Its not often that GPU driver updates change things significantly and usually, it’s done on the cusp of a launch of new hardware with features that require these drivers to be ready before launch. Perhaps we’re a few weeks away from more GPUs from AMD, perhaps not. But if you’re currently a Radeon HD7000 or R7 and R9-series owner, you’d better take note of what these drivers are doing, because there’s a clear sign that AMD means business for 2015. Called “Omega”, AMD says these new drivers, otherwise known as Catalyst 14.12, will bring in new features and more tricks to owners of the Radeon R9 285 and above. Hit the jump for moar!
For the most part, Catalyst 14.12 Omega is mostly a driver focused on features rather than outright performance. AMD compares this driver set to the Catalyst 13.12 driver, which is a year old. You could look at this two ways – either AMD expects that most people don’t update their drivers anyway, or this is a chance for them to show everyone how much they’ve actually improved performance over the past year.So, whats new in this one?
Please note that Windows 7 32 or 64-bit with Service Pack 1 is the minimum requirement for this driver release. Windows Vista and Windows 8.0 isn’t supported. AMD also notes that there are currently issues using a Kaveri APU with 32-bit Windows 8.1, so those of you with that particular combination must please hold off until a patch is available for you.
Improvements for video games
First up is Virtual Super Resolution (VSR) which operates quite similarly to Nvidia’s Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR). What this effectively does is tell the GPU to render the game at a higher resolution and then scale it down to your display’s native resolution for better image quality. AMD’s been testing this with Battlefield 4 and making sure it works with Mantle, so this isn’t something they’ve only come up with recently.
The benefit to running something like VSR and DSR is that it’s a neat way to have near-perfect anti-aliasing without the performance hit usually accompanying something like MSAA. Pair the use of VSR/DSR with some SMAA injected into your game using a third-party client like SweetFX and you have super-clean and clear images on your lowly 1920 x 1080 monitor.
VSR works for monitors with native resolutions up to and including 2560 x 1600 and will provide virtual resolutions up to 3820 x 2160, which is UltraHD 4K. VSR is only available on the Radeon R9 290X, R9 290, R9 295X2, and R9 285 for now. A driver patch coming out in January 2015 will enable this feature for all GCN-based graphics cards going down to the Radeon HD7730.
Interestingly, the Radeon R9 285 is currently the only card capable of using a UltraHD 4K setting for VSR scaling down to 1080p. Educated guessing leads me to believe that this is down to AMD’s colour compression technology found in the R9 285, which isn’t a hardware feature available in the Hawaii or Bonaire GPU families.
Also part of the package in these drivers are frame pacing enhancements. AMD’s been working on making frame pacing work better for Crossfire and today they’ve pretty much nailed it down for single-GPU setups. The fixes inside the 14.12 drivers are applicable to all cards bearing the GCN architecture, although you may be lucky and see that these drivers fix issues for older cards from the HD5000 and HD6000 families. That’s an unlikely scenario, though, but you can keep holding thumbs.
TressFX 3.0 is also here, but so very few games tale full advantage of it now. AMD’s going to have to be rather hard in their developers and partners to make sure this gets more use and coverage, as Nvidia’s Hairworks will see its first full implementation in The Witcher 3.
Improvements to video playback
If you’re a Cyberlink PowerDVD 14 user, the fluid motion video feature might interest you. What happens here is the GPU looks forward in the video and compares consecutive frames to each other. If there are things like stutter or dropped frames, the GPU will create entirely new frames and interpolate them with the video stream so that motion is better preserved. It will only work for particular scenarios inside a video, but its at least something given back to the loyal media buffs who buy PowerDVD every year.
This is something that benefits a lot of people – if you’re using a DXVA-compatible video player like VLC or Media Player-Home Cinema, enabling contour removal takes away artifacts inside videos that are added in as a result of using lossy compression algorithms. Pixelated features like shadows in dark scenes and obvious colour banding for the sky in the background should become much less of a problem now.
For users of VLC or MP-HC, there’s also now a feature very much like MadVR that runs entirely on the GPU using OpenCL acceleration. If you are playing sub-HD video content on a monitor with a native resolution of 1920 x 1080, the GPU will scale up the image and run through a raft of enhancements to make the image look sharper and clearer as well as control issues like ghosting a little better. If you’re playing HD content on a UltraHD 4K monitor or TV, the same thing will apply, but I have a feeling this will work best on high-bitrate content, so expect this to only be a thing for Blu-Ray rips of your movies.
The fact that this runs on an APU is no less impressive, though I expect that these features will work best on the AMD A8-7600. If you’re using a discrete GPU setup, a Radeon HD7730 would be the lowest I’d go for basic performance.
Catalyst 14.12 Omega also provides other improvements to AMD’s drivers that are not tied to software features. Alienware’s Graphics Adapter is now supported with this release, which allows you to use an external GPU on the new Alienware 13. This also sets AMD up for supporting the Dockport feature inside Displayport 1.3 due out next year, which will enable this for a broader range of laptops, APUs and desktop computers.
The funny part? The Alienware 13 comes with a Nvidia Geforce GTX860M by default.
If you’re a game streamer, you may be happy that Mantle support is now added into the Raptr AMD Gaming Evolved client. The Mantle renderer is completely different from DirextX 11, so the software hooks that game streaming clients used in the past don’t work with it. This is also laying down the groundwork for supporting framerating tools that reviewers can use to assess their frame-time performance inside games using Nvidia’s FCAT benchmarking software.
This same functionality will find its way to other game streaming clients like XSplit, if you’re one of the many thousands of people (like me) who never install Raptr because it’s far too annoying.
Lastly, monitors support the FreeSync feature (an optional part of Displayport 1.2a) will be supported with this driver release. The slide says general availability is planned in the first quarter of 2015, but BenQ and Viewsonic have already confirmed their monitors compatible with FreeSync will hit the ground in January 2015 in the US, Canada and most of Europe and the UK.
FreeSync, as the name implies, syncs up a monitor’s refresh rate to the framerate of the GPU running a particular game or application. It is used in conjunction with VSync which is enabled when a game or application runs faster than the monitor’s maximum refresh rate. Below the monitor’s maximum rate, FreeSync takes over and smooths out frame delivery, eliminating tearing, pixel streaking, a lot of general artifacting and reducing input lag.
Closing off the announcement, one interesting announcement that will make Linux users very happy is distro-specific packaging. This means that you’ll find a particular set of drivers optimised for Debian, FreeBSD, CentOS and the like. AMD’s general support for the open-source software community has been improving in bits and bobs here and there and this is the first sign of any kind of support rollout that could be considered aggressive. With SteamOS still a potential threat to Microsoft Windows in the near future, it’s something that AMD can’t afford to not be ready for.
Having support for 5K monitors is also cool, as these displays will only become more prevalent. That is a mind-boggling resolution of 5120×2880 at 60Hz, which requires that you power it up with two Displayport 1.2 connectors. Displays with that resolution and size are almost certainly two 2560 x 2880 panels tiled together into one unit, so there will be teething issues with playing games and video on those kinds of monitors.