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ATI Catalyst 8.3 Sneak Peek: CrossFireX and More
Date: Feb 28, 2008
Author: Marco Chiappetta
Introduction and new Features

About every year or so, the software team at ATI, which is now a part of AMD, produces a Catalyst driver suite that introduces a handful of major new features, above and beyond their regular monthly release.  And at least so far, for 2008, this new Catalyst v8.3 suite appears to be that major release.  We’re sure ATI will have more in store as the year progresses, but for now there is plenty of new ground to cover.

We were recently given a chance to chat with some folks from ATI about all of the new features they have in store for users with the Catalyst v8.3 release and we'll be outlining some of the finer details here today.  In addition to the typical batch of performance enhancements and bug fixes available with each new Catalyst release, the v8.3 suite is going to deliver official support for three and four GPU CrossFireX and Hybrid CrossFire, plus some new anti-aliasing features, previously unavailable tweaks for video playback, and GPU LCD scaling, among some other things.


As we’ve mentioned, the Catalyst v8.3 driver suite will officially support three and four GPU CrossFireX configurations.  You may have heard some scuttlebutt over the last few weeks stating that CrossFire works with some mismatched GPUs as well, which is actually the case.  AMD's new Catalyst v8.3 drivers will let users match up Radeon HD 3870 X2 cards, with standard 3870s and even the 3850 - basically any RV670 / R680 combo will work.   This is interesting because it adds some level of flexibility to end-users looking to take advantage of a multi-GPU setup.  Three-way CrossFireX configuration can consist of three Radeon HD 3870 cards, or a single 3870 X2 and single 3870, for example, or any other combo of HD 3800 series cards.  And four-way CrossFireX can be achieved with a pair of Radeon 3870 X2 cards, or four standard 3870s, etc.  We should note, however, that three and four-GPU CrossFireX is only supported under Windows Vista and only with DirectX 9 and some DirectX 10 titles at this time.  Full Support for DirectX 10 (with four GPU scaling) and OpenGL will come at a later time, although Call of Juarez happens to be one DX10 game that does scale currently with four GPUs.  Also note, two card CrossFire is obviously still supported in XP; it's just the three and four GPU setups that are exclusive to Vista.


The challenges of running a multi-GPU setup are well known, so ATI is also taking steps in an effort to prevent end-users from having a bad experience, should a game not scale well with three or four GPUs.  For example, games that don’t scale to four GPUs will likely be locked at three GPUs to prevent inferior performance or graphical anomalies.  ATI noted they’ll be working hard to get as many games to scale on four GPUs as possible, but Vista bottlenecks due to the new driver model are going to take some time to overcome.

Hybrid CrossFire will also be officially supported in the Catalyst v8.3 release.  As we outlined in our initial coverage of the technology, Hybrid CrossFire gives users the ability to pair an RS780G IGP with a discreet Radeon HD 3400 series graphics card for increased performance or low-power operation.  We’ll be going into greater detail on Hybrid CrossFire and the RS780G in the not too distant future, so stay tuned to HotHardware for more on this topic soon.  It won’t be long now, we promise.


Another interesting feature of the Catalyst v8.3 drivers brings added flexibility to multi-monitor users under Windows Vista.  In the past, users were required to disable CrossFire to watch certain types of video or to utilize additional monitors.  But with the Catalyst v8.3 release, that is no longer the case.  With cards from the X1800 series on up to today’s HD 3000 series, utilizing an extended desktop in a multi-monitor configuration does not require CrossFire to be disabled.

Also new to the Catalyst v8.3 release is official support at the software level for DirectX 10.1 and the hardware tessellator built into the RV670 GPU.  Although support for DX10.1 and hardware tessellation was available in hardware, the software mechanisms necessary to expose the functionality had not been incorporated into ATI’s drivers until now.

The Catalyst v8.3 driver suite will also feature a couple of new anti-aliasing modes.  New to Catalyst v8.3 will be support for anti-aliasing in Unreal Engine 3 powered games and new edge-detection algorithms that work in conjunction with the Super-AA modes available with CrossFireX.

More Features and Preliminary Performance

Although it will be a separate download, ATI’s HydraVision software is also coming to Windows Vista users with the Catalyst v8.3 release.  HydraVision lets users easily manage the on-screen placement of applications with defined grids for single or multi-monitor configurations.


The hotkey manager that was previously available with XP will now available on Vista.  It offers the ability to configure multiple virtual desktops, and configure applications for those individual virtual desktops.   Wizards will also be available within CCC for novice uses to take advantage of HydraVision as well.

There is also a new GPU scaling feature coming with Catalyst v8.3.  This new feature gives users the ability to use GPU accelerated scaling for wide aspect LCD displays, instead of allowing the panel to scale images from non-native resolutions.  There is also a new setting labeled “Maintain aspect ratio” that improves the display resolution image quality, when GPU scaling is enabled, by maintaining the wide panel aspect ratio.


Finally, there are some new AVIVO-related features to talk about and some information regarding the Folding @ Home project.  Previous versions of ATI’s Catalyst drivers offered edge enhancement and noise reduction during video playback, but the settings were either on or off.  No control was given to end-users to tweak the algorithms.  With Catalyst v8.3 though, users can now tweak the level of noise reduction or edge enhancement using simple sliders from within the control panel.

And fans of the Folding @ Home project will also be happy to know that performance enhancements from the F@H client are coming as well.  There is a new GPU accelerated Folding @ Home client in the works that will be compatible with the Catalyst v8.3 drives, and new revisions.  The new client offers improvements in compute performance with Radeon HD 2600 series on up to the HD 3000 series.  Although it likely won’t be ready to launch alongside the Catalyst v8.3 drivers, it should be available for download sometime in mid to late March.

Although we’ve only had a very short time with these drivers (think less than 24 hours), we thought you’d like to see what kind of performance improvements were available moving from one, to two, to three and then four GPUs.  We did some quick and dirty testing with two applications, 3DMark06 and Half Life 2: Episode Two.

Unfortunately, even though we ran the tests at 1920x1200, one was CPU limited and didn’t scale massively and the other didn’t work well with quad-GPUs.  Of course, it was the final test we had to run that gave us issues, but such is life.

As you can see, 3DMark06’s performance improved by 55.9% with a second GPU installed.  With a third-GPU in the system, performance increased by 67.8% over a single GPU.  And with a fourth GPU added to the mix, performance went up by 71.4%.

Our custom Half Life 2: Episode 2 benchmark was set to tell a more impressive story before we ran into issues.  Performance in this game went up by 82% moving from one GPU to two.  Then increased by 152% with a third GPU, before stalling with a fourth.  We should note, ATI’s internal benchmarks show additional scaling in this game with a fourth GPU, but we didn’t have any luck on our test machine.

If you own an ATI-based graphics card, AMD has a lot in store for you in the next few weeks with the Catalyst v8.3 driver suite, and additional performance scaling that’s likely to come in the future.  We think that all of the new features coming to Catalyst v8.3 add value to ATI’s existing line-up.  Now let's hope that things are also going to get better performance-wise, as the team optimizes their product for DX10 and OpenGL applications in the future.

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