Some seven months ago at the end of 2016, AMD released the Radeon Software Crimson ReLive Edition update. That major release added the red team’s video capture solution, ReLive, to the company’s Radeon Settings package. That was 2016’s promised major annual update for the Radeon driver package, and we wouldn’t have expected to see 2017’s until late this year. Nevertheless, today I’m here to talk about the latest major update to AMD’s graphics driver package, Radeon Software Crimson ReLive 17.7.2.
There’s no nifty subtitle this time around (like “Catalyst Omega” or “Crimson ReLive Edition”), so it’s arguable that this isn’t 2017’s major update. The company does say this version is “Advanced and Amplified,” though. That makes sense, as this update is more of an expansion of existing features than anything else. The biggest new feature is AMD’s response to Nvidia’s Fast Sync, called Enhanced Sync.
V-sync levels up with Enhanced Sync
As a Radeon user, the one GeForce feature I’ve been missing out on the most is the company’s Fast Sync. If you’re not familiar with Fast Sync, you can read a bit about it here in Jeff’s review of the GeForce GTX 1080, where it debuted. The short version is that Fast Sync is an alternate form of vertical sync that purports to offer all of the advantages of enabling v-sync without the disadvantages. In essence, Fast Sync claims to remove tearing while the framerate is above the monitor’s refresh rate without causing the input lag that v-sync can bring when a graphics card produces a frame rate slower than the monitor’s refresh rate.
If this all sounds like triple buffering, both Fast Sync and Enhanced Sync seem broadly similar (at least when running above the screen’s maximum refresh rate). They’re just implemented at the driver level rather than in games.
With Enhanced Sync enabled, your game is still free to run at its maximum framerate cap or at unlimited rates. However, display refreshes are still synced up to the monitor’s refresh rate as if you were running with v-sync enabled. According to AMD’s Enhanced Sync blog post, the algorithm will always grab the most recently completed frame among those available to it at each refresh interval. That means you’ll never have to deal with the frame tearing that can result from running too-high of a framerate, but it also means you can enjoy the full fluidity that comes from driving a game at hundreds of frames per second.
When your framerate drops below your monitor’s refresh rate, Enhanced Sync behaves essentially as if you had simply disabled v-sync. That allows the image to tear, but more importantly, it avoids the nasty juddering that can result from using v-sync at lower framerates. That means you still get the smoothest experience possible at the highest framerate you can manage.
Enhanced Sync on its own is a great feature, but AMD helpfully points out that players can use it alongside a FreeSync display. The end result is that within your monitor’s FreeSync range (say, 30-144Hz), the monitor will sync on every frame as usual. When your framerate exceeds the monitor’s maximum refresh rate, the display will continue to refresh at its full speed (e.g. 144Hz) while the game runs along at full speed, blissfully uninhibited by v-sync. That’s a big improvement for folks who play games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive that are unlikely to have their framerates drop below their monitor’s refresh rate.
I unfortunately wasn’t able to put Radeon Enhanced Sync to the test because the feature is only supported on graphics cards using RX 400 and 500-series GPUs—that is, Polaris—and I’m still rocking a positively-ancient Hawaii card. Presumably the Vega Frontier Edition and the upcoming Radeon RX Vega will support Enhanced Sync as well. Being unable to test Enhanced Sync was a little disappointing given that Nvidia officially supports Fast Sync on both generations of Maxwell hardware as well as the Pascal chips it debuted with. Hopefully AMD can expand Enhanced Sync support to older GCN hardware, but I’m not holding onto hope that my old R9 290X will be on the list.
Chill creeps across your game library
Enhanced Sync is the only explicitly new feature in the Radeon 17.7.2 update, but as I mentioned before, there’s still a fair bit to talk about. Remember Radeon Chill? The software-based system intelligently drops a card’s GPU to a lower frame rate when the player is less active, and ramps it up to keep framerates high when the action hits. I’m still using it when I play Dark Souls III, and I really appreciate the reduction in heat output and fan noise. In fact, I have a few more games that I wish I could use it on. In a few cases, now I can. AMD has expanded the list of supported titles for Chill from 18 games to 39 games with this latest update.
The original release of Chill only supported games using the DirectX 9 and DirectX 11 APIs. In theory, that support covers the vast majority of current games, but moving forward, we’re hoping to see more titles take up the challenge of using the low-level Vulkan and DirectX 12 APIs to wrangle hardware more efficiently. A number of the newly-supported titles, including Hitman, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and Battlefield 1, can see significant performance benefits when running in DirectX 12 mode. Likewise, Doom runs much better on the Vulkan API, particularly on Radeons. For those reasons, we’re very happy to see that Chill now supports both DirectX 12 and Vulkan games.
Chill still requires game-specific support in AMD’s driver, so niche gamers like me won’t be using it on our favorite titles (yet). The company hasn’t been sitting on its thumbs, though. The immensely popular League of Legends and Dota 2 both quietly got Chill support earlier this year in the 17.4.3 update. The new list includes a lot of the biggest multiplayer games right now too, like ARK, the aforementioned League of Legends and Battlefield 1, plus the upcoming Quake Champions.
AMD also expanded Chill support to include more esoteric hardware configurations, like multi-GPU Crossfire systems and Radeon XConnect external GPUs. Perhaps the best place to use Chill is on laptops, though. Chill is now supported on laptops equipped with discrete Radeon graphics, and AMD says that enabling Chill could lead to as much as 30% greater battery life while gaming. I’ve seen first-hand the real-world results of Radeon Chill on the power draw of thirsty discrete GPUs, so it’s not difficult to imagine that the frame-rate limiting tech could work wonders in laptops.
To make Chill more accessible, AMD has moved the feature out of Radeon Wattman. In its prior home, Chill required users to agree to a scary-looking EULA that offered a standard disclaimer regarding the damage or destruction of hardware through overclocking. Chill settings now live in games’ Profile Graphics pages and no longer require passing over the EULA speed bump.
Speaking of frame-rate limiting, AMD’s Frame Rate Target Control (FRTC) feature is still alive and kicking. I actually sort-of suspected that Radeon Chill might supersede FRTC as it performs a similar function in a smarter way, but for those who still want to set a hard limit on framerates, FRTC certainly provides a simpler option. FRTC has been expanded much like Chill, with support for DirectX 12 games and multi-GPU configurations.
I ReLive… again
Radeon ReLive hasn’t changed much since its inception. That’s fine by me, because it’s already a pretty fantastic utility. If you’re not familiar with the feature, let me direct you once again to my write-up in December. The short version is that it’s a utility that allows gamers to stream gameplay footage to the web or save it to disk, as well as take screenshots and save highlights. It’s simple to use and easy to configure, and while I had some complaints about the feature at first, it still impressed me greatly overall.
ReLive is getting some excellent upgrades in the 17.7.2 driver release. While our testing found ReLive to have a pretty minimal effect on game performance—especially compared to admittedly-more-versatile solutions like Open Broadcaster Software—there’s still room for improvement. AMD is typically vague when talking about the actual change in performance impact, but the company does say that it observed 33% reduced FPS overhead in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Not bad, although given that the change was apparently from 6.3 FPS overhead to 4.2 FPS overhead, “33%” is a bit less impressive. Still, an improvement is an improvement and we’re glad to see it.
Performance may not have been a problem, but a major complaint that I did have when using ReLive is that the recording and streaming function gave you very little feedback about the quality or status of your stream. It seems AMD heard my complaints loud and clear, as the ReLive overlay has received a number of new notifications. The overlay will inform you when it is saving an instant replay, how long you’ve been recording in the current session, and if you have network problems while streaming. Missing these kinds of notifications wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, but they’ll make using ReLive that much more pleasant.
ReLive also now has improved audio and video controls, bringing it just a little closer to feature parity with apps like Open Broadcaster Software. You can now set transparency for your webcam overlay, and you can configure the recording volume for your microphone instead of simply toggling it on or off. You can also apply an audio volume boost if necessary. If you prefer, you can now set a push-to-talk hotkey for the microphone, which might help your viewers from hearing your significant other ask why you’re still Bronze after all this time.
Finally, ReLive is getting a bump in its maximum quality. At launch, ReLive supported recording video at bitrates up to 50 Mbps. That’s an extremely high bitrate, but it’s not necessarily transparent (meaning, “indistinguishable from live footage”) for very high resolutions or refresh rates with the H.264 codec that ReLive uses. Fortunately for folks who are obsessive about image quality, the maximum bitrate for ReLive has been doubled. AMD says that “Radeon GCN products on Windows 7/10” can now record video at up to 100 Mbps, which should satisfy all but the truly insane.
Onward and upward
Any major software release contains a grab bag of smaller fixes, and Radeon Software 17.7.2 is no exception. The Shader Cache feature—which purports to reduce hitches, stutters, and game load times by storing pre-compiled versions of frequently-used shaders—now works on a few DirectX 9 games as well as the DirectX 11 titles it originally supported. CrossFire, CS:GO, Dota 2, League of Legends, Monster Hunter Online, Rocket League, Starcraft 2, and World of Warcraft should all run just a bit more smoothly now. The benefits of the shader cache are hard to quantify without doing a full frame-time analysis, but AMD says Starcraft 2‘s “Whispers of Oblivion” map loads 10% faster.
|List of games with reduced latency|
|Crysis 3||Dirt Rally||Fallout 4|
|Far Cry Primal||For Honor||Grand Theft Auto V|
|Ghost Recon Wildlands||Mass Effect Andromeda||Metro: Last Light|
|Overwatch||Prey||Rise of the Tomb Raider|
|The Division||Watch Dogs 2||Witcher 3|
The company is also touting improved responsiveness in all DirectX 9 titles as well as a short list of DirectX 11 titles (reproduced above). The company performed latency testing using an Arduino-equipped mouse and a high-speed camera. That means the results are probably very accurate, but it also means that the input lag testing is highly specific to AMD’s configuration. As a result, we aren’t going to try and reproduce the company’s numbers. All of the changes are on the order of tens of milliseconds, but reduced input latency is an admirable goal in any case. To our knowledge, nobody else is doing this type of testing, so it’s very encouraging to see AMD working on this kind of optimization.
Until this version, trying to adjust certain settings—like color or output format—would require the user to open an obscure second application called “Radeon Additional Settings.” The second utility bears a strong resemblance to the old Catalyst Control Center. At least, it did until now. With Radeon Software version 17.7.2, the options handled by “Radeon Additional Settings” have been almost entirely integrated into Radeon Settings, save for an “advanced configuration” menu for an Eyefinity array.
Radeon Settings now offers per-display color control, as well, something AMD claims is the second-most-asked-for feature in this release. If you prefer to control your display’s brightness, hue, contrast, and saturation in software, Settings should now offer more flexibility if you have multiple displays.
Games don’t happen without developers, and AMD has a couple of pretty nice gifts for game devs, too. The Radeon GPU Profiler is an app that allows game developers to get “clear visualization of workloads through wavefront occupancy graphs.” Essentially, it’s the first tool on the desktop to offer a highly-granular graph of exactly which parts of a game scene are taking up however-much of the GPU’s time. Similar tools have existed for console game development, but this is the first tool of its kind for PC game developers. The utility exposes data from a GCN architectural feature called thread tracing to give developers fine-grained information on program behavior on Radeon GPUs.
The Radeon GPU Profiler has earned itself gushing endorsements from rendering engineers at DICE, EA SEED, and Valve, as well as the maintainers of the open-source graphics debugging toolkit Renderdoc. It works for applications developed using DirectX 12 and Vulkan, and it’s available for both Windows and Linux. Along with the GPU Profiler, AMD is also offering game developers a special Radeon Developer Driver. It uses the same driver core as the consumer driver, but exposes additional knobs to tweak in Radeon Settings, and simplifies saving trace files and GPU memory dumps for application analysis.
Radeon Wattman exposes a couple of new controls in this release. Radeon owners will be able to underclock their card’s memory to potentially save power or extract more thermal headroom for higher stable core overclocks. Wattman will also give users access to the card’s power state control configuration. The most obvious use for this feature is setting the GPU to run at its highest power state all the time, but it might also let owners adjust idle power states for stability (an issue that led to some users experiencing black screens and system crashes early in the life of Polaris, as we understand it).
Finally, this release comes with the usual performance improvements and bugfixes we hope for from a driver release. AMD says performance in Prey, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Ghost Recon Wildlands is up by at least 12% over prior releases, and that the open-source Linux driver has seen massive strides forward in performance. Bugs in H.264 playback, asynchronous compute on GCN 1.0 products, FreeSync on borderless-windowed applications, performance hiccups with NieR: Automata, and misbehaving fan speed controls (both automatic and manual) have all been squashed in this release.
To catch more bugs and develop more features in the future, AMD is beginning a program it calls Radeon Software Vanguard. The company will invite selected gamers and professional users to test early versions of its drivers and even bring those users to its offices for in-depth testing and feedback.
Radeon Software update version 17.7.2 certainly isn’t the same magnitude of update as the Crimson ReLive update, or the Catalyst Omega update before that. Enhanced Sync should provide more responsive-feeling gaming experiences to many Polaris graphics card owners, and the improvements to Radeon Chill and Radeon ReLive are all welcome ones.
Overall, AMD’s driver support has really shaped up of late. The company has continued to provide timely updates for new game launches, and between Wattman, Chill, ReLive, and Eyefinity it’s difficult to imagine what else AMD could add to its software suite. Even more inspiring is the fact that I can’t think of a single Radeon-related driver foible I’ve run into in the last six months. As a niche gamer who plays a lot of foreign, indie, and obscure titles, the fact that my Radeon has continued to perform perfectly—even in the face of the weird multi-monitor and cross-vendor multi-GPU configurations I like to fiddle with—is a testament to the effort AMD’s driver team has put in.
Despite this success, AMD has demonstrated ongoing commitments both to continually improving its drivers (shown in the unique latency testing and the expansion of the shader cache feature) as well as its open-source efforts. The free and cross-platform nature of the Radeon GPU Profiler software speaks volumes to AMD’s sincerity in its support of open software and standards, as do the massive performance improvements in its AMDGPU Linux driver. That’s not even to mention the company’s ongoing GPUOpen initiative and open-source ROCm GPU-compute toolkit.
The biggest challenges for AMD going forward are going to be maintaining this flock of fantastic features as it moves on to newer hardware. Presumably, Chill, ReLive, Enhanced Sync, and other Radeon techologies will be available on the company’s Vega-based hardware, as the Vega NCU doesn’t appear to be all that different from the now-classic GCN design. Only time will tell if we’ll be able to continue to enjoy these technologies further down the line. Head to AMD’s download page if you want to pick up Radeon Software Crimson ReLive Edition 17.7.2.