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ATI's new drivers: Catalyst for change?

A catalyst for change?

I'VE HAD A THING for ATI's drivers ever since one of the original Radeon drivers nuked my Windows install on my main PC and delayed a review. That affection only deepened with the Quake III "optimization" fiasco and various software incompatibilities. Many folks share similar experiences. By now, ATI has earned a reputation far and wide for the quality of its video drivers.

And it ain't pretty.

ATI is looking to change all of that, however. Last fall, at Comdex, we sat in a difficult meeting with ATI trying to hash out the problem, and they promised to do better with regular driver updates to fix problems and improve performance. Since then, ATI has released more-or-less regular driver updates that have, by most accounts, made life with a Radeon 8500 card much more livable.

Still, it can't be easy to live under the shadow of NVIDIA's hyper-optimized Detonator drivers, which have as much to do with NVIDIA's market-leading performance as any bit of GeForce silicon. ATI's own driver development efforts are substantial, and today ATI is introducing a new brand name, CATALYST, to go toe-to-toe with NVIDIA's Detonators.

Branding announcements aren't exactly earth-shattering news around here, but this is a good excuse to take a look at how ATI's driver efforts are progressing. And heck, if I didn't know better, I'd think NVIDIA's latest Detonator driver release, just this week, was an attempt to rain on ATI's parade. So here's the deal: we've got three different generations of ATI drivers, including the brand-new CATALYST 7.71 revision, to test on a Radeon 8500LE 128MB. For comparison's sake, we'll test VisionTek's GeForce4 Ti 4200 128MB card with NVIDIA's new Detonators, and see how the ATI-NVIDIA matchup is progressing.

Also, we'll try out some nifty new performance tuning options in ATI's drivers and see what they can do for us.

So what is this CATALYST thing? Well, basically, ATI is slapping a name on a whole suite of support software it provides for its GPUs and graphics cards. The basic elements of CATALYST are:

  • ATI's graphics driver — This is the thick, meaty part of the beast: the software layer that handles everything from basic screen draws and bit blits to full-blown OpenGL and Direct3D animation. ATI has some new tricks up its sleeve here.

  • Multimedia Center — If you buy a GeForce card, you generally get a copy (sometimes just a trial copy) of PowerDVD or the like, but if you buy an ATI card, you get ATI's suite of video and media player software, including a pretty decent DVD player app. That's Multimedia Center for you.

  • HydraVision — This is ATI's dual-display software. The new CATALYST release includes a new version of HydraVision with a new installation wizard.

  • Remote Wonder — Ever wonder where your remote control is? I know I have. But that has nothing to do with ATI's software package that accompanies the remote control it sells with All-in-Wonder cards or as a stand-alone product. The Remote Wonder software is part of CATALYST, as well.
You might be asking yourself: What's new about CATALYST? Near as I can tell, the answer is: the name. CATALYST is meant to evoke ATI's rich suite of software and commitment to quality support and regular driver updates. Or something like that. Marketing escapes me.

But the drivers have received some intriguing updates with this new 7.71 release. Let's test the drivers.