates a 3D context. This can include some apps that most would never want to benchmark, like Microsoft Excel, so OCAT has a blacklist feature. Unfortunately, editing the blacklist means editing an INI file and restarting the application, but anyone messing with OCAT is probably more than familiar with editing configuration files by hand.
Alternatively, you can configure OCAT to launch and capture a single app. In theory, this could force OCAT to capture an application it doesn’t see otherwise, but we didn’t find this to be necessary in our testing. OCAT includes an FPS and frame-time overlay, too, so you can use that for a sanity test while benchmarking. I used OCAT throughout the production of this article and regularly compared its results to PresentMon. The output was identical in all cases, but that comes as no surprise considering OCAT is built upon that app.
Even though AMD supports OCAT development, it’s completely vendor-agnostic and open-source. The app produces CSV files in the same format as PresentMon, so anyone familiar with that type of output should be right at home. If you’re not a hardcore frame-time benchmarker, OCAT can at least show you average FPS, frame times, and even 99th-percentile frame times after a benchmark in its timed-run mode.
In use, OCAT generally manages to hook the application you want it to and reliably logs data. Were it that we could say the same of PresentMon. For folks looking for a DX12- and Vulkan-compatible Fraps successor, OCAT looks promising.
The best of the rest
Of course, ReLive wouldn’t be an AMD driver update without a bundle of fixes, features, and performance improvements. Here’s a grab bag of features and changes AMD is throwing into its latest release.
- The new driver adds hardware-accelerated VP9 video decode to all GCN and Polaris-based Radeons. That functionality is a “hybrid” decode run on the GPU itself rather than with fixed-function hardware, but AMD say it should reduce power consumption nonetheless.
- WattMan, the detailed tweaking and tuning software that replaced the old Overdrive system for Polaris, now supports a variety of older Radeons. Cards from the R9 Fury, R9 390, R9 380, R9 290, R9 285, R9 260, R7 360, and R7 260 series will all work with WattMan.
- Speaking of the RX 480, AMD says it has increased performance across the board by up to 8% for that part compared to the original launch driver from June.
- RX 400-series Radeons are getting DisplayPort HBR3 support, too. That means those cards can drive a 4K monitor at up to 120 Hz over a single DisplayPort cable, a 5K display at 60 Hz with one cable, or an 8K display at 30 Hz.
- ReLive is the first Radeon driver with full support for HDR content. Radeons with Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, and Polaris will be able to display HDR10 and Dolby Vision content with ReLive installed.
- Folks who prefer HDMI outputs instead will find that bad cables will no longer result in frustrating black screens or other intractable issues. AMD has implemented signal detection and fallback algorithms that will step through lower resolutions and refresh rates to find a supported configuration with a failing HDMI cable, then alert the user of the poor signal problem. This feature works with GCN Radeons and Kabini-and-newer APUs.
- Multi-monitor FreeSync users can rejoice, too. FreeSync is now supported on applications running in borderless window mode. AMD says this will reduce input lag on these applications by up to 24%. More importantly, it means these users will be able to alt-tab in and out of their FreeSync games without breaking anything.
If Catalyst Omega was about performance and Radeon Software Crimson Edition was about stability, then Crimson ReLive Edition is about features. AMD says this is its biggest software release ever, and we see no reason to disagree. The ReLive app produces high-quality game captures with less performance impact than competing capture programs, and it “just worked” in our tests. That easy capture and streaming experience is a boon to Radeon owners, even if it is playing a bit of catch-up with ShadowPlay.
Though the early version of the Radeon Chill app we tested didn’t behave entirely as we might have expected in our tests, it promises an intriguing way to manage excessive power consumption, high GPU core temperatures, and undue noise in games that would normally run at multiple hundreds of frames per second. It doesn’t hurt that Chill and ReLive come totally free, too.
Last year, we expressed confidence that AMD had what it took to deliver quality software when we took a look at the Radeon Software Crimson Edition release. The competitive performance of Radeons in our recent reviews, AMD’s consistent launch-day or near-launch-day driver releases in 2016, and our experience with Crimson ReLive Edition only reinforce that conclusion.
Contrast that praise with the frustration we expressed with Radeon drivers just a year and a half ago, and it’s clear that AMD’s software has come a long way in a relatively short time. There are still many factors to weigh when choosing a graphics card, but at least for now, AMD has shown that the quality of driver and software support doesn’t have to be among them.